Review: Raven Stratagem

Raven Stratagem is the second novel in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, set in a Korean-influenced far-future space dystopia which brutally enforces a consensus calendar that’s powered by the ritual torture of those who don’t observe it. Observance of the calendar in turn gives the dictatorial government (called the hexarchate after its six family leaders) access to maths-based technologies including weapons that bend time and space.

It makes a little more sense in context, and much more sense after you’ve read the first novel, Ninefox Gambit. Raven Stratagem is a walk in the park in comparison.

In this second book, Shuos Jedao, the undead mass murderer/brilliant general resurrected by the authorities in Ninefox Gambit, takes over a spacefleet that was meant to be protecting the hexarchate from an invading alien force. Or is it Kel Cheris, the infantry captain whose body Jedao was resurrected into, who’s in charge here?

This inscrutability is key to what the novel (and trilogy) is trying to do: we never get a window into what the book’s central character is thinking. Jedao is an anomaly: the hexarchate works on the physical bodies of its subjects (through ritual torture of those who don’t conform), and he has no physical body; his military rank is dubious (Undead Disgraced Former General is a…niche position, let’s say) in an organisation that sets great store by rank; he has no family or friends left for the hexarchate to threaten. His ghost-in-the-machine status, coupled with his tactical genius, has given him a lot of freedom and power to resist the hexarchate. But we have no access to his thoughts; instead, we hear from those who are, unlike Jedao, inextricably part of the system. People like General Khiruev, commander of the swarm Jedao has taken over; like Kel Brezan, a soldier bent on stopping Jedao; like Nija, a member of the ethnic minority Cheris belongs to, a culture being exterminated to bring Jedao (or Cheris herself) back into line. We hear from a couple of hexarchs, too, as they try to figure out what to do about Jedao, and also what they want for the hexarchate as a whole.

The effect is similar to what Ninefox Gambit was doing in offering up short vignettes from the point of view of people who were about to die: it establishes the human cost of coups like the one Jedao is staging – making it clear that the hexarchate is dystopian precisely because it exacts those costs.

In her mini-review of Raven Stratagem, Abigail Nussbaum writes that

“The absence of those who are complicit in the system, or indifferent to it, feels particularly unpersuasive.”

Which got me thinking about the purpose of this novel, and what having characters who are complicit in or indifferent to the system would look like. Firstly: we hear both from the man who created the system for his own ends and from a hexarch who apparently sees the system as a necessary evil (although he disagrees with some of its more gratuitous cruelties for management and morale reasons), so there is complicity here. But, to address Nussbaum’s wider point, which I think is more about the fact that so many of the novel’s viewpoint characters find narratively convenient reasons to avoid making morally compromising decisions (we can empathise with the previously-mentioned management-focused hexarch precisely because he doesn’t make a point of torturing or assassinating where he doesn’t need to): I’m not sure that having characters who think the hexarchate is fine and good would make this novel any better. My feeling about Raven Stratagem (one doubtlessly informed by my own biases!) is that it’s a book for a liberal audience in a world that’s heading to dystopia; one we already know is full of awful and/or simply indifferent people. And it’s one that, despite all the atrocities the hexarchate perpetuates, offers realistic hope for those living with dystopia. That is, this is a trilogy about the work of resistance (and eventually reform), the meetings and the politics and the alliances. It’s shitty and hard and the costs are unbearably high, but it can be done. These are desperate characters resisting the apathy of despair.

Another reason for hope: I’d forgotten since reading Ninefox Gambit just how queer-friendly these novels are. Almost every character is gay or bi, and that’s completely normal. (Reproductive technology seems to be an enabler of queer-friendly culture, too: most children in this society don’t have natural births, so parenthood is an option for couples/groups of any gender combination.) Polyamorous and multi-generational families also seem to be the norm, and people enter marriage contracts for specific lengths of time. A key character, Brezan, is trans – and although being trans is normal enough that everybody recognises it as A Thing, it’s also A Thing in negative ways too (though never I think in ways that affect his career).

If it wasn’t already clear, I am the liberal audience for this book, and I enjoyed it a lot. I really hope its sequel Revenant Gun wins a Hugo on Saturday: as a series, it’s doing some really interesting worldbuilding, and has a lot to say in and to our current political climate in the West.


Review: Arcadia

Originally intended for digital publication, Iain Pears’ Arcadia is a novel of multiple strands. In its app format, you could apparently choose to follow any one of a dozen characters through a series of overlapping storylines and timelines. Since the technology is only available for Apple products and I’m an Android gal, I’m stuck with the 600-page dead-tree version for now.

What under one interpretation you might call the “main” storyline is set in 1960s Oxford, following an English professor, Henry Lytton, whose chief/only hobby is writing a fictional universe called Anterwold. Not writing any actual narratives, you understand; just creating the world, the society, the customs. This is a specifically Tolkienian brand of sub-creation: no language work, but an emphasis on Story as constitutive of all experience and knowledge. (Also. Sometimes I think the only reason fantasy authors write about 1960s Oxford is to geek out about Tolkien and Lewis.)

One day, Rosie, the 15-year-old girl who feeds Lytton’s cat, finds a glowing portal in his basement that leads to Anterwold, where she becomes caught up in the Story and has all sorts of pastoral woodland adventures. The glowing portal belongs to Lytton’s scatty colleague Angela Meerson; which is also the name of a scientist working in a far-future dystopian Britain on a technology that could allow people to access alternate worlds. Angela flees to Lytton’s world when her superiors become hell-bent on stealing her work from her and potentially destroying all of creation in the process.

There’s a lot going on here, and yet…it’s hard to sort out what Pears is actually doing with it all, beyond the tissue of metafictional and literary references that don’t seem to go anywhere. He touches a little on history and how we reckon with it (Anterwold reveres the Story but rejects learning from the present; Angela’s dystopian future locks its historical records in a warehouse and basically ignores them); on whether post-apocalypse is preferable to dystopia (an interesting line of argument, but one which feels alarmingly fascist, especially in the less-than-nuanced form it appears in here); on cause and effect and time (though this is mainly handwaving).

I think this is the root of what I found unsatisfactory about Arcadia: it engages with a fair amount of stuff but none of it substantially. Reviews seem to suggest that the app is doing more work structurally: following separate characters’ timelines means you experience events outside the sequence of cause and effect, because of the time travel and the interpenetration of the three worlds that’s going on. I see that! But…if your book only works as an app, then why bother publishing it as a traditional book at all?

(The answer most likely has something to do with the cultural privileging of print-based media over videogames and other forms of interactive narrative, even though linear books can’t do some of the work that interactive narrative can.)

In other words. If you’re an Apple user and can afford £3.99 for the app, go for it! Otherwise, no.

Review: The Reading Cure

TW: eating disorder.

The Reading Cure is journalist Laura Freeman’s account of how reading helped her recover from anorexia. Although there are a couple of harrowing chapters, the book as a whole is far more positive than I think I expected, as Freeman finds the courage through reading to change her attitude to food, bit by bit.

She’s very clear that anorexia isn’t really a thing you “recover” from, that it’s taken her years to get as far as she has, and that she’ll probably never be comfortable with eating loads of food. It’s an honest, clear-eyed look not at anorexia itself, which has become sensationalised to some extent, but at what happens afterwards, the long and intensely less storyable process of eating healthily again.

There are setbacks: after Dickens’ cosy toast-and-tea suppers and treasured bars of chocolate with the war writers comes the clean eating movement, which sees Freeman restricting her flowering diet back down to “healthy”, “permitted” foods. There are delvings into darkness: her reading of Virginia Woolf, who similarly struggled with eating and with her mental health, leads Freeman to fear that she’ll meet the same lonely end as that writer; but, at the same time, she draws courage from Woolf’s determination.

One caveat: Freeman’s experience is very definitely middle-to-upper-class. Her parents are comfortably able to look after her for a year in their London townhouse; she’s able to afford books while early in her career as a freelance journalist; she goes on holiday to far-flung destinations. I’m not saying it’s, like, a jetsetting lifestyle, and she’s open about the privilege she has – but this is far from a universal account of recovery from anorexia.

As a book about food, food writing and our relationships with both – extreme or otherwise – it’s thoughtful and fascinating, and I found myself in tears more than once. I’m so glad I picked this up at the library.

Review: A Little Lumpen Novelita

I admit that my first response to A Little Lumpen Novelita was something like, “huh”.

It’s the kind of oblique slice-of-(an unusual)-life Literature that I don’t read very often (as a lover of sprawling larger-than-life novels). An orphaned teenager, Bianca, in an unnamed city is drawn into a plan concocted by her brother and two men who’ve quietly and inexplicably moved into their apartment. The plan is this: Bianca will do sex work for a famous retired boxer, now blind, who lives nearby, while scouting his house for the stash of money her brother is convinced must be there. She carries out the first part of the plan but not the second.

I called it slice-of-life, but that implies realism, which it isn’t, quite. The whole novel feels ever so slightly – dreamlike, a function perhaps of Bianca and her brother’s isolation from the adult world and its norms. (They have no other family, and have to drop out of school to work to support themselves. It’s never clear exactly how old they are.) Perhaps, also, a function of the novel’s gaze: Bianca as an adult woman, a mother who’s managed to reintegrate into society, looks back on this period of her adolescence, describing how she nearly fell into a life of crime. Her past is another country, only semi-real.

Coincidentally, as I was thinking about writing this post, I read this from John Clute at Strange Horizons, in which he argues the importance of seeing, of imperfect seeing, in Bolano’s work. A Little Lumpen Novelita is odd because things seem to be missing from it – whether that’s connections to the adult world or the reasons why Bianca chooses not to rob the blind old boxer. In this sense it’s almost half a novel: adult-Bianca remembers the reasons so doesn’t see the need to articulate them; the novel we have is one that looks forward to a future state we never get to experience ourselves. It’s a meditation on the strangeness of memory and the incompleteness of experience: we all move in different worlds, and connection with others and even our past selves is tenuous and fragile.

Review: Trail of Lightning

I have done some Hugo-ballot reading!

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning is up for Best Novel this year; I’ve put it last on my ballot.

Sometime in the nearish future, climate catastrophe has flooded the world and all but cut off the Navajo homeland of Dinetah from the rest of America. The gods and monsters of Navajo tradition are returning, and Our Hero, a monster-hunter named Maggie Hoskie, takes on a mission to hunt down a creature that’s stealing children.

This is a speculative fiction novel that’s steeped in Native American tradition, from the magic system (which is based on what Roanhorse calls clan powers – certain people have supernatural abilities related to the clans they belong to) to how Maggie is paid by those who commission her (she receives a valuable blanket, “rare and prized and not made that often any more”). I, a white woman, found this a vivid and unusual setting, and it’s hard not to imagine that this is why it’s on the Hugo ballot; I personally haven’t encountered any other SFF novels that feature Native American traditions/beliefs in this way, although that doesn’t at all mean they don’t exist.

It’s worth noting, though, that the book’s been criticised by Navajo scholars as appropriative and insensitive (Roanhorse is Native American but not Navajo). And it doesn’t really have much else going for it beyond this problematic representation: the plot is technically competent but linear (we’re in Maggie’s head the whole time as she just does one thing after the other) and the writing is workaday.

I didn’t hate it, but it kind of sums up my feelings about the ballot this year: it’s filled with novels that are fun to spend time with but don’t really feel award-worthy. (Apart from my top choice, Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun – but more on that anon!)

Review: The Warror’s Apprentice

So I finally got around to starting the Vorkosigan saga! Long-standing readers (i.e. the Bandersnatch) will know that this has been one of my reading goals for a while.

The Warrior’s Apprentice is the first novel featuring Miles Vorkosigan, a highly intelligent young man whose exposure to poison gas in the womb has left him with unusually brittle bones. As the novel opens, he’s failing a gruelling physical test to get into the army – the only career he really wants to pursue.

Demoralised by his failure, he embarks on a jaunt to his mother’s planet of origin to find out more about the parentage of his friend and long-time crush, Elena. (Elena is in on the plan and accompanies him, so that’s not as creepy as it maybe sounds.) His desire to help lost souls, though, leads to a concatenation of unlikely events that eventually sees him captaining a mercenary fleet, despite having no military experience and/or credentials.

So the mode of the novel, although you don’t necessarily experience it as such as a reader, is escalation. Things get increasingly more improbable, complicated and/or dramatic. Miles is such a compelling character, though, that this never feels forced or far-fetched; more like a function of Miles’ intelligence, boredom and commitment to finishing what he’s started.

It’s also maybe a function of the cultures that clash in Miles. His father is a nobleman of Barrayar, a planet with a highly feudal society that operates on systems of patronage and values honour. His mother’s planet, meanwhile, is an egalitarian but controlling society: no-one is invisible, which means that no-one can fall through the cracks (and everyone has free access to food and healthcare). As in much military SF, I guess, plenty of drama comes from mismatches of cultural expectations, or from the characters navigating strict rules of etiquette and social engagement.

Did I enjoy it, though? Yes, tentatively? Certainly it’s a lot of fun; Miles is a great character to spend time with (although I suspect that in real life he’d be exhausting). It’s a lighter read than I was expecting given the weighty discussion I’ve read and heard about it. I’ll be interested to read more, though.

Review: The Mars Room

The Mars Room opens as a young woman, Romy Hall, is being transferred by bus to the fictional Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, somewhere in California. A woman dies on that journey; nobody notices until they get there. Another woman boasts about her string of child abductions. A third just won’t stop chatting.

It is not a cheerful book.

A one-time exotic dancer, Romy’s serving two life sentences for murdering one of her former clients – a man so obsessed with her he followed her to a new city. Interspersed with descriptions of her new reality in America’s inhuman prison system are memories of her past in San Francisco as well as chapters from the point of view of a corrupt cop also serving time and a prison teacher named Gordon.

Gordon is broke. He lives in a one-room cabin in the woods. In this way he is like the Unabomber, apparently: Kushner includes extracts from Kaczynski’s diary by way of making the comparison. And it’s here, not in the meat of Romy’s story, that we find clues about The Mars Room’s project. Although Gordon vaguely thinks he’s doing something charitable by working at the prison (he can’t get a job anywhere else, though), he’s also sort of a terrible person – he too becomes obsessed with Romy, objectifying her and her fellow inmates even as he breaks rules for them. In the end, his own self-image is all he cares about. By including these stories of men who cannot see past their own self-interest (add to Gordon and the Unabomber the cop who kills a young Black man who witnessed his corruption, and Romy’s stalker, who frames his obsession as love), Kushner draws connections between toxic masculinity and a prison system that insists upon the inhumanity of its inmates. Stanville is absolutely impersonal: no allowances are made for grief or illness or common sense. It is the creation of a society that cannot look beyond the self-interest of a privileged few. The structures of toxic masculinity are everywhere: in the abuse inflicted on trans prisoners by inmates and guards alike; in the way that prisoners giving comfort to a woman in labour are wrested violently away by prison staff; in the fact that nobody notices the dead woman on the bus.

No wonder Romy’s future is a dead end: there is no allowance in the system for mercy or flexibility or even the acknowledgement that a wrong decision may have been made somewhere along the line. The moral ambiguity of pretty much everyone in the novel doesn’t change Kushner’s assessment of the system’s brokenness – in fact, it makes it worse. The absolutes the system insists on, that toxic masculinity insists on, that both use the absolute of violence to enforce, are incompatible with complex humanity. And under these conditions, justice is impossible.

I found The Mars Room valuable, if not precisely enjoyable, because of its discussion of a topic I know little about. I don’t know what the prison system here in the UK is like, but I can easily imagine it being similar. And I think it powerfully evokes a sense of entrapment and enclosure: the idea that you are restrained not just physically but ideologically, by circumstance and by the temperament of those around you. In other words, it’s a novel that, despite describing the smallness of life in a single physical prison, reveals how toxic masculinity and patriarchy makes prisons for us all.