Tag: fairy tales

Top Ten Books I’m Not Sure I Want to Read

  1. Our Lady of the Streets – Tom Pollock. I think the first two books had a lot of good things about them, representationally, but I didn’t like them very much. And do I want to waste a week of my reading life on the last one? Not particularly.
  2. Dune – Frank Herbert. This is an SF classic and everyone talks about it and I feel like I should read it. But every time I think about picking it up there are always newer and shinier and probably less sexist books looking accusingly at me.
  3. The Familiar, Volume 2: Into the Forest – Mark Z. Danielewski. I’ve been thinking about Volume 1, One Rainy Day in May, today, for review on Friday, and I’m not sure that it’s actually doing that much interesting work. I’m not that interested in postmodern ergodic literature that has nothing to say beyond gesturing to the falseness of narrative; I want something human to care about, godsdammit.
  4. Beren and Luthien – J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ve never been hugely interested in reading the Legendarium, beyond The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: most of it is a blatant money grab by the Tolkien Estate, and frankly I think the Professor would be appalled at how much of his unfinished work has made it out into the public domain. But I had a look at Beren and Luthien in my local library, and the illustrations by Alan Lee may be worth the cover price all by themselves.
  5. The Runes of the Earth – Stephen Donaldson. I enjoyed the Thomas Covenant books, especially the Second Chronicles, which was really a case of right book, right time. But, honestly, my heart sank when I found out there was a whole nother trilogy to plough through. Donaldson’s writing is not easy, and, really, how much more can there possibly be to write about the Land?
  6. Bete – Adam Roberts. I really like Roberts’ non-fiction: his SFF criticism is impressively erudite, and also funny. And I also enjoyed Jack Glass, a lot. But the other novels of his I’ve read – On and By Light Alone – both felt a little…joyless, if clever.
  7. The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home – Catherynne M. Valente. Well, firstly, this is the last Fairyland book, and that’s ridiculously sad. Secondly, though, I’ve been disappointed by the last couple of Fairyland books, so I’m not sure if it isn’t better just to leave this one alone.
  8. The Long Cosmos – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Again, I liked the early books in the series, but they’ve just seemed to get increasingly pointless. I’m not sure I can be bothered.
  9. The Mabinogion – Evangeline Walton. I keep seeing this in the library and thinking it might be fun to read; I’m a sucker for myths and legends and I don’t know much of The Mabinogion. But then, it’s also a massive book, and what if I find it really dull?
  10. The Causal Angel – Hannu Rajaniemi. Rajaniemi’s books are very clever, intricate things chock-full of future-speak. I can see that they’re technically good without being hugely invested in the story. In fact, I had absolutely no idea what was going on in The Fractal Prince, so I’m not actually invested in the story at all. I think I’ve probably had enough of his post-Singularity world, but who knows? If I can’t find anything else to read…

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

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Review: What is Not Yours is Not Yours

It’s almost a shame I loved Helen Oyeyemi’s What is Not Yours is Not Yours so much: I devoured it in an evening and a morning, so quickly that it barely had time to make an impression on my memory.

It’s a collection of magic realist short stories, though that description is far too limiting. In one story, “Sorry Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea”, a family falls apart as one of their daughters’ idols, a famous pop star, is revealed to be a misogynist abuser. In another, “Is Your Blood as Red as This?”, puppets come alive, possessing or being possessed by their puppeteers in a confusion of theatre. Here there be fairytales, SFnal grief simulators, hotels you can never leave, feminist student societies, lesbian conwomen, haunted houses and brilliant libraries: a profusion of wonders. And as we read it becomes ever clearer that these stories are linked: we meet characters again and again in the backgrounds of each other’s stories, we find recurring motifs (a key, a book, a rose).

The stories are non-traditional. That is, they are often inconclusive or discursive – they offer no neat ending, or they begin as the story of one thing and end as the story of something else. Or they offer a series of narratives, none of them ended or begun as we expect. Together with the recurring characters, that makes the experience of reading What is Not Yours is Not Yours one not of (conventional) narrative but of imaginative space or potential. We are reading about an extended community, living lives that are full of wonder and that exist outside the confines of traditional narrative.

This feels like a literature of resistance. It’s right there in the title of the collection; and the characters who people it are LGBTQIA+, they are people of colour, they are women, they are disabled, they are almost anything but white, straight and male. Oyeyemi is confrontational about this: she allows us to assume, for a few pages perhaps, that we are reading white straight characters, before she slides in a detail that wrong-foots us, that shows us exactly where our biases lie. There’s something a little uncomfortable about using minority identities in this way, as plot “twists” rather than people (and, in fact, this discomfort reminds me of the end of Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird, its unexpected transphobia marring an otherwise achingly perfect fable about race and misogyny); but the technique does weave fractured seams of resistance through the text. The stories resist traditional Western narrative – with all its assumptions about whose narratives are worth telling, about the shapes that “successful” lives take – just as the members of the community they describe resist, with varying degrees of success, the pressures of conventional Western society.

What is Not Yours is Not Yours is a lovely book, rich and polyphonous and diverse; it has its problems, but it’s also exactly the kind of fiction I want to see more of right now, fiction that can imagine new ways of living. And, c’mon. Look at that cover!

Review: The Fractal Prince

OK, I’ve scrolled through my Twitter feed ignoring this blank page long enough now.

A confession: I have only the dimmest memory of what The Fractal Prince is about. It’s the sequel to Hannu Rajaniemi’s post-Singularity heist novel The Quantum Thief. It’s a take on The Thousand and One Nights set in the last human city, a vaguely Middle Eastern locale that’s threatened by rogue nanobots known as “wildcode” and by the political entity called the Sobornost, which wants to upload every remaining human mind to the purity of digital consciousness. Jean le Flambeur, the thief of the first novel, is involved somewhere. There’s also a human woman called Tawaddud who used to be the lover of a jinn, a human mind trapped inside an object. Oh, and stories are dangerous in this city: telling someone a story can invite the wildcode into their minds, or the jinni.

That’s pretty much all I remember. Impressionistic flashes.

Partly, that’s because Rajaniemi’s prose is incredibly abstruse, eschewing “as you know, Bob”-style explanations in favour of, um, no explanation at all. Given that The Fractal Prince is a novel taking place in a far future in which humans have all but left Earth and all but entirely fused with computers and machine intelligence – there seems, in fact, to be no practical difference between a human mind and a software mind – this makes things tricky. A sample sentence (borrowed from Adam Roberts’ review of the novel in Sibilant Fricative):

The q-bubble struggles to keep up with the barrage it is taking across the electromagnetic spectrum and switches to neutrino tomography around the Bekinstein epicentre.

(Roberts comments, in typical laconic style: “That brings, I confess, no images at all to my mind.”)

Mind, this isn’t a case of authorial incompetence; it’s not the turgid style of, say, the physics sections in Greg Egan’s Orthogonal series. Rajaniemi’s prose is detailed, clever, jewel-faceted – like cyberpunk clockwork, or, better, like a computer circuit-board. You can appreciate the artistry, the minute, interlocking detail, but you suspect that you’ll need a degree in advanced computer science actually to understand it.

Nevertheless, I would recommend these novels, with a few caveats. (As Tori Truslow points out in her review for Strange Horizons, the use of Orientalist imagery in The Fractal Prince is potentially exoticising. And the sub-plot detailing Mieli’s past romance with a woman, a romance which informs her actions in The Quantum Thief, verges on queer tragedy.) They attempt to narrate a future that’s genuinely radically different from now, and which is not entirely, or even mostly, pessimistic – which is an important thing for SF to do. They are ambitious and unusual and they do something new in a highly saturated field. I’m not sure if I’ll read the last book in the trilogy (if I had a pound for every time I’d said that I would have…a lot of pounds), but I’ll definitely remember the ones I did read. In impressionistic flashes.

Top Ten Authors by Number of Their Books I Own

  1. Terry Pratchett. Good old Sir Terry wins by a considerable margin: I have most of the Discworld books, plus the first three Long Earth books, the Bromeliad trilogy, the Tiffany Aching series, a couple of Science of Discworld books, two Discworld spin-offs (Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook and The Discworld Companion), and a number of one-offs like The Unadulterated Cat and The Carpet People. And Good Omens, of course. 90% of everything he ever wrote is awesome.
  2. Brian Jacques. A family friend gave me a whole load of Redwall books when I was younger, and I bought a couple more: I read and re-read them endlessly.
  3. Enid Blyton. I have about 15 Famous Five books: lovely centenary hardback editions, given to me by my grandparents when I was small. Every time I went to see them they’d have another book for me. Obviously I can’t get rid of them.
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien. I have a relatively small number of Tolkien books – 11, and that’s bulked out by French editions of The Lord of the Rings and a Latin edition of The Hobbit. I’ve never particularly been interested in the wider Legendarium, fragmentary and heavily edited by the Tolkien estate as it is – The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings are enough for me to visit Middle-earth. I also have Tree and Leaf, and Unfinished Tales, but that’s it.
  5. Eoin Colfer. The Artemis Fowl series was another that I loved as a child – I grew out of them after Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony (which was also, incidentally, when twelve-year-old Artemis and hundred-year-old Holly started crushing on each other, which, ugh).
  6. China Mieville. It is no secret that I am a massive Mieville fangirl, even though I only enjoy about half of his books. I have Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council, The Last Days of New Paris (signed!), Un Lun Dun, Kraken and The City and the City. Funnily enough, I only really like the first three of those; the other two I’ve loved, Railsea and Embassytown, I borrowed from the library. Oh! I also have the short story collection Three Moments of an Explosion on my TBR pile.
  7. Stephen King. The Dark Tower series, despite its disappointing back half, is still one of my favourite fantasy series, for its sheer ambition, its disjointed strangeness that echoes our world so terrifyingly.
  8. J.K. Rowling. I think this is probably a mandatory entry for anyone of my generation: I have the whole Harry Potter series, plus Quidditch Through the Ages. (My sister also has The Tales of Beedle the Bard and the scripts of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I’m pretty sure I also used to have a copy of the spin-off book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but it’s been lost along the way.)
  9. Catherynne M. Valente. Valente’s lush prose and wild, strange worlds mean I basically hoard her books like treasures. I have four of her Fairyland books, Palimpsest and Six-Gun Snow White; Palimpsest is my favourite of the ones I own, but my very favourite is one I borrowed from the library, Radiance.
  10. Charles Dickens. Four of the Dickens books I own – Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Dombey and Son – are a set, given to me by my grandmother (not the one who gave me the Famous Five books). The other – David Copperfield, my least favourite – I bought in a second-hand bookshop.

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

Review: Starbook

Speaking technically, Ben Okri’s Starbook might be the best book I’ve read – probably, will read – this year. Formally, it’s a fairytale: one of its protagonists is a prince who, in time-honoured fashion, begins to question the morality of his father’s kingdom; wanders away into the woods; finds a woman he thinks is a goddess; loses her and sets out to find her. The other protagonist is the woman herself, a maiden from a tribe of artists, who finds herself the centre of a courtship contest. This simplest of romances is shadowed, though, by a “white wind” blowing through the kingdom, blowing away its history and its culture and its memory. The white wind, of course, is slavery; the kingdom is the African continent.

Despite the simplicity of its plot, and its idealised setting, Starbook is a difficult book. At the sentence level, Okri’s prose has the unselfconscious clarity of fairytale – an unselfconsciousness that often teeters on the edge of naïve risibility:

This is a story my mother began to tell me when I was a child. The rest I gleaned from the book of life among the stars, in which all things are known.

But the cumulative effect of such prose – rhythmic, oral, seemingly straightforward – is quite different. It’s a prose characterised by repetition, by echoes, by allusion; it develops thereby a quality of density, a way of deploying imagery, that I’d usually associate with poetry. In fact, I found that the most rewarding way to read Starbook was as poetry: it demands an attention that’s at once sustained – you have to focus on every single word – and adaptable. That is, though it’s a speculative text, in the sense that there is magic and ritual and mysticism, it’s not meant to be read as you would read a traditional SFF novel, hunting for clues about how the world works. To attempt to form a rational, consistent schema for Okri’s imagined kingdom is to miss the point: in Starbook, everything is imagery; yet fixating on what any particular image means is to miss the totality of the novel. This Guardian review compares Starbook to the work of William Blake, and I think that’s a good comparison: both writers use very striking, simple imagery to complex effect.

In other words, Starbook forced me into a different mode of reading, and that was something that enriched everything I did while I was reading it, even when the covers of the book were closed. It changed my life for a little while, and that’s something that happens astonishingly little for the amount that I read.

That’s not to say, though, that I found Starbook unproblematic. In particular, I was disappointed by its relegation of its female protagonist to an entirely passive narrative role: she is sought out by the prince, she refuses to make a decision on which suitor she’ll accept, she spends much of the novel ill, she is judged by her fellow townsfolk without recognising it or doing anything about it. This is in part a problem of genre: left unexamined, fairytale tends to cast cultural constructs as timeless truths, and the way that Starbook works as a novel puts a lot of weight on a small number of relatively simple basic concepts that are easy to take as timeless truths.

This effect also lies behind Starbook‘s prioritisation of romantic love as the pinnacle of human relationships: the love of the prince and the maiden is one that literally changes worlds – and they seem to have no other meaningful human relationships. My problem with this, really, is that it has little emotional truth; I don’t think this is how anyone in a functioning, healthy romantic relationship really experiences the world, and in such a technically accomplished novel its presentation of romance feels shallow and disappointing.

I want to stress, though, that Starbook is the rare kind of book whose flaws make it more interesting, tell us something about what the it’s trying to achieve; a book to be studied, and mulled over, and re-read. I hope, one day, it becomes a classic of post-colonial literature; it really deserves to.

Top Ten Films

Have I really never done this post before? OK, then…

  1. Les Miserables, dir. Tom Hooper. This is the one with Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman and (mmm) Eddie Redmayne. The first time I saw it I was so wonderstruck I nearly walked in front of a taxi. The music is a cut above that of most musicals, the story is an acknowledged heart-breaker, and I will never see a better Marius than Eddie Remayne, though I admit he is not really a singer.
  2. The Return of the King, dir. Peter Jackson. This film has a gazillion endings, and they are all perfect, and then comes that most wonderful of songs, Annie Lennox’s “Into the West”. There are things Jackson gets wrong (*side-eyes Faramir’s truncated character arc), but in essence the film captures the heart of the books in a way that’s sadly rare for book-to-film adaptations.
  3. The Fellowship of the Ring, dir. Peter Jackson. You can see how this list is going to go down, can’t you? (Though the Hobbit films are an abomination against all that is good and holy.) I love the lightness of Fellowship, our introduction to hobbits who are still (relatively) carefree, the character dynamics of the Fellowship which we don’t see in later films. Fellowship is still an adventure. They’ve yet to slog through the battlefields of the second film in the trilogy…
  4. The Two Towers, dir. Peter Jackson. This is really only here for completeness’ sake: Towers is my least favourite book in the trilogy just as it’s my least favourite film of the three. Helm’s Deep bores me. Frodo and Sam walk through the same carbon-fibre set of rocks about a zillion times. Andy Serkis’ Gollum, though, is a masterpiece.
  5. Stardust, dir. Matthew Vaughn. Stardust is based on Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, so naturally it is secretly sexist. (It’s totally OK to kidnap an injured woman if she turns out to be your True Love.) But, oh, how delightfully fluffy this film is! Its Fairyland is wild and dangerous and strange but not too strange, and it’s full of everything you want to find in Fairyland: princes and witches and weird bloody necklaces and desperate horseback rides and magical markets and epic landscapes, unscrupulous merchants and captive princesses and sky pirates and Babylon candles. It’s funny and magical and I love it with all my fannish heart.
  6. The Matrix, dir. the Wachowski sisters. I like The Matrix because it is cool. That is all. I love the cyberpunk aesthetic. I think bullet time looks awesome. I like the way the hackers’ handles all have deeper meanings. The soundtrack is perfect. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss both look very attractive in their badass cyberpunk outfits. And the film manages to pull off “and the World was Saved by Love” with style.
  7. Cloud Atlas, dir. the Wachowski sisters. Cloud Atlas was controversial among the critics, but I was already a fan of the novel, so I was halfway there. I came out of the cinema after watching Cloud Atlas feeling like I did when I finished the book: like I’d glimpsed some overarching structure to the universe, that there was some ambitious and elusive truth amid the disconnected flashes of experience that make up all our histories.
  8. The Social Network, dir. David Fincher. The Social Network is carried by Jesse Eisenberg, an astonishingly high-energy actor who specialises in making arseholes supremely watchable. Plus, the screenwriter is Aaron Sorkin, he of The West Wing, and the film zings with his swift, intelligent, witty dialogue.
  9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, dir. Russell T. Davies. This is my favourite Shakespeare adaptation: gloriously camp and colourful, diverse and carnivalesque, a flash of bright left-wing hope against the thunderclouds of Trump and Brexit and irreversible climate change. I cried at the end, so defiantly triumphant was it.
  10. The Muppet Christmas Carol, dir. Brian Henson. YES, I am a grown English student and I still watch this every Christmas (much to the disgruntlement of my sister, who is naturally much cooler than I am). It’s so Christmassy and delightful! And is surprisingly faithful, in story and in spirit (no pun intended), to Dickens’ original.

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

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.