Tag: fantasy

Top Ten Books People Have Been Telling Me to Read

  1. The Vorkosigan saga – Lois McMaster Bujold. I’m convinced that the Vorkosigan saga is actually an elaborate hoax along the lines of Mornington Crescent. Everyone says they have read it, but I can never find it in libraries or in bookshops. Or if I can it’s some obscure volume from the middle of the series. How has everyone read it? How?
  2. Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula le Guin. I have read shamefully little vintage SF, and Left Hand of Darkness is by all accounts a classic. And I shall read it as soon as it turns up in my local library.
  3. Everfair – Nisi Shawl. This seems to be cropping up in a lot of places, and it does sound right up my street: steampunk alternate history with an examination of colonialism? Yes please!
  4. Rosemary and Rue – Seanan McGuire. McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway has been vaguely floating at the back of my consciousness for a while, but then her October Daye series came up in conversation at a recent TolkSoc event, and they actually sound quite good.
  5. American Gods – Neil Gaiman. I mean, American Gods is one of those books that you read if you are a proper fantasy reader. It’s a bit like Good Omens in that respect, I think: more niche than Harry Potter but orders of magnitude more famous than most other fantasy writers ever. But I dislike the way Gaiman’s cod-liberalism is inevitably accompanied by a generous side helping of sexism.
  6. Annihilation – Jeff VanderMeer. This is one of those books that are generally well thought-of by the genre community and which I’d quite like to read but which keeps getting shunted down my priority list for books that maybe aren’t written by white men. I will read it. I will.
  7. Fool’s Assassin – Robin Hobb. I’ve deliberately steered clear of Robin Hobb since I heard about her negativity towards fan-fiction, but she keeps coming up in conversations and she’s one of the more widely available fantasy authors, so maybe I’ll get round to this one day.
  8. All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders. This was in the Tournament of Books this year and it actually sounded like a lot of fun, and other people have mentioned it as worth reading too, so on the list it goes.
  9. The Return of the Native – Thomas Hardy. My manager keeps telling me to read this. I am not convinced: I read Tess of the D’Urbevilles at school, and it’s just incredibly hard going and incredibly depressing and reading is, after all, supposed to be fun.
  10.  Finnegans Wake – James Joyce. Look. “More accessible than Ulysses” is literally a terrible way of selling a book to me. Everything is more accessible than Ulysses. It doesn’t mean I’m going to like it.

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

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Review: Age of Godpunk

TW: rape, transphobia.

Aaand this is why I don’t read books that haven’t been recommended to me one way or another.

James Lovegrove’s Age of Godpunk (and, really, I only picked it up because of the title) is a collection of three novellas, each putting a sort of twist on an old god. Age of Anansi is about a man possessed by the spider-god Anansi who participates in a competition for trickster gods; Age of Satan is about a man who performs a Satanic rite in his childhood and becomes convinced that he’s being stalked by Satan; and Age of Gaia is about yet another man, the hotshot CEO of an oil company, who goes out with an environmental journalist and then Weird (and Sexist) Shit happens.

Here is a (brief, partial) list of things you will find in Age of Godpunk.

  • A trans woman who uses her feminine wiles to “trick” men into sleeping with her, as a way of humiliating them.
  • A woman who commits suicide because her boyfriend hasn’t talked to her for two days.
  • A graphically-described rape whose female victim subsequently gives up her individuality to facilitate her partner’s political ambitions.
  • A Chinese man crawling round like a monkey.
  • A man who becomes a hollow shell of a person because his girlfriend is dominating him in bed.

Do I really need to point out that all of these are damaging, toxic tropes? How the hell did this book ever get published?

This isn’t a question of interpretation, of reading between the lines: these are things in black-and-white, on the page. I haven’t hated a book this much since Ready Player One. In fact, I think this is actually worse than Ready Player One: it doesn’t make even a pretence at tolerance. It’s just really fucking vile.

What’s more, I don’t even know what the point is of these stories, taken on their own (dubious) terms. Neil Gaiman’s done amoral trickster gods better than Age of Anansi does. Pretty much everyone on this earth has done atheism better than Age of Satan does. I don’t have a fucking clue what Age of Gaia thinks it’s doing, but whatever it is it’s doing it wrong.

I was going to go into more detail about each of the three novellas, but, actually, it’s late, I’ve got a busy week at work ahead of me, and practically anything I could be doing right now is better than writing about Age of Godpunk. Do not touch with a bargepole.

(ETA: So this appears to be published by Rebellion Publishing, the same publisher as Europe in Autumn and Ninefox Gambit, the publisher who had a stall at Nine Worlds? What the hell, Rebellion?)

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: Viriconium

M. John Harrison’s Viriconium is actually an omnibus: a collection of novels and short stories set in the city of, you guessed it, Viriconium. Harrison’s famous for being part of the “New Wave” in British SFF in the 60s and 70s – a kind of backlash against the mundanities of pulp SF – and he’s often cited as a key influence on China Mieville’s work, which is why I picked Viriconium up (on my first book shopping trip in my new London flat back in April, in fact).

Readers, Viriconium is every bit as interesting as Mieville, if less readily accessible.

I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with place and space in SFF, especially cities and big old haunted mansions, and the Viriconium stories are very much stories of a city. (There are a few recurring characters, but they are fickle and transient, flickering in and out of reality.) Viriconium is a city at the end of the world, the capital of the last human empire. It looks back to the Afternoon Cultures – our culture, and those that came after it – as times of impossible enlightenment, knowledge irretrievably lost. Fragments of those times remain: the Great Brown Waste, a desert made by humanity’s unimaginable depredations; flying machines powered by glowing engines; the Name Stars, man-made satellites. But – unlike, say, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which would be interesting to compare with Viriconium for reasons I’ll get to later – it’s impossible for the people of Viriconium to comprehend the people of the Afternoon Cultures. There are no clues, no context for what those cultures looked like. We, as readers, can guess a little more; but not that much more. Viriconium is a city at the end of history which has lost its own history. It’s surrounded by symbols which ought to mean but don’t. As one of Viriconium’s knights remarks in The Pastel City, the earliest of the Viriconium sequence, “All empires gutter, and leave a language their heirs cannot understand.”

Echoing this half-present history is the way that the texts themselves are full of cultural allusions and references so over-saturated with meaning as to be functionally meaningless. The Pastel City and “The Lamia & Lord Cromis” both broadly recall Arthurian romances, with their knights and their codes of honour and, in The Pastel City, a feud between Queen Methvet Nian and her evil cousin which has more than shades of the Arthur-Mordred story. But the classic story-structures are punctuated, become bathetic and/or pathetic: in “The Lamia & Lord Cromis”, an analogue of the story of Pellinore and the Questing Beast, the monster Lord Cromis has sought and feared all his life is easily killed by another person, who Lord Cromis kills in his turn because, “I was to be killed killing [the Lamia]. Who am I now?” And the would-be Avalonic ending of The Pastel City is disturbed by the presence of the Queen herself appearing to tell her knight to cheer the hell up.

Place-names from our world are mentioned, often by mad people, and go unrecognised. The chapters making up the last of the novels, In Viriconium, are named after Tarot cards for no particular or perceptible reason. There’s a cafe called the Bistro Californium; a street called the Rue Sepile; a square called the Plaza of Unrealised Time. Like many place-names, these feel like they should be significant, but aren’t; their varied provenances and registers point out this essential meaninglessness which punctuates our own lives.

But Viriconium’s true intertext is T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. One of the city’s principal streets is the Margarethestrasse; the cry ou lou lou lou punctuates the texts; a quotation from Jessie L Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, which Eliot famously claimed to have based his poem on, stands as the epigraph to one of In Viriconium‘s chapters.* Like Martin Rowson’s graphic novelisation of the poem, and Stephen King’s The Waste Lands, Viriconium takes The Waste Land‘s Modernist “heap of broken images” and turns it Gothic – surrounds its sparse fragments with dense, excessive, Gothically hypnotic prose:

They had made camp amid the ruins of a single vast, roofless building of vanished purpose and complicated ground-plan. Although nine tenths of it had sunk long ago beneath the bitter earth, the remains that reared around them rose fifty or sixty feet into the twilight. A feeble wind mumbled in off the Waste and mourned over their indistinct summits. Among the dunes meandered a vile, sour watercourse, choked with stones worn and scoured by Time.

(Compare:

Here is no water but only rock/Rock and no water and the sandy road/The road winding above among the mountains.)

The point being that this deliberate Gothic overwriting both reveals and conceals the screaming void at the heart of meaning. It seems to invest things with a significance that they turn out not to possess. Viriconium – both the city and the texts about the city (and that’s an important Gothic trait, too – that the Gothic place and the textual space turn out to be one and the same thing) – is, deliberately, “a heap of broken images”. (Lest this sound like a criticism – it takes a lot of skill to pull this kind of textual strategy off, to avoid meaning so deliberately without leaving the work feeling pointless. There’s a reason The Waste Land is still famous.)

So, what does Viriconium, this future city, mean to our present? To answer that question we have to turn to the last story in the book – the last short story and the last text: “A Young Man in Viriconium”. Despite the title, the story is actually about a young man in England – a young man who’s been looking for Viriconium all his life. After a long search, he meets a man, Dr Petromax, who tells him what it’s really like there:

The streets stank. At six in the morning a smell so corrupt came up from the Yser Canal it seemed to blacken the iron lamp posts; we would gag in our dreams, struggle for a moment to wake up, and then realise that the only escape was to sleep again.

And yet:

The night I [left] you could see the lights of the High City, sweet, magical, like paper lanterns in a garden, filling up the emptiness. If only I’d gone towards them, walked straight towards them!

Dr Petromax is like a reader of epic fantasy (the comparison with Narnia is reasonably obvious): longing after a world that seems invested with more importance than our own broken-imaged one, not realising that every possible world with humans in it is estranged from its own symbols, despite having experienced this truth first-hand. “A Young Man in Viriconium” is probably the most important text in the whole book: it reveals to us that Viriconium is, on one level, a self-reflexive discussion of reading itself, especially SFF reading. It deflates the symbol of Viriconium which, despite everything, we constructed in our minds as we read. It reminds us that much SFF is only “a heap of broken images, where the sun beats”.

There’s plenty more to say about Viriconium, of course (oh, to be able to write a thesis on The Waste Land in Gothic literature!). It’s one of those texts you can never quite finish with, because it’s never quite finished with you. It belongs on a shelf with Mervyn Peake and House of Leaves and Ann Radcliffe: Gothic fictions that strip away our illusions and reveal the emptiness behind. It is, in other words, right up my street, and I’ll be reading more of Harrison’s work.

 

*Harrison has a great sense of irony: here is the epigraph:

I believe that the “Waste Land” is really the very heart of our problem; a rightful appreciation of its position and significance will place us in possession of the clue which will lead us safely through the most bewildering mazes.

No such clue is, of course, forthcoming.

Review: The Book of Taltos

I enjoyed this! It’s exactly the kind of book I always imagine when diving into a new fantasy series but never actually get. Which is excellent, because Brust is apparently a prolific writer, so there’s plenty more enjoyment waiting for me.

The Book of Taltos is actually two books in one: Taltos and Phoenix, both entries in Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. As the Author’s Note tells us, this is the kind of series – designedly so – that you can read in pretty much any order. Taltos is chronologically first, and this was the only volume they had in Forbidden Planet when I was there, so here we are.

Vlad Taltos is an assassin in Adrilankha, a key city of the Dragaeran Empire. The Dragaerans are, broadly speaking, not unadjacent to Tolkien’s Elves: they can live for centuries, they seem to be physically stronger than we are, and they practice sorcery. They’re organised into Houses, each named after an animal; each House gets a period of time in power (this period of time seems to run into the hundreds or perhaps thousands of years) before the cycle turns and the next House rises.

But Vlad isn’t a Dragaeran: he’s a human, an “Easterner”, a despised ethnic minority. That identity informs his character deeply – which makes for a really interesting read from a perspective we rarely see in fantasy.

Surprisingly, Taltos and Phoenix are very different books. Taltos is a light-hearted, self-conscious quest story: Vlad is contacted by a couple of powerful Dragaerans who half-blackmail, half-convince him to join them on a rescue mission to the land of the dead. Phoenix is an interesting companion to Taltos: more serious in tone, weightier in content, and set at least a decade later, it tells the story of one of the consequences of that rescue mission – murder, bloody revolt, and the breakdown of a marriage.

One of the absolute best things about these novels is Vlad’s first-person narrative voice, which is ironic, irreverent, and utterly unexpected in what feels like such a quintessential high fantasy setting:

“Welcome,” she said in a voice that rolled from her tongue, as smooth as glass and as soft as satin. “I am Sethra.”

No shit.

I’m not saying this is high literature: it’s not. But, and this is important, it also knows it’s not, and it’s not taking itself seriously. What it is is well-structured, with highly relatable characters (Vlad’s failing relationship with his wife in Phoenix feels just right, and exactly real – no romance of sugar here), and subtle, significant subversion of fantasy tropes. I do think there’s probably more to be said about why we value stories about criminals – Vlad’s a stereotype in that he’s an assassin, a person who kills people for money and who basically runs a mafia, but that he also has an inbuilt moral code so the reader doesn’t hate him too much. That could have done with more interrogation.

But The Book of Taltos is really solid fantasy, which is something I don’t say very much, and which is therefore higher praise than it sounds. I will definitely be reading more in this world.

Review: The Islanders

It should not come as a surprise when I say that I enjoyed Christopher Priest’s The Islanders. It’s a book that could have been written with me in mind: a gazetteer of a fictional, fantastical and fundamentally unmappable archipelago that’s also the elliptical story of a murder? Yes please!

And so: the Dream Archipelago, we’re told by the mysterious Chaster Kammerton, who writes the novel’s foreword, consists of an unspecified number of islands – at least twenty thousand, and almost certainly a lot more, each of which has its own customs, its own laws, its own currency. It cannot be mapped, and travel is haphazard and slow, because of “temporal distortion”. It is caught between the warring nations of the north and south continents – despite its Covenant of Neutrality, the effects of those wars frequently spill over into the islands themselves. It is, in sum, a liminal place, a borderland, never one thing or the other.

The Islanders, meanwhile, takes the form of a gazetteer of these islands, as I’ve said; that is, it purports to describe each island rationally, objectively, even scientifically, looking at the geography of each island, the tourist attractions, the currency, the laws. Some of the entries, however, have very little to do with the particular qualities of the island they purport to describe; instead, there’s a short story about someone living on the island, or otherwise connected to it. These apparently unrelated short stories – whose very presence serves to disturb the self-avowed objective rationality of the text – move slowly into place as you read, building up the story of a murder.

The tension the novel generates, or rather makes visible, between the scientific impulse to categorise and describe and the essentially uncategorisable, unknowable nature of everyday human experience reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which I also love and which is long overdue a re-read. It’s a novel that asks its readers to work for meaning – to make implicit connections to work out the “truth” behind the surface. It’s also – necessarily – beautifully structured: each piece of information you get, however irrelevant or incidental it seems at first, becomes vital to building the whole picture.

I find it particularly suggestive that both novels – Nabokov’s and Priest’s – prominently feature artists. In The Islanders, most of the named characters, who crop up across many of the short stories and the more straightforwardly “factual” ones, are artists of one sort or another: novelists, writers on social reform, landscape artists, magicians. And many of them operate on the wrong side of the law – for repressive laws, shadowy government agencies, official secrets crop up again and again throughout the novel, again generating an uneasy tension between the official, “scientific” version of the truth and whatever it is that might actually be going on. An admittedly reductive analysis of The Islanders might posit that the artists are seeking to represent the actual lived experience of the islanders, while those in authority are protecting an “official” version of a multifarious “truth”.

That’s a lot of quotation marks for one post; but that’s also the kind of novel The Islanders is. It disturbs notions of textual authority in a way that’s deeply satisfying, emotionally as well as intellectually. It isn’t, strictly speaking, doing anything that’s particularly new (Pale Fire does pretty much everything The Islanders does), but it does do it well. And, c’mon. A fictional gazetteer? Be still my ever-geeky heart.