Tag: fairy tales

Top Ten Underrated Fantasy Novels

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

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

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Review: The Wolf in the Attic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)

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.