Tag: Neil Gaiman

Review: The City’s Son

This review contains spoilers.

The City’s Son is urban fantasy along the lines of Neverwhere and A Madness of Angels: it’s about London, the vital magic of the biggest city in Britain. Our Heroine is Beth, a teenage truant and graffiti artist. Running away from a detention and a seeming betrayal by her best friend, she stumbles upon a hidden London where the ghosts of railway trains fight and the streetlights are inhabited by tiny flickering beings. And here she meets a boy, as grey as the streets, who calls himself Filius Viae, son of Mater Viae, the Goddess of the city, who has been missing for many and many a year.

Filius and his mentor, Gutterglass (a woman made of rubbish) are leading a resistance against a being known as Reach, whose armies are cranes and barbed wire, whose thrones are skyscrapers of metal and glass, who’s literally killing the city – London’s fabric and foundations are revealed to be sentient. Beth finds herself caught up in the war: brokering alliances, learning about this new side of London, and trying to solve the mystery of where Mater Viae has gone.

Let’s start with the good, shall we?

In terms of representation, The City’s Son is doing some good work. Beth’s best friend, Parva “Pencil” Khan, is a practising Muslim, and I think (with the usual caveats: I’m a white, Western woman) that Pollock does a good job of making her a normal teenager without erasing her faith. I feel like most stories give us one or the other: either a character who’s superficially Muslim – say, they won’t eat pork – but is mostly indistinguishable from a white Westerner; or someone whose entire existence is predicated on the fact that they are Muslim – or whatever other form of non-Christianity/liberal atheism it is. Pen is both a British teenager and a Muslim – which is refreshing.

Speaking of Pen: her relationship with Beth is amazing. Female friendships are rare in speculative fiction, and Pen’s and Beth’s has all the intensity of teenagerhood – the sort of friendship that’s a bit like being in love, as Filius observes a bit jealously.

Because, of course, Filius and Beth fall in love; one criticism I do have of how Pollock handles his characterisation is that the L-word starts flying around a bit too quickly. But he does navigate the intersections between Beth and Filius and Beth and Pen well: when Pen is captured by a terrible creature called the Wire Mistress and forced to do her bidding, Beth ignores Filius’ advice and leaves him on the battlefield to rescue her. And, unusually for YA, there’s a scene at the end where they both manage to put aside their feelings for each other to do what needs to be done.

Oh, and Beth’s dad has depression, and Pollock shows us how he can be both a lousy father and a bit sympathetic. Oh, and Beth isn’t all toughness, though she pretends to be: Pollock shows us how she takes hold of her doubts and transforms them into action and decisiveness. Oh, and one of the very first conversations Beth and Pen have is one in which Pen outlines the distinction between arranged and forced marriage. Oh, and –

There’s a lot of oh, ands.

It’s a shame, then, with all this detailed, careful characterisation, that, for me, the story doesn’t quite work. The figure of Reach is quite a powerful one for a modern mythology of London: Reach is the embodiment of gentrification, unsustainable development, the capitalist greed driving Londoners out of London – killing the city, in the sense that it’s driving the heart out of it. Reach is terrifying because, it turns out, it’s mindless: a child constantly in the throes of birth, crying over and over “I will be”; just as the slow gentrification of London, the rise of all those empty, glittering residential towers on the South Bank and in the City and elsewhere, is the product not of any individual evil but of mindless, unchecked capitalism, a system driven by the need of companies to survive, crying that single-minded mantra: I will be, I will earn, I will exist.

Most of us work in that system so we can be, earn, exist, and that’s how it perpetuates itself. We’re all part of the problem.

That’s a pretty clear-eyed observation of how capitalism works, as far as it goes. But the book really has a problem in dealing with that symbol. London’s built on capitalism. It was a trading port, for a long time; that’s how it got its wealth and status, how it became the heart of an empire, how it survived the Roman invasion and the Norman Conquest and the Great Fire to become the city that it is today, layer upon layer of history and culture, all existing side-by-side. Reach has always been here. Rich developers of one kind or another have always razed the houses of the non-rich to build great deserted temples to capitalism.

What does it mean, then, for the fabric of London, created by Reach, to be fighting Reach? (Gutterglass is a particularly interesting case in point: aren’t rubbish dumps sort of the ultimate symbol of capitalism?) And, more pressingly, what does it mean for London if Reach is destroyed?

The consequences are radical; they have to be. But the novel doesn’t, in my view, do a good enough job of addressing this. The price Beth and Filius pay to destroy Reach is high, but nothing really seems to change afterwards.

The problem is partly a product of the fact that The City’s Son is only the first book in a trilogy. If the enemy you fight and defeat in book one is capitalism itself, where do you go from there? How do you follow that, if not with a revolution (which is not the road Pollock’s chosen, based on the evidence of the second novel)?

Making the monster of capitalism easy to defeat, a destruction that leaves society unchanged, is a lie, one that serves the system it criticises.

But then, so do we all.

Review: Rags & Bones

rags-bonesRags & Bones is an anthology of “New Twists on Timeless Tales”, which sounds exciting and Gothic and subversive. The impression is only reinforced by the prominent presence of Neil Gaiman and Garth Nix’s names on the cover.

In actual fact, the tales on which these stories are based are not timeless at all (if any tale – even fairy tale – ever is timeless). Most of them are very much products of their time (Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”; Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla; Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene); only two of them are fairytale retellings (Neil Gaiman’s “The Sleeper and the Spindle” and Kami Garcia’s “The Soul Collector”). In fact, a more accurate subtitle for the book would be “Retellings of Stories Some Authors Happened to Like”.

Which pretty much epitomises my experience of the book: it feels random, pointless and inessential. I haven’t read many of the original texts, but I do know about a few of them, and it feels like most of the stories here expand on their originals only in one (often the least interesting) dimension. So “The Sleeper and the Spindle” aims at a feminist retelling of “Sleeping Beauty”, but is ultimately thwarted by Gaiman’s continuing objectification of minor female characters (it really adds nothing to a story to tell us that a sleeping woman had cobwebs between her enormous breasts); Holly Black’s “Millcara” (from, obviously, Carmilla) renders LeFanu’s darkly seductive heroine as a thinly-characterised modern-day teen; and Kelley Armstrong’s sole contribution to the subgenre of retellings of “The Monkey’s Paw”, in her story “New Chicago”, is to set it during a zombie apocalypse.

There are a couple of standout’s: Garth Nix’s retelling of “The Man Who Would Be King”, “Losing Her Divinity”, is engaging mostly because of his prodigious gift for worldbuilding; and Saladin Ahmed’s “Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy” feels like the only really necessary story in the whole collection: a short meditation on the first three books of Spenser’s Faerie Queene through the eyes of its “Saracen” antagonists Sansfoy, Sansloy and Sansjoye, it’s a dissection of Western fantasy’s habit of typecasting entire races as “evil”.

Overall, though, Rags & Bones is a disappointment, and a fairly tedious one. Borrow it from your local library for Ahmed’s story, and perhaps a couple of others (Garcia’s “The Soul Collector” is quite enjoyable), but it’s not worth buying.

Review: The Owl Service

owl_serviceAlan Garner’s The Owl Service (1967) is a classic of young adult literature, published before YA was really a thing. I was, apparently, supposed to have read it for my Children’s Literature course in my last year of university (was that really almost two years ago now?), despite the reading list saying “all texts below this point are optional”. I didn’t read it because I took this pronouncement at face value.

I recently read the first volume of The Sandman, which was also on that list. And while I very much wish I had read The Sandman two years ago when all the considerable resources of the Bodleian Library were at my disposal to get my hands on the next few volumes, I can’t say my life has been diminished because of not reading The Owl Service before now.

It’s a retelling, sort of, of one of the blood-soaked Mabinogions choicer stories: that of Blodeuwedd, a woman made out of flowers to be the unlucky bride of a man who was unable to find a wife any other way. Inevitably, Blodeuwedd betrayed her husband with another man; her lover murdered her husband, and she was transformed into an owl.

So our story begins with another trio, this one of teenagers, who find themselves reenacting the whole terrible myth. Alison and her stepbrother Roger are staying in a Welsh valley, in a house Alison has inherited from her English father. Gwyn is the Welsh son of the house’s cook. When Alison hears mysterious scratchings in her ceiling, the three discover an old dinner service in the attic, patterned with owls; Alison quickly becomes obsessed, and various strange things happen throughout the house.

I think one of the reasons I couldn’t really engage with The Owl Service, despite its promising premise, was personal: I like my magic Gothic and hypnotic and ostentatious, concealing and revealing all at once, and there’s not much chance of that in Garner’s sparse realist prose.

Another reason, though, is that it feels very much like an Issues Book: which is to say, one of those books you are saddled with at school that teaches you about something Important under a thin disguise of story. The Owl Service is about class, and how the cultural appropriation of Welshness by the English and the gradual pricing out of Welsh tenants from Welsh lands is a Bad Thing, and, yes, the revolutionary socialist in my heart is very happy to agree with Garner on these subjects but it all seems to be wearing a slight veneer of didactic obviousness.

Which sort of brings me to the third reason, which is that although I’m fairly sure there are other things going on here I just can’t put my finger on what they are. In truth, The Owl Service is about more than class; it has to be, because the Mabinogion myth is not really a myth about class. In fact, it’s the theme of social and generational entrapment that seems to wind its way through the novel. The three parties of the Blodeuwedd myth are trapped from the moment Blodeuwedd is created (what, the book seems to ask, can you expect but bitterness when a woman is literally created for a man, without her say so?) and that entrapment perpetuates in a thousand ways: in the endless reenactment of the myth by the valley’s inhabitants, down the generations; in the locking away of the owl service to try to block Blodeuwedd’s power from returning; in Alison’s inability to escape the power of her stepmother; in Gwyn’s entrapment in the realities of poverty and English disdain for Welshness; in everyone’s inability to escape the roles dictated to them by their social contexts. If anything, The Owl Service feels intensely claustrophobic, as tensions rise in the valley; that terse prose binds us to the reality of events, unable to escape into fancy or metaphor. It’s quite a horrific novel, in its way.

And so we never quite see anything beyond this complex network of social pressures. The ending offers some hope of escape – but we leave the trio right on the ambivalent edge of escape, forever on the boundary into something else and never exactly reaching it; always, potentially, cycling back into the trap.

If it isn’t already obvious, I don’t have a thesis for this review. I don’t really know what to take from The Owl Service, though I think my respect for it has grown since I’ve been thinking about it. For someone, it’s likely a hugely powerful novel; and though I can see that potential, I’m not that someone.

TL;DR: your mileage may vary.

Review: The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath

The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and GoliathSo I feel a little bit spoiled for steampunk after just finishing Angela Carter’s clever, lively piece of Victoriana Nights at the Circus; The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath simply can’t measure up in comparison. It’s clearly gunning for the whimsical-modern-fairytale vibe; I can tell because it compares itself on the back cover to Neil Gaiman and someone called “Catherine Valente”; which, if you are going to compare yourself to a successful and popular author, you should probably spell their name correctly.

Our Protagonist is the titular Mirror, a girl who was shut some years before the novel opens in a grandfather clock by her mad grandfather and left to starve. The policeman who rescued her, Goliath Honey-Flower, who, incidentally, can turn into a bear, and who has developed a paternal relationship with her, is concerned because when Mirror was shut in the clock the soul of an Egyptian princess entered her; so the book opens with the pair’s search for an exorcist, visiting various dodgy spiritualists. The plot only gets weirder from there on out, taking in an evil clockmaker who steals children’s souls; an upper-class and untouchable elite going to nefarious ends to acquire eternal life; and a murderous demon with a penchant for lemon drizzle cake trying to kidnap Mirror and steal the princess’ soul. Oh, and time travel.

So: a modernist fairytale with a steampunk aesthetic. Now, steampunk comes in for a rather large dollop of critical disdain even in SFF circles, mostly from white male critics, as an essentially conservative mode tinged with rose-tinted nostalgia. And this is probably true, to an extent.

But (allowing for the fact that I have only a very limited knowledge of the genre, and that what I am about to elaborate is only a Working Theory of Steampunk) it seems to me that good steampunk is engaged in the work of queering the past; rewriting minorities into a critical narrative that pays attention primarily to the straight white middle-class cis male; creating resistance on the edges of respectability; forcing marginal narratives into an immensely influential era. The punk is just as important, if not more so, as the steam.

Mirror and Goliath is playing all kinds of textual games with its fairytale narrative: fonts get bigger and smaller, bits of old myth and legend (especially the Persephone fable) swirl in and out, fantastical things are passed off as matters of course. The book also pays some attention to madness, so often in Victorian texts a symptom of cultural resistance, of marginality. It’s making all the right moves, looking in the dark corners of Victoriana. It loves its steampunk imagery: the devil in a red silk waistcoat, the penny-dreadful murders, the ruthlessness of the rich and the powerful.

But I couldn’t ever shake the feeling, reading Mirror and Goliath, that all of this was just – surface; an interest in setting and vivid, surreal image for the sake of spectacle. The text never manages to do any heavy conceptual lifting behind its potent stage-Gothickry; and, more importantly, it falls into steampunk’s colonialist trap, with Egypt and its myths deployed to tinge the narrative with the exotic. I’m also uncomfortable with its failure adequately to address Mirror’s childhood trauma – being locked in a grandfather clock, being brought out barely alive, her sisters starved to death in a chest beneath the bed – its insistence on mythologising it into a dark, Tim Burton-esque whimsy that doesn’t, in the end, actually mean anything.

Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Review: The Sandman – Preludes and Nocturnes

“What power would Hell have if those here imprisoned were not able to dream of Heaven?”

Neil Gaiman

Preludes_and_nocturnesPreludes and Nocturnes is the first volume in Neil Gaiman’s cult horror graphic novel series The Sandman. The series actually began in 1988, which makes it older than me.

At the beginning of the book, the titular Sandman, otherwise known as Dream, or sometimes Morpheus, is captured and imprisoned in a glass orb by a group of occultists. (They were aiming for Death, but got it wrong – a plotline not entirely dissimilar to, say, Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man.) Inevitably, Dream manages to escape, but only after seventy years of wakefulness. The rest of the first volume shows him taking revenge on his captors (those who are still alive) and regaining his strength, rebuilding the land of Dream and collecting three objects scattered around the universe which will restore him to his power.

I think Preludes and Nocturnes has actually grown on me since I read it. It’s by far my favourite of Gaiman’s works (apart from Good Omens, which is a collaboration with the aforementioned Terry Pratchett): I think his stories really benefit from the visual form, which lends them a depth that his prose never quite reaches.

Which, I suppose, is apposite; because it strikes me that what this volume is really getting at is the problem of narrative control. Dreams are, of course, traditional sites for this kind of discussion: texts as diverse as Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowles and the film The Matrix (which also features a character named Morpheus, of course) create struggles over narrative control that are rooted in anxieties of influence and bodily sovereignty. And in The Sandman we have the rather more obvious fact that Dream is unequivocally an author insert, in the sense that he looks pretty much exactly like Neil Gaiman, who handily informs us in his Afterword of his “desire to write a character I could have a certain amount of sympathy with.” (One suspects that “a certain amount” really means “as large an amount as is humanly possible”.)

So. Motifs of imprisonment, escape, battles for control and storytelling echo through the book: from the story of a woman trapped by Dream’s magical sand, eventually released into “the best of all possible worlds” when Dream gets it back; through the story of Doctor Dee, who has stolen Dream’s amulet and uses it to tyrannise a diner full of innocent people; to the entrance of Dream’s amazingly hot and badass sister Death, who exhorts him to take control of his own “life” (for want of a better word; of course, Dream is immortal). Narrative control is constantly in flux; that vertiginous movement is nicely echoed by the instability of the art, which eschews square panels and (to an extent) clear reading order, veering around the page so that you often encounter moments of uncertainty as to which bit of art comes next in the story.

All this is underpinned by Gaiman’s sound understanding of how a good story works for a Western reader. Things – witches, plot coupons, leaders of Hell – come in threes. There’s an honest-to-god retelling of the fight of Merlin and Morgana from The Sword in the Stone. Cain and Abel make an appearance, Cain forever killing his brother. The DC superheroes wander in. So what looks like narrative chaos on the surface actually has a careful and familiar underlying structure that’s very satisfying: chaos may reign, but the laws of the universe (the universe in this case being Story) remain unchanged.

That makes Preludes and Nocturnes at heart a very conservative text; and it’s here where my key problem with the book lies. There’s a lot of female nudity here, and hardly any male. This is a text in which the first thing our narrator (who we can assume is either Dream or Gaiman himself) notices about a starving woman is that “her nipples are hard and dark and shrunken on breasts like empty pouches”. (Literally, the first thing. Before we even see this woman on the page.)

Just think about that for a minute.

OK. This is also a text in which a male character runs around naked for significant chunks of the book, but the shadows are always really conveniently placed.

Yes, I realise that this was the 1980s, and I have been spoiled by the delightful and irreverent Saga, but, please, get your shit together, Gaiman and co. This kind of thing leaves a really bad taste in my mouth.

I’m hooked, though. Gaiman’s storytelling really works in this format, and I desperately want to see more of Death. Here’s hoping the women get a better deal in later volumes.

Top Ten Horror Novels

“…”

  1. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski. A labyrinthine work which never quite seems to give up all of its secrets: it engulfs you as you read it, shadowing your safety, and it’s a must for any horror fan.
  2. Night Film – Marisha Pessl. This reminds me in many ways of House of Leaves: like Danielewski, it refuses to give up its secrets all at once, and it does some playing with textual sources, adding mocked-up website pages and police forms to the main narrative. But it also has a spooky bagginess all its own.
  3. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. “Is Frankenstein a horror novel?” Well, it has scientific experiments gone ‘orribly wrong, Arctic wastes filled with unknown and shadowy shapes, and wedding-night murders, so I’m going to go with “yes”. It’s intelligent horror, too, horror with a social conscience, and what more can you ask for really.
  4. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. Set in the vast and rambling and ever-changing castle of Gormenghast, Titus Groan is really a tale of entrapment: entrapment that its inhabitants don’t even quite realise is happening. It’s fantastic.
  5. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier. A twisted tale of jealousy and patriarchy and obsession.
  6. The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman. To be honest, you could read this dark fantasy for its art alone: the darkness of a suburban house is rendered with the same lavish, nightmarish hyperreality as the vistas of Hell.
  7. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe. A Regency Gothic novel, and one much sneered at by critics who have in many cases never read it. I always call it “hypnotic”: lush and dreamy prose that carries you, all unknowing, into nightmare, and you don’t realise until it’s too late.
  8. The Haunter of the Dark – H.P. Lovecraft. A warning: Lovecraft is a fucking racist, there’s simply no other way to describe him, and there’s a whole debate that can be had as to whether you can excuse some of his racism as being a product of its time (no) and whether his racism means we should stop reading him (also, probably, no). But he really has a monopoly on the whole “cosmic horror” thing, and without him today’s SFF scene just wouldn’t look the same.
  9. Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov. I might be stretching the definition of “horror” here, but Pale Fire is definitely a book imbued with the horrific. An academic writes a commentary on a long narrative poem by someone who has recently died; but his commentary begins to spiral out of control, revealing some dark truths.
  10. The Chimes – Charles Dickens. The Chimes has goblins living in church bells. It is seriously fucked up and weird in a quintessentially Dickensian sort of way.

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

Top Ten Series I Haven’t Finished Yet

“Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.”

Kameron Hurley

  1. Bel Dame Apocrypha – Kameron Hurley. I’ve only read the first one, God’s War, because in the manner of libraries everywhere my local library seems only to have the first book and the last book. But holy hells, that first book was awesome, and I’m desperate to read Infidel.
  2. Wayfarer – Becky Chambers. The second book, A Closed and Common Orbit, isn’t out until the autumn, but I just cannot wait, and I haven’t felt that way about a series for, oh, ages.
  3. Matthew Swift – Kate Griffin. I’ve read the first two books (I think there are four so far?) and I just love Griffin’s brand of urban Gothic fantasy, her ragged and vital prose, her living and magical London. Can’t wait for Neon Court.
  4. Fairyland – Catherynne Valente. There’s just one book left to read in this five-book series – The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home. The series has, sadly, been going downhill since book 3, but I can still hope, right?
  5. Saga – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. My love for Saga has not been silent. It is an ongoing series, but I’ve got plenty of scope to catch up – of the six collected volumes currently published, I’ve read three. Onwards volume 4!
  6. The Sandman – Neil Gaiman. The first volume was ever so slightly and unintentionally sexist, but the setting and the art was addictive. I’m fairly sure my local library has the second volume (The Doll’s House), and there are plenty more after that.
  7. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. What’s that you say? Regency dragons? YES PLEASE. It’s always nice to dip back into Temeraire’s world, though I think I only have three books of the nine-book series left to read. #7, Crucible of Gold, is actually on my bedside table waiting to be read as I write.
  8. Imperial Radch – Ann Leckie. Leckie’s military SF comedies of manners aren’t that different from the Temeraire books: both series focus on the complex webs of interpersonal relationships that sustain highly militarised societies. I’ve yet to read the final book in Leckie’s trilogy, Ancillary Mercy.
  9. Shades of Magic – V.E. Schwab. I’ve only read the first, A Darker Shade of Magic, which was delightfully steampunky and awesome, and I’m determined to get my hands on A Gathering of Shadows.
  10. The Long Earth – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. This series has very definitely wandered into irrelevancy by now, but I still think it features some of the best worldbuilding I’ve read for ages. The final book in the series, The Long Cosmos, is due to be published next week, in fact.

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