Review: Jheghaala

Ooh, look, yet another novel I have little to no opinion on.

Which is not to say I disliked Steven Brust’s Jheghaala. The eleventh novel in Brust’s Vlad Taltos series, it’s one with lower stakes than usual (though I’ve only read two others in the series – as with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, you can comfortably duck in and out of without too many problems). Fleeing from the city of Adrilankha after some unspecified diplomatic Event which I shall probably encounter in another novel, our assassin-hero Vlad heads to his home country to find out more about his family. But his questions inadvertently get his kinfolk killed. So Jhegaala is really a murder mystery: who killed Vlad’s family, and why?

There’s a lot of chatting, and a lot of waiting, and a lot of eating. The ending doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and I couldn’t be bothered to flip backwards and work it all out. (It seems Jo Walton had the same problem, so I don’t feel too bad about this.) It’s kind of a meh book, in other words, but on the other hand it’s quite fun hanging out in this high-fantasy world while not very much happens. Vlad is a fun protagonist who doesn’t take himself too seriously, which is also, incidentally, a good way of describing this series.

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Review: The Rig

Roger Levy’s The Rig is better than it seems at first; if you’re having doubts, I’d encourage you to persevere if you can.

For much of its 600+ pages it reads like a pretty traditional SF dystopia. It’s set in a hyper-capitalist future in which humanity has spread to the stars, at the cost of longevity, good health and high standards of living. People die in their forties after a life being manipulated by a few powerful rulers. All but the inhabitants of two planets have given up religion. The one thing that gives hope to most of humanity is AfterLife, a programme which allows people to vote on which of the dead should be given a second chance at life, based on what they did when they were alive.

Against this backdrop: a murder happens. A man who’s suffered severe neural damage goes to work on a rig on the aptly-named planet of Bleak. Two children grow up on the fundamentalist Christian planet of Gehenna.

It’s all very grim, and violent; very straight, white and male. (There’s just one major female character, despite this being a world that’s apparently equal-opportunities.) But as the novel unfolds it becomes apparent that it’s quite a complex meditation on memory, story-making and belief. What happens when we no longer have the consolations of religion? Is there a middle way between fundamentalism and atheism?

It’s surprisingly rare for SF to tackle these themes, but The Rig manages it in a way that is not trite, not purely academic, not preachy nor too earnest. It’s also worth noting that it features two neurodivergent characters, though I’m not sure if one of them isn’t too stereotypical. What The Rig is, is a novel that’s a bit out of the way for SF; considered and thoughtful, despite the violence of its world.

Review: Down Under

Down Under is travel writer Bill Bryson’s account of Australia, based on a number of visits over what feels like a year or so. He covers the major cities, crosses the outback by train, plane and car, and makes friends with a range of people in remote places. There is, apparently, Humour.

I have a chequered history with Bryson’s work: while I love Notes from a Big Country, his book of columns about life in New Hampshire, I found Notes from a Small Island, an account of his farewell tour of England, chauvinistic and pompous. And not funny.

Down Under falls, I think, somewhere in the middle. Bryson describes Australia right from the get-go as a kind of earthly paradise:

Let me say right here that I love Australia – adore it immeasurably – and am smitten anew each time I see it…The people are immensely likeable – cheerful, extrovert, quick-witted and unfailingly obliging. Their cities are safe and clean and nearly always built on water. They have a society that is prosperous, well ordered and instinctively egalitarian…

Which may well all be true, so long as you aren’t queer, female or a person of colour. Australian society is famously homophobic, and the Australian government is famously anti-immigration. (We’ll get to Indigenous Australians in a bit.) But then Bryson is more than a little bit racist himself, which might be why he and Australia get on so well together:

One of the effects of paying so little attention to Australia is that it is always such a pleasant surprise to find it there. Every cultural instinct and previous experience tells you that when you travel this far you should find, at the very least, people on camels. There should be unrecognisable lettering on the signs, and swarthy men in robes drinking coffee from thimble-sized cups and puffing on hookahs and rattletrap buses and potholes in the road and a real possibility of disease on everything you touch – but no, it’s not like that at all.

This book has aged badly, to put it mildly.

At least Bryson does eventually get round to discussing the plight of the Indigenous Australians, although it does take him about ten chapters, and he’s appalled at the way they’ve been treated by white Australians. But at no point does he make the effort to meet, interview or talk to anyone Indigenous; they’re always in the background, presented as sad, damaged figures without agency or narrative.

Which is all to say that Bryson experiences Australia very much as a white straight man, which is occasionally problematic but mainly just a particular lens. It does have the effect of making this not very interesting to me? Bryson isn’t really looking at the things I’d be interested in, or the things I’d need to know about as a queer woman if I visited Australia. And it’s not that funny to me, either – but then humour is a subjective thing, after all. Sometimes books and readers just don’t hit it off, and this was one of those times.

Review: Apex Hides the Hurt

Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt follows an unnamed “nomenclature consultant” (someone who specialises in naming new products) who’s hired by the council of a small American town called Winthrop which is considering changing its name. It’s a proposition that’s bringing up some painful history: Winthrop was originally founded by escaped slaves, who called it Freedom, and the town’s mayor is advocating a reversion to that name; it was then named Winthrop after a wealthy white family who set up a barbed wire manufacturing business in the area, profiting off the labour of the Black population but also, crucially, helping to legitimise them; and now, finally, the tech magnate who’s recently moved his business to the town wants to christen it New Prospera.

It’s a short novel that covers a lot of ground, considering how names define us and how corporations use that in their own interest. The novel’s title is a slogan written by Our Hero for a pharmaceutical company called Apex whose brainwave was to make plasters in a huge variety of skin shades – so as to “hide the hurt” better for more people. Which looks like a positive social justice move, but is also a way for corporations to profit from disadvantaged minorities. And “hiding the hurt”, of course, is a way of papering over the cracks, putting things out of sight that are uncomfortable to see – as is happening with the renaming of Winthrop.

There’s a lot to unpack here which I haven’t really had the time to think about. It’s been a long week! But I liked it, I liked its play with a range of concepts – racism, naming, corporate culture – and probably I’d like to read it again.

Review: The Children’s Book

What a lovely, rich novel AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book is!

It begins in the waning years of the Victorians and ends on the battlefields of the First World War: 1895-1918, roughly. It begins when the son of a curator at the nascent Victoria & Albert Museum finds a potter’s boy living in the basement, sketching wonders by day and sleeping in a sarcophagus by night. The potter’s boy is Philip, who’s run away from drudgery and ill-health in the factories of the north; rescued by the curator, he’s put up by a singular family, the Wellwoods, who live in a rambling country house in Kent. Olive Wellwood is a writer of fairy tales and children’s fables, and it’s largely her labour that sustains her large family’s sunlit, charmed existence in the breadbasket of England. (Her husband, Humphrey, is a lecturer, journalist and activist – none of them particularly lucrative professions.) In due course, the Wellwoods find Philip a position with a local potter, moody, unstable Benedict Fludd, an artistic genius who refuses responsibility for anything practical.

The family of Humphrey’s banker brother Basil rounds out this cast of characters: they are artists, thinkers, teachers, writers, activists, all of them people interested in engaging with the world meaningfully, through politics or art or theory. But as Byatt’s title suggests, what the novel is really interested in is childhood – more specifically (and per Rudd, in Reading the Child in Children’s Literature), how the concept of childhood is represented by and mediated through adults. Byatt’s said that the novel grew out of an idea that the children of many classic children’s authors have become suicidal: what does the commodification of a specific child’s experience do to the child in question? And, what does that child’s experience really look like?

It’s in service to this project that The Children’s Book exploits the gap between children’s literature and literature about children. The novel frequently inhabits children’s points of view – particularly those of Philip and of Tom, one of the Wellwood children. When it does so, it frequently touches on things you’d never find in children’s literature: nascent romantic longing, questions about a parent’s fidelity or otherwise. And in doing so, it points up how children are simplified, idealised, by adults.

A key motive for that idealisation is nostalgia – the longing for an Edenic golden age when we were responsible for nothing and ran carefree in the endless summer woods. Much of the novel is suffused with this Edenic quality, with many of its adult characters engaged in the work of planning or attending retreats, artists’ communes, exhibitions; creating, evoking or in some cases defending ideal spaces free from crass economic considerations.

And yet the novel’s ironising perspective on childhood makes it clear that such frozen, idealised bubbles of time did not, cannot, should not exist. The novel’s children do have real, “adult” concerns: poverty, parentage, the fights of adults around them, the shape of their futures. And attempting to “freeze” these children – to encourage them, like Peter Pan, never to grow up – has disastrous consequences for at least one of them. Even the titles of the novel’s three sections make it clear that Eden does not exist: Age of Silver, Age of Bronze, Age of Lead. There is no Golden Age.

What all of this is building up to, of course, is the apocalypse of the First World War – the conflict that irrevocably, inevitably shapes the lives of all these children (as we know it must right from the beginning of the novel), that puts an end to all thoughts of utopia once and for all. In Lacanian terms – also per Rudd – we can say that the war is the savage, uncontrollable irruption of the Real into the Imaginary, the ideal artistic Eden that Byatt’s characters have been striving towards for 600 pages. It shatters all illusions of meaning; in fact it co-opts Edenic meanings, as we see when a character starts collecting the whimsical children’s names men on the front have given to the trenches that become their tombs, grim travesties of the wonderlands those names are drawn from.

It’s the same kind of semantic breakdown that we see in T.S. Eliot’s great Modernist poem The Waste Land: “I think we are in rats’ alley/Where the dead men lost their bones.” Perhaps what Byatt is offering us here, then, is an evocation of our own golden age, the golden age that postmodernism looks back to – a nostalgia for a pre-ironic era when revolutionary ideals and ideas were sincerely held and the woods of England were still wonderful. In this reading, even the war is comforting: it is a telos, an ending we always already know is coming; even in its meaninglessness it gives these characters’ lives a meaningful shape.

But the novel’s layers of irony have already alerted us to the perils of nostalgia. There is no golden age. So this apparently nostalgic text ironises itself, in its final ultra-postmodern move: it becomes, like all the works of fiction and imagination it describes, unstable and contingent exactly where it seems most permanent, most ideal.

Review: Watchmen

Here’s another classic: Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen was published in 1986, and it’s probably my favourite piece of superhero media. (I’m not usually a fan of superhero stories. They bore me.) It’s about a group of masked vigilantes, the Minutemen, almost all of whom are perfectly ordinary human beings with gadgets and/or extreme psychological quirks – more Batman than Superman, apart from Doctor Manhattan, a former nuclear physicist who gained power over time and space when he was caught in a nuclear accident.

So, yeah. Its key question is: what would late Cold War-era America really look like if a bunch of randomers started doling out vigilante justice? Especially if each of those randomers has a different idea of what justice is and what the world should look like? And if those randomers are granted the support and blessing of the government?

As I’ve said, my understanding of the superhero genre is limited at best – and my reasons for disliking it generally might have more to do with my own greater tolerance for books than films than any actual deficiency in the subject matter. The only superhero film I’ve seen that addresses the same kind of questions as Watchmen does (apart from the film adaptation of Watchmen itself, which I mostly found interminable, running as it does to about two and a half hours) is The Dark Knight, whose focus on just two characters, Batman and the Joker, makes its engagement with those themes more limited than what Watchmen’s wider scope allows it to do. Moore’s expanded cast of vigilantes allows him to explore conflicts within the group around what “good” and “evil” look like, and what they should be fighting for. Is simple superheroing enough? Or should the Minutemen be doing more sustained work towards achieving the greater good?

I did like how the ending dramatises these conflicts to produce something very bleak indeed – it asks us as readers to examine our moral priorities and our expectations for how superhero narratives are “meant” to turn out. It’s a complex novel that gives these vigilantes psychological reality against the backdrop of a world that is itself complex – it allows us none of the black and white moralities of traditional, patriotic American superhero stories.

Something for readers to be aware of is the relationship between vigilante Dan (known as Nite Owl) and his compatriot Sally – a relationship that begins when Sally is sixteen and Dan is definitely Older. Generally, the novel is not kind to its women – there’s only really two of them, for one thing, and one of them exists primarily in order to be sexually assaulted by one of the Minutemen. The other, Laurie, is similarly defined by her relationship dramas, which few of the male Minutemen seem to share.

If that’s something you can overlook, though, it’s certainly worth doing so. Watchmen is a genre-defining novel, one that’s satisfyingly complex even for readers like me who have only a passing knowledge of Marvel, DC and their ilk. Superhero narratives are so prevalent now that their core assumptions and tropes are easily accessible to everyone – and, given their dominance in our mass media today, it’s important to be aware of their history, and of works like this one that have informed their development and their reception.

Review: League of Dragons

So here it is: the last in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, an alternative history of the Napoleonic wars, with dragons.

League of Dragons opens with Napoleon’s forces fleeing through frozen Russia after a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the allied armies. It’s a major victory for everyone who doesn’t want to see Napoleon ruling over Europe, but it’s not the end of the war – especially when Napoleon’s dragon Lien steals a precious egg belonging to Temeraire (the series’ draconic co-protagonist) and fire-breathing Iskierka. The egg, and the creature that hatches from it, could be key to the war effort, and is in any case personally important to Temeraire and Iskierka – so of course it’s up to Temeraire’s Captain Laurence and his crew to get it back.

It’s actually a pretty episodic novel for a series ender. There’s the bitter trek across Russia at the beginning of the book; a stay in a peasant’s house; the rescue expedition itself; a spell in England while Laurence tries to win the allegiance of dragon captains who think poorly of him; and a lot of battlefield action, which involves plenty of military strategy and planning.

The theme running through much of the novel is that of Laurence’s unbending concept of honour: when is it useful, and when is it dangerous? For him, it’s one of the things that keeps military society together: having strict social codes and hierarchies avoids dangerous dissensions in military units, and that’s something Laurence struggles with when multiple dragon captains are placed under his command despite his historical trial for treason. But it can also lead him outside the very social codes it’s established to protect – as when he becomes involved in a duel with a pampered aristocrat; duels are frowned upon for dragon captains because it potentially robs the army of a valuable weapon (one dragon being much more valuable than one person).

This is a discussion that’s been happening throughout the series, though, and I’m not convinced League of Dragons advances it particularly. The episodic form of the novel is potentially more interesting – although, again, previous novels have done this (notably Throne of Jade, one of my favourites). I see lots of Goodreads commenters complaining that League of Dragons isn’t very climactic, but maybe that’s the point? For me, this isn’t a series whose best points are made by big battles and military strategy – it’s about relationships and the different kinds of allegiances people have to each other and their countries and societies, and how and where those allegiances clash. So it makes sense that this last novel would focus on putting its protagonist in all sorts of uncomfortable situations and seeing how he copes with them.

I do think that this novel has less of a focus on colonialism and other social justice issues than the series as a whole does. We see comparatively little of Laurence’s female crew member Emily Roland, and still less of her mother, Admiral Roland. Having said that, we do get flights of Chinese dragons and Napoleon’s wife, the Incan Empress Anahuarque – if not the detailed engagement with their societies that some of the earlier novels have delivered. It’s still great to see these cultures written into Novik’s universe in such a fundamental way, though.

I don’t know that this series particularly stands out for me. I’m fond of it; I love the gentle, caring interactions we get between Laurence and Temeraire (even if I think Novik infantilises the supposedly sentient dragons a little too much to make their case for independence and self-governance entirely credible). And I like the way it engages with Europe’s colonialist history and rewrites marginalised groups into what is in part a military comedy of manners (Laurence’s crew features at various points in the story a Black boy, a female crew member and a canonically gay man). I enjoy its discussion of honour and Novik’s careful depiction of her characters’ various relationships. I think it’s working hard, and largely succeeds in what it’s trying to do. Which – well, I don’t think there’s that much more you can ask for from a series.