Tag: fairy tales

Top Ten Books I Read in 2017

There are a few days left of 2017, but I think I’ll manage at most one more book in that time.

As always, these are books I personally read in 2017, because who’s organised enough to read stuff in the year it’s published?

  1. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. I’ve read this approximately two-and-a-half times this year, probably more if you count all the times I’ve dipped in and out of it. I love it. I love its discursiveness, its artful artlessness, its gentle and undemanding hope, its ultra-readable engagement with literary theory. It’s become my go-to comfort read, and it’s not even SFF. (Sorry, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.)
  2. Palimpsest – Catherynne Valente. Palimpsest continues my quest to read all the Valente that exists in the world. It may actually be my favourite Valente (although that is an ever-changing thing). I read it slowly, on a long train journey, savouring Valente’s gorgeous prose and the lostness of her characters. I want to cosplay November someday. (I doubt anyone would get it, but there you go.)
  3. The Melancholy of Mechagirl – Catherynne Valente. Yes, it’s a bit troubling that this is a collection of stories and poems about Japan by a non-Japanese author, but that’s an aggregate issue; individually, each piece in The Melancholy of Mechagirl is gemlike, heartbreaking, enchanting, utterly and sublimely lovely.
  4. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin. It took me ages to get around to reading this, but I’m glad I made it eventually: it’s  incredibly cleverly structured, with a chatty narrative voice that plays with reader expectation and generic conventions. It features three different POV characters, each telling a horrific tale of institutional emotional abuse, tragedy and oppression.
  5. Starbook – Ben Okri. This is a novel rooted in fairytale. And, like a lot of novels rooted in fairytale, it doesn’t quite manage to escape the sexist mores fairytales so often encode. It’s fucking gorgeous, though, and doing something very clever with irony and sincerity, its apparent naivete concealing and revealing the horror at the heart of the Atlantic slave trade.
  6. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. Another short story collection! These are hopeful, open-ended stories, full of queer characters. Like Valente’s work, they ask us to look at life again and re-experience it as magical.
  7. A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers. I didn’t like this as much as The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: I missed the episodic, rambling structure of the first book. But I loved that A Closed and Common Orbit is just about people looking after each other. I think we all need more books like that.
  8. The Dispossessed – Ursula Le Guin. It’s so very rare that I read something that imagines a genuine alternative to capitalism; The Dispossessed does exactly that, building a world in which mutual aid, not competition, is the basis for all human relationships. Also, it has gay couples. In 1974. That’s awesome.
  9. Viriconium – M. John Harrison. This volume collects Harrison’s novels and stories of Viriconium, a city at the end of time that’s haunted by a long-distant past that it can never truly access. It’s a Gothic riff on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, as well as a lot of other things. It’s hypnotic, unsettling, shifting: a science fictional Gormenghast.
  10. Nova – Samuel Delany. Nova surprised me immensely: you expect certain things from SF published in 1969, and Delany’s novel is none of them. It’s incredibly colourful, interested in the sensual rather than the rational; it plays interesting textual games.
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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.

Top Ten Series I Want to Start

  1. The Orphan’s Tales – Catherynne Valente. I have made no secret of my desire to read everything Valente has ever written. I’ve never seen The Orphan’s Tales on sale in the UK, though.
  2. The Vorkosigan Saga – Lois McMaster Bujold. Ohmyword, I said back in February I’d definitely start reading these this year. I HAVE FAILED.
  3. La Belle Sauvage – Philip Pullman. The first in the series, The Book of Dust, just came out, and I am excited! (Like, His Dark Materials was a significant presence in my childhood, so revisiting the world will be lovely. Hopefully.)
  4. The Dandelion Dynasty – Ken Liu. Because I’m trying to read more SFF by POCs, and this series sounds like it could be fascinating.
  5. The Alliance-Union series – C. J. Cherryh. This…is another series that’s been on my list since, um, January. To be scrupulously fair, these are actually quite difficult to find in the UK.
  6. Binti – Nnedi Okorafor. I’ve been wanting to read this for ages. Weirdly, my local library – in the manner of libraries everywhere – only has the sequel, Binti: Home. Which is frustrating.
  7. Johannes Cabal – Jonathan L. Howard. I am assured this is a fun series. It sounds like a fun series. My library has the first book. A fortuitous concatenation of circumstances.
  8. The Southern Reach trilogy – Jeff VanderMeer. This kind of feels like it’s essential reading for SFF fans, and I still haven’t made my way to it.
  9. October Daye – Seanan McGuire. It’s really getting embarrassing how many things I said I’d read I actually haven’t.
  10. Dune – Frank Herbert. The Dune series is a perennial on my want-to-read lists; it never manages to make it to the top of them. One day. One day.

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

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.

Top Ten Underrated Fantasy Novels

  1. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. Nobody talks very much about Palimpsest, but it might actually be my favourite of Valente’s novels. The city of Palimpsest is at once beautiful and magical and painful and terrible; reading the novel makes the world seem wide and wonderful again.
  2. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. Hardly anyone outside academic circles has heard of Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, which seems ridiculous, because it’s had the most enormous impact on fantasy as a genre. It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste: it is dense, baroque, Gothically overwritten. I love it.
  3. A Face Like Glass – Frances Hardinge. Hardinge actually seems to be getting more press since The Lie Tree won the Costa; at least her new novel A Skinful of Shadows is being advertised on the Tube, which, surely, must be an Author Goal? A Face Like Glass is wonderful in ways that are similar to Palimpsest: the world where it’s set is horrifying and dystopic, but also lush and full of wonders.
  4. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. The few reviews I’ve read of Oyeyemi’s collection of linked short stories have been vaguely critical of its unfocused nature; but to me that’s a feature, not a bug. I love the messiness of the book: again like Palimpsest, its inconclusiveness leaves doors open for wonder to creep in.
  5. Starbook – Ben Okri. Ben Okri is hardly underrated; nor is he a fantasy author, strictly speaking. But I’d never heard of Starbook before I stumbled across it in the library, which is a shame, because, although it has problems, it’s also very beautiful. It’s rare that anything I read really makes me see the world differently, and Starbook did.
  6. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirlees. Lud-in-the-Mist is a novel from a genre completely overshadowed by Tolkien and his literary descendants. Published in the 1920s, it’s a story of Fairyland – where Fairyland is at once alluring and perilous, sitting just out of reach over the horizon. It does wonder very well indeed, maintaining Fairyland’s mystique and magic right through to the end.
  7. Sorcerer to the Crown – Zen Cho. This is a fun, diverse Regency romance that draws on Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Like Clarke’s novel, it also scrutinises the self-defeating nature of institutional oppression.
  8. The Book of Taltos – Steven Brust. I’m not sure why I haven’t heard more about Brust’s novels: The Book of Taltos is one of the very few epic fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed recently, precisely because it doesn’t take itself very seriously. And because, I suspect, of its moral ambiguity: its protagonist, after all, is a wisecracking assassin.
  9. The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula Le Guin. The Lathe of Heaven feels more like fantasy than SF: it’s about dreams becoming reality, and nothing is more fantastical, probably, than dreams. I also get the impression that it’s one of Le Guin’s minor works – which still makes it better than whole swathes of SFF by other authors.
  10. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. I reread this first book in Reeve’s MG series about mobile cities preying on each other recently, and was seriously impressed by a) how steampunk it is, and b) how aware it is of institutional oppression. It’s a very sophisticated work of MG, and I want to get round to reading the sequels again soon.

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

Review: The Wolf in the Attic

I don’t think there are words to express just how much I do not care about Paul Kearney’s The Wolf in the Attic.

The signs were, it has to be said, inauspicious. I got an uncorrected proof copy of the book in my Nine Worlds goodie bag this year; it was actually published last year. I would submit that if you are giving away uncorrected proof copies of your book for free a year after it was published then something has gone very wrong with your marketing strategy.

Notwithstanding this, the novel itself starts promisingly enough. Anna Francis is a young Greek refugee from the 1922 Great Fire of Smyrna; she and her father have fled to Oxford, a city where Anna meets Lewis and Tolkien briefly and randomly. Lonely and unhappy and dreaming of adventure, Anna runs into the woods, where she stumbles upon a group of Romany people, and…well, that’s where it all starts going a little bit wrong.

Now, by setting this story specifically in Oxford, and, further, name-dropping Lewis and Tolkien (I will admit to a little fangirl thrill when “Tollers” arrived on stage, as it were), Kearney’s obviously evoking a particular kind of story. They’re stories heavily based on folklore, on magic that’s tied very specifically to British landscapes; stories that feel true because they encode traditions we in Britain have been familiar with all our lives. And, sure enough, Anna’s travels with the Romany people sees her trekking across the landscapes of Oxfordshire, experiencing the terror of what might as well be one of Tolkien’s barrow-wights, taking shelter from mysterious shadowy figures called the Roadmen in stone circles. Putting Anna, a refugee, an immigrant, into this profoundly British narrative landscape is a really interesting thing to do; it makes a point about whose stories get told, and it has the potential to generate interference within these traditional narratives.

Unfortunately, Kearney doesn’t seem all that interested in actually scrutinising any of the chauvinistic bullshittery that often underlies those stories. The presentation of the Romany people in particular is hugely problematic. Kearney does give us a disclaimer of sorts which is presumably aimed at deflecting such criticism:

We’m of an old and wandering folk girl, a tribe as ancient as you Greeks – or the Jew-folk too, comes to that. The ignorant calls us Romani, but we ain’t the same as the travellin’ people, though we has dealings with ’em. Egypt is where our kind hails from, in the old, old part o’ the world.

Let’s unpack some of the problems in that passage, shall we? I’m sure we have nothing better to do with our Monday evening.

Firstly: it doesn’t matter that Kearney tells us that his “old and wandering folk” aren’t Romany people; we’re still going to read and remember them as Romany people, because all the traditional fictional markers that say to us “these are Romany people” are there – their existence in the woods and fields, on the edge of civilisation; their nomadic lifestyle; their exoticised mysticism. It goes without saying that these markers are othering and harmful. Secondly, there is just no excuse for that cod-dialect: not only is it deeply irritating to read, it’s, similarly, a constant and patronising reminder of otherness. Thirdly, that description of Egypt as “an old, old part o’ the world” (what does that even mean?) is massively exoticising, drawing as it does on the tired trope of mystical Egypt, Egypt as repository of ancient wisdom which is now to be trotted out for the benefit of the West. It is racism under a veneer of false respect.

To cap it all off, this “old and wandering folk” turn out, in a bizarre and totally unforeshadowed twist, to be the villains of the piece – predatory werewolves who’ve spent the whole novel deceiving Anna. I mean, really? Isn’t this one of the most obvious racist tropes there is? Surely someone should have spotted it before this went to print? Maybe in an uncorrected proof copy?

I also want to talk (briefly) about how Kearney treats femininity here. A fairly significant plot point in the novel is Anna getting her first period, while she’s on the run from the Roadmen, accompanied only by – how hilariously awkward! – A Boy. This is how he reacts (after handing her a woollen sock to soak it up with, which sounds like the most uncomfortable thing):

Don’t be looking at me to tell you more. It’s not a man’s business…T’ain’t my place.

That’s it? This girl is cold and in pain and scared of this new thing that’s happening to her and you give her a sock and that’s it?

And then, the Romany women explain to her later on:

We is all daughters o’ the moon Anna. We feel the waxing and waning of it in our bodies the way no man ever can. ‘Tis our gift and our curse. We brings forth life, but must bleed for it. Blood must be paid for everything.

This has quite clearly been written by someone who has no fucking idea what menstruating is actually like, and moreover has not bothered to ask anyone who does know. Menstruation is not a mystical or powerful thing (I promise!): it is uncomfortable, inconvenient and deeply unpleasant. Pretty much every woman in the world (and I’m generalising about gender roles here, I know, but this is a point that I feel needs to be made) is surrounded by men who don’t want to engage with the actual lived truth of what they experience each and every month of their lives; they’d rather ignore it altogether, or, as here, romanticise it in imagery that casts women as other, unknowable, participants in some secret and threatening mystery of life and death. As with Kearney’s presentation of the Romany people, this is discrimination masquerading as respect. We do need more women who menstruate in fantasy; we don’t need it like this.

I just…don’t understand how any of this book is supposed to hang together. Kearney doesn’t seem to know what story he’s trying to tell: a heavily symbolic tale about femininity? A realist story about being a refugee in Britain? A fantasy about a magical Oxford? The only way to describe the result is: “a mess”.