Tag: fantasy

Ten Characters Who Should Have Their Own Novel

  1. November – Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente. November is admittedly one of the protagonists of Palimpsest, but there are also four of them, so we don’t get to spend that much time with her. I’d love to know more about her past, or even her future in Palimpsest.
  2. Balthamos – The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman. It could be called THE ADVENTURES OF A SARCASTIC GAY ANGEL. (Except it couldn’t, because that’s a terrible title.)
  3. Adora Belle Dearheart – Going Postal, Terry Pratchett. THE ADVENTURES OF A STEAMPUNK BUSINESSWOMAN WHO AIN’T TAKING YOUR SHIT.
  4. Innon – The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin. I couldn’t remember his name when I was brainstorming this list, so I called him “that bisexual pirate from The Fifth Season“. Which just about covers it all, really.
  5. Belladonna Took – The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. Because there’s a point when Gandalf refers to her as “poor Belladonna”, and as far as I know nobody ever explains why. Also, The Hobbit uses the word “she” once. Once.
  6. Lieutenant Tisarwat – Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. What’s it like being half-tyrant? Not really knowing who you are any more? Tisarwat is a fascinating character who deserves more screentime.
  7. Foaly – Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer. Foaly is hands-down the best supporting character in Colfer’s series: sarcastic and paranoid and clever and brave in his own way. How did he end up as LEPrecon’s version of Q?
  8. Catherine Harcourt – Temeraire, Naomi Novik. What’s it like being a woman in the Aviator Corps? Does she experience sexism from her fellow officers? Her crew? How does she feel about being completely and irrevocably cut off from genteel society? Does she want to get married? Did she always know she was going to be an aviator? SO MANY QUESTIONS.
  9. Mogget – Sabriel, Garth Nix. We know that Mogget gets up to all kinds of mischief between his appearances in the books. How does he manage that? And why? There’s also an opportunity here to explore the morality of enslaving Mogget: on the one hand he’s a highly dangerous Free Magic creature; on the other hand, he’s a sentient being, and definitely unhappy with his situation. The books don’t really go into this, but there could be a rich seam of storytelling here.
  10. Miranda Carroll – Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel. Miranda gets one of my favourite lines ever: “You don’t have to understand it. It’s mine.” I’d like to know more about the comic she’s writing about Station Eleven, about her marriage to Arthur Leander, about her life before the flu comes.

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

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Top Ten Bookish Characters I’d Like to Cosplay

So, spoiler, it turns out I like steampunk, um, quite a lot.

  1. November – Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente. November’s probably my favourite Valente character, and she’d be reasonably straightforward to cosplay. You’d have to get the birthmark exactly right, though.
  2. Alexia Tarabotti – Soulless, Gail Carriger. Admittedly I have no idea what would distinguish this from a Generic Steampunk cosplay (maybe a sharpened parasol?), but Generic Steampunk is in itself awesome, so.
  3. Roland Deschain – the Dark Tower series, Stephen King. I mean, Roland would be problematic in that probably no-one would recognise him. And, you know, also the revolvers. But he’s such a charismatic character, and it would be…interesting to be him for a day.
  4. Adora Belle Dearheart – Going Postal, Terry Pratchett. You would not believe how long I just spend looking at Discworld cosplays to determine exactly which female character would go on this list, but look at this dress. It is the most awesomest dress in the world. Also, attitude. (It’s all in how you hold the cigarette, I reckon.)
  5. Susan Sto Helit – the Discworld series, Terry Pratchett. Turns out one Discworld character WAS NOT ENOUGH. Susan is intelligent and takes no shit from anyone and has cool hair.
  6. Death – The Sandman, Neil Gaiman. Can we all agree that Death is far, far more interesting than the Sandman? And also incredibly attractive? Yes? Thank you. And her costume looks easy to replicate, too.
  7. Kell – A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab. Once again I am seduced by a swirly coat. One which is actually three coats in one. Why wouldn’t you?
  8. Door – Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman. I don’t like the book, particularly, but I think the mismatched layers Door wears could be fun to try and recreate.
  9. Catherine Harcourt – Temeraire, Naomi Novik. YES LADY AVIATOR YES
  10. Steerpike – Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake. Nobody does “tortured villainy” quite so well as Steerpike. Plus, he wears a swordcane.

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

2017 Roundup

Happy New Year, dear reader!

Let’s hope 2018’s a bit kinder to us all than 2017 was, shall we?

My Favourite Things of 2017

Book: Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. Re-reading my review reminds me how clever I found this novel on my first reading of it, but really it’s here because it’s such a comforting read. I love its gentle narrative arc, the way it takes its heroine on her first tentative, hopeful steps towards a future that’s, once again and exactly, full of potential.

TV: Class: Detained. I am sad that Class has been cancelled: it’s pretty much the only TV show aside from Doctor Who I’ve been watching this year, and pretty much all of its storytelling has been pitch-perfect. Detained probably stands out for me because it really makes its SFnal concept work to support its character development, and its young actors do a fantastic job in making it feel believable and claustrophobic.

Film: MoanaI was apparently terrible at seeing films in 2017, so I don’t have very much to choose from. Moana‘s the best of a bunch I have mixed feelings about: it does have a female POC protagonist with no discernible love interest, and I’m still listening to the songs ten months on.

Misc.: Nine Worlds 2017Next year I’m going to drop the Misc. category, on the basis that the answer will henceforth always be “Nine Worlds”. Because obviously.

2017 Reading Stats

Spreadsheet time!

  • I read 85 books in 2017, absolutely smashing my target of 73.
  • The longest book I read was One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski, which, at 839 pages, was, honestly, kind of tedious. (If that wasn’t enough, it’s also the first volume of 27. Angels and ministers of grace defend us.) The shortest was Martin Rowson’s brilliant graphic novel rendering of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, at just 80 pages. Overall I read 30,893 pages – considerably up from last year’s 26,492.
  • The oldest book I read in 2017 was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a re-read, first published in 1813. The average age of the books I read in 2017 was 44 – up from last year’s 16, probably at least partly because of all the old-school SF I’ve been reading.
  • Genre: As usual the biggest single genre I read in was fantasy – I read 39 fantasy novels (45%), 18 SF novels (21%) and eight lit-fic novels (9%), as well as five each from non-fiction and historical novels, three “classic” novels (which I’ve categorised as such to distinguish them from commercial lit-fic), two “humour” novels and a detective story (The Waste Land, which I suspect actually belongs in “humour”). My reading, in other words, has seen pretty much the same genre split it did last year.
  • I read 10 YA novels (12%) – that’s lower than last year, when YA made up about a quarter of my reading.
  • Just 11% of the books I read this year were re-reads! That’s almost half last year’s 21% – I’m pleased with this.
  • 46% of the books I read in 2017 were by women. That’s disappointing; I thought I’d done better than that.
  • And 18% of the books I read in 2017 were by POCs. I don’t have a target for this one – it’s difficult to know what the baseline should be, and I didn’t count last year – but I’m reasonably pleased with this.

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.

Review: Under the Pendulum Sun

The heroine of Jeanette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun is Cathy Helstone, the Victorian sister of Laon, a missionary to Fairyland who’s stopped answering her letters. Funded – as she thinks – by the missionary society that sent him, Cathy braves the dangerous journey to Fairyland to find him.

But Under the Pendulum Sun is no fairytale; its ancestors are Jane Eyre and Ann Radcliffe, not the faerie-tinged historical fantasies of Susanna Clarke and Zen Cho. So we actually see very little of Fairyland: pretty much all of the novel’s action takes place in the thoroughly Gothic castle the fae have granted to Laon for his missionary activities, Gethsemane.

It was more castle than manor, a knot of spires and flying buttresses atop a jagged hill. Stone leaned against stone in a bizarre edifice, with nothing but scorn to the very concept of aesthetic consistency and structural purpose.

Like all classic Gothic castles, Gethsemane is an impossible tangle of corridors and passages, strange noises, rooms you can only find once, and ominous ancient objects. It’s threatening in its unknowability; but, as the novel wears on, it becomes simultaneously the only source of familiarity in the treacherous landscapes of Fairyland:

When I finally returned to Gethsemane, the castle was ablaze with light. It was a beacon above the mists, and I saw it far, far before I reached its gatehouse.

That’s not the only Gothic trope the novel uses, of course: it’s positively stuffed with doubles, changelings, madwomen, unintelligible diaries, mysterious staff who can’t or won’t explain anything, forbidden desires, and things that look real but aren’t. In other words, it plays extensively with ideas of truth and disguise: a recurring theme is that the fae tell the truth only when it will hurt more than a lie. As in many Gothic novels, the castle is a place where the dark side of society bubbles to the surface; a place of illusion which, paradoxically, reveals truths that can’t be spoken in the Victorian England it mirrors.

I don’t really feel, though, that Ng is doing anything particularly interesting with all this Gothic paraphernalia: Under the Pendulum Sun is missing that oppressive weight that characterises novels like Jane Eyre or The Mysteries of Udolpho or Rebecca, that particular desperate overwriting concealing and revealing a void of meaning. While its plot is uncanny – that is, uncanny things happen to the characters – the novel itself isn’t: it doesn’t encode at a textual level the profound and deeply threatening paradox of a house that doesn’t work like at a house should. And for me, that’s key to the success of the Gothic: that link between house and text, the sympathetic magic by which the threat of the house becomes the threat of the word. Without that link, Gothic becomes melodrama.

And yet: there is strangeness here. As the house’s name implies, Under the Pendulum Sun is deeply interested in Christian theology – and as Abigail Nussbaum points out, it’s unusual in making that theology a fundamental part of its worldbuilding rather than a flawed ideology. And, actually, what it does with that theology – reworking the Christian myth to take account of the fae (I won’t spoil the details, but Lilith is involved) – feels subversive: the Helstones’ theories, as they gather more truths about the world around them, are heretical, and writing that back into a novel that’s very deliberately pastiching the voice of a Victorian novel feels like a reclamation of history.

Why’s that important? I think we can read Under the Pendulum Sun as partly a novel about colonialism: to the Victorians, Fairyland is there to be exploited; Laon Helstone is literally there to convert what he sees as godless savages. So the Helstones’ work of creating heresy, of writing the fae into the Christian narrative not as people going to hell but as something else – that’s a decolonisation of Western Christianity. Which, you only have to look at America’s Bible Belt to realise that’s intensely relevant work.

For me, Under the Pendulum Sun didn’t quite click; the Gothickry isn’t quite right, and that’s so central to the affect of the novel that I can’t overlook it. And it takes just a little too long to signal to readers that you actually need to pay attention to this theological stuff, it’s not just furniture. But there’s plenty that’s fascinating here, and I suspect readers who aren’t quite as obsessed with how the Gothic works as I am will probably enjoy it a whole lot more.

Top Ten Series I Want to Start

  1. The Orphan’s Tales – Catherynne Valente. I have made no secret of my desire to read everything Valente has ever written. I’ve never seen The Orphan’s Tales on sale in the UK, though.
  2. The Vorkosigan Saga – Lois McMaster Bujold. Ohmyword, I said back in February I’d definitely start reading these this year. I HAVE FAILED.
  3. La Belle Sauvage – Philip Pullman. The first in the series, The Book of Dust, just came out, and I am excited! (Like, His Dark Materials was a significant presence in my childhood, so revisiting the world will be lovely. Hopefully.)
  4. The Dandelion Dynasty – Ken Liu. Because I’m trying to read more SFF by POCs, and this series sounds like it could be fascinating.
  5. The Alliance-Union series – C. J. Cherryh. This…is another series that’s been on my list since, um, January. To be scrupulously fair, these are actually quite difficult to find in the UK.
  6. Binti – Nnedi Okorafor. I’ve been wanting to read this for ages. Weirdly, my local library – in the manner of libraries everywhere – only has the sequel, Binti: Home. Which is frustrating.
  7. Johannes Cabal – Jonathan L. Howard. I am assured this is a fun series. It sounds like a fun series. My library has the first book. A fortuitous concatenation of circumstances.
  8. The Southern Reach trilogy – Jeff VanderMeer. This kind of feels like it’s essential reading for SFF fans, and I still haven’t made my way to it.
  9. October Daye – Seanan McGuire. It’s really getting embarrassing how many things I said I’d read I actually haven’t.
  10. Dune – Frank Herbert. The Dune series is a perennial on my want-to-read lists; it never manages to make it to the top of them. One day. One day.

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

Review: The Melancholy of Mechagirl

This is going to be a criminally short review for one of my favourite books of the year, because I was too busy inhaling it through my eyes to write anything down. And so, as my brain is not set up to remember short stories as it remembers the plots of novels, and also because my copy of the book currently resides at my parents’ house, approximately a hundred miles away from where I am, The Melancholy of Mechagirl lingers in my memory only as a dream of wonders.

A warning: I tend to stray into purple-prose territory when I’m talking about Catherynne Valente’s work. Here, there be rambling.

The Melancholy of Mechagirl, then, is a collection of Valente’s SFF stories about Japan. As she explains in her foreword, it’s a place that crops up in all her novels to a greater or lesser degree; it’s somewhere she appears to feel ambivalent about, having lived there mostly alone as a Navy wife for some years. There’s a semi-autobiographical description of those years in – I think – “Ink, Water, Milk”, one of the stories in this collection, and it hits you like a gut-punch:

She is sad. She does not speak Japanese. Her husband went to the desert months and months ago. Every day she goes to the market and brings back chocolate, a peach, and a salmon rice-ball for her dinner. She sits and eats and stares at the wall. Sometimes she watches television. Sometimes she walks three miles to Blue Street to look at necklaces in the window that she wishes someone would buy for her. Sometimes she walks along the pier to see the sunken bicycles, pinged into ruin by invisible arrows of battleship-sonar, crusted over with rust and coral. She likes to pet people’s dogs as they walk them. That is her whole life. What should she dream of?

Valente’s prose is full of stuff, full of details; it’s embellished and sensual and specific (“chocolate, a peach, and a salmon rice-ball”). That accumulation of detail is, I think, what makes her work so rich; it defamiliarises our reality, makes us re-experience it as magical: “the sunken bicycles…crusted over with rust and coral”. Rubbish is elevated to symbol; as in a fairytale, everything in these stories has meaning, everything is there for a purpose, however mysterious, and it’s that which makes her stories devastating as well as beautiful.

Of course, we do have to confront the fact that this is a collection of stories about Japan written by a white author. Valente’s up-front about this in her foreword: she makes it clear that

It is not a book that purports to speak for Japanese culture in any way, but one which speaks for its author, for a span of ten years of circling Japan and never reaching it, and a single woman’s relationship with a nation not her own, but one which, very occasionally, sat down to tea with her.

(quote from her website, because as previously mentioned I am a terrible blogger who utterly failed to take notes)

The publisher is also, it seems, Japanese.

All of this opens up questions that are too big to answer here, or anywhere on the internet, maybe: to what extent can authors write about experiences that aren’t culturally theirs? To what extent are creators responsible for interrogating their influences, or trying to escape them?

For my part (which is not worth very much, white, Western, and knowing nothing at all about Japan), I do think it’s kind of uncomfortable that this is a whole book of Japanese stories – for the practical reason that a collection like this is, potentially, taking the spotlight away from a collection by an actual Japanese person. These stories (and poems) are gorgeous, as Valente’s work always is – but had they been anthologised differently, bound with other stories, they’d feel less like a “take” on Japan, an attempt to mediate between Japan and America.

But then, your mileage may vary, as they say.

And whatever I feel about the collection-as-concept, the stories and poems – which I know I haven’t said much about, and which are varied and jewel-like and often surprisingly formally innovative – are just too lovely not to return to.