Tag: fairy tales

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.

Top Ten Books I’ve Read So Far This Year

I’ve read some great books this year. Some not so great, of course, but let’s not dwell on those. And we’re only halfway through 2017!

  1. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. This is a charming novel. Its heroine, Meg, starts in a bad place, broke, unfulfilled and in a toxic relationship. By its end, she’s in a much more hopeful place, ready to start moving forward; but the movement between the two is almost imperceptible. It’s a deliberately storyless novel, full of chatting, basically, but Thomas’ skill at characterisation means it’s never boring.
  2. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. This story of a sexually transmitted city is one to be read slowly and savoured; full of Valente’s lush sensory prose, her instinct for just the right symbol, creating a world that’s fresh and magical and right all at once.
  3. Starbook – Ben Okri. I think Starbook has its issues, ideologically (review to come), but there’s no denying that the writing is masterly. The novel’s written in an oblique, fairytale prose that can be hard going, but which rewards the work you put into it. It transforms the world around you; and it brought home to me, as nothing else has, the absolute monstrosity of the slave trade.
  4. Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood. I loved this tale of madness, of resistance to exploitative patriarchal systems of being. I liked its ambiguity, the way it deliberately resists interpretation. I liked Grace.
  5. Nova – Samuel Delaney. Nova was just utterly unexpected: a 60s SF novel that focused not on hard science but on individual, human experience, especially sensory experience. The universe it evokes feels genuinely full of wonder, even as it’s also (still) full of injustice.
  6. 2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson. Another SF novel that surprised me. On the one hand, it’s exactly what you’d expect from its cover and blurb: hard SF looking at issues like advanced AI, terraforming, interplanetary politics, climate change. On the other hand, the actual writing is technically really good: we have detailed characters with real depth, images and motifs weaving through the text, an actual identifiable prose style that isn’t just conveying information.
  7. The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor. This is here, really, because it feels “important”. It’s a novel that takes on terrorism as a product of systematic oppression, while still recognising it for what it is. It’s brutal and horrifying and not one to read lightly.
  8. The Islanders – Christopher Priest. I confess, I enjoyed this primarily not as the Pale Fire-ish murder mystery woven through it, but because, on a fundamentally geeky level, the idea of a gazetteer of an entirely invented chain of islands is really fascinating to me.
  9. The Geek Feminist Revolution – Kameron Hurley. Hurley’s work is always hard-hitting: even a collection of internet essays like this one is unflinching about the amount of work still to do in the social justice arena. Her combative style won’t be to everyone’s taste, but, personally, it did me a lot of good.
  10. The Quantum Thief – Hannu Rajaniemi. I enjoyed the inventiveness of this SF novel, which does the quite tricky work of imagining a post-human future that’s fundamentally different enough to be interesting without depriving readers of any point of reference.

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

Review: Deathless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Artemis Fowl

This review contains spoilers.

Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl was one of my very favourite books when I was about thirteen. I reread it on holiday in April, because what else are holidays for?

Its eponymous boy genius is – like many child protagonists – effectively an orphan: his father, Artemis Fowl the First, is missing presumed dead, with a sizeable portion of the vast Fowl fortune lost along with him; his mother has withdrawn into depression, or “nervous tension”, as her doctor describes it. In an attempt to rebuild the Fowl fortune, the twelve-year-old Artemis embarks on an ambitious, not to say unprecedented, plan: capturing a fairy and holding it to ransom.

Despite appearances, Artemis Fowl is set in the present day. And its fairies are not twee Victorian flower fairies; nor are they the mystical, dangerous fae who stalk the edges of novels like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell or Lud-in-the-Mist. Colfer’s fairies have only two magical powers – hypnotism and healing – but these are supplemented by massively advanced technology that has so far kept them hidden from humanity. As a result, Artemis Fowl is at first glance more thriller than fairy tale, weaving Artemis’ plot to separate the fairies from their gold with the fairy police’s attempt to rescue his hostage, Captain Holly Short, who also happens to be the first female officer in the Recon unit. (The fairy police organisation is the LEP; thus the Recon unit is LEPrecon.) There’s a chain-smoking, permanently apoplectic superior officer, Commander Root, and a fast-talking, paranoid tech guy, Foaly. Colfer knows his genre well: the novel dabbles amusingly in parody without becoming distracted from its storytelling.

So its generic markers are those of the thriller; but it does have the structural beats of a Celtic fairytale. Colfer is Irish; so is his boy hero, and much of the novel is set in Ireland, at Fowl Manor, seat of the Fowl family for generations without count. And the fairies, though by now driven far underground by human activity (their main city, Haven, seems to be located somewhere under Europe), regard Ireland as the “old country”.

I know hardly anything about Irish fairy tales – I’ve read a couple, that’s all – so this next bit is all vague speculation. Artemis Fowl is – fairly unusually for MG/YA fantasy – resolutely amoral: we find ourselves rooting for both the LEP and for Artemis at different points during the story. In that respect, Artemis feels like a fairy tale trickster: he’s rewarded not for being a good person, but for being one of the few who can outwit these powerful beings. Specifically, his trickery feels semantic, though technically it isn’t: the fairies’ key weapon is a time-stop, which forces anyone who enters it to stay in the same state of consciousness until it breaks down, or they leave. (Incidentally, I think this has parallels to the weird way time works in Celtic Faerie – people coming back unchanged after hundreds of years, etc.) Artemis escapes the time-stop, and wins against the fairies, by taking powerful sleeping pills, altering his state of consciousness. It’s the kind of trick that should look like bullshit, but which works in a story because it plays on words, because it exploits a loophole in how something is said. In short, it’s a fairy tale trick.

I think what’s wonderful about Artemis Fowl is that it’s an entirely original take on Faerie, one which manages to incorporate all sorts of real-world concerns, including institutional sexism, mental health and climate change – unlike many “updated” fairy tales, which tend towards nostalgic, oppressive structures. It’s funny and well-paced, with a wry voice and a genuine affection for its characters. And it ages well, too: I wasn’t disappointed with this re-read, as can happen with re-encountered childhood favourites. In short: I enjoyed it.

Top Ten Book Covers I’d Frame as Art

  1. The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien. Illustrated by Alan Lee, naturally. Look how gorgeous this Rivendell painting is! You can actually get prints of it, apparently, for the low, low price of £400.
  2. The Last Hero – Terry Pratchett. Paul Kidby’s covers just about edge out Josh Kirby’s action-packed paperback ones; they’re a bit softer and feel more like the kind of thing I’d want on my wall. And I particularly love all the art for The Last Hero, a “Discworld fable” that’s probably as close as Pratchett ever got to writing an actual graphic novel.
  3. Saga 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I think this is the cover of the big collected editions, not the individual volumes. I love the way Alana’s glaring right at us. I love the way that explosion bisects the page, but that Alana and Marko and Hazel are still more important than it. That’s exactly what it’s like to read Saga.
  4. Jack Glass – Adam Roberts. The Art Deco, stained-glass feel this cover’s got going on is what made me read the book in the first place. The bubbles! The colour! The space rocket!
  5. The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell. I like the movement in this cover: the way that labyrinths twist into spirals twist into circles. Again, it’s a great reflection of what it’s like to read The Bone Clocks: feeling all the certainties twist with every chapter you read, and yet knowing there’s a grand plan, a common thread, to it all.
  6. Inkdeath – Cornelia Funke. Not my favourite of the Inkheart trilogy – that would be Inkheart itself – but I like how that illustration in the centre, with all its lush fantastic detail, draws your eye in, and it’s only with a lurch of focus that you realise it’s also a skull. (Or perhaps I’m just exceptionally unobservant.)
  7. The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath – Ishbelle Bee. This was really not a good book. But I do like the elaborateness of this Gothicky cover, that steampunk-fairytale title font against the simplicity of the gold silhouettes in the foreground.
  8. Goldenhand – Garth Nix. Again, really not my favourite Old Kingdom story. But there’s something about the wild slash of gold against that black background that would make a great, evocative piece of abstract art.
  9. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. I find the naivete of this cover quite interesting: the faces look like something from a 1950s Famous Five cover, but then there’s that half-glimpsed steampunk balloon above, and the rust on the basket, and that vast thing belching black smoke. And no Famous Five sky was ever that colour. It’s a book about the hidden structures of oppression beneath the familiar, so the unease this cover generates is perfect.
  10. Lyra’s Oxford – Philip Pullman. That coloured woodcut of the skies of Oxford, with the Radcliffe Camera, and Carfax Tower, and the tower of St Mary’s…well, it’s everything. (The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Characters Who Struggle

I was thinking this morning that I’ve read quite a few books recently about characters for whom life is a struggle; not because they have to contend with dystopias or ravening monsters or war or tragedy, though some of them do, but just because, you know, emotions, or because being a human means that sometimes you don’t want to get out of bed and talk to other people. So this post sort of leads on from my review of Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution.

A couple of these also aren’t books, because I thought thematic coherence was more important than pedantry. In this one, isolated instance.

  1. Marya Morevna – Deathless, Catherynne Valente. “You will live as you live anywhere. With difficulty, and grief.”
  2. Katin – Nova, Samuel Delany. There’s a fantastic bit in Nova, which is a novel all about perception and subjectivity, where Katin says (I haven’t got the book with me, alas, so a paraphrase) that if someone seems to respond negatively to something he says he goes over all the different ways the conversation could have gone in his head. And the Mouse, bless him, says, “I like you, Katin. I was just busy, is all.” Something like that goes on in my head practically every day.
  3. Harry Potter – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling and John Tiffany. Now, in the original books Harry is at best inoffensive (Philosopher through to Goblet) and at worst irritating and entitled as only a teenager can be. But grown-up Harry is a different prospect altogether: traumatised by the Dursleys’ abuse and by the Battle of Hogwarts and by years of sharing Voldemort’s fucking mind.
  4. Kesha – Alice Isn’t Dead, Joseph Fink. A podcast, not a book. At some point Kesha, the narrator, says something like: “I’m afraid of nearly everything, nearly all the time. But it doesn’t stop me doing what I need to do.”
  5. Meg Carpenter – Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas. I am not going to shut up about Our Tragic Universe; it is hands down my favourite book of the year so far. (Apart from my reread of The Scar, which I’m not counting.) Meg is slightly having a mid-life crisis, stuck in a toxic relationship with a useless boyfriend and half in love with an older man. And wondering if we are all living in a computer simulation, and about what the point of an afterlife would be, and whether there really is a Beast on Dartmoor. And about stories. And her life gets incrementally better, bit by bit, throughout the book; so there’s never any huge revelation or massive argument or great triumph; just a climb to hope and new possibility. It’s utterly lovely.
  6. Pencil Khan – The Glass Republic, Tom Pollock. Pen’s surviving with PTSD after being possessed by a creature of barbed wire in The City’s Son. But, like Kesha, she doesn’t let it stop her do what she needs to do.
  7. Lirael – Lirael, Garth Nix. Lirael opens with its eponymous heroine contemplating suicide. I sort of wonder whether this actually gets treated seriously enough by Nix, because she doesn’t just think about it in an emo-teenager sort of way, she actually goes up out onto the mountain and prepares to jump off. But, in any case, I think this story of lonely Lirael finding a purpose and friendship and a family is a hopeful one.
  8. Zan – The Stars are Legion, Kameron Hurley. Zan has lost her memory. Over and over again. She knows she’s done terrible things, but can’t remember exactly what, or why. And still she goes on.
  9. Bellis Coldwine – The Scar, China Mieville. Actually I am going to mention The Scar. Bellis fascinates me. She’s thoroughly unlikable, and yet Mieville gets us to sympathise with her, gets us under her skin. She’s torn away from her city, without any way back. And she keeps her grief raw, refuses to accept her new reality, as a form of defiance against her captives: the only method of resistance she has.
  10. Grace Marks – Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood. Grace is another character who uses her emotional instability as a weapon, a weapon that eventually grants her a kind of victory. She resists reading by doctors and vicars and others who want to co-opt her experience, her selfhood, for their own social or commercial ends. And she, too, goes on.

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