Review: The Tropic of Serpents

Marie Brennan’s The Tropic of Serpents is the second in her Lady Trent series, which follows the eponymous naturalist around her steampunk-inflected alternate world in search of dragons of various types and sizes. In this case, Isabella (not yet a Lady, and not yet a Trent – these novels being positioned as her memoirs) is headed for Bayembe, an analogue of an African country where colonial interests and the ambitions of neighbouring countries are contributing to a tense political situation – which Isabella and her companions of course get caught up in. As a result, they find themselves descending into the Green Hell, a tropical jungle/swamp that’s impossible to navigate or even survive without the aid of its indigenous people, the Moulish.

A key theme of this series, it seems to me, is exploration. Of course Isabella is a heroine made in the mould of colonial explorers like Indiana Jones or Jules Verne’s intrepid adventurers in novels like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Journey to the Centre of the Earth; but whereas those protagonists ultimately seek to export imperial European values around the world, Brennan, aware of the pitfalls and false assumptions implicit in such an approach, is much more interested in exploring social alternatives to life in Scirling, her Britain analogue. Far from seeking to impose Scirling values on the people they meet in the course of their researches, Isabella and her companions choose to assimilate instead. Often this is more about convenience than anything else; gaining the favour of local people means they have greater freedom to study dragons. But it’s notable that Isabella is staunchly opposed to the use of violence, unlike her colonial literary forebears.

So, for instance, Isabella and her companions live for a time among the Moulish, who have little use for a concept of individual property, given their nomadic lives and how easy it is to replace the objects they do use from the materials in the forest. Later on in the novel there’s also a good example of how spiritual beliefs shape worldview and, in a way, reality: believing Isabella to be cursed because of a series of mishaps she’s suffered in the forest, the Moulish press her to take part in a purification ceremony in which she clears the air with anyone she’s wronged. Among other things, she admits her true motives to the Moulish and hashes out a longstanding conflict with one of her companions, the working-class Thomas Wilker. Although Isabella sees the ceremony as superstitious nonsense, participating only in order to keep peace with her hosts, it works: the party encounter fewer setbacks and everyone trusts and respects each other more. The point being that living among the Moulish and participating in their customs opens up social possibilities that don’t exist in Scirling society.

There are other points of difference from Scirling culture whose social implications are explored in varying detail: for instance, while staying in the palace of Bayembe’s king Ankumata, Isabella and her female companion Natalie are required to seclude themselves away from the rest of the court during menstruation. While Isabella chafes at this restriction, she discovers that the other women of the court see it as a kind of holiday, as they don’t have to do any work during this period. And we learn that the people of Bayembe and its surrounding countries trace inheritance down the female line, not the male – as a single woman Isabella presents an interesting opportunity to Ankumata’s son, given that if he married her Scirling custom would allow him to pass property down to his children, which he couldn’t do under Bayembe tradition. That last struck me as an interesting look back at empire, a reversal of the imperial gaze: if Isabella, a member of an imperial nation even if her outlook isn’t especially colonial, benefits from exploring social possibilities beyond Scirling, then the nations subject to her gaze can explore back, as it were, turning Scirling’s patriarchal social norms to their advantage.

But the most important work of exploration here is not external but internal. Isabella and her companions Natalie and Tom are all three of them working out modes of being that run counter to what’s expected in Scirling society. Isabella is a woman in a patriarchal society trying to figure out how she can be taken seriously as a scientist in her own right; Tom is a working-class man trying to break into a scientific field dominated by the middle and upper classes who look down on him for his origins; Natalie is exploring her sexuality, specifically her lack of it, and navigating conflict with her family around her resistance to marriage. In pushing against what’s expected of women and working-class people in Scirling society, each of them is trying to reimagine it as a place in which they can achieve their full potential – so their exploration of different societies around the world is an outward reflection of this personal, internal struggle.

Which brings us to the inescapable fact that, despite its respectful treatment of the Moulish and Bayembe societies, despite the presence of developed, interesting characters like Ankumata (whose leg braces are a rare example of positively presented disability aids in this sort of fiction) and the half-Moulish Faj Rawango, The Tropic of Serpents is still an Anglocentric novel; it’s still told from the perspective of empire. As Electra Pritchett points out here, a character like Ankumata or Faj Rawango could never be the protagonist without making it a different sort of story; the memoirs of a Victorian naturalist are always going to centre an imperial perspective. Isabella, Natalie and Tom may be exploring different social possibilities but they are not doing so from a neutral position; they are benefiting from the social insights they gain ultimately to enrich empire and empire’s goal of knowing the world through science.

This is a limitation of the subgenre Brennan’s working in rather than a limitation of this specific novel; but it is a limitation all the same. Identity politics aside, the novel itself is not particularly nuanced or complex – it follows a single narrative thread linearly through to its end in serviceable but not brilliant prose; rereading offers no overlooked delights. It’s a reasonably entertaining tale with a diversity of characters to recommend it, and I think in the end that’s all it strives to be – it’s not something that’s seeking to overturn the genre at a stroke. That’s fine! Not everything can be truly revolutionary. But this isn’t a book I’ll be returning to, I think.

Review: The Goblin Emperor

Published in 2014, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor was runner-up for the 2015 Best Novel Hugo Award and was shortlisted for the Nebula. It’s well-loved by pretty much everyone I know who’s read it and a good portion of the online genre community; it’s often been described to me as an example of hopepunk, which I am very on board with.

Maia is the little-regarded, half-goblin fourth son of the elvish emperor Varenechibel IV, the result of a loveless political marriage that saw the emperor banish him and his goblin mother to an out-of-the-way estate. With his mother dead, Maia’s grown up under the less than tender care of his alcoholic, abusive cousin Setheris, who plainly resents Maia for his own exile from the court. But then word comes that the emperor’s airship has crashed, killing him and his three eldest sons – making Maia the new emperor. Thrust into political power he never expected to have, he must learn how to navigate the appearance-obsessed imperial court quickly if he’s to have a chance at survival and self-determination.

It’s easy to see why the novel is so loved. Maia is, honestly, a sweetheart: he’s kind, gentle, determined not to repeat the injustices his father perpetrated and very self-aware when it comes to the seductions of power. In a world where it’s startling, almost unthinkable, for an emperor to admit fault or recognise the personhood of others, he apologises for uncharacteristic outbursts of temper, asks to meet and learn the names of his household staff and works to give the women of the court greater agency when it comes to marriage negotiations. Watching him push against the hierarchical norms of his society and learn how he can best deploy his power to benefit those he rules – overcoming his abusive upbringing to resist the manipulation of those who want political power for themselves – is immensely satisfying. It’s nice. The Goblin Emperor is a nice book.

For me, though, it’s haunted by a kind of ideological doublethink which is most obvious in Maia’s attitude to the servants. Elvish society generally relegates them to second-class status, whereas for goblins servants are part of the family – hence Maia’s desire to learn his servants’ names and support the families of the servants who died aboard his father’s airship. The servants involved – and their families – are pleased and honoured by this recognition, and the warm fuzzy feelings their gratitude generates in the reader obscure the fact that having a serving class at all is unjust and exploitative; Maia being nice to them doesn’t materially change their circumstances. This contradiction repeats itself throughout the novel: that Maia is committed to using his absolute power justly does not mean it is just that he has that power in the first place. The novel enacts this striving towards justice and liberalism without really interrogating the nature of kingship itself, and whether true justice and liberalism is possible in a state led by an unelected official. Maia is not making radical changes to the structure of government; he’s just being slightly nicer to more people. And yet this ultimately pretty conservative text is being read as an entry in the radical hopepunk movement. Perhaps this is all the radicalism that can be managed in high fantasy, a genre that’s predicated on the institution of kingship; I don’t actually think that’s true, but the fact that it is being read as a radical text is a pretty unfortunate statement on the state of the genre generally.

I do want to emphasise that in many ways The Goblin Emperor is a good novel. Its emphasis on process rather than imperial fiat – that is, on the hard work of getting things done, building relationships and having meetings and managing correspondence rather than, e.g., assassinating people and planning battles – is a welcome reminder of what good leadership really looks like. Foz Meadows’ review of the book in Strange Horizons looks at the systematic relationship between abuse and power in the novel, suggesting ways in which Addison does interrogate the nature of kingship. And, generally, it’s just a nice book to spend time with. But it doesn’t quite work.

Review: Tooth and Claw

Published in 2003, the premise of Jo Walton’s fourth novel Tooth and Claw is, quite literally and without exaggeration, “Anthony Trollope with dragons”. Here’s Walton on its genesis:

It has to be admitted that a number of the core axioms of the Victorian novel are just wrong. People aren’t like that. Women, especially, aren’t like that. This novel is the result of wondering what a world would be like if they were, if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology.

The novel begins with the death of Dignified Bon Agornin, an event which precipitates a dispute among his descendants about the distribution of his wealth and body – for dragons gain physical strength, and thus social prestige, by consuming dragonflesh. The landed gentry eat up the ailing dragonets of their tenant farmers, as well as their own children; disputes formal and informal are resolved by fights to the death; male dragons’ lives are a constant fight for dragonflesh and social position. Female dragons, meanwhile, have hands instead of claws, are liable to die if they have too many clutches of eggs too closely together, and, most significantly, blush a permanent red if a male dragon touches them – which is fine if the dragons intend to marry, but if not the female is considered damaged goods.

It’s a clever conceit, literalising the real savagery that lay behind the polite fictions of Victorian society: dragon courtesy dictates, for instance, that dragonflesh should only be consumed in the presence of a parson, allowing the gentry to maintain the fiction that gobbling up sick children is a civilised thing to do. So we have what is on its surface a “light and bright and sparkling”* novel about the fortunes of gentlewomen who need to find husbands (the marriage market is, unsurprisingly, a literal thing in Tooth and Claw, although we never see it up close and personal) and their noble but socially precarious relatives, which is actually interrogating the class and gender assumptions of an era we still venerate.

There are some odd tensions, though, even given this framework, that I’m not sure the novel works out very productively. The substance of the dispute over Bon Agornin’s body is basically that the old dragon intended for his less-established children, Avan, an up-and-coming official in the capital city of Irieth and his two unmarried sisters Haner and Selendra, to take the lion’s share of his body; a provision that his son-in-law Daverak completely ignores, taking the largest share for himself, his wife (Bon Agornin’s eldest daughter) Berend and their dragonets. A furious Avan opens a lawsuit against Daverak, putting his sisters in an awkward position, given that Haner is to live with Daverak and Berend.

The portrayal of Daverak is the source of one of the novel’s odd tensions: he is a bully who abuses his social power, eating the healthy dragonets of his tenant farmers as well as elderly, ailing or disobedient servants, indirectly killing his wife by forcing her to produce too many eggs too soon and eventually making Haner’s safety and dowry contingent on her cooperation with him against Avan. The story of the novel is in an important way the story of how Daverak gets his comeuppance; how this rotten apple is pruned from the tree of dragon society. But the fact that Daverak is a monster distracts from the fact that dragon society is itself monstrously unequal; Daverak’s punishment for abusing his power in dramatic ways doesn’t undo that fact. It’s like – the novel ultimately asks us, at the level of plot, to focus on individual power rather than collective power structures.

What makes this particularly strange is that Walton explicitly points up the inequality in draconic (and by extension Victorian) power structures beyond even the literalisation of savagery inherent in her premise. Haner’s first-hand observation of how Daverak treats his servants radicalises her, and she becomes interested in a movement working towards easing the lot of the serving class. But within the novel her interest is treated as an eccentricity, and the one time she actually does anything meaningful about it – she goes to meet the author of a radical book on the subject – operates only as an inciting moment for the novel’s dramatic denouement (Daverak believes she has actually gone to meet Avan to conspire against him, and locks her up in her bedroom). The novel closes shortly afterwards, in Shakespearean-comedic fashion, with Avan, Selendra and Haner all safely partnered with good matches; no further mention of actual social change. I suppose this is a weakness of the Victorian novels on which Tooth and Claw is modelled, but it’s not lampshaded in a way that would make the repetition of that weakness ironic; it’s just a weakness.

I kind of want to emphasise that this is quite a productive tension, though, in that Tooth and Claw gives the reader a lot to think with when it comes to power relations in Victorian (and modern) texts: how drives toward social justice are defanged and folded into the status quo; how the law works to uphold existing social structures; how monstrous power structures perpetuate themselves. Plus, “Victorian novel with dragons” is just fun, no matter how you slice it. Tooth and Claw isn’t a perfect book but it’s a surprisingly meaty one – I kind of wish more SFF authors would try this sort of thing in a way that isn’t completely superficial.

 

*Jane Austen on Pride and Prejudice

Doctor Who Review: Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror

Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, the fourth episode of Doctor Who‘s series 12, does not improve its impressively dismal run. Despite its pulpy title, I found it dull and uninspiring. I think I may have gone to unload the dishwasher at one point.

Set in 1903, the plot revolves around the rivalry between Nikola Tesla (pioneering, a solo flyer, has no money) and Thomas Edison (commercially-minded, wealthy), with a mysterious alien orb thrown in for good measure. It turns out that a vaguely lizardy/snakey species called the Skithra want Tesla for his engineering skills, and are prepared to destroy the planet to get him.

The overall thrust of the episode, broadly, seems to be that Stealing Intellectual Property Is Bad. Tesla dislikes Edison because he buys intellectual property and commercialises it; the Skithra are cheapskate deadbeats because their spaceship is made up of bits and pieces of other species’ technology. Be like Tesla! writer Nina Metivier seems to say. Invent your own stuff! Create the future!

Which is a mindset that neither the salvagepunk nor the socialist in me can get behind, fundamentally. It smacks of American exceptionalism, this idolisation of ~pure~ genius/creativity: not everyone can invent, and equally not every inventor is skilled at deploying and distributing their inventions effectively. Metivier’s Edison isn’t a corporate monster: he knows his staff and mourns their deaths at the hands of the Skithra; he doesn’t seem to be exploiting anyone. As for the Skithra – well, criticising their practice of cobbling together other species’ technology seems pretty rich for an alien whose time machine looks like a 1960s police box.

It’s possible your mileage may vary! There’s nothing outright wrong or offensive about Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror – what it was trying to do just didn’t resonate with me. I found it a pretty dismal addition to an already fairly dismal series 12, though.

Doctor Who Review: Spyfall

Spyfall, a two-part story, kicked Season 12 and Jodie Whittaker’s second season of Doctor Who off with…a fair amount of confusion, I thought. Part 1 begins with spies dying and disappearing in mysterious ways all over the world, leading the Doctor to two men: Daniel Barton, CEO of a major search engine company; and O, a former intelligence agent and friend of the Doctor living in the Australian outback. Two men, and the Kasaavin: a race of extra-dimensional beings apparently made of light who are the direct culprits of the murders. But Why?

The story looks at first to be a fairly formulaic Who tale: a tycoon in league with an alien race, both of them up to no good; classic, if slightly unoriginal, fare. That’s until it takes a hard left at the end of Part 1, with the reveal that O is actually the Doctor’s old nemesis the Master in disguise (played by Sacha Dhawan), and that he’s been orchestrating the entire caboodle for nefarious reasons of his own. “Everything you think you know is a lie,” he says, before vanishing from a plane that’s plummeting from the sky.

So ends the first episode, rather propulsively. The second episode, which sees the Doctor propelled through history by the Kasaavin, with Ryan, Graham and Yaz working to foil Daniel Barton’s apocalyptic plans, is quite frankly a mess. There’s a heck of a lot going on here and writer Chris Chibnall doesn’t seem terribly interested in much of it. The Doctor meets a couple of famous women, Victorian computer programmer Ada Lovelace and WW2 British spy Noor Inayat Khan, only to wipe their memories of her at the end of the episode, non-consensually, to “[wipe] away the things [they] shouldn’t have knowledge of” – treatment notably not extended to Nikola Tesla when he appears a few episodes later. Graham, Yaz and Ryan discover that Daniel Barton intends to turn the entire human race into biological hard drives, only for this plan to be foiled off-screen, anti-climatically, by the Doctor’s judicious use of time travel. I’m not even entirely sure where the Kasaavin come into all of this, or why they were needed in the first place.

No: this story is very much about the Master and the Doctor. It’s hard not to see it as basically a sparring match with the entirety of humankind at stake, which I think is what bothers me about Spyfall, and all the Who stories (most of them written by Steven Moffat) that are essentially about themselves. This isn’t, like Russell T. Davies’ The Waters of Mars, a story that draws attention to Time Lord hubris. Nor does it have the kind of deliberate, consistent imagery of a story like The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords, which for all its overblown sentiment does carry strong religious/moral overtones. There is no such consistency here, as we see from the pile-on of ideas and themes and images. There is only fannish self-absorption in the show’s own history; a self-absorption that treats other people as backdrop or soapbox (it’s nice that Chibnall wants to showcase notable women in history, but not if he won’t give them any agency).

This self-absorption plays out rather uncomfortably at one point, when in WW2 Paris the Doctor takes advantage of the Nazis’ racism to have the Master taken away. Like…really? you went there? There’s just this…lack of awareness of how story-imagery works on viewers. The Nazis in this story are handy tools to be used in service of the plot, regardless of the heavy, heavy associations they carry in the West today.

Yeah. I didn’t like Spyfall very much. And although it didn’t turn out to be exactly predictive of the concerns of the rest of the series (or, at least, the half of it I’ve got around to watching!), it’s not an auspicious start to it.

Review: The Ladies of Grace Adieu

Susanna Clarke’s short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu is best read as a companion to her magisterial Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. In fact, the text itself encourages readers to do just that, with its mock critical apparatus referring to “a somewhat obscure novel published a few years ago” which concerns the 19th-century magicians Strange and Norrell. The book, then, is a collection of stories about Faerie; or, to follow Clarke’s conceit, stories which may shed some light on the history and doings of the Sidhe, and the development of magic, in the British Isles.

What’s immediately noticeable is that most of these stories are about people living on the edges of the society envisioned by Clarke in her novel – briefly, a society where magic is a respectable pursuit only for gentlemen. The central characters of these stories are abandoned gentlewomen, Jewish doctors, impoverished clergymen, servants’ daughters; specifically, they are people whose circumstances bring them close enough to gentility and respectability to be manipulated by it without benefiting from it. Their use of magic, or their alliances with Faerie, gives them access to power that is not determined by their social status, and so undermines and threatens the established order. These are, in other words, unsettling stories: the gap between magical power and social power manifests sometimes as humour, sometimes as something more uncanny; it never sits entirely easy.

It’s a collection that perhaps seems light in comparison with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; but it both fulfils a fannish need for more detail about Clarke’s universe, and has a coherent artistic worldview of its own, and it’s frankly criminal how rarely both things are true of the same work. A book for Strangites and Norrellites both to enjoy.

Review: The True Queen

This review contains spoilers.

Zen Cho’s The True Queen is a sequel to her Sorcerer to the Crown – a novel set in Regency England following Zacharias Wythe, the country’s first African Sorcerer Royal, and Prunella Gentleman, a mixed-race young woman determined to legitimise women’s magic.

Now, in this second novel, Zacharias and Prunella are established figures, albeit ones still facing some pushback from the more conservative members of society. As Sorceress Royal, Prunella’s founded a magical school for women. It’s here that Malaysian sisters Sakti and Muna travel after a brief diplomatic incident that threatens to heighten tensions between the vulnerable island of Janda Baik and the mighty, ever-expanding British Empire – but their route to London lies through Fairyland. When Sakti gets lost there, Muna, who has no magic of her own, must pretend to be a powerful sorceress to convince Prunella and the rest of the school staff to help her retrieve her sister.

So! I was at a Worldcon panel on Regency fantasy featuring Zen Cho (as well as Mary Robinette Kowal, Heather Rose Jones and Susan de Guardiola). One of the things the panel talked about was the appeal of the Regency period and also what defines a Regency novel as Regency. What these discussions came back to, ultimately, was class. It’s not Regency without middle-class protagonists, and balls, and Englishness – because those are the reasons that people write Regency. The social mores are fun and narratively useful; it’s easy to keep heterosexual couples apart because of the conventions of the time, and the language allows for great insults and witty comebacks. And those dresses!

That acknowledged, I do think that part of what Cho is doing in The True Queen involves bringing people into this conception of the Regency who are often written out. Take Sakti and Muna, who are both Malaysian and are functionally orphans – although they’ve been taken in by a witch with high status on Janda Baik, Muna in particular has spent much of her time there working in the kitchen. Then there’s the scholars at Prunella’s school, who include a governess and a cook’s daughter (though their teachers are both from “respectable”, middle-class families). And one of the book’s subplots revolves around a gay man whose partner is a dragon from Fairyland. Bringing these people into our conception of the Regency doesn’t have to be about telling true tales (although minorities did exist in these circles at the time) – it’s about allowing people now to see themselves in this social construct of the Regency that’s as much created by our own present preconceptions and cultural history as by those of the people who were alive then.

One of the things that allows Cho to do that is Fairyland itself, and the wider structures of fantasy. I’ve written before about how the Fairyland portrayed in the TV adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell functions as a dark funhouse mirror of Regency society, reflecting, revealing and exaggerating its oppressions and abuses of women and people of colour. Cho’s is a more upbeat vision, though; although her Fairyland occupies a similar role in the world she’s written – in that magic in England is scarce and running out – it is more a source of liberation than oppression. It’s in association with Fairyland that Paget Damerell can have a gay relationship (which is mirrored in the social world by a marriage of convenience at the end of the novel to a lesbian; Fairyland offers freedom, the real world polite social fictions). It’s through Fairyland that Sakti and Muna come to their true power – and that Muna finds her way to a queer relationship of her own. (This is the BEST surprise of the novel, and one it keeps faithfully to its last few pages.) In other words, Cho’s Fairyland is a place that allows marginalised people to be true to themselves while allowing them to participate in polite society under genteel social fictions.

Above all, it’s important to note that The True Queen is fun! And ultimately I think that’s what it’s doing: including people of colour and queer people in a story that’s fun and silly and romantic, in a genre that’s traditionally reserved for white, straight, middle-to-upper-class people. That’s all, and that’s enough.

Review: Boneshaker

Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker begins with a disaster. Sometime in the early 1860s, inventor Leviticus Blue of Seattle creates a steam-powered gold-mining machine, the titular Boneshaker, which promptly runs horribly out of control, destroying several city blocks and releasing a noxious gas called the Blight which turns people into zombies. The survivors build a wall around the city to contain the gas and the zombies, and many of them go on to scratch out a living in its shadow.

That’s exactly what we find Leviticus’ widow Briar doing sixteen years later, working in a water treatment plant to counteract the effects of the Blight. When her son Zeke ventures into the walled city, now a no-go zone, she follows, determined to keep him safe and bring him home.

It’s hard not to read Boneshaker as a critique of capitalist greed, at least in part. Leviticus is selfish and money-hungry; his lack of care and consideration for the community he lives in leaves hundreds of people dead, hundreds more reduced to poverty and an entire city and its water supply polluted and barely livable. It also unleashes an environmental menace in the form of the zombie hordes who occupy the walled city. (Zombies, of course, are infamously common metaphors for capitalist consumers!) The poisonous, gas-filled streets Zeke and Briar move through call to mind horrific industrial disasters like the Bhopal tragedy [content warning: link contains descriptions of the effects of toxic gas on human bodies] – which was caused by corporate negligence and an utter disregard for human life and health. Later on in the novel, it even turns out that someone in the city is using the disaster for his own ends: the mysterious machine-builder Doctor Minnericht.

But the novel’s potential as capitalism critique is undermined by one of steampunk’s key flaws: its emphasis on individualism. Steampunk as an aesthetic is all about being unique, standing out; it tends towards exclusivity and classism. Priest avoids this to an extent by focusing on characters who are functionally working-class (although Briar and Zeke were both upper-class before the Blight – in fact, the prospect of hidden gold in their old house is a moderately significant plot point, and the end of the novel seems to hint at a return to prosperity). But both of her villains are individuals, crazed inventors who’ve been able to change the course of history by personal achievement alone. And she doesn’t seem massively interested in digging into the forces that allowed these men to occupy positions of such power in the first place – Leviticus’ pre-existing wealth, for instance. Without an awareness of such systems, Boneshaker is less corporate critique than it is a work that just draws on those images for emotional affect. Which makes it feel a bit hollow, honestly.

I mean, I guess my criticism of Boneshaker is more a criticism of steampunk: the only steampunk works that are actively advocating social change are things like Nisi Shawl’s Everfair that are highly aware of their genre and deliberately working against it, or things like China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station that are only taking parts of steampunk to put in new contexts. Steampunk in itself – especially in its fashion guise! – is not really capable of cultural subversion; that’s just not how it functions as a phenomenon.

To return to Boneshaker: I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I read it while ill in bed, and it was not the book I would have chosen to be stuck with in that situation. It’s not as problematic as much steampunk is: it does focus on social outcasts, and it does feature people of colour, albeit as very minor characters. But, meh. It doesn’t feel like it’s doing that much work as a novel.

Review: The Dream of Perpetual Motion

I enjoyed Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion while I was reading it, found it moderately interesting, thought there’d be plenty to think and write about it.

Now, a couple of months down the line, it seems it hasn’t quite “taken” in my memory. Likely I’m just very tired at the moment, for a range of reasons. Likely, too, I’ve just bounced off it for mysterious reasons.

It’s steampunk, at least nominally, and so should be very much my thing. Narrated by its protagonist Harold, it’s the tale of how he ended up imprisoned in an airship high above the earth, with only the disembodied voice of a woman named Miranda and a rapidly failing perpetual motion machine for company. The tale takes in Miranda’s fantastically rich and controlling inventor father Prospero Taligent, the grim travesty of a birthday party he throws early in his daughter’s life and his ominous granting to each of the randomly selected children who are his guests their “heart’s desire”. It’s a story of disillusionment and the corruption of meaning, the mechanisation of art and the ivory tower unreality of the rich.

It’s an anti-capitalist story, as far as it goes, figuring the industrial production that imbues Prospero with (eventually) near-despotic power as uncanny: in Palmer’s alternative world, mechanised labour is done by steam-powered mechanical men of varying degrees of intelligence. Prospero’s ultimate goal is to create a fully synthetic human, completing the displacement of the human by the artificial.

It’s an unusual treatment of steampunk, which tends to read industrialisation and mechanisation as progress and potential. I suspect part of the reason I’ve bounced off it is because it’s a little male-gazey: Harold’s interest in Miranda is somehow never about her but about an idealised version of her; the same is true of her father, literally, as a horrific late sequence in the novel shows. (Content warning for non-consensual surgery.) Steampunk usually is good at decent female characters (Gail Carriger’s Soulless, Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, let’s even throw in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, why not), so perhaps it’s the departure from the genre that’s distracting me. This is steampunk being used as a literary device not a genre? Which is fine, but it calls for different reading protocols. And even if I’d read it as Literary, I don’t think I’d have been able to ignore the objectification of Miranda – I’m rapidly running out of patience with litfic’s treatment of women in general.

I might be tempted to read this again, though – it’s definitely the sort of thing that would reward re-reading, especially re-reading with greater attention. For now, though, it’s a case of wrong reader, wrong time.

Review: The Night Circus

Marco and Celia, the two young, late-Victorian protagonists of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, have been trained all their lives to take part in a non-specific magical challenge – a duel of sorts which (it’s been impressed upon them both) they must win. They have never met each other. They do not even know when they will meet each other, and when the challenge will begin.

That’s where the circus comes in: a fantastical, elegant, refined affair, confined to a palette of black, white and shades of grey, that opens at sundown and closes at dawn. Here, Marco and Celia’s works of real enchantment are concealed among more mundane wonders – contortionists and performing kittens rub shoulders with tents filled with impossible mazes and memories captured in glass bottles.

This is what circuses are for, after all. Formally speaking, literary circuses function as sites of suspension – the suspension of the rules and laws of ordinary daytime life; and the suspension of disbelief. It’s necessary that these laws be suspended, not removed, because the key thing about the circus is that it allows the anarchic energies that potentially threaten those laws to be expended safely, while normal life continues outside. Hence, liminality and uncertainty is central to the functioning of the circus: the boundary between reality and illusion is not just blurred, it is functionally non-existent. Time, too, is subject to different rules: one of the central attractions at Morgenstern’s circus is a “dreamlike” clock which turns from white to black and back again over the course of the twelve hours that the circus is open; and midnight is a significant hour for performers and audience alike.

The Night Circus is a gorgeous novel precisely because it achieves that delicate state of suspension. It’s told in the present tense, inhabiting a permanent enchanted Now; Morgenstern’s prose has a quality that is precisely dreamlike, in that past and future seem to have little hold; all is spectacle, all is immediacy. In describing the circus, Morgenstern walks the line between declaring things definitively magical or definitively illusionary; we’re allowed to inhabit a space outside rationality, where events follow a more primal and ritual logic.

It’s in this space that Marco and Celia negotiate and test the boundaries their controlling mentors have placed upon them, the binding magical contract the challenge represents (a contract they never signed or consented to). And it’s in this space that they find the freedom to bend the rules – to suspend them without escaping them fully. It probably isn’t a spoiler to say that The Night Circus is a deeply satisfying love story because of the way it dramatizes and follows through on how its circus functions.

Having said that – for a circus story, its revolutionary potential is limited by perhaps the very perfection of its circus. I’ve recently re-read Angela Carter’s terrific and challenging Nights at the Circus, in which the suspension of disbelief, the blurring of reality and illusion, is collapsed, and in doing so sort-of sparks a new and more anarchic age. The pent-up energies of the circus escape, in other words, and infect society with their vitality. The novel’s heroine is freed from her own enchanting persona and can become real, in all her complexity and humanity.

That doesn’t happen in The Night Circus. The rules of the challenge – only suspended, not fully lifted – mean Marco and Celia, and the anarchic energy they represent, must remain in the circus, safely, not affecting the structures of normality outside. We can see this conservatism reflected further in Morgenstern’s choice to make the night circus genteel: there are no peanut-munching crowds baying for blood here, just well-dressed patrons wandering, politely awestruck, into silken tents, or standing hushed in miraculously uncrowded courtyards. It is delightful. But it is not vital, not brimming with countercultural potential as Carter’s circus is.

Similarly, the novel’s minority representation is good for steampunk but bad for circus literature: there’s an LGBT Asian woman and one of the circus’ key organisers is Indian. But they’re (important) secondary characters, and the fact remains that the novel’s focus is on a largely uncomplicated het romance between two young, attractive white people. Compare, again, the LGBT subtext of Carter’s novel; its profusion of characters from disadvantaged backgrounds – those are the energies that threaten to overwhelm the societies the novel’s set in. As opposed to delicately woven set-piece enchantments.

So: The Night Circus is what it describes. A rarefied illusion; a glittering, dreamlike confection; an escape into a place more wondrous and magical than mundane reality. But it has no radical potential, no call to arms, no way to enact change. It is a world unto itself; a lovely work, but ultimately a minor one.