Tag: book reviews

Review: The Cat’s Table

There’s a certain type of literary fiction that I really struggle to read – both in the sense that actually physically sitting there turning the pages makes me want to fall asleep, and that I never know what to make of it when I close the book. It’s usually written by men, usually in slight, sparse prose; usually artfully inconclusive (as opposed to artfully unfinished, which is a fun if hackneyed postmodernist trick); usually with a protagonist who never seems to relate to anyone around him (and it’s usually a him).

I’m an SFF reader. I’m used to trying to work out what this book about spaceships is saying about today’s culture. I’m used to side-eyeing traditional story structures for their nostalgic and regressive values. Most of what I read is about big social ideas; I favour sprawling novels with rough edges and hidden depths.

So when I’m presented with something like Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, all realism and thinly-veiled autobiography and unadorned prose, I feel a bit flummoxed.

The novel follows Michael, an 11-year-old boy on a sea voyage from Colombo, Sri Lanka to England, to join his mother there. As an unaccompanied minor travelling third class, he’s assigned to sit at the “cat’s table” – the table furthest from the captain’s – at mealtimes; so the novel charts the adventures he has with the motley group of people also assigned to this undesirable position, and especially with two other unaccompanied children, Ramadhin and Cassius. Ondaatje apparently went on a similar voyage in his own childhood, which gives you a good idea of the kind of novel this is.

I suppose what I mainly got out of it was the idea of transition. The ship – the Oronsay – is a world of its own; we know from the glimpses of future-Michael’s life we get throughout the novel that he never sees most of the characters of the novel again after he reaches England, though they’re so important to him on board ship. So the ship is this enclosed, transitional space in which the rules of one world – Sri Lanka – are broken down, dissolved, to make room for the rules of another: England. The Oronsay becomes a place where Michael can try on a number of roles: he accidentally becomes an accomplice to a thief; he lashes himself to the deck in a storm, causing a great deal of trouble for the ship’s officers; he spies on a prisoner being taken for exercise out on deck at night. All manner of strange things are possible in this carnivalesque space; it’s significant that the novel takes place at sea, that fickle and changeable element which washes all things clean. Michael’s voyage is a voyage of change, an irreversible process which marks (perhaps only retrospectively, given that it’s narrated from the perspective of future-Michael) the boundary between one way of life and another.

This is a nice idea, but I’m not sure what the point of it is; what it’s trying to say about the human condition. I thought, perhaps, that it might be a look at immigrant experience; I don’t want to say definitively that it’s not (because who am I to judge that, as a white Westerner who’s lived in England all her life?), but it wasn’t particularly a theme I picked up on. And it feels too specific and too realistic to be a story about memory, or nostalgia.

In fact, specificity is its problem, to me. It’s so focused on this episode in its protagonist’s life that it’s unable to say anything that’s not about him. It cultivates no sense of place or time; only what’s going on in Michael’s head at any one point. In short, it navel-gazes. And Ondaatje’s prose style and technical skill isn’t good enough to carry this profound introversion off.

This may be a case of wrong reader, wrong book, as the critics seemed to have liked it. (I nearly always disagree with the critics, though.) But it also illustrates why I shy away from literary fiction that isn’t tinged with the fantastic or the speculative: I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do with it.

Review: The Stars are Legion

There’s definitely something to be said for reading Kameron Hurley’s latest novel, The Stars are Legion, alongside her essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution. The Stars are Legion is trying both to enact and to urge political change; it’s a demonstration of, or a metaphor for, the political worldview Hurley sets out in Revolution.

There are very many excellent things The Stars are Legion does which are easy to take for granted because the novel itself does so; so let’s start with those. Its backdrop is the Legion, a fleet of world-ships, journeying to an end no-one can remember any longer, whose inhabitants are at war with each other, fighting for control of the Legion.

Which is all very traditional science-fiction space-opera stuff, except for two things: those ships are organic; and their inhabitants are all women. Hurley doesn’t feel obliged to explain where all the men went, or how reproduction works in the Legion; she’s not particularly interested in pushing the boundaries of how we understand gender: it’s just that everyone is a woman, in the same way that everyone in a Asimov story is a man. This also has the very un-Asimovian corollary that everyone in the Legion is a lesbian – which is, again, not something that Hurley ever marks as unusual: it just is.

I said just now that Hurley’s not particularly interested in gender. That’s not entirely true, though: I think The Stars are Legion is about femininity in a wider sense. I find the organicity of the Legion suggestive in this context, given the age-old association of women with bodies and blood and birth, as opposed to “male” associations with science and reason and thought. And the novel is full of bodies, blood and births: the Legion is dying, and so it’s full of mutants, of women giving birth to monstrosities and eating them, of people hacking their way through flesh walls to get to other parts of the ship, travelling by umbilicuses, eating mushrooms. If flesh is feminine, then The Stars are Legion is defiantly, bloodily, viscerally so. It is feminine science fiction, standing in opposition to more traditional SF novels and stories in which (usually) men explore the chilly depths of space in artificial iron shells, solving problems with The Power of Reason.

And so onto specifics. The heroine of The Stars are Legion is Zan, a member of the Katazyrna, ruling class aboard one of the world-ships. She begins the novel with amnesia: Jayd, a general and leader of the Katazyrna, tells her that she, Zan, has just returned from a failed attack on the Mokshi, a ship with the seemingly unique ability to leave the Legion. Jayd tells Zan that she must go back to reclaim the Mokshi, which will allow the Katazyrna to win the war for control of the Legion once and for all.

(Zan and Jayd are also love interests. This is nice, but not as plot-important as general Internet hype has made it out to be. It just is.)

But before Zan can try attacking the Mokshi again, the Katazyrna ship is invaded by a rival clan, and Zan is recycled – thrown into the bowels of the ship to be taken apart for organic parts. Of course, she manages to avoid the terrible recycling monsters who do this work, and from there she has to make the long slog up to the surface of the world again. During the course of this trek, she meets women from lower levels she never could have guessed existed – women who live entirely different lives to hers, women who have never heard of the Katazyrna or their wars, or even of the Legion.

Firstly, then, this is a novel about a woman who’s severely damaged: by amnesia, by what she thinks is the loss of her world, and generally by the oppressive system she lives in. Hers is always an uphill struggle against all of those factors, and she still gets to be a heroine, she’s still worthy of being an SF protagonist. It’s important to have stories like this one, which tell us that it’s OK not to be OK.

Secondly, Zan’s progress through the lower levels of the world is a process of unfolding and opening her horizons, of exploding the things she thought she knew to be true. There’s a parallel, I think, with Hurley’s essay “What Living in South Africa Taught Me About Being White in America”, in which she describes coming to the realisation that America looks whiter than South Africa only as a result of social policy, of deliberate construction and segregation:

After living in Durban for eight months or so…I had a layover in Minneapolis airport…I realized I felt deeply uncomfortable. Something felt very off…I looked up…and realized what the source of my discomfort was.

Everyone was white.

…Well, of course, I told myself – it’s Minnesota. Of course everyone is white here…

It wasn’t until I went to the food court to get something to eat that I was reminded of the lie.

Because the people working in the food court? Were overwhelmingly non-white.

Hurley goes on to describe

how our government’s programs and policies – even those from just ten or twenty or forty years before – had totally skewed the way we all experience the world

Zan, and the people in the levels below, are unaware of each other because of a system designed to keep them stratified. This ignorance makes Katazyrna rule deeply unjust: because their engaging in war with their neighbours jeopardises a whole ecosystem with no interest in, or even knowledge of, the fight. (There’s a point to be made here, surely, about politicians’ power squabbles in the wake of, say, the Brexit referendum.) And it’s partly this knowledge of injustice that keeps Zan going despite the temptations of despair: the novel is adamant about the importance of fighting a broken system however hopeless it looks, because not to fight is to be complicit. Again, this is a theme of The Geek Feminist Revolution: from “Where Have All the Women Gone: Reclaiming the Future of Fiction”:

I’m a grim optimist. I understand that the road to a better future is long and bitter and often feels hopeless. Yes, there is a warm gooey core of hope I carry with me at the very center of myself, and it is the hope of someone who knows that change is difficult, and feels impossible, but that even a history which has suppressed and erased so much cannot cover up the fact that change is possible.

I think, though, we have a potential problem here in the fact that the novel centres power. That is, our viewpoint character is Zan (and, partially, Jayd), who’s a member of the ruling class of her world, who has the privilege that the women on the lower levels lack. Her trek back to the surface of the world may be long and difficult, but at the end of it she genuinely does have the political power to make unilateral decisions, changing the entire Legion single-handedly.

What does resistance to oppression look like if you are not in Zan’s position? What if you are one of the women from the lower levels, and you find out that not only are you being oppressed from above, you’re oppressing and exploiting those below you, because of the very nature of the system you’re living in? That, after all, is where most of us tend to find ourselves in reality: without the power to effect major change single-handedly, without the possibility of neat narrative closure in our lifetimes; possibly struggling in a way that’s genuinely futile. Hurley doesn’t seem aware of her character’s privilege, ultimately; or of the fact that using the women of the lower levels (well-drawn as they are) to push Zan to realisations about the world she’s living in is itself exploitative. The plot structure of The Stars are Legion is actually far more conservative than its content, which is a shame.

Still, let me emphasise again: there are many, many things about the novel which are interesting, important, innovative, defiant. I’m glad it exists; and if there’s still some way to go, it doesn’t mean that the journey’s been wasted.

Review: The Last Days of New Paris

A confession: I only read The Last Days of New Paris because I found a signed copy in Forbidden Planet. I am easily bought.

Surrealism and war-torn Paris just did not seem like My Thing; and given the fact that, though China Mieville is probably my favourite living author, about half of his books have also been Not My Thing, I would have been quite happy to leave New Paris languishing on the shelf.

But the signature got me. So.

There are two plotlines running through the novella. In an alternative 1950, Paris is a war-torn no-man’s-land under siege by the Nazis. It’s not just a war of guns and bombs, though: Surrealist artworks have come to life on the streets and are fighting on behalf of the French, and in response the Nazis have raised demons to fight them. Reeling from the destruction of some of his comrades, a freedom fighter named Thibaut tries to escape Paris, with the help of an American photographer named Sam.

And in 1941, a young man called Jack Parsons constructs a machine to trap the psychic energies of the Surrealists. What could possibly go wrong?

The novella’s central tensions are fairly obvious here, though they’re dressed up in Mieville’s typical conceptual language (the phrase “objective chance”, for example, is used to describe the Surrealists’ technique of creating art through games like Consequences; it’s a phrase that seems to signify more than it actually does). At heart it’s about the power of art – specifically art generated by the untrammelled subconscious – to resist and destroy the conformist ideologies of fascism; which of course makes it a timely work.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it plays intertextual games: referring to a number of real Surrealist artworks (most importantly Andre Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Yves Tanguy’s collage “Exquisite Corpse”), and featuring annotations and an afterword which frame the story as a real, academic text. Still, I’m not convinced that I was wrong in my initial assessment: it’s not that I didn’t enjoy The Last Days of New Paris, it’s just Not My Thing.

Review: The Sandman – The Doll’s House

If Preludes and Nocturnes introduced us to Dream, then The Doll’s House, the second volume in the cult Sandman graphic novel series written by Neil Gaiman (collecting issues #9 through #16, if you’re counting*), really starts fleshing him out.

For the confused: Dream is one of the Endless, who personify human concepts like – to name some of Dream’s siblings – Desire, Delirium and Death. In Preludes and Nocturnes Dream escaped the clutches of a cult who had kept him magically imprisoned for seventy years, and set about reclaiming three magical artefacts that were stolen from him. The Doll’s House sees him start to repair some of the damage his long imprisonment has wreaked both on the world and on his psychic realm, the Dreaming.

But it seems to me that what the volume is really concerned with is Dream’s relationships: with his lover, his friends, his siblings, his dream-subjects, with the humans he comes across in his work. I like the way the volume unfolds this, across eight stories with a range of tones, settings and styles: the folk tale Tales in the Sand, which tells of Dream’s only human love; the dark, almost Twilight Zone-ish horror of Collectors, which sees two humans wander unwittingly into a convention of serial killers; the (relatively) light-hearted Men of Good Fortune, which zips through a century every double-page spread or so.

Dream is referred to in Preludes and Nocturnes as the “master of stories”, and there’s certainly something of a Neil Gaiman self-insert in him, so it feels appropriate that he can move through a number of story types and play a number of different roles (for example: abusive lover in the style of the Greek gods; knight in shining armour come to rescue the damsel in distress; morality figure trying to teach someone a lesson about life). He’s a trickster figure, a creature who can control, and slip between, seemingly fixed narratives. That’s why, I think, The Sandman works so well as a graphic novel: it can, to a certain extent, go beyond the linguistic surfaces of traditional narrative structures, the better to allow us to peer into the (wordless) collective unconscious, where reside the fundamental concepts that underpin those narratives – the raw stuff of Story. It’s here that Dream lives. It’s here that lies behind all the roles that Dream plays, all the stories he passes through – so, by extension, here must lie the true reality.

That’s at once the series’ strength and its downfall. As I noted in my review of Preludes and Nocturnes (almost exactly a year ago, wow), Gaiman’s work is powerful – it tugs on our imaginations – precisely because it taps into our collective unconscious, the treasure-house of narrative which we use to read the world. Gaiman knows that we know, on a fundamental and unconscious level, that things always come in threes, that you should be careful what you wish for, that dreams are never just dreams. We know these things because we’ve been told them, over and over again, in books and films and TV shows and anecdotes – in stories. And Gaiman is one of the best writers out there at laying them bare and expressing them in their purest form.

But, by the same token, Gaiman’s work is problematic because (in my opinion) it doesn’t ironise those concepts enough. In particular, it treats that collective unconscious not as culturally specific and contingent upon certain assumptions about what kind of person it’s worth telling stories about, but as global, universal and timeless – literally, in the case of The Sandman. Which means that it’s eternally trapped by the very concepts it exposes; it always, quietly, insidiously, unconsciously encodes nostalgic, conservative, oppressive structures into itself.

To take an example from The Doll’s House: the first issue in the volume, Tales in the Sand, is, as I’ve said, framed as a folk tale about Dream’s human love, Queen Nada. Nada knows (as we all know, from folk tales like this one) that loving a deity is a bad idea, so she rejects Dream, repeatedly and vehemently. He ignores her, repeatedly; pushes her boundaries; has sex with her, against her express wishes. (But it’s OK, because she was turned on by it, so obviously it was Meant to Be.) The sun rises on them together, and, horrified by this unnatural pairing, destroys Queen Nada’s city, at which point she dumps Dream. The spurned Endless sends her to Hell, proving that she was right all along that their coupledom would only bring disaster.

Now, there’s a scene in the middle of this tale when Nada, driven to desperation by Dream’s refusal to leave her alone, takes her own virginity with a sharp stone – in the belief that he won’t want her any more if she’s not a virgin.

The series constantly ties women’s worth and character to their physical appearance or their sexual attributes, while it’s reticent to the point of prudishness about male sexuality and nudity. Although it’s clear that Nada’s belief in virginity as the basis of love is rooted in the fact that she’s a character in a folk tale (this in itself is problematic, though, as the tellers of the tale are non-white desert-dwellers – who the collective unconscious is fond of casting as backward and regressive), what’s jarring is that, despite the fact that Dream proves himself outside that narrative by refusing her non-virginity as a reason to leave her alone, he never manages to ironise her action. The narrative wants us to see it as heroic, self-sacrificing if futile, rather than a stupid thing to do; in short, it sees the virginity = desirability equation as a function of how the world is, one of the narrative archetypes out of which Dream’s world is made. Dream is not trapped by it, but the work is. It doesn’t apply to Dream, but only because Dream is special, and can escape it.

And that, dear reader, is my problem with Neil Gaiman. I like engaging with his work – especially, I has to be said, the Sandman series – and I like arguing with it, because it’s fun and useful and helps me draw out my thoughts about narrative and fairy tale and Story. But actually reading it often makes me feel – uncomfortable.

*Incidentally, Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge also informs me that the first collected edition of The Doll’s House started with issue #8, The Sound of Her Wings, which I think makes more sense thematically than shoving it at the end of Preludes and Nocturnes. Anyway.

Review: The Quantum Thief

I’ve struggled to find a way into The Quantum Thief, to write about it. Admittedly that’s partly because I read it several months ago (yes, I am a bad reviewer with an extensive backlog); but I also think it went slightly over my head.

It’s set in a universe which has hit the singularity and passed cheerfully out the other side. Human minds can be cloned and copied like software programmes; menial computing tasks are carried out by what are apparently conscious, artificial minds called gogols. Extreme bodily injury is mostly a matter of discomfort; flesh can be grown back as easily as a very easy thing. And death is not necessarily permanent. All of this is taken as given, as things that the reader will know as a matter of course, which does not exactly make for light reading.

Beneath all this concept, the plot’s actually relatively straightforward: a heist plus a detective story. The titular thief, Jean le Flambeur, is rescued from a brutal quantum prison by the mysterious woman Mieli, who’s in the service of a goddess, the pellegrini. (I think we’re supposed to read the goddess as an extremely advanced computer consciousness, but who knows.) Mieli and the pellegrini, for their own reasons, want Jean to retrieve some of his own memories, which he’s left locked away somewhere on Mars. Specifically, in a city called the Oubliette, which is governed by social codes of privacy whereby people can regulate how much of their interactions others can remember.

Meanwhile, a young up-and-coming detective tries to solve a mysterious murder involving chocolate and the Quiet Ones, the re-embodied minds who run the city.

There’s a lot of world-building in this book; matched by prose that’s overflowing with neologisms, names for tech we don’t have and factions whose powers we never quite work out:

The spimescape view is seething with detail, a network of q-dots under the skin, proteomic computers in every cell, dense computronium in the bones. Something like that could only be made in the guberniya worlds close to the Sun. It seems my rescuers are working for the Sobornost.

That passage makes probably as much sense to you as it does to someone reading the book.

This makes for a difficult read, and to some extent I relished that difficulty: it’s a refreshing change to read something that engages so thoroughly with how fundamentally different the far future will look; how what we consider as “human” may change so thoroughly.

That’s not to say that The Quantum Thief manages entirely to escape the pitfalls into which more relatable science fiction tends to fall. In particular, it occasionally feels uncomfortably male gaze-y – Jean’s attracted to Mieli, and his narration can tend to privilege her sexual attractiveness rather than her character. And there’s a thing called “combat autism”, seemingly a mental enhancement of some sort which allows Mieli to experience and analyse dangerous situations dispassionately, which feels vaguely appropriative and stereotypical of people who have actual autism – crucially, Mieli can switch “combat autism” on and off at will.

And that prose really does make the shape of the novel hard to pick out. I enjoyed it, but I feel like I took less away from it than I should have.

Review: Deathless

One of my work colleagues asked me what Catherynne Valente’s Deathless was about. (I get this question a lot, and being a fantasy reader, invariably any plot description I give sounds stupid.)

“It’s about the Russian revolution, but with fairytales,” I said, or something similar.

My colleague gave me a look. “That sounds cheerful,” she said, deploying more than a hint of sarcasm.

The novel is a retelling of the Russian fairytale “The Death of Koschei the Deathless”, set, indeed, around the time of the Russian revolution. Once upon a time in St Petersburg, a young girl named Marya Morevna is living in a house that once belonged solely to her parents, but now houses twelve families. One by one she watches her older sisters get married – to birds, as it seems to her – and waits for her own chance to escape the crowded house. Eventually, it’s Koschei, the Tsar of Life waging an endless war on Death, who comes to wed her and take her away. The novel charts her life in Koschei’s brutal, bloodsoaked fairytale land; her role in the war between Life and Death; her relationship with the human world of a changing Russia.

So. Deathless is an odd beast – even taking into account the oddness of the rest of Valente’s work. A couple of weeks ago I read Erin Horakova’s review of the novel in Strange Horizons, and I’ve found it difficult to think beyond her assessment – an assessment I agree with, in part – that the book is structureless, lacking a specific project. As Horakova points out, the novel twists and turns through a number of modes: Bildungsroman fairytale, psychological drama, tale of romance and betrayal, pastoral idyll, road trip. Extracting any coherent meta-narrative, even any particular ideological or moral bent, from this palimpsest is difficult, and probably self-defeating.

I think the key lies at the level of Valente’s prose. Like all of her work, Deathless is written beautifully, in a prose that is lean and savage at the same time, somehow, as being rich with careful alliterations, vital with sensory descriptions; a prose characterised by gnomic, fairytale utterances:

You will always fall in love, and it will always be like having your throat cut, just that fast.

The world built by this prose is bleak and sharp as an icicle, leavened by the occasional flash of faerie magic: the domovoi in Marya’s childhood house trying out Communism; the birds falling from the branch in Marya’s garden to turn into men and marry her sisters; the firebird fleeting through all the interlinked episodes of Marya’s life, always just out of reach of her gun. If we seek for some consistent meaning, some narrative structure that links these flashes into a coherent whole – in short, a fairytale moral – then so does she. At one point she asks a ghost how she can live after the deaths of everyone she knows – deaths occasioned by the fall of Stalingrad, and the victory of Death. She receives the not-entirely-satisfactory answer:

You will live as you live anywhere. With difficulty, and grief.

That is, though Marya inhabits a fairytale space, her life is not a fairytale, and there is no happy ending. In fact, there is no real ending of any kind to make sense of the shape of her life. So the chaotic formlessness of Deathless – or, rather, the way in which Deathless moves through a chain of fairytale structures without allowing them to signify anything – is a sort of analogue of the way life feels to the storytelling ape: countless stories being set up, without revealing any coherent meaning or closure.

The question is: is there a point to this narrative deflation? “It’s like life, d’you see?” is a point writers have been making since at least the early 1900s, and probably well before that.

Probably it comes as no surprise that I think the answer is yes: this isn’t just postmodernism for the sake of it. Avoiding a fairytale moral as Valente does here is one important strategy for evading and undercutting the oppressive structures fairytales were built to serve. As a mermaid-creature, caught in the siege of Stalingrad after seeking a life among humans, observes:

The old order, it is good for the old. A farmer wants his son to be afraid of beautiful women, so that he will not leave home too soon, so he tells a story about how one drowned his brother’s cousin’s friend in a lake, not because he was a pig who deserved to be drowned, but because beautiful women are bad, and also witches. And it doesn’t matter that she didn’t ask to be beautiful, or to be born in a lake, or to live forever, or to not know how men breathe until they stop doing it.

So Deathless is a new kind of fairytale, a not-fairytale, imagined from the point of view of a woman refusing the fairytale roles thrust upon her: obedient child, faithful wife, maker of moral choices, seeker of a static happy ending. (The original fairytale, we note, is not about Marya at all; it’s about Ivan, a man who ignores Marya’s instructions, trespasses on her space, and gets rewarded for it.)

And, to return to the anecdote with which I began this post, it also feels like a corrective of sorts to the West’s view of Russia. Now, I know very little about Russia; my idea of what Russia is like is mainly of the “what everyone knows” variety. In particular, “everyone knows” that Russian literature, and literature about Russia, is dour, bleak, political; we think of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, of Marx and Lenin. We think of vast epics like War and Peace, espousing wide-ranging political theory and social criticism. (And, just to be clear: I am aware that Valente is not actually a Russian writer. I think, however, that the effect still applies.)

Whereas Deathless‘ formlessness makes it, necessarily, a deeply personal narrative, following a single life against the backdrop of dimly-realised upheavals. It’s a sort of rebuke to the notion that any country ever only has one story to tell: as we’ve seen, Deathless literally has many.

This is not my favourite of Valente’s novels. (Oh Radiance, how do I love thee?) Its using-up of fairytale forms may be interesting, but does not make for particularly compelling reading; there are few reasons for the reader to invest. Nevertheless: it’s the kind of fiction we need right now.

Review: The Glass Republic

This review contains spoilers.

I wonder if Tom Pollock wanted to call his book The Mirror Empire – a much more appropriate title than the one the book’s got – but saw it was taken?

The Glass Republic picks up some time after the events of The City’s Son. This time, it follows Parva “Pen” Khan, Beth’s best friend, who’s suffering from PTSD and substantial facial scarring after her possession by the Wire Mistress in the previous book. For four months, unbeknownst to anyone else, she’s been talking to her own reflection: a literal doppelganger who lives on the other side of the mirror, in the mirror-city of London-under-Glass, populated by reflections.

When mirror-Parva goes missing, Pen decides to follow her through the mirror. In London-under-Glass, it turns out, her scars make her stunningly beautiful: facial symmetry is commonplace behind the mirrors, whereas asymmetry is rare and valued, an automatic ticket to aristocracy. Pen is mistaken for her missing doppelganger, and she becomes drawn into a life as the face of the Looking-Glass Lottery, an annual event which gives one lucky underclass, symmetrical Londoner the gift of asymmetry, and fame.

The Glass Republic is a dystopia, then, a very simple black-and-white one in which power is distributed and maintained according to physical characteristics, the underclasses kept in check by the tantalising, almost-but-not-quite unattainable hope of betterment. Its central gimmick – flipping our standards of beauty around so that symmetry is ugly and asymmetry beautiful – is structurally the same one Malorie Blackman used in Noughts and Crosses (in which black people are privileged and white people treated as second-class citizens): functionally, its point is that binary value systems like black/white or ugly/beautiful are arbitrary structures inevitably used as tools of oppression. It’s not a complex or particularly nuanced world, and in that respect I don’t think it’s as interesting a novel as The City’s Son.

However, like the previous book, The Glass Republic is doing some important work representationally. Pen is a practising Muslim, and Pollock continues to make that a significant part of how she relates to the world without it being the be-all and end-all of her character. (Note: this is, of course, from my own white Western perspective.) In particular, an understated but ever-present tension in the novel is Pen’s own knowledge that her scars will make it vastly more difficult for her parents to arrange a marriage for her. And that intersects interestingly, too, with the romance that’s brewing throughout The Glass Republic between Pen and her London-under-Glass lady-in-waiting Espel. Pen’s never thought of herself as gay before, and her realisation is well-done: a moment of surprise, but not one she obsesses over too much. She’s got a doppelganger to save, after all.

It’s interesting, too, that both The City’s Son and The Mirror Empire have a scene in which The Right Thing to Do trumps romantic love – and that in both cases this is something that the romantic interest actually encourages. In The City’s Son, Filius asked Beth to kill him, to bring the Chemical Brotherhood to the fight to destroy Reach; in The Mirror Empire, Espel asks Pen to let her die and reveal London-under-Glass’ Terrible Secret to its people. It’s a much-needed corrective to a media culture which holds romantic love as absolutely sacred – even, and especially, if the lovers have known each other for all of a week. For Pollock, romantic love is important, but some things are more, or differently, important.

And it’s rare to read a fantasy heroine, even an urban fantasy heroine, who’s suffering from PTSD, which is ridiculous when you think about it. In Pen we have a heroine who’s not unaffected by it, but who’s finding ways to deal with it: she’s strong despite it; she doesn’t let it stop her fighting injustice. In other words, she feels like a real person, dealing with real shit.

The Glass Republic is not a perfect book. (Honestly, what is?) It’s not even particularly up my street; I originally picked it up thinking it was something else. But if you’re looking for YA urban fantasy that’s smart about representation and neoliberal structures of oppression, you could genuinely do a lot worse than Pollock’s series. I’m not sure yet if I’ll be reading the third and final book, Our Lady of the Streets, but I’m reasonably sure I won’t hate it if I do.