Tag: fantasy

Review: The True Queen

This review contains spoilers.

Zen Cho’s The True Queen is a sequel to her Sorcerer to the Crown – a novel set in Regency England following Zacharias Wythe, the country’s first African Sorcerer Royal, and Prunella Gentleman, a mixed-race young woman determined to legitimise women’s magic.

Now, in this second novel, Zacharias and Prunella are established figures, albeit ones still facing some pushback from the more conservative members of society. As Sorceress Royal, Prunella’s founded a magical school for women. It’s here that Malaysian sisters Sakti and Muna travel after a brief diplomatic incident that threatens to heighten tensions between the vulnerable island of Janda Baik and the mighty, ever-expanding British Empire – but their route to London lies through Fairyland. When Sakti gets lost there, Muna, who has no magic of her own, must pretend to be a powerful sorceress to convince Prunella and the rest of the school staff to help her retrieve her sister.

So! I was at a Worldcon panel on Regency fantasy featuring Zen Cho (as well as Mary Robinette Kowal, Heather Rose Jones and Susan de Guardiola). One of the things the panel talked about was the appeal of the Regency period and also what defines a Regency novel as Regency. What these discussions came back to, ultimately, was class. It’s not Regency without middle-class protagonists, and balls, and Englishness – because those are the reasons that people write Regency. The social mores are fun and narratively useful; it’s easy to keep heterosexual couples apart because of the conventions of the time, and the language allows for great insults and witty comebacks. And those dresses!

That acknowledged, I do think that part of what Cho is doing in The True Queen involves bringing people into this conception of the Regency who are often written out. Take Sakti and Muna, who are both Malaysian and are functionally orphans – although they’ve been taken in by a witch with high status on Janda Baik, Muna in particular has spent much of her time there working in the kitchen. Then there’s the scholars at Prunella’s school, who include a governess and a cook’s daughter (though their teachers are both from “respectable”, middle-class families). And one of the book’s subplots revolves around a gay man whose partner is a dragon from Fairyland. Bringing these people into our conception of the Regency doesn’t have to be about telling true tales (although minorities did exist in these circles at the time) – it’s about allowing people now to see themselves in this social construct of the Regency that’s as much created by our own present preconceptions and cultural history as by those of the people who were alive then.

One of the things that allows Cho to do that is Fairyland itself, and the wider structures of fantasy. I’ve written before about how the Fairyland portrayed in the TV adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell functions as a dark funhouse mirror of Regency society, reflecting, revealing and exaggerating its oppressions and abuses of women and people of colour. Cho’s is a more upbeat vision, though; although her Fairyland occupies a similar role in the world she’s written – in that magic in England is scarce and running out – it is more a source of liberation than oppression. It’s in association with Fairyland that Paget Damerell can have a gay relationship (which is mirrored in the social world by a marriage of convenience at the end of the novel to a lesbian; Fairyland offers freedom, the real world polite social fictions). It’s through Fairyland that Sakti and Muna come to their true power – and that Muna finds her way to a queer relationship of her own. (This is the BEST surprise of the novel, and one it keeps faithfully to its last few pages.) In other words, Cho’s Fairyland is a place that allows marginalised people to be true to themselves while allowing them to participate in polite society under genteel social fictions.

Above all, it’s important to note that The True Queen is fun! And ultimately I think that’s what it’s doing: including people of colour and queer people in a story that’s fun and silly and romantic, in a genre that’s traditionally reserved for white, straight, middle-to-upper-class people. That’s all, and that’s enough.

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Review: The Dream of Perpetual Motion

I enjoyed Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion while I was reading it, found it moderately interesting, thought there’d be plenty to think and write about it.

Now, a couple of months down the line, it seems it hasn’t quite “taken” in my memory. Likely I’m just very tired at the moment, for a range of reasons. Likely, too, I’ve just bounced off it for mysterious reasons.

It’s steampunk, at least nominally, and so should be very much my thing. Narrated by its protagonist Harold, it’s the tale of how he ended up imprisoned in an airship high above the earth, with only the disembodied voice of a woman named Miranda and a rapidly failing perpetual motion machine for company. The tale takes in Miranda’s fantastically rich and controlling inventor father Prospero Taligent, the grim travesty of a birthday party he throws early in his daughter’s life and his ominous granting to each of the randomly selected children who are his guests their “heart’s desire”. It’s a story of disillusionment and the corruption of meaning, the mechanisation of art and the ivory tower unreality of the rich.

It’s an anti-capitalist story, as far as it goes, figuring the industrial production that imbues Prospero with (eventually) near-despotic power as uncanny: in Palmer’s alternative world, mechanised labour is done by steam-powered mechanical men of varying degrees of intelligence. Prospero’s ultimate goal is to create a fully synthetic human, completing the displacement of the human by the artificial.

It’s an unusual treatment of steampunk, which tends to read industrialisation and mechanisation as progress and potential. I suspect part of the reason I’ve bounced off it is because it’s a little male-gazey: Harold’s interest in Miranda is somehow never about her but about an idealised version of her; the same is true of her father, literally, as a horrific late sequence in the novel shows. (Content warning for non-consensual surgery.) Steampunk usually is good at decent female characters (Gail Carriger’s Soulless, Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, let’s even throw in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, why not), so perhaps it’s the departure from the genre that’s distracting me. This is steampunk being used as a literary device not a genre? Which is fine, but it calls for different reading protocols. And even if I’d read it as Literary, I don’t think I’d have been able to ignore the objectification of Miranda – I’m rapidly running out of patience with litfic’s treatment of women in general.

I might be tempted to read this again, though – it’s definitely the sort of thing that would reward re-reading, especially re-reading with greater attention. For now, though, it’s a case of wrong reader, wrong time.

Review: The Night Circus

Marco and Celia, the two young, late-Victorian protagonists of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, have been trained all their lives to take part in a non-specific magical challenge – a duel of sorts which (it’s been impressed upon them both) they must win. They have never met each other. They do not even know when they will meet each other, and when the challenge will begin.

That’s where the circus comes in: a fantastical, elegant, refined affair, confined to a palette of black, white and shades of grey, that opens at sundown and closes at dawn. Here, Marco and Celia’s works of real enchantment are concealed among more mundane wonders – contortionists and performing kittens rub shoulders with tents filled with impossible mazes and memories captured in glass bottles.

This is what circuses are for, after all. Formally speaking, literary circuses function as sites of suspension – the suspension of the rules and laws of ordinary daytime life; and the suspension of disbelief. It’s necessary that these laws be suspended, not removed, because the key thing about the circus is that it allows the anarchic energies that potentially threaten those laws to be expended safely, while normal life continues outside. Hence, liminality and uncertainty is central to the functioning of the circus: the boundary between reality and illusion is not just blurred, it is functionally non-existent. Time, too, is subject to different rules: one of the central attractions at Morgenstern’s circus is a “dreamlike” clock which turns from white to black and back again over the course of the twelve hours that the circus is open; and midnight is a significant hour for performers and audience alike.

The Night Circus is a gorgeous novel precisely because it achieves that delicate state of suspension. It’s told in the present tense, inhabiting a permanent enchanted Now; Morgenstern’s prose has a quality that is precisely dreamlike, in that past and future seem to have little hold; all is spectacle, all is immediacy. In describing the circus, Morgenstern walks the line between declaring things definitively magical or definitively illusionary; we’re allowed to inhabit a space outside rationality, where events follow a more primal and ritual logic.

It’s in this space that Marco and Celia negotiate and test the boundaries their controlling mentors have placed upon them, the binding magical contract the challenge represents (a contract they never signed or consented to). And it’s in this space that they find the freedom to bend the rules – to suspend them without escaping them fully. It probably isn’t a spoiler to say that The Night Circus is a deeply satisfying love story because of the way it dramatizes and follows through on how its circus functions.

Having said that – for a circus story, its revolutionary potential is limited by perhaps the very perfection of its circus. I’ve recently re-read Angela Carter’s terrific and challenging Nights at the Circus, in which the suspension of disbelief, the blurring of reality and illusion, is collapsed, and in doing so sort-of sparks a new and more anarchic age. The pent-up energies of the circus escape, in other words, and infect society with their vitality. The novel’s heroine is freed from her own enchanting persona and can become real, in all her complexity and humanity.

That doesn’t happen in The Night Circus. The rules of the challenge – only suspended, not fully lifted – mean Marco and Celia, and the anarchic energy they represent, must remain in the circus, safely, not affecting the structures of normality outside. We can see this conservatism reflected further in Morgenstern’s choice to make the night circus genteel: there are no peanut-munching crowds baying for blood here, just well-dressed patrons wandering, politely awestruck, into silken tents, or standing hushed in miraculously uncrowded courtyards. It is delightful. But it is not vital, not brimming with countercultural potential as Carter’s circus is.

Similarly, the novel’s minority representation is good for steampunk but bad for circus literature: there’s an LGBT Asian woman and one of the circus’ key organisers is Indian. But they’re (important) secondary characters, and the fact remains that the novel’s focus is on a largely uncomplicated het romance between two young, attractive white people. Compare, again, the LGBT subtext of Carter’s novel; its profusion of characters from disadvantaged backgrounds – those are the energies that threaten to overwhelm the societies the novel’s set in. As opposed to delicately woven set-piece enchantments.

So: The Night Circus is what it describes. A rarefied illusion; a glittering, dreamlike confection; an escape into a place more wondrous and magical than mundane reality. But it has no radical potential, no call to arms, no way to enact change. It is a world unto itself; a lovely work, but ultimately a minor one.

Review: The Adventure Zone – Here There Be Gerblins

I cannot resist the lure of a graphic novel lying around the house.

Here There Be Gerblins is the graphic-novel version of the first series of The Adventure Zone, a moderately well-known D&D podcast that we’ve just started listening to. That makes it, basically, a quite funny fantasy adventure story with a bit of tame fourth-wall breaking and a hard left at the end. Not reeally the same as the podcast, then.

There’s not much I have to say about this? Partly because it’s like 34 degrees Celsius today and I’ve been a bit under the weather all week, but partly also because as a book it’s a category error. Like, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to translate a rambling, improvised, off-the-cuff RPG into the disciplined, action-packed form of a comic book. The result is, frankly, wishy-washy. Fun, but not memorable.

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.

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.