Tag: fantasy

Doctor Who Review: The Shakespeare Code

So…there are good episodes of Doctor Who, and there are not-so-good episodes.

The Shakespeare Code is a less-good one. But for Davies-era Who, “less-good” tends to translate into “campy fun” as opposed to “poorly-plotted mess”, which is what Moffat-era “less-good” looks like.

Got all that?

Unsurprisingly, The Shakespeare Code sees Martha and the Doctor meeting Shakespeare. In particular, they’re about to solve the mystery of Love’s Labours Won, a real-world lost Shakespeare play which may or may not ever have existed. The episode’s Big Bad is a trio of alien witches called the Carrionites, whose magic (it’s hand-waved as Science, but for all intents and purposes it’s magic) is based on the power of words. They’re intent on using the Bard to write a spell (in the form of a play) to free the rest of their people from the vortex where they’re trapped, so they can then take over the world.

It’s extremely campy indeed. The actors playing the witches are clearly having a lot of fun hamming them up in classic Macbeth-y prosthetic masks, shrieking rhyming doggerel at the rest of the cast. There’s lots of jokes where the Doctor quotes Shakespeare at Shakespeare. Ooh, and Shakespeare is bi! Which may even be historically accurate!

(well…sort of. Elizabethan conceptions of sexuality and same-gender relationships were unsurprisingly rather different from ours, so the label “bisexual” is probably not completely accurate. Still: it’s a concept that’s immediately understandable to modern audiences in the context of a 45-minute space drama, which is probably the most important thing in terms of queer representation. Also: I always forget, and always re-relish, how accessible Davies-era Who is to queer audiences. It just kind of…takes our existence as read? In a way that even Chris Chibnall’s work doesn’t really? And there is SO little mainstream media that does that, let alone mainstream media from 2007.)

There’s also some surprisingly good (or at least convincing) Shakespeare pastiche going on – although, at the same time, for a story about the power of words, the witches’ doggerel is cringe-inducing. As a result, The Shakespeare Code is an episode heavy on the spectacle but light on meaning and theme; the plot’s rudimentary at best and draws some rather hackneyed lines between grief and genius.

Oh, and the concept of genius itself feels rather old-fashioned, too: Shakespeare was brilliant, but he was also a hack – much like that other beloved British writer, Charles Dickens. Roberts is revealing his motivations here: the only work this episode is supposed to be doing is Having Shakespeare In It, because bringing Shakespeare and the Doctor together sounds like fun.

It is fun. It’s just not very good.

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Review: The Grass-Cutting Sword

Hah. Now, this is a strange little novella: a very early Catherynne Valente work, now out of print and available only through t’Internet. (It’s her fourth novel, I think? But she’s written about a million, so, yeah, comparatively early.)

It’s a retelling of a Japanese legend in which the god of sea and storms Susanoo is banished from heaven and falls to earth. There, he meets an impoverished peasant family whose eight daughters have been devoured by a dragon – which he promptly vows to slay.

But, alternated with Susanoo’s chapters, we get the point of view of the dragon and each of the eight women he devours one by one, with something like love? or desire?

So: we have this balance between the power of Susanoo and the reverence he gets, and the low status of the eight daughters, who are each devoured on their wedding night, as they’re given one after the other to the same man in payment for the devouring of the one before. They are accorded the same status by the narrative: in fact, the daughters are elevated by their devouring, into an opponent worthy of Susanoo, as they become one with the dragon (their consciousnesses all, apparently, remaining, so the dragon’s mind is eventually a cacophony of voices).

There are, even, some equivalences drawn between Susanoo and the unnamed daughters. The story of Susanoo’s mother, who becomes the earth, sees her abused by her jealous and controlling husband; so that she, too, eventually becomes a devourer. The Grass-Cutting Sword, then, is a tale of women who become monsters as a response to the objectifying gaze of men. It’s a tale that gives a voice to those women, who we see throughout mythology (Grendel’s mother, Medusa, Scylla, Charybdis).

It’s not my favourite of Valente’s works: despite, or perhaps because of, its formal play (the narration of the dragon alternating with the narration of the daughters on a sentence-by-sentence basis), it feels more controlled than her later novels, less inclined to the achingly beautiful flights of prose I love about her work, the sly invention. The Grass-Cutting Sword is an experiment, and feels like it. I wouldn’t recommend starting here; but if you’re already a fan, it’s worth getting your hands on, if only for completeness’ sake.

Review: A Clash of Kings

Probably you know that A Clash of Kings is the second book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series – which you may know better as Game of Thrones. In this instalment, the war for the Iron Throne of Westeros has begun in earnest. Robb Stark has declared himself King in the North; King’s Landing, home to the court of the sadistic eleven-year-old King Joffrey Lannister, prepares for a siege at the respective armies of warring brothers Renly and Stannis Baratheon.

We see, of course, plenty of the political manoeuvrings that bring things to this pass, the counsels of war and diplomacy the various powers take, as well as getting glimpses into the work of the Night Watch as they venture beyond the Wall to try and protect Westeros from the long winter to come, and into the exploits of Danaerys and her new-formed khalasaar. So far, so like the first novel.

But A Clash of Kings also offers us some insights into what life is like for the smallfolk – those with no political power or influence, the farmers and the labourers and the people who make the lords’ and ladies’ lives possible. We see riots in King’s Landing as food grows scarce and refugees from burned villages flood in. We see Arya, fleeing the city in the wake of her father’s death, captured by the Lannisters, who, unaware of her noble status, set her to work scrubbing the stones of Harrenhal Castle. We see a miserable, squalid wildling camp beyond the Wall; and, over the Narrow Sea, we see Danaerys rag-tag khalasaar starving in the deserts as they try to find a way to the coast. We see burned villages, their populations slain; we see murdered peasant children; we see people for whom the lords they work for are interchangeable, equally remote and equally uncaring.

These are some of the most interesting parts of the book; I’ve no doubt that Martin intends to call attention to the plight of these people, as part of his project to deflate the high-flown, noble rhetoric of Tolkienian fantasy. The feudal contract is broken in Westeros: it’s a rare lord who lets their beleaguered peasants into the castle for protection, as Catelyn Stark’s brother does. The peasants are left on their own, to do what it takes to survive – many of them don’t care whether their lord’s on the side of the right or not.

All of this is undermined somewhat, though, by the fact that we only come into contact with the smallfolk when our highborn protagonists do. The riots in King’s Landing become urgent only when they threaten the Red Keep – and when the rioters turn on their lords. We only know about the peasant workers of Harrenhal because Arya, a lady in disguise, finds herself among them. And so on. Jon Snow may be an illegitimate son, but he’s been raised as a lord; Danaerys may be orphaned and wandering in the wilderness, but she can hardly be called a nobody. There are no viewpoint characters who are peasants; the closest we get is an ex-smuggler who’s now a knight high in the counsels of Lord Stannis. This tends, I think, to put our sympathies with the highborn characters. We know Arya’s in the right when she asks Genly the smith to help her escape Harrenhal, despite Genly pointing out that he’ll be considerably worse off if he does. And we hardly bat an eyelid when we see King Joffrey’s court feasting off roast chicken and red wine when the people in the city below are living off stewed rat; because there is no voice in the text that objects to this.

I know that’s kind of the point. Even the most level-headed of the highborn characters have blind spots; even supposing they actually care about their people, which most of them don’t really. But that’s exactly why we need the voice of the smallfolk to balance them out – if we’re to think of Westeros as actually “realistic”, rather than just so much grimdark misery.

Because, oh, there’s a lot of torture and violence and assault on women here; so much so that I reached a point in the last fifth of the book where I just wasn’t interested any more? I don’t want to have to wade through so much viciousness just to meet up with my favourite characters – so much pointless viciousness, that is. This is violence as an aesthetic; because, actually, and as per Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, you only need a very small amount of graphic violence to play merry hell with the conventions of Tolkienian fantasy. The less there is, the greater the effect – and the more interesting the conversation. Saturating a world with senseless violence doesn’t say anything more about what human experience is “actually” like – it says more about your limited authorial imagination, actually.

I’m honestly not sure I want to read any more of this. If I do, it’ll be a while. And, no, I don’t want to finish watching the TV series.

Review: Three Moments of an Explosion

In Three Moments of an Explosion, you never find out what’s going on.

That’s true, at least, of many of the stories in China Mieville’s short story collection. As you’d expect, all of them are touched by weirdness. Many of them are set in worlds only slightly different from our own: in “Polynia”, the second story, icebergs gather over London even as they melt over the poles; in the final story, “The Design”, a medical student finds elaborate scrimshanders on the bones of a corpse he’s been dissecting; in “Covehithe”, sunken oil rigs walk out of the seas and lay eggs. In all three cases, we never find out exactly why.

Then there are the stories that more explicitly push formal boundaries: “A Second Slice Manifesto” is a piece about a deconstructivist artistic movement that reveals half-glimpsed uncanny truths in our world; “The Rope is the World” is more or less pure worldbuilding, a tale about the construction and decline of a number of space elevators sprouting around the Equator; a “Syllabus” for a course entitles Humanity, Introspection and Debris hints at a world in which time travel, sentient insects and privatised illness are all day-to-day facts of life. There are a number of scripts for film trailers, too, which get increasingly esoteric as the book goes on.

The point is to defamiliarise normality; to gesture at a reality that’s far stranger and more capacious than the realist literary tradition allows for. Sometimes this is for political ends, as in (the horrible) “Säcken”, a ghost story about how a failure of justice redounds upon itself in endless cycles of vengeance. Sometimes it asks us to question our genre assumptions: “In the Slopes” is a story about the excavation of a Pompeii-like volcanic site where extraterrestials lived and prayed alongside humans. We never find out where they came from. Sometimes it’s simply about how our societies are shaped by natural forces outside our control: strange new diseases (origins unknown) are a theme, in “Keep” and “The Bastard Prompt”, and there’s the return of the environments we’ve been neglecting in “Polynia” and “Covehithe”.

This is, in other words, a technique that opens to us other ways of seeing and thinking – to peer beyond the ideology of late capitalism and see new things. This is SFF doing what SFF does best: too unsettling to console, and too insistent on its own form to allow us to escape through it. I found myself rationing the stories out, one story per sitting, so I could give myself space to absorb and think about each one; it felt wrong to binge them, though I often wanted each story to be longer, to reveal more about the world it described.

If it’s not already obvious, I enjoyed Three Moments of an Explosion a lot. It’s really rare to find SFF as good as this; so a whole collection of it is a proper treat.

Review: The Magicians

I’ve been meaning to read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians for a while, despite being burned by his sub-Da Vinci Code airport thriller Codex: how could that writer come out with something that seems so well-known in genre circles?

Well…I see it now.

It’s pretty explicitly a response to the Harry Potter series, which is in itself a commercial decision, right? Our Hero is Quentin Coldwater, a whiny teenager who is one day unexpectedly accepted into Brakebills, a sort of university for magic. Brakebills is like Hogwarts except with more sex, drugs and general nihilistic menace: at one point, a prank of Quentin’s sees a teacher’s spell go disastrously wrong, so a demon breaks in from another reality and leaves a hollowed-out husk in place of one of the students.

Quentin is very believable as an older version of Harry Potter, though: unexceptional, entitled and vastly less interesting than any of his friends. The emotional core of The Magicians is his vast sense of disappointment with the world: disappointment that his life is not more like a story. This disappointment has its foundations in a series of books he used to read as a child, about an enchanted land called Fillory, visited by four children who become Kings and Queens and…yes, Fillory is a Narnia analogue. The Fillory books have told Quentin for years that life should be simple, and authentic, and exciting; instead, he gets modernity, complex and mundane.

I mean. Yes? I think probably a lot of SFF readers have grown up like Quentin, searching for magic (for which read meaning) in a postmodern world; that’s an interesting Theme to explore. The problem is, partly, that Grossman frames Brakebills as a place of extraordinary privilege; magic stands in for wealth and power. Again, that’s an interesting move in itself, and there’s an implied critique here of the abdication of social responsibility that’s going on in the Potter books when its wizards refuse to help solve Muggle problems with magic. But it means that Quentin’s disillusionment just feels whiny and overprivileged; poor little rich kid, life is so hard. It doesn’t help that he’s standing in the way of characters who are facing genuine hardship even at Brakebills: Eliot, who is gay (or more probably bi, but Quentin hasn’t heard of bisexuality; it would probably make his mind explode, given his reaction to Eliot’s sexual orientation) in what reads as a pretty homophobic environment; Alice, whose brother died at Brakebills a few years earlier; heavily-tattooed and presumably working-class Penny. All of these people are more interesting than Quentin. Perhaps that’s the point. It’s still an unrelentingly miserable read.

Werll, all right, that’s not exactly true. The Magicians is fun on a world-building level. We get a lot of detail about the teachers and lessons and daily routine at Brakebills, which once again feels like a commercial decision: none of this is strictly necessary to what Grossman is trying to do, which is, broadly, Be Cynical About Hogwarts (to be fair, this isn’t difficult to achieve). But audiences like reading about Hogwarts, will sign up in their millions to sites like Pottermore that drip-feed pure world-building, so let’s give ’em more Hogwarts!

But it’s also endlessly, endlessly mean-spirited. There’s cynicism around every corner; everything is tainted by pettiness and rivalry and a terrible boredom eating at the edges of things. And, yeah, I can see Grossman’s point, but also he made the same point like 300 pages ago? And, really, do we still think cynicism untempered by empathy or hope is clever or constructive? Do we need to repeat the opening steps of postmodernism endlessly?

Which is to say: I have hated The Magicians and I have…not exactly loved it. Liked it, maybe. It has some moderately interesting points to make, which is vastly more than you can say for Codex. It is, however, as the Bandersnatch is fond of saying, not my favourite.

Review: Jheghaala

Ooh, look, yet another novel I have little to no opinion on.

Which is not to say I disliked Steven Brust’s Jheghaala. The eleventh novel in Brust’s Vlad Taltos series, it’s one with lower stakes than usual (though I’ve only read two others in the series – as with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, you can comfortably duck in and out of without too many problems). Fleeing from the city of Adrilankha after some unspecified diplomatic Event which I shall probably encounter in another novel, our assassin-hero Vlad heads to his home country to find out more about his family. But his questions inadvertently get his kinfolk killed. So Jhegaala is really a murder mystery: who killed Vlad’s family, and why?

There’s a lot of chatting, and a lot of waiting, and a lot of eating. The ending doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and I couldn’t be bothered to flip backwards and work it all out. (It seems Jo Walton had the same problem, so I don’t feel too bad about this.) It’s kind of a meh book, in other words, but on the other hand it’s quite fun hanging out in this high-fantasy world while not very much happens. Vlad is a fun protagonist who doesn’t take himself too seriously, which is also, incidentally, a good way of describing this series.

Review: League of Dragons

So here it is: the last in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, an alternative history of the Napoleonic wars, with dragons.

League of Dragons opens with Napoleon’s forces fleeing through frozen Russia after a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the allied armies. It’s a major victory for everyone who doesn’t want to see Napoleon ruling over Europe, but it’s not the end of the war – especially when Napoleon’s dragon Lien steals a precious egg belonging to Temeraire (the series’ draconic co-protagonist) and fire-breathing Iskierka. The egg, and the creature that hatches from it, could be key to the war effort, and is in any case personally important to Temeraire and Iskierka – so of course it’s up to Temeraire’s Captain Laurence and his crew to get it back.

It’s actually a pretty episodic novel for a series ender. There’s the bitter trek across Russia at the beginning of the book; a stay in a peasant’s house; the rescue expedition itself; a spell in England while Laurence tries to win the allegiance of dragon captains who think poorly of him; and a lot of battlefield action, which involves plenty of military strategy and planning.

The theme running through much of the novel is that of Laurence’s unbending concept of honour: when is it useful, and when is it dangerous? For him, it’s one of the things that keeps military society together: having strict social codes and hierarchies avoids dangerous dissensions in military units, and that’s something Laurence struggles with when multiple dragon captains are placed under his command despite his historical trial for treason. But it can also lead him outside the very social codes it’s established to protect – as when he becomes involved in a duel with a pampered aristocrat; duels are frowned upon for dragon captains because it potentially robs the army of a valuable weapon (one dragon being much more valuable than one person).

This is a discussion that’s been happening throughout the series, though, and I’m not convinced League of Dragons advances it particularly. The episodic form of the novel is potentially more interesting – although, again, previous novels have done this (notably Throne of Jade, one of my favourites). I see lots of Goodreads commenters complaining that League of Dragons isn’t very climactic, but maybe that’s the point? For me, this isn’t a series whose best points are made by big battles and military strategy – it’s about relationships and the different kinds of allegiances people have to each other and their countries and societies, and how and where those allegiances clash. So it makes sense that this last novel would focus on putting its protagonist in all sorts of uncomfortable situations and seeing how he copes with them.

I do think that this novel has less of a focus on colonialism and other social justice issues than the series as a whole does. We see comparatively little of Laurence’s female crew member Emily Roland, and still less of her mother, Admiral Roland. Having said that, we do get flights of Chinese dragons and Napoleon’s wife, the Incan Empress Anahuarque – if not the detailed engagement with their societies that some of the earlier novels have delivered. It’s still great to see these cultures written into Novik’s universe in such a fundamental way, though.

I don’t know that this series particularly stands out for me. I’m fond of it; I love the gentle, caring interactions we get between Laurence and Temeraire (even if I think Novik infantilises the supposedly sentient dragons a little too much to make their case for independence and self-governance entirely credible). And I like the way it engages with Europe’s colonialist history and rewrites marginalised groups into what is in part a military comedy of manners (Laurence’s crew features at various points in the story a Black boy, a female crew member and a canonically gay man). I enjoy its discussion of honour and Novik’s careful depiction of her characters’ various relationships. I think it’s working hard, and largely succeeds in what it’s trying to do. Which – well, I don’t think there’s that much more you can ask for from a series.