Tag: book reviews

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

This review contains spoilers for The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.

Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit picks up where its predecessor The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet left off: in space, with a new and unsure AI heading rapidly away from a crew devastated by the loss of her predecessor, housed in the highly illegal artificial human body that predecessor was about to inhabit, accompanied by tech genius and general Nice Person Pepper.

From there, it divides into two plotlines: one, set in the present day, follows the AI, now named Sidra, as she attempts to get used to a body she wasn’t designed to inhabit while trying to avoid detection in the slightly shady spaceport Port Coriol; the second, set some years in the past, follows a girl called Jane-23 as she discovers The Truth about the factory she’s spent her short life working in (its operators having hit on the Truth that it’s cheaper to clone humans than it is to build robots).

It took me an inordinate amount of time actually to get round to reading this (it was published in, whisper it low, 2016) given how much I enjoyed Small Angry Planet; but, in the end, it worked out rather well, as I ended up reading it while I was deep in the throes of NaNoWriMo last November. Like its predecessor, it’s a very comforting book, the kind you want to curl up in for ever and ever and never come out (except, possibly, for tea and/or chocolate). At its heart, it’s interested in emotional labour: the work that people do to find practical ways to help and accommodate each other. Problems are more likely to be solved discursively, through conversation, through empathy, than through shows of power or violence. And tolerance is a fundamental of Chambers’ worldbuilding, too: everything on Port Coriol is run with the social and physical needs of multiple alien races in mind. This is a galaxy full of imperfect people trying, in sometimes circuitous and often unglamorous ways, to rub along.

It’s easy to forget how radical such niceness, such a concerted effort at tolerance is; easy to dismiss such comfort reading as anodyne, rose-tinted escapism, as several reviewers have. Even optimism feels radical in a present that’s feeling ever more dystopian. But it’s also true that the optimism of A Closed and Common Orbit is a problem for the novel.

That’s primarily because, structurally, it’s a good deal more conventional than Small Angry Planet: whereas the latter was an episodic, leisurely, rather baggy trip through Chambers’ invented galaxy, A Closed and Common Orbit switches rather mechanically, chapter by chapter without fail, between its two storylines – which then dovetail as we reach the denouement of the tale and the past catches up with the present. And the discursiveness that makes A Closed and Common Orbit such a pleasure to sink into by its very nature can’t generate the narrative drive needed to make that tight structure really work. Instead, it just feels constricting and artificial – a barrier to talking about precisely what the novel’s most interested in.

Another, connected issue with that discursiveness, that built-in tolerance: the nastier elements of Chambers’ galaxy – the clone factories, the threat of oblivion that Sidra faces if the authorities discover she’s an AI in a human body – don’t really convince. At no point do we meet anyone who attempts to defend those factories, or the laws about AIs: they are, instead, vague and faceless threats. I never thought that Sidra was seriously in danger; I never quite bought into Jane-23’s story.

This is a problem firstly because, again, it takes tension out of a narrative structure that’s kind of designed to deliver tension, and secondly because these characters’ stories have analogues with real-world minorities. Sidra’s body dysphoria has parallels with the experience of some trans people; her difficulty in processing stimuli means she can also be read as neurodiverse; there’s a tragedy near the end of the novel, when a woman is legally wrenched away from what she considers to be her family, that recalls uncomfortably how Western countries, particularly America and Britain at the moment, treat refugees and asylum seekers. This is all important representation, of course! But the fact that we can read a world that wants to kill Sidra, and that can treat refugees in this way, as basically benign – which is how I read Chambers’ galaxy – is potentially troubling; at the very least it reinforces a privileged view of both the fictional and the real worlds as “basically OK for most people”, which is not even broadly true for this world.

A Closed and Common Orbit wasn’t a disappointing sequel, exactly. I was looking for the tolerance and the hope that featured in Small Angry Planet, and I found it. And I mean what I said about that optimism, and the sheer emotional work it takes Chambers’ characters to maintain it, being radical, and important: we need more of this kind of book, for the days when it feels like absolutely nothing will go right ever again. But, we also need other kinds of books, too, for the days when we feel braver: books that don’t flinch from the nastinesses of the world, the institutional discrimination and the low-level prejudice that make our world less than benign.

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Review: Under the Pendulum Sun

The heroine of Jeanette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun is Cathy Helstone, the Victorian sister of Laon, a missionary to Fairyland who’s stopped answering her letters. Funded – as she thinks – by the missionary society that sent him, Cathy braves the dangerous journey to Fairyland to find him.

But Under the Pendulum Sun is no fairytale; its ancestors are Jane Eyre and Ann Radcliffe, not the faerie-tinged historical fantasies of Susanna Clarke and Zen Cho. So we actually see very little of Fairyland: pretty much all of the novel’s action takes place in the thoroughly Gothic castle the fae have granted to Laon for his missionary activities, Gethsemane.

It was more castle than manor, a knot of spires and flying buttresses atop a jagged hill. Stone leaned against stone in a bizarre edifice, with nothing but scorn to the very concept of aesthetic consistency and structural purpose.

Like all classic Gothic castles, Gethsemane is an impossible tangle of corridors and passages, strange noises, rooms you can only find once, and ominous ancient objects. It’s threatening in its unknowability; but, as the novel wears on, it becomes simultaneously the only source of familiarity in the treacherous landscapes of Fairyland:

When I finally returned to Gethsemane, the castle was ablaze with light. It was a beacon above the mists, and I saw it far, far before I reached its gatehouse.

That’s not the only Gothic trope the novel uses, of course: it’s positively stuffed with doubles, changelings, madwomen, unintelligible diaries, mysterious staff who can’t or won’t explain anything, forbidden desires, and things that look real but aren’t. In other words, it plays extensively with ideas of truth and disguise: a recurring theme is that the fae tell the truth only when it will hurt more than a lie. As in many Gothic novels, the castle is a place where the dark side of society bubbles to the surface; a place of illusion which, paradoxically, reveals truths that can’t be spoken in the Victorian England it mirrors.

I don’t really feel, though, that Ng is doing anything particularly interesting with all this Gothic paraphernalia: Under the Pendulum Sun is missing that oppressive weight that characterises novels like Jane Eyre or The Mysteries of Udolpho or Rebecca, that particular desperate overwriting concealing and revealing a void of meaning. While its plot is uncanny – that is, uncanny things happen to the characters – the novel itself isn’t: it doesn’t encode at a textual level the profound and deeply threatening paradox of a house that doesn’t work like at a house should. And for me, that’s key to the success of the Gothic: that link between house and text, the sympathetic magic by which the threat of the house becomes the threat of the word. Without that link, Gothic becomes melodrama.

And yet: there is strangeness here. As the house’s name implies, Under the Pendulum Sun is deeply interested in Christian theology – and as Abigail Nussbaum points out, it’s unusual in making that theology a fundamental part of its worldbuilding rather than a flawed ideology. And, actually, what it does with that theology – reworking the Christian myth to take account of the fae (I won’t spoil the details, but Lilith is involved) – feels subversive: the Helstones’ theories, as they gather more truths about the world around them, are heretical, and writing that back into a novel that’s very deliberately pastiching the voice of a Victorian novel feels like a reclamation of history.

Why’s that important? I think we can read Under the Pendulum Sun as partly a novel about colonialism: to the Victorians, Fairyland is there to be exploited; Laon Helstone is literally there to convert what he sees as godless savages. So the Helstones’ work of creating heresy, of writing the fae into the Christian narrative not as people going to hell but as something else – that’s a decolonisation of Western Christianity. Which, you only have to look at America’s Bible Belt to realise that’s intensely relevant work.

For me, Under the Pendulum Sun didn’t quite click; the Gothickry isn’t quite right, and that’s so central to the affect of the novel that I can’t overlook it. And it takes just a little too long to signal to readers that you actually need to pay attention to this theological stuff, it’s not just furniture. But there’s plenty that’s fascinating here, and I suspect readers who aren’t quite as obsessed with how the Gothic works as I am will probably enjoy it a whole lot more.

Review: The Melancholy of Mechagirl

This is going to be a criminally short review for one of my favourite books of the year, because I was too busy inhaling it through my eyes to write anything down. And so, as my brain is not set up to remember short stories as it remembers the plots of novels, and also because my copy of the book currently resides at my parents’ house, approximately a hundred miles away from where I am, The Melancholy of Mechagirl lingers in my memory only as a dream of wonders.

A warning: I tend to stray into purple-prose territory when I’m talking about Catherynne Valente’s work. Here, there be rambling.

The Melancholy of Mechagirl, then, is a collection of Valente’s SFF stories about Japan. As she explains in her foreword, it’s a place that crops up in all her novels to a greater or lesser degree; it’s somewhere she appears to feel ambivalent about, having lived there mostly alone as a Navy wife for some years. There’s a semi-autobiographical description of those years in – I think – “Ink, Water, Milk”, one of the stories in this collection, and it hits you like a gut-punch:

She is sad. She does not speak Japanese. Her husband went to the desert months and months ago. Every day she goes to the market and brings back chocolate, a peach, and a salmon rice-ball for her dinner. She sits and eats and stares at the wall. Sometimes she watches television. Sometimes she walks three miles to Blue Street to look at necklaces in the window that she wishes someone would buy for her. Sometimes she walks along the pier to see the sunken bicycles, pinged into ruin by invisible arrows of battleship-sonar, crusted over with rust and coral. She likes to pet people’s dogs as they walk them. That is her whole life. What should she dream of?

Valente’s prose is full of stuff, full of details; it’s embellished and sensual and specific (“chocolate, a peach, and a salmon rice-ball”). That accumulation of detail is, I think, what makes her work so rich; it defamiliarises our reality, makes us re-experience it as magical: “the sunken bicycles…crusted over with rust and coral”. Rubbish is elevated to symbol; as in a fairytale, everything in these stories has meaning, everything is there for a purpose, however mysterious, and it’s that which makes her stories devastating as well as beautiful.

Of course, we do have to confront the fact that this is a collection of stories about Japan written by a white author. Valente’s up-front about this in her foreword: she makes it clear that

It is not a book that purports to speak for Japanese culture in any way, but one which speaks for its author, for a span of ten years of circling Japan and never reaching it, and a single woman’s relationship with a nation not her own, but one which, very occasionally, sat down to tea with her.

(quote from her website, because as previously mentioned I am a terrible blogger who utterly failed to take notes)

The publisher is also, it seems, Japanese.

All of this opens up questions that are too big to answer here, or anywhere on the internet, maybe: to what extent can authors write about experiences that aren’t culturally theirs? To what extent are creators responsible for interrogating their influences, or trying to escape them?

For my part (which is not worth very much, white, Western, and knowing nothing at all about Japan), I do think it’s kind of uncomfortable that this is a whole book of Japanese stories – for the practical reason that a collection like this is, potentially, taking the spotlight away from a collection by an actual Japanese person. These stories (and poems) are gorgeous, as Valente’s work always is – but had they been anthologised differently, bound with other stories, they’d feel less like a “take” on Japan, an attempt to mediate between Japan and America.

But then, your mileage may vary, as they say.

And whatever I feel about the collection-as-concept, the stories and poems – which I know I haven’t said much about, and which are varied and jewel-like and often surprisingly formally innovative – are just too lovely not to return to.

Review: Brida

I’ve procrastinated starting this review for about an hour now, because, honestly, even just thinking about Brida makes my eyes want to bleed.

I have a terrible habit of reading an author’s worst work first and then not going back, because if you can’t hook me from the first book why should I bother with the second?

Probably most of us have heard about the supposedly life-changing genius of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. My library didn’t have The Alchemist in when I went to look; it only had Brida.

And so, here we are.

I submit that your reaction to Brida‘s foreword (or, as Coelho calls it, “Warning”) is probably an excellent barometer of your response to the book as a whole:

the few rituals described in Brida are the same as those practised over the centuries by the Tradition of the Moon…Practising such rituals without guidance is dangerous, inadvisable, unnecessary and can greatly hinder the Spiritual Search.

Passing over that grammatically hideous second sentence and the rather precious capitalisation, this “Warning” frames Brida as not really a novel but a kind of parable, a metaphor containing essential truth. The register of the “Warning” – and thus of the book as a whole – is naivete: “this is how the world is; the lessons you’ll learn in here are true”.

This isn’t really my thing, cynical British SFF reader that I am; but it can be used to interesting effect, as Ben Okri does in his Starbook, which undermines its apparently utopian fairytale charm with complex shades of irony, with rich, dark imagery.

Of course, Coelho is doing no such thing. Brida‘s naivete translates not into a sense that we’re learning something deep and important and true, but simply into a blithe unawareness of how narratives work. It forgets the first thing you learn as a student of literature: that words are not clear windows onto some objective truth, but that they’re always compromised, always subjective, always situational.

Technically, I suppose, it’s a kind of Bildungsroman. Brida is a young woman searching for meaning and purpose in her life. She goes to two teachers (quoting from Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge, because I can’t actually bring myself to put this into my own words):

a hermit mage who teaches her to overcome fear and a witch who teaches her how to dance to the hidden music of the world.

But they don’t teach her to question; and surely that’s odd? Surely if you’re learning about magic as a hidden truth in the world (which, remember, Coelho is framing as true) you learn to question everything, to weigh evidence, to work out where the truth lies? That’s how SFF readers read, which is perhaps why I personally found Brida so jarring.

Because the mundanity of this magic! Much of the book revolves around Brida working out who her Soulmate (yes, capital S, kill me now) is. See, Coelho trots out the old chestnut that we are all one half of a soul and we have to find the other half of our soul and they are our Soulmate who we will love for all time. On the face of it this is vaguely romantic; if you think about it for more than three seconds it’s deeply fucking depressing – especially since, in Coelho’s version, the two halves of the soul are specifically male and female. Where are the gay people in this narrative? Where are the aromantic people? This explanation of the universe only sounds right because our culture has a deep, patriarchal investment in the concept of heterosexual romantic love – and a certain kind of romantic love at that – as the highest possible form of human emotion. Far from being an ultimate truth of the universe, it’s a lazy, unexamined cliché steeped in a specific cultural moment.

If this is magic, I want no part in it.

I’m not going to read The Alchemist.

Review: Soulless

This review contains spoilers.

Mrs Loontwill…burst into the room. Only to find her daughter entwined on the couch with Lord Maccon, Earl of Woolsey, behind a table decorated with the carcasses of three dead chickens.

Which is Soulless in a sentence. And it is glorious.

Some context: Soulless is the first novel in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, an immensely satisfying confection of steampunk, paranormal romance and British wit. (Which is particularly remarkable given the fact that Carriger’s actually American.) When a lone vampire is found murdered in a library (totally not stabbed with a sharp parasol, no not at all), Alexia Tarabotti, confirmed spinster with an unfashionably Italian complexion and decidedly unbiddable demeanour, becomes drawn into the investigation, alongside the ruggedly handsome werewolf alpha Lord Maccon.

High jinks ensue, as they inevitably do in these situations, helped along by the fact that Alexia has no soul, and can thus turn vampires and werewolves temporarily human while she’s touching them.

The best thing about Soulless is that it is completely aware of how utterly ridiculous its premise and its plot are. It knows that no actual Victorian gentlewoman would ever be allowed to get herself into half the compromising situations Alexia finds herself in (let’s just say that there’s a lot of entwining). It also knows that letting Victorian women do what they would never have done is part of what steampunk’s for: it is wish fulfilment, and also an exploitation of a historical moment (Soulless is set in an alternative 1873) when femininity was on the cusp of becoming something new. It’s partly that tension, between tradition, etiquette, the trappings of wealth (Soulless is obsessed, again in a gloriously knowing, over-the-top way, with stuff: colourful Victorian costumes – many of them worn by the gay vampire Lord Akeldama – mouthwatering cakes, carriages and carpets and those devoured chickens), and social progress, the boldness of youth, that draws us back to steampunk, I think. It’s a space in which the future is both full of potential and bounded in very specific ways, and that’s an interesting site to explore.

Of course, because it is steampunk, and a romance, its progressiveness is limited. It centres privilege: Alexia may have been passed over for a husband, and her mother and stepfather may not be loving parents exactly, but they hardly deprive their daughter. Delightful as the novel’s interest in manners is – Alexia is more likely to spike a piece of cake with her fork than drive a stake into a vampire’s heart – it’s also symptomatic of steampunk’s central flaw: its conviction that, to put it flippantly, etiquette and breeding make the world more shiny. Adam Roberts explains it better than I do (in his review of Aurorarama, printed in Sibilant Fricative):

…the ground of [steampunk’s] appeal is a sense that the modern world is lacking in refinement. What steampunk tells us is that there’s nothing to prevent the marriage of contemporary technological convenience with the elegance and good manners of the 19th century. shorthand for this, of course, is breeding, and to think of it like that is to understand the extent to which steampunk is embroiled in reactionary ideologies of class superiority.

And: Alexia is headstrong, intelligent, pragmatic and active – in other words, a female character who’s allowed to be as complex as her male counterparts – but she does also end up married. Her revolutionary potential, her infinitely-horizoned future, is tamed, redirected into heterosexual romance. It is, undoubtedly, a particularly satisfying romance, and a better match than a lot of female characters get – I don’t want to downplay that at all – but it does still represent a closing-down, a narrowing of horizons. This is not a novel that has solutions for other women like Alexia, or indeed for lower-class women.

But that’s not what Soulless is aiming for, after all: it’s aiming for affectionate parody, for lovely romance, for a bold female character who knows what she wants, for a swift plot with vampires and werewolves and insults and cake.

So: take it as it is, and it is glorious.

I’ve asked for the sequel for Christmas.

Review: The Summer Tree

This review contains spoilers. TW: rape, suicide.

I am finally out of the woods of NaNoWriMo, and what a luxury it is to have as many words as I want to ramble about books in.

I mean, it’s a pity that my first post-NaNo review had to be about Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree, which manages to be simultaneously enraging and utterly uninteresting, but the Spreadsheet of Books is merciless, and so here we are.

So. The Summer Tree is the first novel in Kay’s Fionavar trilogy (also called, with irritating preciousness, the Fionavar Tapestry), and feels like an unholy cross between Narnia, Tolkien and Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels. Five university students from our own world are taken, by a mysterious and not at all suspicious wizardy figure named Loren Silvercloak, to a fantasyland named (yes, you guessed it!) Fionavar. More specifically, they end up in the kingdom of Brennin, which is in the midst of a terrible drought because the High King has selfishly refused to sacrifice himself to the gods on the titular Summer Tree. There are also rumblings of a deeper evil at large in the kingdom: the orcs svart alfar are abroad, killing indiscriminately in the manner of evil fantasy races. Does this perchance have anything to do with the dark god Rakoth Maugrim, chained under a mountain for a thousand years?

Guess.

Like Stephen Donaldson, I think what Kay’s trying to do here is put psychologically modern characters into a Tolkienian fantasy world. (And, incidentally, I think both writers are doing so out of an urge to improve Tolkien: Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge informs me that Kay worked for Christopher Tolkien on editing The Silmarillion, which is suggestive at the very least.) But where Donaldson’s characters react believably and productively – Thomas Covenant’s refusal to believe that the Land is real may be frustrating, but it’s at least part of what helps him save it – Kay’s, um, don’t. They become part of the (forgive me) fabric of Fionavar, of Middle-earth, unquestioningly and thus problematically.

It almost goes without saying (though it shouldn’t) that Fionavar is a typically cod-medieval place: a land where women are wives and priestesses and seers while the men are fighters and drinkers and counsellors; where the dark-skinned people away south are decadent and evil; where the nomadic tribe in the north is a thinly-disguised, stereotyped Native American analogue; where criticising the king is punishable by death.

What rings really false about The Summer Tree is that the five bright university students from our own world – even a 1980s version of our own world – don’t question any of this. There are two women in the group: one of them, Jennifer, attracts the (unwanted) attention of Brennin’s crown prince, Diarmund, and though she pushes back on it the narrative fails to read Diarmund’s continued pursuit of her as actual harassment. And though one of the students criticises Diarmund’s execution of a peasant who spoke treason against the king, he gets over it pretty quickly, and in fact becomes Diarmund’s friend. (And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that two of the students enable Diarmund’s rape of a princess from that decadent southern country.)

There’s a particularly egregious and harmful moment when the real-world characters actually participate in Fionavar’s regressive social roles. One of the students, Paul, is severely depressed after the death of his girlfriend in a car accident. When he goes off to sacrifice himself on the Summer Tree and so end the drought, his best friend Kevin reacts to the news thusly:

Let him die for you, if he can’t live for himself…Let him go.

Kevin knows Paul is ill: earlier in the novel he’s said something like “he’s been sick for a long time” (I don’t have the novel to hand, thank goodness). Heroic self-sacrifice, in medieval-inflected contexts, is a performance of bravery and chivalry. Key to that performance, key to the value of the sacrifice in a chivalric culture is that the hero chooses to do it, cold-bloodedly, rationally. Whereas what Paul’s doing is suicide – he’s dying from the often terminal disease that is depression, and, crucially, he is not in a state to choose rationally to sacrifice himself. Equating suicide with self-sacrifice is fucking dangerous. “Letting” a depressed person “go” is an abdication of responsibility, not (as Kay sees it) a recognition of the depressed person’s right to choose.

For me, this is sort of the crux of what’s wrong with The Summer Tree: Kay’s blending incompatible sets of social mores (a medieval shame culture and a modern guilt culture), and in doing so ends up utterly misrepresenting both. It might have been interesting to see the five students learn the rules of this new fantasyland and start following them; or to see them critiquing Fionavar’s regressiveness (although that approach has its own problems). Kay’s gone for an unholy blend of both, and it’s deeply problematic, as well as just plain tedious.

TL; DR: Don’t try to fix Tolkien. No, really don’t. Unless you are literally a medieval scholar, you don’t know enough.

Also, don’t read this book.

50-Word Review: Ninefox Gambit

Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee

In Ninefox Gambit, a tyrannous far-future regime maintains control of reality-bending weapons by enforcing a consensus reality through torture and murder. Captain Kel Cheris is sent to put down a nascent democracy. It’s space opera that doesn’t infodump – and that doesn’t let you forget the humanity of its casualties.