Tag: fairy tales

Review: The Mabinogion

TW: rape.

Oh, do we have to talk about The Mabinogion?

Even though it’s 8pm and I’m going on holiday in the wee hours of Friday morning and there’s still a million things I haven’t done?

Well, fine. If you insist.

Probably the first thing I should say here is that the sum total of what I know about the original Mabinogion – the Welsh story cycle whose closest analogue is probably Arthurian mythology – comes from reading Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and not enjoying it much. So I can say pretty much nothing about what Evangeline Walton has done to the tales – what she’s removed or added or emphasised. Which is a pity, really, because looking at an author’s sources is the quickest way of discovering what they’re trying to do.

Anyway. Walton’s The Mabinogion is actually an omnibus containing four novels: Prince of Annwn, in which a prince called Pwyll ventures into Death’s land to vanquish a terrible enemy of humanity and of the world; The Children of Llyr, in which a malcontent stirs up a devastating war between Britain and Ireland; The Song of Rhiannon, which sees a king trying to break a curse that’s fallen on his land; and The Island of the Mighty, which like The Owl Service retells the tale of Blodeuwedd, a woman made out of flowers and given to a British prince to be his wife, with predictably awful results.

So there’s a lot going on: it’s 700 pages long, after all, and it has politics and war and grief, and trickster figures who live by their wits and bards and riddles and rash promises, and heartbreak and treachery and fear and humour and joy and hope.

But it’s also not an exaggeration, I think, to say that the whole thing is in part a discussion of gender. Throughout their various high-jinks, their magic tricks and their battles and their quests, the novels dramatise a clash between the Old Tribes, whose people, male and female, sleep with whoever they like (well, they’re all straight, but you can’t expect everything from novels written in the 1930s) and leave when they’ve had enough, and the New Tribes, who have discovered how babies are made (I’m serious) and have therefore invented marriage as a way of controlling women and consequently male lineage, and virginity is a concept, and therefore so is rape, and basically the New Tribes are shit.

(It’s pretty clear, too, that Walton thought much of this was true: the idea of a sexually promiscuous Celtic society giving way to a patriarchal one was fashionable in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge, and she footnotes her sources several times throughout the book.)

I spent a lot of energy trying to “solve” The Mabinogion. Is it “good” because it’s sex-positive for both male and female characters and because it sees consent as essential (which is not a given in early twentieth century literature, sadly)? Or is it “bad” because none of its female characters have the kind of reality its male characters have, and because it has a rape scene whose repercussions are more about the perpetrators than the victim, and because it sees all women as mothers at heart?

The answer, of course, is “both” (there’s a brilliant essay here by China Mieville about how culture is oppressive precisely because it’s flexible enough to accommodate both sides of a binary) and “neither” (from a critical standpoint, it’s a product of its culture with no intrinsic moral value). What’s interesting – or, rather, troubling – is why I put all that effort into coming up with a value judgement. I think there’s a lot of pressure – fuelled, undoubtedly, by the blessing and curse that is Twitter – in progressive pop culture to “solve” a text, to be able to label it objectively problematic, in which case everyone who ever reads it and enjoys it is a terrible person, or objectively progressive, in which case you are allowed to read it and express your love for it. I’m guilty of this myself: everyone who expresses admiration for Stephen Moffat’s work on Doctor Who is instantly suspect in my book, for instance, and I’m not even joking about that. There are good reasons why this is so: we’re all anxious about being aware of our cultural biases and making sure that what we recommend to others isn’t going to harm them and listening to minorities when they say their representation isn’t good enough. And those are all good things to hold in our heads. But, sometimes (just sometimes), I think we close down discussion and dialogue in favour of easy answers. That’s a problem because we live in a problematic culture, and so every product of that culture is going to be itself problematic, and labelling just some texts as problematic erases the wider context that created them.

(By the way, that Mieville article says everything I’m trying to say, only much, much better.)

This is a rather wide digression from The Mabinogion itself, which just goes to show how (not) engrossed I was in that text during the interminable three weeks I was stuck in it. (By way of comparison, I can usually read a book in 4-5 days.) I bounced hard off the representation of women here, and that stopped me from enjoying pretty much anything else in the book. That’s an un-nuanced reaction, and one which, yes, stems from the labelling impulse I’ve just talked about, and maybe if I read it again I’d find other things to value about it (as Kari Sperring does at Strange Horizons). For instance: I think there’s probably something interesting to be said about how Walton repurposes these Welsh legends to talk to wider Anglophone culture (Walton was American). In The Mabinogion, she takes up the function of myth, which is to tell us something about our place in the world, in a profoundly feminist cause; her thesis is that we came to be here, inhabitants of a misogynist culture heading rapidly towards ecological collapse, because of patriarchy. Which I agree with, partially, and it’s something I want to admire (especially given when these novels were first written, which I cannot emphasise enough), but…and here we are again.

And – well, I’m not at university any more. I don’t have to spend three weeks of my precious reading time trying to suck meaning from a text that’s actively annoying me.

I hope, though, that if I find myself talking to someone who’s read it as well (which seems vastly unlikely, but you never know) I’ll actually have a discussion, with listening instead of labelling.


Review: La Belle Sauvage

La Belle Sauvage is the first novel in The Book of Dust, Philip Pullman’s prequel trilogy to the metaphysical YA juggernaut that is His Dark Materials. Which means, inevitably, that it comes with a whole load of not-necessarily-fair reader-response baggage. (I can’t imagine anyone reading La Belle Sauvage without already having read the original series. But maybe that’s short-sighted of me.)

I found it an odd beast, compared with His Dark Materials. Our Hero is Malcolm Potstead, a precocious eleven-year-old whose parents run the Trout, a country inn a couple of miles from Pullman’s alternative and vaguely steampunk Oxford. (The Trout is a real, and moderately famous, pub; one of the delightful things about reading La Belle Sauvage is tracing its characters through slightly different versions of places that really exist.) When the nuns at Godstow Priory, just opposite the Trout, take in a baby girl called Lyra (who’ll grow into the heroine of the later books), Malcolm gets drawn into the machinations of a secret society called Oakley Street, which works against the oppressive state church which controls the Britain of the novel. He becomes a spy for Oakley Street alethiometrist Hannah Relf, taking her news of Lyra and the church’s incursion into his school and anything else vaguely unusual.

The novel intertwines chapters from Malcolm’s point of view with chapters from Hannah’s. This feels unusual in a novel that’s ostensibly YA/MG (although it’s something that Pullman’s done before, with Mary Malone’s chapters in The Amber Spyglass). What’s more, Hannah’s chapters are (unsurprisingly) markedly different in content and feel than Malcolm’s. They’re filled with worries about academia and Oakley Street politics and her spywork, the complexities of functioning as an adult in a very real, and very hostile, world. Malcolm’s chapters are no less complex, exactly, but they register the world in a different way: to his single-minded and still childish intelligence, the world is a puzzle to be solved, not quite participated in as a full agent. So, when a great and unprecedented flood comes to Oxford, threatening to put Lyra in the way of her father Lord Asriel’s enemies in the church, Malcolm’s solution is one only a child could come up with: ride the flood (in his canoe La Belle Sauvage) to London, to take Lyra to her father there.

The flood chapters are…interesting, and don’t exactly seem to take place in the same world as His Dark Materials. As John Clute points out in Strange Horizons, they are Spenserian rather than Miltonian: they take place in an England (or, an Albion) populated by hidden, allegorical magic beings (Father Thames, for instance, pops out of the flood at one point). As Malcolm, Lyra and their abrasive, accidental companion Alice float down the swollen river, chased by Lord Asriel’s enemies, they encounter strange and mist-bound perils, which they escape through a combination of fairytale logic, ingenuity and childish literalness of thought. I couldn’t help comparing the linearity and narrow focus of this Spenserian quest structure with the much more exploratory bagginess, the dead ends and reversals and multiple plotlines, of His Dark Materials. (If I recall correctly, Hannah Relf’s chapters in La Belle Sauvage end when the flood comes, leaving us with a single narrative thread to follow.) Put more simply: Father Thames doesn’t feel like something that can exist in the wonderful but ultimately scientific-rational world of His Dark Materials. His is a less comprehensible magic, one unencompassed by Hannah Relf’s understanding of the world as a web whose threads, however tangled, can be followed at least in theory.

One of the things I think Pullman is interested in, then, here and in his earlier trilogy, is the difference between childhood and adulthood, and, more precisely, the transition between them. Malcolm’s story may look like Spenserian allegory, but it’s not immediately clear what it might be an allegory for. Certainly not innocence: like His Dark Materials’ Will, and older Lyra to a certain extent, Malcolm and Alice are forceful about getting what they need for Lyra (nappies and bottle feeds are major plot drivers), and about escaping those who hunt them. They break into shops and houses, they are canny about how to elicit people’s sympathies, they don’t hesitate to use violence. Which isn’t to say that they are horrible people, of course (although I remain, frankly, unconvinced about Malcolm); merely that Pullman is pushing back against conventional representations of the child. As I’ve said, the novel’s form suggests that, for Pullman, the difference is one of outlook: a child’s (or teenager’s; Alice is fifteen) view of the world is narrow, specific, and observant, and occupies a position of relative powerlessness, while an adult’s is strategic and participatory, looking for networks and intersections with a view to influencing and inhabiting them. Adults create the waterways that children navigate, to force a metaphor perhaps too far.

So it’s a book about power and powerlessness (and wouldn’t this post have been so much shorter if I’d realised that an hour ago?). It’s very much a first-in-series novel, so it doesn’t come to any conclusions (unlike Northern Lights, the first His Dark Materials novel, which stands by itself very nicely both plot-wise and thematically) – which, to me, makes it feel vaguely unsatisfying. As does the fact that I don’t think Pullman does Spenser nearly so well as he does Milton. Faerie requires a lighter, more ethereal touch which Pullman’s storytelling is too robust to deliver. La Belle Sauvage feels like – well, not exactly a minor work, but nothing equalling anything in His Dark Materials either. In the most clichéd of reviewerly sign-offs: it remains to be seen what he’ll do with its sequels.

Ten Books I Utterly Failed to Read in 2017

…that I planned to read in 2017, obviously.

  1. The Warrior’s Apprentice – Lois McMaster Bujold. Last February I vowed to read the Vorkosigan saga in 2017. I have many abject reading failures under my belt, but this probably one of the abjectest.
  2. The Obelisk Gate – N.K. Jemisin. I have had this on my TBR pile at least since November. Probably before that, even. This is particularly egregious since it is borrowed from a friend who has probably given up all hope of seeing it again.
  3. The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin. See above.
  4. Three Moments of an Explosion – China Mieville. I bought this to celebrate moving to London last April. It is still sitting near the bottom of my TBR, because of library books and borrowed books and my inveterate habit of, gasp, buying more books.
  5. PopCo – Scarlett Thomas. Uh, see above again. I do actually want to read these books! I am just tyrannised by some slightly obsessive habits when it comes to my TBR.
  6. The Long Cosmos – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I mean, I should have read this years ago, it’s a Terry Pratchett novel. Ah, but it’s not a Discworld novel, is it. And the Long Earth series got kind of tedious a while ago.
  7. Infidel – Kameron Hurley. The library has Rapture. The bookshops have God’s War. None of them has Infidel. Godsdammit.
  8. The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden – Catherynne Valente. MUST. HAVE. ALL THE VALENTE. Although I didn’t do too badly Valente-wise last year, actually (I managed Palimpsest, Deathless and The Melancholy of Mechagirl, plus some short stories online and a load of Patreon posts WHICH DEFINITELY COUNT).
  9. Saga Volume 5 – Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. I can’t believe I didn’t manage any Saga last year. Well, actually, I can, since my new local library has a sadly impoverished graphic novel section and £15 for 120 pages still feels like too much even if they are beautiful pages and I can technically afford it. Maybe 2018 is the year that I get over that. Maybe.
  10. King Rat – China Mieville. I did manage a Mieville last year – The Last Days of New Paris – but for me it was one of his drier books, and I’m hoping King Rat is more on the Gothic-Lovecraftian-screaming-void-of-meaning side of his work.

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

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness feels like an older generation’s Ancillary Justice.

I say that partly because it’s a good first sentence that makes me sound like a more seasoned SF reviewer than I actually am, and partly because, like Ancillary Justice, a lot of the discussion that goes on around The Left Hand of Darkness focuses on its approach to gender to the exclusion of much else that’s important and interesting about it.

Its premise is simple enough: Genly Ai is an ambassador to the icy planet of Gethen (Winter, in the language of its inhabitants) from the Ekumen, a confederacy of worlds. Most of the time, the Gethenians are gender-neutral and biologically intersex; but for about a week every month they go into kemmer, becoming either biologically male or biologically female, depending on what other nearby people in kemmer are doing. Kemmer, it seems, is mainly spent having sex with all and sundry: there are monogamous couples on Gethen, but it’s by no means the norm. And, of course, any one Gethenian can sire and bear children (although not, presumably, at the same time).

The novel follows Genly (whose society has the same gender norms as ours – more on that later) as he navigates the politics of the two major Gethenian nations, Orgoreyn and Karhide, in an attempt to bring the planet into the Ekumen. His efforts – his very presence, in fact – threaten to destabilise the fragile balance between the powers and topple the planet into war – a concept that’s entirely new to Gethen, because its societies have never developed ideas of toxic masculinity that’s performed through large-scale aggression.

So. What I find most interesting about The Left Hand of Darkness is how it uses language to construct a world that’s very different from ours – not just in terms of gender, but in general outlook and philosophy. I don’t mean by that the mundane work of worldbuilding that most SFF authors engage in, but a much more potent and challenging semantic slippage, a textual instability that evokes a world that is always already irrevocably changing.

The novel is told from multiple perspectives, in other words. So we have Genly’s report on his mission (although, “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination” – from the very first lines a gap is growing between observer and observed, between narrated experience and unmediated “reality”); notes from the diary of a Karhide politician called Estraven, who’s trying to push his reluctant country into a new age; ethnological notes from the Ekumen’s first clandestine mission to Gethen; and a series of Gethenian myths and legends. That’s four views of Gethen, overlapping, jostling for factual and emotional primacy; each of them with different priorities, different focuses, different assumptions, different prejudices. Their conflicting clamour distorts the edges of what we can know about Gethen (especially in later chapters, when we get different versions of the same events from Genly and Estraven); but it also serves to give us a better picture of what Gethen is like than an omniscient narrator can. Gethen, like all real societies, is constantly rewriting itself. It never stays still, it’s never just one thing. What was once true is always, almost by definition, now untrue. Genly’s arrival on the planet, and his message of Ekumenical peace and love, has exacerbated this process somewhat; it’s a society on the cusp of great change, and this clamour of voices is a particularly apt way of evoking that textually.

And so, onto some problems with The Left Hand of Darkness. (In all fairness, it was first published in 1969. It would be practically impossible for it not to have some problems.) The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed the most glaring one: the use of male pronouns to describe the gender-neutral Gethenians.

This is partly an effect of semantic slippage, the gap between author and protagonist that helps to create the world of Gethen more fully. Put less pretentiously, Genly is enormously, outrageously misogynist.

The [Gethenian] guards…tended to be stolid, slovenly, heavy, and to my eyes effeminate – not in the sense of delicacy, etc., but in just the opposite sense: a gross, bland fleshiness, a bovinity without point or edge.

Yes, that’s right: Genly thinks women are cows. Le Guin was a strident feminist; these are assuredly not her views.

So we can, if we so wish, argue that the novel’s use of “he” as a universal pronoun is Genly’s use, not Le Guin’s; a reflection of the sexist strategies he uses to construct his world and his own experience. (Remember: this is a novel that’s deliberately placing emphasis on the truth-value of experience.) But, still, I think we run into a problem with the fact that all of the narratives use male pronouns to describe the Gethenians, who surely have their own pronouns. We can speculate that Genly’s translated these narratives (although: not the ethnological reports, which I think were written by women from Genly’s society), and so they’re also subject to his construction (as they assuredly are anyway, per that first sentence), but I don’t think this is speculation that goes anywhere, and at some point along that line of speculation the gap between protagonist and author narrows to a width so tiny it’s not worth mentioning any more. Which is to say: the universal male pronoun is ultimately an authorial choice, no matter the semantic slippage that’s happening along the way. And it’s a problematic choice.

Ah, but: as I said at the beginning of this post, gender is only one of many things The Left Hand of Darkness is interested in. (And, for the record, I don’t think its treatment of gender is entirely problematic: it’s certainly always refreshing to read something that tries to reconstruct gender and sexual norms so thoroughly.) It’s also interested in duality, change, survival, politics, war, time, shared humanity; it’s a portrait of a world and a character and a relationship all at once. Above all, it’s dialectic, not didactic: it leaves space for conversation, contemplation, reinvention. I liked it. I’m glad I read it. That’s all; that’s enough.

Film Review: The Last Jedi

This review contains spoilers.

I saw The Last Jedi a month ago: while I was exceptionally and unusually organised at seeing it soon after it came out, clearly that organisation has not extended to actually getting round to reviewing it. Never mind: it’s probably still showing in a cinema near you, Star Wars being the multi-bajillion-pound property that it is.

So, the state of play at the beginning of The Last Jedi, as announced by the time-honoured crawl of text (I defy anyone not to feel a spike of excitement as the theme tune plays) is this: budding Jedi Rey is on Skywalker Island, trying to convince Luke to lead the Resistance/teach her the ways of the Force/at least not be quite so grumpy about everything. Meanwhile, the Resistance, for mysterious reasons of its own, is fighting a pitched battle against a huge First Order fleet.

The film wends its way through both storylines, slowly. Luke inevitably, reluctantly, agrees to give Rey three lessons in the ways of the Force, like a fairytale mentor. But during her time on Skywalker Island she begins to experience visions of Kylo Ren (First Order Supreme Leader-in-training and Han and Leia’s son, honestly, keep up), and tries to convince him that he’s not a bad guy, really, and would be welcome in the Resistance (which, he blatantly wouldn’t).

I’m being flippant, but the Rey/Ren scenes are the best thing about The Last Jedi. Elsewhere in the film, Ren’s tortured emo-ness (which he expresses, obviously, through blowing things up) becomes a little wearying, and Daisy Ridley isn’t given very much to do as Rey except shouting and stamping her foot, but the strange, intense bond – not quite friendship, not quite romance – that develops between them has all the passionate idealism of teenhood. For a while, we genuinely wonder if Kylo Ren will turn to the light after all, or Rey turn to the dark.

Meanwhile, though, the Resistance’s tiny fleet is defeated in battle, and turns and flees: they’re just fast enough that the First Order can’t catch them, but not fast enough to outrun the First Order completely. What’s more, they only have enough fuel for one hyperspace jump, which there’s no point in them making while the First Order is tracking them. With only a few hours of fuel left, the Resistance leader Vice Admiral Holdo decides simply to keep flying.

This, however, is not enough for pilot extraordinaire Poe Dameron, who hatches a plot with escaped stormtrooper Finn and engineer Rose to capture the best codebreaker in the galaxy, sneak him aboard the First Order’s flagship vessel, and get him to disable their tracking device. All in the space of six hours or so, give or take.


If there’s one thing that made The Last Jedi impossible for me to like, it’s this: Poe’s actions effectively (and needlessly) decimate the Resistance, but the film and its characters still see him as a likeable maverick.

Further: Poe questions the judgement of his female and very feminine commanding officer (she’s tall, willowy, speaks softly, wears flowing clothing that emphasises her figure without being revealing – these are all very deliberate character design choices), defies her orders (in scenes that are painfully familiar to any woman who’s ever worked in a traditionally male profession, like, say, battle command), and gets her and most of the Resistance killed, but the film and its characters still see him as a likeable maverick. Instead of, you know, a sexist idiot. (Because, of course, Holdo had a plan all along, and Poe went and screwed it comprehensively up.)

What makes this so particularly jarring is that, otherwise, the film makes very positive choices in terms of diverse representation. Not only are there plenty of women in the Resistance forces (and the film passes the Bechdel test) – including Leia, Holdo herself, and Rose, a new character – there are also plenty of POCs. Poe may have dreamed up the codebreaker plot, but it’s Finn (British Nigerian actor John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran, whose parents are Vietnamese) who carry it out. In a blockbuster film in 2018, this still, unfortunately, feels groundbreaking.

The Last Jedi also has an interesting, and in context rather odd, tic around cute animals, and specifically cute animals which help the Resistance in some way. There are the notoriously adorable porgs, included in the film so the production team didn’t have to edit out the puffins who haunt the real-life Skywalker Island; one of them joins Chewie in the Millennium Falcon as a sort of mascot. There are the rather lovely crystal foxes who lead the dregs of the Resistance out of the mines they’ve become trapped in at the end of the film. There are some horse analogues which carry Rose and Finn out of trouble during the execution of their misbegotten plan, and which also incidentally smash up a casino full of evil capitalists.

What’s the connection between diverse representation and cute animals? Well, in the context of The Last Jedi I think they spring from the same impulse: thematically, they position the Resistance as a heterogeneous, grassroots organisation which draws on, and values, a wide range of different skills and backgrounds. (This isn’t a new idea: think of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.) That’s in contrast to the hosts of identical stormtroopers, marching in formation, which make up the First Order’s army. But with the idea of the Resistance of grassroots goes, inseparably, the idea of the Resistance as guerilla; which is where, I think, the film gets its problem with authority. Guerilla armies don’t have formalised structures; at least, not in the popular imagination they don’t. They never get big enough or homogenous enough to need command structures, as the Resistance does. So we have a mismatch between our idea of what the Resistance should be (a group of free actors, bound together only by a shared sense of Right, and basically able to perform acts of heroism with impunity) and what any fighting force, or indeed any organisation that wants to remain functional beyond the next five minutes, needs to be (structured, with lines of command and process, and consequences for breaking those lines). Add to the mix Hollywood’s obsession with individual heroism above collective work towards betterment, and you get a film fatally confused about what, exactly, the Resistance, or indeed anything else, stands for.

Probably all of this would have annoyed me less if the film was actually a proper shape, but, like every single blockbuster film I’ve seen recently, The Last Jedi has screenwriters who just don’t know when to stop. There is too much plot. There are too many denouements, too many climaxes. Not to get all cod-nostalgic here, but the genius of the first three films is that they are shaped like fairytales, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Despite their SFnal set-dressing, they are fables, and so they feel timeless. (And, yes, what is timeless in one decade is oppressive in another; what I’m trying to say is that the original trilogy judge what we in the West currently consider “a good story” very, very well.) The Last Jedi isn’t, and doesn’t. It’s too messy to be Star Wars.

Top Ten Sequels I’d Like to Read

  1. The Obelisk Gate – N.K. Jemisin. This is on my TBR pile! I will read it soon! I promise! (Not least because The Fifth Season was one of my top 10 books of 2017 – seriously, if you haven’t read it, you should get on that soon.)
  2. Infidel – Kameron Hurley. I have been wanting to read this for ever (since I read God’s War, in fact), but it suffers severely from the First Law of Libraries, which is that if a library has the first book in the series it will never, ever have the second, and vice versa.
  3. Record of a Spaceborn Few – Becky Chambers. Apparently this is due out in July. I. AM. EXCITED.
  4. Changeless – Gail Carriger. This is the second Parasol Protectorate novel; the first, Soulless, is probably the best self-consciously steampunk novel I’ve read in terms of pure fun.
  5. Minority Council – Kate Griffin. My faith in the Matthew Swift series has been shaken a little, but it has not yet fallen! Plus, I have definitely seen it in my local library. It exists. I shall read it.
  6. The Black Lung Captain – Chris Wooding. Retribution Falls had its problems, but it was fun to read, and sometimes you do just need a world to curl up in.
  7. The Secret Commonwealth – Philip Pullman. This is the sequel to The Book of Dust; the title implies that it will focus on the more fantastical elements of that first novel, which were the bits I thought didn’t work so well, but we also get to meet grown-up Lyra, so it might be worth it.
  8. Raven Strategem – Yoon Ha Lee. There were things I liked about Ninefox Gambit – it was certainly different, and not afraid to plunge readers in at the deep end. I’d probably get the sequel from the library rather than buying it, though.
  9. The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home – Catherynne M. Valente. I have my doubts about this one: the later Fairyland books are all a little less magical than the rest of her work. But I have to read this at some point, just for the sake of completeness.
  10. The Long Cosmos – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I have to admit, I kind of lost interest in the Long Earth series: all the books essentially tell the same story. But at least this last Pratchett will almost certainly be better than the later Discworld novels.

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

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.