Tag: Neil Gaiman

Review: The Gospel of Loki

The Gospel of Loki is Joanne M. Harris’ first foray into adult epic fantasy; you’ll probably know her better as the author of Chocolat. It’s a retelling of the Norse myths, all the way through from creation to Ragnarok, from the point of view of Loki, trickster-god, god of stories and fire and generally pissing off The Man.

It should by rights be brilliant fun. It should be witty and irreverent and rich with meaning. I’m thinking Neil Gaiman at his darkest, most fairytale, least sexist best.

It is…not.

A disclaimer before I dive in: my knowledge of Norse mythology is limited to the brilliant Ragnarok/Cthulu mashup that is steampunk band The Mechanisms’ The Bifrost Incident, and a vague osmotic awareness that there are characters called Thor and Loki inhabiting the Marvel universe. Oh, and a sense of the uniquely Scandinavian grandeur of Norse mythology: mountains that hold the sky on their shoulders, relentless days and weeks and months of snow and ice, and gods to match – menacing, inscrutable, cold and above all huge. If there’s one thing Norse mythology should be, it’s awesome. It should inspire awe. That’s my feeling, anyway.

With that in mind: my overwhelming sense about The Gospel of Loki is that Harris isn’t clear on what she’s trying to do. As far as I can tell, she’s stuck pretty closely to her source material – apart from Loki’s voice. And therein lies the rub. Loki inhabits a world in which women – even goddesses – are things, domesticity is oppressive, femininity is insulting, and gay sex is banned. I think this is Harris’ idea of pre-modern Scandinavia. I don’t know whether it’s accurate (although given the 1950s-style prudishness of it all I suspect it isn’t really); it’s certainly plausible that all of this is in the original texts. But I don’t understand what the point is of repeating it all when Harris has already gone to the trouble of updating Loki’s voice. Why not use anarchic, disruptive Loki to interrogate the sexism and racism and homophobia on which the Norse myths are based (if indeed they are so based)?

That’s the thing, though: Harris’ Loki has no sting for all his talk. In a word, he’s boring. His wit and sarcasm is mainly limited to rote phrases like “so shoot me” and “it wasn’t an easy sell” and metaphors involving cookie jars and terribly misjudged jokes about women and mixing bowls. His cynicism doesn’t revitalise the Norse myths for a modern audience, which I think is what Harris is going for here; instead, it flattens them, makes their great dramas into dull soap operas. Even Ragnarok is boring when it’s narrated by this Loki, and if your apocalypse is boring then, I submit, you’re doing something wrong.

The Gospel of Loki isn’t a rewriting, a deconstruction or an interrogation of Norse mythology. Nor is it a direct translation that’s faithful to the spirit of the original. It’s a weird and pointless halfway house that doesn’t, despite its title, have anything useful or interesting to say about modernity or myth. It repeats harmful stereotypes which the author presumably doesn’t share. And the writing itself is flat, empty and superficial.

In short: I didn’t like it. Your mileage may vary. But probably not.

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Review: Imaginary Cities

Publisher Influx Press describes Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities as “a work of creative non-fiction”.

“What does that mean?” asked the Bandersnatch.

“Poorly footnoted?” I hazarded.

I was being flippant, of course, but even so I think that’s a good way into what Imaginary Cities is doing, and what it’s not doing.

It’s not an academic study. It doesn’t proceed by evidence-based argument or by logical progression. Or, for that matter, by rigorous citing of sources. Where an academic work is univocal, advancing one opinion in the context of a wider cultural conversation, Imaginary Cities is polyvocal, and contains multitudes.

It is, as its title suggests, a look at the city: that is, the city as it has been imagined and constructed in fiction and art and theory and criticism, from the oldest symbol ever found by archaeologists, a 50,000-year-old red disc painted on a cave wall (perhaps “the singularity that is the pupil of a human eye,” “the fulcrum on which the entire visible universe pivots”, and thus our starting point, chronologically and philosophically, for thinking about space and ultimately architecture) to the apocalypse-emptied cities imagined during and after the Second World War. It spans a vast body of thinking about cities and architecture, from the writings of le Corbusier to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. It works in a sort of stream-of-consciousness fashion, moving from text to text in a way that resembles the mental “hyperlinking” of early medieval Biblical scholars: Anderson creates loose chains of linked ideas, and leaves it up to the reader to make the links explicit.

So: polyvocal. It’s a book that admits many different views of the city, and many different constructions of what a city is and what it’s for. Some broad themes emerge: in particular, the idea that all architecture is rooted in a desire to build utopia (“Anyone who build anything, be it a shed or the Shard, is utopian-minded”, as Anderson writes in Strange Horizons). Anderson’s writing leans liberal progressive, and he pays close attention to the ways in which this utopia-drive can be tyrannical and/or colonialist, authoritarian visions handed down by a self-selected elite to the hoi polloi who don’t get a say.

He also constructs the city as hodge-podge, as bricolage, a patchwork of different utopias – a construction that nicely mirrors the polyvocal construction of the book itself, a patchwork of utopian visions and dystopian nightmares. Both the book and the city, therefore, are imperfect, defined by their gaps and crevices and imperfections as much as they are by their triumphs and their grand ideological edifices.

So: Imaginary Cities may be poorly footnoted (a shame, since I’m sure it deserves a more rigorous response than I have time to give it). It may feel rushed towards the end: more a list of sources and quotations than a productive series of linkages. There may be places where entire chapters seem to have been switched around late in the game (the Situationist term “spectacle” is first used about twenty pages before Anderson defines it in a subsequent chapter). But, as the dead spaces and discontinuities and construction zones of any real city are indispensable parts of its whole, so these imperfections are part of the book’s energy. Imperfection gives both book and city vitality: the sense of a movement, however illusory, towards perfection, towards utopia. Word and space are collapsed in Imaginary Cities into one; we read the city, we traverse the book.

Jeez, this is like catnip to me. I want more creative non-fiction like this, please and thank you.

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.)

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.)

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 Films

Have I really never done this post before? OK, then…

  1. Les Miserables, dir. Tom Hooper. This is the one with Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman and (mmm) Eddie Redmayne. The first time I saw it I was so wonderstruck I nearly walked in front of a taxi. The music is a cut above that of most musicals, the story is an acknowledged heart-breaker, and I will never see a better Marius than Eddie Remayne, though I admit he is not really a singer.
  2. The Return of the King, dir. Peter Jackson. This film has a gazillion endings, and they are all perfect, and then comes that most wonderful of songs, Annie Lennox’s “Into the West”. There are things Jackson gets wrong (*side-eyes Faramir’s truncated character arc), but in essence the film captures the heart of the books in a way that’s sadly rare for book-to-film adaptations.
  3. The Fellowship of the Ring, dir. Peter Jackson. You can see how this list is going to go down, can’t you? (Though the Hobbit films are an abomination against all that is good and holy.) I love the lightness of Fellowship, our introduction to hobbits who are still (relatively) carefree, the character dynamics of the Fellowship which we don’t see in later films. Fellowship is still an adventure. They’ve yet to slog through the battlefields of the second film in the trilogy…
  4. The Two Towers, dir. Peter Jackson. This is really only here for completeness’ sake: Towers is my least favourite book in the trilogy just as it’s my least favourite film of the three. Helm’s Deep bores me. Frodo and Sam walk through the same carbon-fibre set of rocks about a zillion times. Andy Serkis’ Gollum, though, is a masterpiece.
  5. Stardust, dir. Matthew Vaughn. Stardust is based on Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, so naturally it is secretly sexist. (It’s totally OK to kidnap an injured woman if she turns out to be your True Love.) But, oh, how delightfully fluffy this film is! Its Fairyland is wild and dangerous and strange but not too strange, and it’s full of everything you want to find in Fairyland: princes and witches and weird bloody necklaces and desperate horseback rides and magical markets and epic landscapes, unscrupulous merchants and captive princesses and sky pirates and Babylon candles. It’s funny and magical and I love it with all my fannish heart.
  6. The Matrix, dir. the Wachowski sisters. I like The Matrix because it is cool. That is all. I love the cyberpunk aesthetic. I think bullet time looks awesome. I like the way the hackers’ handles all have deeper meanings. The soundtrack is perfect. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss both look very attractive in their badass cyberpunk outfits. And the film manages to pull off “and the World was Saved by Love” with style.
  7. Cloud Atlas, dir. the Wachowski sisters. Cloud Atlas was controversial among the critics, but I was already a fan of the novel, so I was halfway there. I came out of the cinema after watching Cloud Atlas feeling like I did when I finished the book: like I’d glimpsed some overarching structure to the universe, that there was some ambitious and elusive truth amid the disconnected flashes of experience that make up all our histories.
  8. The Social Network, dir. David Fincher. The Social Network is carried by Jesse Eisenberg, an astonishingly high-energy actor who specialises in making arseholes supremely watchable. Plus, the screenwriter is Aaron Sorkin, he of The West Wing, and the film zings with his swift, intelligent, witty dialogue.
  9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, dir. Russell T. Davies. This is my favourite Shakespeare adaptation: gloriously camp and colourful, diverse and carnivalesque, a flash of bright left-wing hope against the thunderclouds of Trump and Brexit and irreversible climate change. I cried at the end, so defiantly triumphant was it.
  10. The Muppet Christmas Carol, dir. Brian Henson. YES, I am a grown English student and I still watch this every Christmas (much to the disgruntlement of my sister, who is naturally much cooler than I am). It’s so Christmassy and delightful! And is surprisingly faithful, in story and in spirit (no pun intended), to Dickens’ original.

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

Review: The Sandman – The Doll’s House

If Preludes and Nocturnes introduced us to Dream, then The Doll’s House, the second volume in the cult Sandman graphic novel series written by Neil Gaiman (collecting issues #9 through #16, if you’re counting*), really starts fleshing him out.

For the confused: Dream is one of the Endless, who personify human concepts like – to name some of Dream’s siblings – Desire, Delirium and Death. In Preludes and Nocturnes Dream escaped the clutches of a cult who had kept him magically imprisoned for seventy years, and set about reclaiming three magical artefacts that were stolen from him. The Doll’s House sees him start to repair some of the damage his long imprisonment has wreaked both on the world and on his psychic realm, the Dreaming.

But it seems to me that what the volume is really concerned with is Dream’s relationships: with his lover, his friends, his siblings, his dream-subjects, with the humans he comes across in his work. I like the way the volume unfolds this, across eight stories with a range of tones, settings and styles: the folk tale Tales in the Sand, which tells of Dream’s only human love; the dark, almost Twilight Zone-ish horror of Collectors, which sees two humans wander unwittingly into a convention of serial killers; the (relatively) light-hearted Men of Good Fortune, which zips through a century every double-page spread or so.

Dream is referred to in Preludes and Nocturnes as the “master of stories”, and there’s certainly something of a Neil Gaiman self-insert in him, so it feels appropriate that he can move through a number of story types and play a number of different roles (for example: abusive lover in the style of the Greek gods; knight in shining armour come to rescue the damsel in distress; morality figure trying to teach someone a lesson about life). He’s a trickster figure, a creature who can control, and slip between, seemingly fixed narratives. That’s why, I think, The Sandman works so well as a graphic novel: it can, to a certain extent, go beyond the linguistic surfaces of traditional narrative structures, the better to allow us to peer into the (wordless) collective unconscious, where reside the fundamental concepts that underpin those narratives – the raw stuff of Story. It’s here that Dream lives. It’s here that lies behind all the roles that Dream plays, all the stories he passes through – so, by extension, here must lie the true reality.

That’s at once the series’ strength and its downfall. As I noted in my review of Preludes and Nocturnes (almost exactly a year ago, wow), Gaiman’s work is powerful – it tugs on our imaginations – precisely because it taps into our collective unconscious, the treasure-house of narrative which we use to read the world. Gaiman knows that we know, on a fundamental and unconscious level, that things always come in threes, that you should be careful what you wish for, that dreams are never just dreams. We know these things because we’ve been told them, over and over again, in books and films and TV shows and anecdotes – in stories. And Gaiman is one of the best writers out there at laying them bare and expressing them in their purest form.

But, by the same token, Gaiman’s work is problematic because (in my opinion) it doesn’t ironise those concepts enough. In particular, it treats that collective unconscious not as culturally specific and contingent upon certain assumptions about what kind of person it’s worth telling stories about, but as global, universal and timeless – literally, in the case of The Sandman. Which means that it’s eternally trapped by the very concepts it exposes; it always, quietly, insidiously, unconsciously encodes nostalgic, conservative, oppressive structures into itself.

To take an example from The Doll’s House: the first issue in the volume, Tales in the Sand, is, as I’ve said, framed as a folk tale about Dream’s human love, Queen Nada. Nada knows (as we all know, from folk tales like this one) that loving a deity is a bad idea, so she rejects Dream, repeatedly and vehemently. He ignores her, repeatedly; pushes her boundaries; has sex with her, against her express wishes. (But it’s OK, because she was turned on by it, so obviously it was Meant to Be.) The sun rises on them together, and, horrified by this unnatural pairing, destroys Queen Nada’s city, at which point she dumps Dream. The spurned Endless sends her to Hell, proving that she was right all along that their coupledom would only bring disaster.

Now, there’s a scene in the middle of this tale when Nada, driven to desperation by Dream’s refusal to leave her alone, takes her own virginity with a sharp stone – in the belief that he won’t want her any more if she’s not a virgin.

The series constantly ties women’s worth and character to their physical appearance or their sexual attributes, while it’s reticent to the point of prudishness about male sexuality and nudity. Although it’s clear that Nada’s belief in virginity as the basis of love is rooted in the fact that she’s a character in a folk tale (this in itself is problematic, though, as the tellers of the tale are non-white desert-dwellers – who the collective unconscious is fond of casting as backward and regressive), what’s jarring is that, despite the fact that Dream proves himself outside that narrative by refusing her non-virginity as a reason to leave her alone, he never manages to ironise her action. The narrative wants us to see it as heroic, self-sacrificing if futile, rather than a stupid thing to do; in short, it sees the virginity = desirability equation as a function of how the world is, one of the narrative archetypes out of which Dream’s world is made. Dream is not trapped by it, but the work is. It doesn’t apply to Dream, but only because Dream is special, and can escape it.

And that, dear reader, is my problem with Neil Gaiman. I like engaging with his work – especially, I has to be said, the Sandman series – and I like arguing with it, because it’s fun and useful and helps me draw out my thoughts about narrative and fairy tale and Story. But actually reading it often makes me feel – uncomfortable.

*Incidentally, Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge also informs me that the first collected edition of The Doll’s House started with issue #8, The Sound of Her Wings, which I think makes more sense thematically than shoving it at the end of Preludes and Nocturnes. Anyway.