Review: A Natural History of Dragons

The first in Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series, A Natural History of Dragons sets up the conceit that will power the next five books. Isabella Trent is a gentlewoman in a secondary-world analogue of Regency England. Having become a famous naturalist for her study of dragons, she’s now writing her memoirs, with this first book seeing her overcome social prejudice to accompany her husband abroad on her first dangerous expedition to find out more about these evasive beasts.

Its project is similar to that of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, with which its subject matter and setting invite inevitable comparisons: it’s using fantasy – dragons – to push against mainstream forms of discourse (autobiography, natural history) that are traditionally reserved for straight white men, creating space in those discourses to tell the stories of the marginalised and of those who are invisible to the mainstream. In short, it makes the invisible (dragons; women who did early science) visible. So this is a story about a woman who does science, who’s better at writing about anatomy than emotion, who has romance but isn’t defined by it. It’s also a story that critiques the more exoticising forms of travel writing we find in history, and even today: the village where she and her husband go to find dragons to study is not quaint and rustic, its inhabitants not disarmingly friendly in a homely way. Drustanev is cold, the food is over-garlicked, the inhabitants are resentful of the party’s intrusion. This is pointed up specifically in the text, when Isabella mentions writing an early travel memoir where, as was the fashion for young ladies travelling at the time, she does exoticise the place and its people.

There are plenty of other such ripples, where the conventional ideal text (male-authored autobiography) fights with the female scientist it was never designed to contain. Isabella makes a lot of the fact that she is willing to discuss sex, in biological terms, while her readers may be scandalised at a woman so doing – despite the fact that she does it in her books on dragon anatomy.

A more interesting example is her experience of marriage. As I’ve already indicated, Isabella isn’t really a romantic figure: we see little of her marriage and home life until it becomes entangled with her career as a scientist, because she’s not terribly interested in sharing it. Although her marriage eventually turns out to have a lot of love in it (not a euphemism, although…), it is at least initially very much a social contract, assuring financial security for Isabella, while for her husband it represents a chance to have a wife with some intelligence. It’s an interesting alternative relationship paradigm for a Regency story, writing against a tradition of Regency romance – see not Austen’s actual novels, which are invariably more complex than we give them credit for, but our cultural reception of them, which casts them as romantic, airy-fairy chick lit. In particular, Brennan writes about the strangeness of the sudden intimacy between Isabella and her husband, the move from absolute social propriety to sharing their lives and their bed. It’s a nice defamiliarisation of the “romantic” trope of saving yourself for marriage.

Unfortunately, though, Brennan’s just not as good at this textual subversion as Novik is. Her Regency voice, unlike Novik’s, is an odd mix of contemporary directness and Regency formality, and comes across as stilted and artificial – rather undermining the work of writing against a patriarchal discourse when the discourse isn’t quite right. (Incidentally, this reminds me of Brennan’s Midnight Never Come, which also didn’t carry through its historical setting quite right.)

Additionally, the fact that her story is set in a secondary-world analogue containing a place that’s clearly meant to recall Regency England while not actually being it is tricky. While it does avoid some of the issues of appropriation that could spring from Isabella’s expeditions round the world (which I assume continue in the rest of the series), it also sort of defangs Brennan’s critique of Regency discourse and attitude. What the book’s trying to do and how it tries to do it don’t quite map together.

I’ve been comparing A Natural History of Dragons implicitly with Novik’s series all the time I’ve been reading it and thinking about it, which perhaps isn’t quite fair, and it might be that if I hadn’t read about Temeraire before I read about Isabella I might have enjoyed this more. I would probably read more of Brennan’s series if the books came my way – but, for me, Novik’s series does the same thing better.

Review: David Copperfield

This review contains spoilers.

Famously, David Copperfield was Dickens’ favourite of his novels. Possibly equally famously, it’s quite recognisably autobiographical.

Conflating these things is dangerous, of course. And just because some things in the novel are autobiographical doesn’t mean all or most of it is. But I couldn’t help reading it in the light of Claire Tomalin’s biography Dickens: A Life, which I read the Christmas before last, and specifically in the light of the fact that Dickens was, to put it crudely if punningly, a bit of a dick.

So. David Copperfield is narrated in first person by its eponymous hero, whose early childhood is as elysian as all remembered childhoods are; he lives with his adoring mother (widowed on the eve of his birth) and an equally adoring female housekeeper, Peggotty. That’s until his mother marries the odious Mr Murdstone, who turns out to be emotionally abusive and financially grasping. He sends David away to school, and then, after the narratively inevitable death of David’s mother, to work in a bottle factory. Oppressed by this life, David flees to the doubtful embrace of his fearsome aunt Betsy Trotwood, who takes him under her wing, sends him to a decent school and generally sets him on the path of genteel, middle-class poverty.

I think David is supposed to be a sympathetic, nay laudable, protagonist: fair-minded, right-thinking and generally well-intentioned. Mine is a resistant reading, then: I found him, like his creator, a misogynist pig.

David Copperfield is in part a kind of relationship sandbox for its hero: it’s full of couples who are functional or dysfunctional in various ways which, conveniently, David gets to witness and in some cases take part in, so he can learn for himself What Makes a Good Spouse. Although David’s assumptions about these relationships aren’t always correct, I think they are supposed to be reasonable assumptions from the evidence he has – and, for reasons I’ll go into later, I think whether they’re reasonable is as important to Dickens as whether they’re right. This is important because David is judgemental, unsympathetic and, usually, contemptuous about the relationships he witnesses.

So. The functional relationships in the novel (spoilers, obviously):

  • Mr and Mrs Micawber – Mr Micawber, David’s landlord during the time he works in the bottle factory is terrible with money and constantly in debt. Mrs Micawber’s family have disowned her for marrying him, and they are constantly having children they can’t afford to feed. This should, according to most narrative logic, be a disaster. In fact, Mrs Micawber is devoted and forgiving – not uncomplainingly so, which would be sickening, but in a kind of pragmatic, bustling way that speaks of a genuinely robust relationship despite their incompetence with reference to accepted financial social codes.
  • Peggotty and Barkis – another relationship that seems based in comfortable companionship rather than romantic devotion. We don’t actually get much of a look at this relationship, which is surprising given how important Peggotty is to David.
  • Agnes and David – Agnes is the person David ends up with at the end; she is, of course, radiant, angelic, intelligent, emotionally competent and patient. Although this reads like an idealised relationship, I think it’s actually supposed to be more friendship-based than David’s other entanglements.

And the dysfunctional relationships:

  • Doctor and Mrs Strong – Doctor Strong is David’s teacher at the school his aunt sends him to. Everyone (meaning David and Aunt Betsy’s alcoholic lawyer Mr Wickfield) thinks Mrs Strong is in love with her cousin, Jack Maldon. Not having an affair or anything; just in love. David is horrified that she should have socially unapproved feelings, notwithstanding the fact that she is much younger than her husband, who seems to be more of a father figure to her in that creepy Victorian paternalistic way. David and Mr Wickfield turn out to be wrong.
  • Mr Murdstone and David’s mother – obviously, being David’s mother’s second husband, Mr Murdstone is emotionally abusive, because women marrying again are always monsters or mistaken, even though marriage often gives women the social status and/or finances they need to survive.
  • David and Dora – a particularly shitty one. Dora is David’s first wife (men not being subject to the same rules re remarriage). She is described pretty much entirely in terms of how David sees her: enchanting, pretty, tinkly-laughed, frivolous. She turns out to be totally useless at being a wife: she can’t manage servants or do the accounts or support David emotionally, for the very good (though unacknowledged by Dickens) reason that she’s been taught to be ornamental all her life and has never had to apply herself to anything. No wonder she’s confused. In any case, just as David has learned his lesson she dies of feebleness, apparently, leaving him free to select someone more worthy. Oh, and she asks David to call her “child-wife”, which, eww.
  • Em’ly and Steerforth – this one is the worst. Steerforth is one of David’s friends from school, so devilishly handsome and charismatic that even David wants to sleep with him a little bit. Em’ly is a fisherman’s daughter, the niece of Peggotty’s brother, who David meets as a child and is, even into adulthood, bewitching, charming, and (fatally) flirtatious. She is seduced by Steerforth, and at a stroke her life is ruined: her fiance leaves her and she’s renounced by everyone who once knew her. I’ve no doubt that this is an accurate representation of what might happen to a fallen woman of her class; but neither Dickens or David seem to have an ounce of sympathy for her, who was almost certainly promised marriage by Steerforth (which of course he did not intend to provide), and who’s been damned by an act that men could do with impunity. Look at Tess of the D’Urbevilles, after all, about a woman of a not dissimilar social class living in similar times under similar circumstances: Hardy has more sympathy for his heroine in one page than Dickens and David have in the entire book. David at one point muses that it might be better for Em’ly to be dead than ruined.

For Dickens, the secret to a successful relationship seems to be equality: equality of intelligence, age and social standing. It takes David the whole novel to learn this.

This is important because in a wider sense the novel is about David finding out who he is supposed to be and where he is supposed to fit in the world. Just as he tries out different relationships through his social circle, he tries out different roles in life: manual labourer, lawyer, writer, breadwinner, unmasker of villains. It’s significant that, at the end of the novel, a ship heads for Australia, to the new society taking shape there: it carries the Micawbers and Em’ly with her uncle, people who no longer have a place in England’s body politic. And what I think is meant to be a particularly existentially terrifying moment comes when David, during some research for his writing, visits a model prison, again towards the end of the novel. There he finds Uriah Heep, a particularly odious specimen of humanity who has throughout the novel been blackmailing Mr Wickfield, taking advantage of his alcoholism to gain power over him; Uriah’s famous refrain is, “I’m very umble, sir,” when of course he means nothing of the sort. Also in the prison is Steerforth’s manservant, ostensibly arrested for petty theft, although narratively he is obviously in prison for his role in Em’ly’s seduction. The manservant’s schtick is respectability; the kind of disapproving correctness (so I imagined) you get off waiters in expensive restaurants. Both are commended by the prison guards as model prisoners; though we, and David, know they are anything but. They are actors, taking advantage of the role society’s marked out for them and playing it so very perfectly that it becomes subversion. And they are dangerous because they know their power; and they are terrifying because they are absolutely products of their society.

My point is that, in a wider sense, David Copperfield is a novel about the body politic, and where people fit, correctly, into it. That’s why, after all, it’s so important that David marry the right person; because marriage and the nuclear family is the cornerstone of England’s bourgeois body politic in Dickens’ time. And that’s why it’s important that the women of the novel aren’t really characters in their own right (the exceptions are the delightfully proto-feminist Betsy Trotwood, who dresses masculinely and refuses to marry, and Peggotty, who exists, it seems, to serve David); they’re ciphers, seen only through David’s eyes, existing only insomuch as they affect the men around them. (Poor Em’ly’s fiance! His heart is broken and he will never marry now! Never mind that Em’ly is considered worse than dead by her society.) In Dickens’ society, women exist only for men: to uphold and serve the body politic and allow men to learn and have stories and actual lives. In Dickens Land, a woman will only ever be a supporting character.

Ten Bookish Resolutions for 2017

  1. Continue making a concerted effort to read books by women and POCs. The quality of my reading shot up last year when I started setting myself targets for female- and POC-authored books from the library. I’ve recently moved house so haven’t figured out what exactly the targets will look like this year, though. My reading for 2017 already looks pretty good on the female authors front (eight out of twelve!), and I’ve got a handful of books by POCs on my TBR pile. I expect it’s going to be TBR stuff until I work out where my nearest library is.
  2. Continue writing this blog. I mean, that’s probably an obvious one. Blogging is what I do and what keeps me sane. And especially in these dark and difficult times of Brexit and Trump, blogging is what reminds me that I still have a voice and a way to resist.
  3. Spend at least an hour a week editing my NaNoWriMo novel. I would love this target to be higher, but I feel like there just isn’t enough time in the day any more. So we’ll see. I’ve definitely been feeling the urge to return to my writing lately, though.
  4. Read more fiction online. I read Strange Horizons fiction regularly, of course, but I want to branch out into other fiction venues too; I feel like I’m missing out on a whole field of wonderful writing.
  5. Read more SFF criticism. I don’t want just to be shouting my opinions into a vacuum; I want critical context, other voices to speak back to and reflect on.
  6. Stop chasing nebulous things like “audience” and “community”. Yeah, this is a difficult one (and I’m aware, here, that this is more “blogging” than “bookish”). I’ve been writing this blog for, what, three and a half years now, I’ve poured hours and hours of my life into it, and still I have approximately three readers (one of whom is a Russian spambot, probably). This is because I am fucking crap at commenting on other people’s blogs, I am terrible at Twitter, I don’t have a tumblr or an Instagram or any of the other things where online community actually lives. I don’t have the time or the energy to do these things because they make me emotionally exhausted and anxious. I can’t be permanently online. So I have to accept that all this work is for me; to help me think through stuff and resist the oncoming tide of capitalism and be me.
  7. Comment substantively on at least one online article a week. Having said the above…I do have hour-long lunch breaks at my computer now I work somewhere without a canteen. I can use that time to start participating in venues where I actually want to be: I think it’s going to be a case of pruning back the places I visit to what adds most value to my life. It helps that the Tournament of Books is starting up soon!
  8. Leave Booklikes. I’ve actually already done this. My reasons, basically, are that I haven’t found the community there that I hoped I would, and scrolling through all those posts is such a timesuck and I don’t always enjoy it and also it’s so slow.
  9. Join a geeky society. I work in London now, there are like a bajillion of these floating around, and I know from experience that there is nothing like shared geekdom to bring people together and make really strong connections.
  10. #resist. Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep thinking. Keep marching. I may only be a voice in a city of noise, but I’m not going to stop talking any time soon.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Film Review: Moana

Moana – pronounced not how it unfortunately looks in English, which puts me in mind of Mona the Teenage Witch, but Mo’ana – is, of course, Disney’s latest animated film. Its eponymous heroine is the daughter of a generic Polynesian chief who struggles, in classic Disney fashion, between her longing for the sea and her duty to her tribe, who she’ll lead one day. Her father, and most of the rest of the tribe (apart from her slightly bonkers granny) disapprove of the sea: it’s dangerous, and the island provides everything they could need. But when a mysterious, rotting blight threatens the fish and the crops, Moana sets out to find a legendary Polynesian figure – the trickster god Maui – and save her people.

There’s lots of obvious things to talk about here (which is to say, things that Disney wants us to talk about): the fact that this Disney heroine has no romantic interest and that her female-ness has nothing to do with becoming chief, the fact that the film’s set in Polynesia and lays claim to some level of accurate representation. (Although not very much: the production team’s much-feted cultural consulting apparently consisted of spending two weeks in Polynesia, and the film’s hype machine doesn’t seem quite aware of the fact that Polynesia is made up of a vast number of smaller cultures.)

Of course, because I am cynical and also a little bit pretentious, I’m wary of obviousness; it’s so often a diversionary tactic. One of the things the diversity hype is diverting us from is the fact that the plot is not only a fairly unembellished version of the classic struggle-between-duty-and-personal-life which has been around since Romeo and Juliet, it’s also quite culturally conservative in the end: Moana’s essentially acting to restore the status quo of her ancestors, who were travellers before they were stay-at-homes. I’m not saying these are problems, necessarily; at least not from a Western perspective. It’s partly because the film has such a classic, fairytale structure that it works as well as it does; together with its music and its rather unexpectedly lovely animation, it’s really quite wonderful.

I suppose what I am saying is that we have to treat Moana as a commercial product, certainly to a greater extent even than most other blockbusters. And markets are essentially conservative.

Look at that plot structure: that story of Moana’s rediscovery of her heritage, the fact that her ancestors were once seafarers and travellers. It’s triumphant, and slightly unusual for a narrative with a woman as its central character; and, in a certain light, you can read it as a narrative of diaspora, a rediscovery of links to a forgotten culture. Is it slightly problematic, then, that this story of immigrant experience is told by a group of white writers – writers who, further, have drastically simplified the real-life cultures it depicts?

That’s a virtually unanswerable question, I think, one that squirrels down into further questions of cultural privilege and what stories are for. Because you can also read Moana as a narrative that celebrates a culture and a history that’s rarely if ever depicted on screen: this Strange Horizons piece foregrounds responses from two reviewers who are from Polynesian cultures which both take this stance to some extent, and I don’t want to negate that response. I’m asking it here because – well, because I haven’t really finished thinking about Moana; because I think resisting the obvious narrative is important work in itself; because I think conversation, the generation of alternative readings, is one of the primary tasks of artistic (as opposed to commercial) production.

I liked Moana. It made me cry, a bit, with that pitch-perfect emotional structure, honed over decades to hit exactly the right storytelling notes. I think that Disney’s going in the right direction (as it did in Rogue One) even if I think it’s not perfect yet. I definitely think the fact that this film can even be made – even looks sellable to Disney – is an indication of progress somewhere, despite everything. And I think there’s more work still to do.

Review: The Alchemy of Stone

The Alchemy of Stone follows Mattie, a clockwork automaton in a city where automata have no rights. She’s managed to grab herself a bit of freedom, however, working for herself as an alchemist, and it’s in this capacity that she’s approached by the gargoyles, mysterious creatures who first shaped the city out of stone, and who are trying now to escape their stony forms.

So it’s sort of the story of Mattie’s search for a cure for the gargoyles’ slow and inevitable transformation into stone. But it’s also the story of her search for self-definition and self-control – her creator Loharri literally holds the key to her heart, and if she’s not wound regularly she’ll effectively fall silent and die – the story of a city on the brink of revolution, the story of those on the edges looking in.

It’s steampunk, and I do like steampunk. The Alchemy of Stone gets all the beats of the “punk” part as well as the “steam”: the arbitrary class system, the mechanisation that threatens the working class, the intersectionality between different types of oppression, the feminist fable, the deep-seated pessimism about the efficacy of rebellion and the nature of humanity.

But, for all that I recognise its technical steampunk-ness, I’m not really convinced by The Alchemy of Stone. Core to this, I think, is the world-building: I never felt that the city was a real city, that the politics (centred around the two opposing guilds of Alchemists and Mechanics) were as byzantine and incomprehensible and exclusive as real politics are, that the systems of oppression Sedia describes were quite as oppressive as their real-world counterparts are. Generally, I don’t think world-building is as important as other SFF readers do; but steampunk is essentially a genre about power, and I think in that respect it’s essential to get the world-building right, because it’s part of where the point of steampunk is. And I also think that Mattie’s story is too superficially, too obviously a fable of misogyny, its villains too obviously villains. This doesn’t feel like a real place, where misogyny and racism and strategies of othering are embedded deeply into cultural systems. It just feels like a Bad Place, written so the author can make wry observations about how misogyny works. “Look, gender has been forced upon this automaton by building a corset into her! Isn’t that like how we force gender norms upon women and trans people in the real world?” Well, yes, that’s true, but it’s also kind of obvious.

It may be that I just have high standards for steampunk: certainly I kept comparing The Alchemy of Stone to Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, which I read at the end of last year and which seems a lot more aware of how discrimination gets perpetuated, despite its being written for a YA audience. And, quite unfairly, to China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, which is also about doomed revolutionaries and ambivalent automata and is absolutely magisterial on oppressive social structures, although it is admittedly less feminist. And Frances Hardinge’s Fly By Night, which is feminist, and set in a bustling, socially stratified city like Mattie’s, and conceptualises oppression in a way that’s similarly fabulistic but actually much more interesting and powerful.

The Alchemy of Stone was OK, is what I think I’m trying to say. I just wanted it to be more.

Top Ten Bookish Things I’m Thankful For

Because, after all, there are still nice things in the world.

  1. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. If I had ever met Terry Pratchett, the one thing I would have wanted to say to him was “thank you”. His books are an antidote to illness, a holiday escape, a refuge in times of sorrow. They taught me scepticism and they taught me humanity. They have their flaws, of course; but their small perfections are so much greater.
  2. My degree. I was fantastically lucky to be able to read for three years and be taught by experts in their fields and have access to world-class libraries. I started learning to think rigorously about books and culture; I got a good grounding in historical attitudes to literature; I developed my own theories and learned for the first time that criticism doesn’t have to mean sucking the joy out of everything.
  3. Steampunk. I know this isn’t just a bookish thing, and I know, too, that steampunk can be conservative and reactionary and nostalgic in an unhelpful way. But I also think good steampunk can be fantastic at deconstructing the oppressive structures inherent in our society, precisely because so many of its core elements foreground those structures.
  4. Tolkien. His philosophy, defiant in the face of evil, is just what we need right now. And also because Tolkien has brought some lovely people into my life.
  5. Libraries. Libraries! Libraries are amazing places: buildings that contain whole worlds, that anyone can access for free (mostly). And not just bookish worlds, either: libraries are meeting-places, community hubs, study spaces, Internet access points, vital sources of information in an information age.
  6. Strange Horizons. And all the other online venues doing thoughtful, intelligent SFF criticism: Andrew Rilstone, Ferretbrain, Asking the Wrong Questions, people who think this essentially popular genre is worth thinking about critically. This Internet microcosm has encouraged me to keep this blog running, practising the critical skills I started learning at university and generally keeping me sane (even if all I do on those sites is lurk).
  7. Forbidden Planet. It is impossible for me to go in here without making my purse cry. It’s just full of stuff I like to read.
  8. T.S. Eliot. It’s kind of a cliché to cite The Waste Land as a favourite poem, but there’s a good reason that it’s a cliché: because Eliot’s poetry speaks to the condition of modernity in a way that few poets ever nail down, while still capturing timeless human emotion. It’s also strongly SFnal, as Stephen King noticed in The Waste Lands.
  9. Nine Worlds. I just want life to be Nine Worlds, is that really too much to ask? Seriously, though, Nine Worlds 2016 was such an overwhelmingly positive, thoughtful, diverse space, and I think making “real life” more like that would be no bad thing.
  10. Postmodernism. Is “thankful” really the right word? I’m not sure. Rife with problems as it is, though, postmodernism gets us to think about how our dominant cultural narratives work, which is really important for any critic.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Class Review: Co-Owner of a Lonely Heart

I managed to watch another episode of Class, hooray! I know I am chronically behind, but the episodes are going to be on iPlayer for like another 10 months, right? And they are also showing on BBC One, according to Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge. So that’s all right.

Anyway, the fourth episode, slightly overbearingly titled Co-Owner of a Lonely Heart, follows April, who is Not Coping with the fact that she’s sharing a heart (literally not metaphorically; though it’s just occurred to me how appropriate this episode is for Valentine’s Day) with an evil alien from space, quite understandably. She is also Not Coping with the release of her father from prison, having tried to kill her and her mother several years ago.

And then there’s a new headmistress at Coal Hill, and all these weird-ass blossom petals that are at least as sinister as the Lankin, and also Charlie’s being a bit of a dick to Miss Quill, who is badass as ever.

I think Class is hitting its stride here; I think this is the episode where it settles on what kind of show it’s going to be. It actually reminds me quite a lot of Davies-era Doctor Who, and also slightly of the Sarah-Jane Adventures: occasionally overacted, the CGI often sitting awkwardly alongside the live action, a jury-rigged plot whose ricketiness you don’t notice because it sweeps you along with its pulpy drama. None of these are criticisms, by the way: they give the show a kind of unassuming, relatable homeliness that Moffat-era Who, for all its declarations that Love is the Strongest Force, never manages to reach.

What’s more, it splices that pulpy SF plot with a heady mix of emotion: teen lust, identity crises, anger, helplessness, rage. Two things really stand out to me about this episode: I love the way that April’s articulateness with Ram transmutes into embarrassed teenage surliness with her mother – it’s a well-observed way of balancing the validity of teenage experience with adult perception of that experience. And I also love how the show’s using its SF conceits actually to think about timely issues in a relevant way – there’s a scene when Tanya calls out Charlie on his treatment of Miss Quill, which she sees as slavery, and he snaps back at her, essentially, that she can’t possibly understand their relationship. The question raised here, it seems to me, is: at what point does morality override cultural sensitivity? When do we call out behaviour that looks unfair to us, and how valid is that calling-out? (It’s worth noting, by the way, that Miss Quill is very definitely unhappy with their arrangement, and that Charlie’s continued high-handed treatment of her is going to cause Problems for everyone in the not-too-distant future.

Then, of course, there’s April and Ram’s relationship, which I had doubts about after Nightvisiting – I thought their mutual half-articulated contempt was more interesting than gooey teenage love – but Ram’s such an unexpected sweetie (who said football jocks couldn’t be respectful?) that I forgive writer Patrick Ness absolutely.

And I really am curious about that blossom, and the Governors, and the subplot with Miss Quill and the headmistress. Class delivers a lot in a small package, which is what makes it such a treat.