Tag: poetry

NINE WORLDS 2017! Or, I Am Really Quite Proud Of Myself

So I went to the Nine Worlds geek fest convention for the second time over the weekend just gone. (At least, it was just gone when I started writing this post.) I went on my own, which I wasn’t quite expecting when I bought the ticket, and for this and other reasons it was a very different experience from last year. It was, in particular, far less terrifying than my first Nine Worlds – I feel like I got a lot more out of the con experience this year, and I’m proud of myself for doing a number of things that would have made me horribly anxious a year ago.

This is going to be a long, and quite personal, post. You have been warned.

Nine Worlds 2017!!

I arrived at the Novotel London West, in Hammersmith, on the Thursday night, after an extremely busy and stressful week at work (because, of course, it is fundamentally impossible to go on holiday without having a busy and stressful week at work beforehand). This being a deeply unhelpful state of mind to be in just before the emotional tour de force that is a three-day convention, I checked in, registered, and went straight to bed.

Friday: Mars One, the Mechanisms and More

Friday I wore Generic Steampunk, and received many compliments and an “Awesome Cosplay!” token, even though I wasn’t cosplaying anything. So that was lovely.

After the all-important meal that is breakfast, my first event of Friday morning was Studying Policy on Prevention of Terrorism in Education, a fascinating talk by PhD student and former teacher Megan Bettinson about the government requirement that schools promote “British values” – defined as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and respect for and tolerance of different faiths. She pointed out that these terms are nowhere properly defined – which leads into worrying situations like fracking protestors being arrested under anti-terrorism laws because they’re breaking the rule of law. As someone who’s concerned about the current rhetoric around terrorism in Britain, I found this talk eye-opening and fascinating, and it was probably one of my favourite of the con. And I also did a thing I was proud of: I raised my hand and contributed to a discussion at the beginning of the talk about what the audience thought “British values” were. Last year I didn’t dare put my hand up in anything, and if I had it would only have been with much trepidation.

Next (after a quick chat with one of my TolkSoc friends who I saw across the corridor) was Undercover Geek: How to do Stealth Cosplay, another favourite: a talk about cosplaying in real life situations where full cosplay would be inappropriate. So, for instance, using block colours to evoke Disney characters or Star Trek redshirts, or wearing Deathly Hallows earrings at work. It wasn’t a particularly content-heavy session, but it turned into a bit of a conversation with the audience, and raised some interesting points about in-group identification and belonging. Stealth cosplay will definitely be something that I do! (I have already asked my sister for stealth cosplay items for my birthday in a couple of weeks…)

I grabbed a swift sandwich lunch at one of the (quite eye-wateringly expensive) hotel outlets before heading off to Classical Monsters in Popular Culture – a panel looking at the reception of classical monsters, mostly in films and TV. It started off well: Dr Liz Gloyn talked lucidly and intelligently about monster theory, which says that monsters are manifestations of what we worry about as a society, and then asked why, in that case, we’re still using monsters thought up in a very different time period in modern media.

Dr Amanda Potter followed this up by describing a couple of modern approaches to classical monsters: rationalisation (the Doctor Who model, which recasts monsters as aliens who have strange powers because of Science); making them sympathetic (mentioning the way that Atlantis’ Medusa tells Hercules to cut off her head and use it as a weapon – which to Potter makes her a heroine of sorts, though to me it reads “objectification”); and eroticising them. I wanted to know a bit more about why it’s important to modern creators to defuse classical monsters in these ways, and what it says about us as a society that these are the ways we choose to do it. That was my general impression of the panel: they touched on a number of topics without really addressing any of them quite adequately, and didn’t manage to come to any kind of thesis by the end.

It turned out that several of my TolkSoc friends had also attended this panel, so we all had a bit of a debrief (I had crisps; they had lunch), and then I headed off to Mars: The Journey of a Lifetime with one of them. This was a talk by Hannah Earnshaw, a Mars One candidate.

If you’ve not heard of it, Mars One is (probably) equal parts scam, publicity stunt and complete fucking lunacy. There is an entire post to be written about the fantasy that is Mars One; I direct you to this rather good one. In a nutshell, though, Mars One says they are going to send a crew of four on a one-way trip to Mars, for just $6bn, in 2032. Pretty much everyone else says they don’t have the technology, the funding, the people or the ability to do it. A group of PhD students from MIT found that, under its current plan, the first crew member would die within 68 days of landing on Mars, if they ever made it there in the first place.

I knew all this before I went to Earnshaw’s talk; but I hoped they might talk about what moves a person to sign up to leave Earth forever, to head out into the unknown. Instead, they reeled off what sounded suspiciously like pre-formed corporate drivel. We spent a good deal of the talk alternately sniggering and being bored.

Then there were the questions, which made it abundantly clear what kind of organisation Mars One is. There were many questions, about tiny details like, oh, why Mars One hasn’t published any scientific papers into its methods (because America won’t let them, apparently, which, what?), whether there’ll be a legal system on Mars (“we might have to have a sponsor country” – OK, that’s not a terrible answer, but it was clear that Mars One doesn’t have a plan in mind), and what’s going to happen about sex in a Mars colony. (Earnshaw implied that they wouldn’t want to raise children on Mars for at least a couple of decades after the landing, at which point, as my TolkSoc friend pointed out, the colonists would be about fifty years old.) I asked why Mars One has recruited members of the public as colonists rather than, say, the kind of people at NASA who have trained for a zillion years and have astrophysics PhDs. The answer? In a nutshell, Mars should belong to everybody.

OK, this is not the London Marathon, this is GOING TO MARS. There is a very real risk of death; and if the mission goes horribly wrong, there’s also a risk that no-one else will ever dare to try it again. This is not a place for rank amateurs and random sci-fi readers.

Moving on. The next panel I went to was Security for Beginners, whose description kind of intrigued me (“cyber/crypto security for activists and everyone else as well…things we can do for ourselves, so we can be ourselves online”). It was more techy than I was expecting (it says “beginners” right there in the title), and began with a request that nobody incriminate themselves (which, whoa), but touched on some interesting points about whether our real identity is the one online or the one IRL.

Straight after that I went to an RPG run by Rusty Quill called Zero Void, in which we (“we” being me and five strangers) were all space criminals fresh from a heist trying to obtain by nefarious means enough fuel to escape the Imperial forces. We ran into some space zombies and died in the end, but we had fun along the way, not least because the GM was Jonny D’Ville from THE ACTUAL MECHANISMS and I quietly fangirled for about three hours. What even is air.

Can I also just stop and emphasise that I spent three hours role-playing with some complete strangers. Again, that’s a thing that I’m enormously proud of myself for doing.

After the RPG – which finished at 9pm, in the middle of one of the panel slots – I went and ate an oily and not brilliant curry in the hotel lounge bar, and read Affinity by Sarah Waters until some people I knew turned up, and I ended up chatting to someone I’d never met (another point!) about Garth Nix and sexism in fantasy. Then we went to the Friday Nite Lite disco, which was fun and I knew some songs, but I was tired and went to bed reasonably early. (About midnight, I think.)

Saturday: Cosplay, Communism and Cabaret

Saturday was cosplay day! I woke up about an hour early, I was so excited, and ended up dancing around the room to the soundtracks from Sunless Sea and Fallen London. Because that, of course, was my cosplay: I had an Exceptional Hat, and a Bejewelled Cane (which featured about 240 plastic jewels I’d stuck on myself, by hand), and a long black opera coat, and here is a picture:

I received many “Awesome Cosplay!” tokens, though I also kept handing them out, so I never had enough on me to cash them in for a prize. Everyone loved my hat. (I took a whole suitcase full of hats to Nine Worlds.)

OK, let’s talk about the actual day. The first talk I went to was How to Write a Location You Can’t Go To, by urban fantasy author Melissa F. Olson. The talk itself was excellent: Olson gave a well-structured presentation covering not only how to write about somewhere you can’t visit but also what to do if you do manage to visit the place where you want to set your novel. Tips for writing about somewhere you can’t visit (which was the bit I was interested in: I’m writing a novel set in Crete in the mythology of the Greek gods, and also a short story set on the planet Trappist-1b) included finding someone who does live there who’s happy to answer random questions and to act as a beta reader, and looking at the local library’s internet presence to find out what the community there cares about. However, I felt she didn’t really know her audience very well, and that was particularly apparent when someone asked about how they should write about Mars, which no-one can go to (no, not even Mars One). She indicated that you’d have a lot more freedom to write about Mars, “because who’s going to tell you you’re wrong?”

Um. The many members of the geek community who are academics and scientists, maybe?

Next I went to Representations of the City in SFF, which currently ties for my favourite panel of the con: the panellists talked about ideas of the relationship between space and morality, which is exactly the kind of concept involved in the Grand Thesis I am constructing in my head about Gothic fiction and its haunted castles. The panel touched on Le Corbusier’s Modernist theories about purging antiques from our domestic lives so we become healthier and more productive – architecture as a way of creating better, more integrated, more economic citizens. Towards the end, they started talking about why utopian aspirations for architecture get talked about less than dystopian ones, and about the politics of high-rises – particularly interesting and pertinent in the wake of the Grenfell fire. I would really like to see another panel like this next year.

I met one of my TolkSoc friends there, so we had a chat about how much we enjoyed the panel, and found some of our other TolkSoc friends, and went to grab a quick sandwich with them before the next event, which for me was Cosplayers: Larp! I’ve never done any larping before; I’d like to say that this session encouraged me to do more. Unfortunately, I definitely think it could have done with  a bit more direction – the scenario was just, “these characters meet in a bar. Go.” Like, I know coming up with a proper campaign would be difficult without knowing which characters were going to turn up, but as it was a lot of people seemed to melt away throughout the session, and the handful of us left ended up having awkward, mock-drunken conversations about how depressed all our characters were. (Me: “We never see the sky in Fallen London! Never!”) I think I wanted the larping to be a bit more live action.

I found my TolkSoc friends again and we went to Dumbledore – Good or Evil?, a panel debate which one of my Oxford friends was taking part in. I’m not really particularly interested in taking Dumbledore seriously as a real person, just because so many of his decisions and actions are clearly a function of his role as headmaster of an upper-middle-class English boarding school, but for me the panel was fun and light and snarky and questioned some of the ideological bases of Rowling’s books, which is always good. As a serious debate it didn’t work too well – it failed, for instance, to define what “good” and “evil” actually were – but taking it for what it was, I enjoyed it.

Next we went to Poor Life Choices: A live choose your own adventure, in which the audience had to save the world by basically assembling an Avengers team. The choices were made by the simple expedient of the performer giving everyone a raffle ticket and pulling a number from a hat each time the script called for a choice to be made. I made a winning choice close to the end of the session which meant we collected Lucifer, so that was awesome! Overall the session was funny, the performer James Webster animated (though he spoke perhaps a little too fast at times), and the script at times poetic without being parodic or over-flown – a difficult balance to achieve, I think.

Everyone wandered off at this point, so I had a hot dog at one of the hotel outlets (yay for excellent food choices at conventions!). I skipped the next session in favour of a glass of wine and Affinity in the bar, and then we all went to the Bifrost Cabaret! This was mostly excellent: I can never remember the names of acts, but there was a balloon animal magician who was very funny, a singer-songwriter who sang the song about rubbish feminists rescuing Rapunzel that I just cannot find on the internet anywhere and which I heard and liked last year as well (I think the singer was Alice Nicholls, but the song doesn’t seem to be on her Bandcamp), and someone reciting their mildly filthy but also rather sweet poetry. (Normally I am of the opinion that there is almost no excuse for reciting your own poetry on stage, but there’s an exception to every rule.) We just about managed to escape MC Skywalker, who we saw last year rapping incomprehensibly about Star Wars, and all-out ran from the last act of the second half, which seemed to consist entirely of leading unsuspecting members of the audience up onto the stage to dance, which, nope. We all noped.

There was a brief space between the cabaret and the Bifrost disco; I ended up following my TolkSoc friends to the hotel room where one of their friends was staying (another scary thing I did!) and drinking wine out of plastic cups and chatting.

The disco itself was, sadly, a disappointment: we missed the early part of it (but isn’t this standard disco practice?), so it’s quite possible we missed the geekier songs, but I only knew about three songs in the whole night, and everyone else said the same thing. Mainly it was techno/heavy metal type stuff which you can’t really dance to and which seems to exist solely to assault your ears. We kept going back to see if the music was getting any better, but it didn’t. So then I chatted until 3:30am in the bar about Steven Moffat, and that was fun.

Sunday: BookTube, Blanket Forts and Brilliant Hats

Four hours’ sleep later, it was the last day of Nine Worlds. (Sad face.) I was in Low-Key Steampunk, with another hat that also garnered compliments. My first panel, at the unearthly time of 10am (remember: four hours’ sleep), was BookTube – Reviewing Books in the 21st Century, which was really geared towards people looking to start a BookTube channel – i.e, not me. (I have this blog!) Nevertheless, it was interesting to hear that none of the panellists really had any technical equipment when they started; and one of them (who I met on Friday night) worked for a publishing house, so it was interesting to hear from her perspective.

Next, for me, was Protocols for the education of young witches and wizards, in which Alison Baker discussed her research into approaches to education in the Harry Potter, Bartimaeus and Tiffany Aching series. (I went just for Tiffany Aching, naturally.) Like the Classical Monsters panel on Friday, this started off promisingly, with Baker looking at the different teaching styles of Hogwarts teachers (basically, Lupin is the only good teacher at Hogwarts. Harry is also a good teacher, apparently), but tailed off into description rather than analysis. She suggested of the Discworld series that education that doesn’t teach people to be good members of the community – in other words, the education delivered at Unseen University – is portrayed as useless and sterile. I found myself pushing back against this idea, actually: while Pratchett clearly has a lot less respect for the wizards of Unseen than he does for the self-taught witches, I also feel that part of Pratchett’s point in the Discworld series is that everyone has a place in society and a way of contributing to it. The wizards, for example, do save the Disc on at least one occasion (Reaper Man, I think?) and assist in saving it, however cack-handedly, in other books. (Going Postal, Hogfather, The Last Hero.) It’s when people don’t find a place for themselves that things go wrong. Obviously that kind of analysis wasn’t really in the scope of Baker’s talk, but I felt she could have said more about the larger societies depicted in each series.

Next was the session I was probably most looking forward to in the whole convention: Social Gaming with the Haberdashery Collective, basically an hour of playing silly party games like lemon jousting (now a stalwart at TolkSoc meetings), Ninja – where you strike your best ninja poses in an effort to hit the back of your neighbour’s hand, putting them out of the game – and Jedi Training, which involves stabbing people with a foam sword. It was brilliant fun and I lost all the games and it was exactly the right time in the convention to do it.

One of my TolkSoc friends was there and afterwards we went off to Blanket Fort Construction 101, where we met other TolkSoc people and also someone I half-know from the LOTNA meetup group, which is awkward because I only went to LOTNA a few times. We supported the construction of a giant blanket fort, although there was something of a too-many-cooks issue, and then we all hid in the blanket fort and I found out that one of my TolkSoc friends – who I didn’t know very well before Nine Worlds – listens to Paul Shapera. I have never met anyone else who listens to Paul Shapera (independently, anyway – I made the Circumlocutor listen to it once), so that was awesome.

Then we all went to my final event of the con: Playing with Pride: LGBT Relationships in Gaming. This was a filmmaker presenting his footage of queer gamers across America, and some in Europe, talking about their experiences trying to reconcile queer culture with geek culture. This was…emotional: many of the stories, of rejection and disenfranchisement, were sad, but there were also causes for hope, too, as representation in gaming improves. It was very worth going to, and encapsulated the spirit of Nine Worlds – a lovely note to end the con on.

I didn’t leave straight away: we went for dinner at Bill’s, then sat in the bar playing the card game Man Bites Dog. I was vaguely hoping to go to the Rock Club at the End of the Universe, but I couldn’t get the internet to tell me when the last underground train left Hammersmith, which worried me; so I left around 10pm. And that was the end of Nine Worlds.

It was a brilliant, tiring, wonderful few days, in a place that really feels like a community, among queer geeks. I always felt I could be myself there; I had conversations about things I loved; I met interesting people; I never wanted to leave. It’s such a colourful, kind place – inclusive and welcoming – and I’m already planning for next year!

Advertisements

Review: Starbook

Speaking technically, Ben Okri’s Starbook might be the best book I’ve read – probably, will read – this year. Formally, it’s a fairytale: one of its protagonists is a prince who, in time-honoured fashion, begins to question the morality of his father’s kingdom; wanders away into the woods; finds a woman he thinks is a goddess; loses her and sets out to find her. The other protagonist is the woman herself, a maiden from a tribe of artists, who finds herself the centre of a courtship contest. This simplest of romances is shadowed, though, by a “white wind” blowing through the kingdom, blowing away its history and its culture and its memory. The white wind, of course, is slavery; the kingdom is the African continent.

Despite the simplicity of its plot, and its idealised setting, Starbook is a difficult book. At the sentence level, Okri’s prose has the unselfconscious clarity of fairytale – an unselfconsciousness that often teeters on the edge of naïve risibility:

This is a story my mother began to tell me when I was a child. The rest I gleaned from the book of life among the stars, in which all things are known.

But the cumulative effect of such prose – rhythmic, oral, seemingly straightforward – is quite different. It’s a prose characterised by repetition, by echoes, by allusion; it develops thereby a quality of density, a way of deploying imagery, that I’d usually associate with poetry. In fact, I found that the most rewarding way to read Starbook was as poetry: it demands an attention that’s at once sustained – you have to focus on every single word – and adaptable. That is, though it’s a speculative text, in the sense that there is magic and ritual and mysticism, it’s not meant to be read as you would read a traditional SFF novel, hunting for clues about how the world works. To attempt to form a rational, consistent schema for Okri’s imagined kingdom is to miss the point: in Starbook, everything is imagery; yet fixating on what any particular image means is to miss the totality of the novel. This Guardian review compares Starbook to the work of William Blake, and I think that’s a good comparison: both writers use very striking, simple imagery to complex effect.

In other words, Starbook forced me into a different mode of reading, and that was something that enriched everything I did while I was reading it, even when the covers of the book were closed. It changed my life for a little while, and that’s something that happens astonishingly little for the amount that I read.

That’s not to say, though, that I found Starbook unproblematic. In particular, I was disappointed by its relegation of its female protagonist to an entirely passive narrative role: she is sought out by the prince, she refuses to make a decision on which suitor she’ll accept, she spends much of the novel ill, she is judged by her fellow townsfolk without recognising it or doing anything about it. This is in part a problem of genre: left unexamined, fairytale tends to cast cultural constructs as timeless truths, and the way that Starbook works as a novel puts a lot of weight on a small number of relatively simple basic concepts that are easy to take as timeless truths.

This effect also lies behind Starbook‘s prioritisation of romantic love as the pinnacle of human relationships: the love of the prince and the maiden is one that literally changes worlds – and they seem to have no other meaningful human relationships. My problem with this, really, is that it has little emotional truth; I don’t think this is how anyone in a functioning, healthy romantic relationship really experiences the world, and in such a technically accomplished novel its presentation of romance feels shallow and disappointing.

I want to stress, though, that Starbook is the rare kind of book whose flaws make it more interesting, tell us something about what the it’s trying to achieve; a book to be studied, and mulled over, and re-read. I hope, one day, it becomes a classic of post-colonial literature; it really deserves to.

Review: The Waste Land

The Waste Land is a wondrous and entirely unexpected thing which I acquired for the princely sum of 20p at my local library: a graphic novel retelling of T.S. Eliot’s seminal Modernist poem by Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson. It seems there are two editions of this gem: issues with Eliot’s estate meant a second edition had to be published – it’s this edition I’m reviewing here – which couldn’t quote any of the original poem; not that this seems to have affected the general parodic quality of the piece.

Anyway. The story, such as it is, follows a hard-boiled noir detective, Chris Marlowe (an escapee from a Raymond Chandler novel, or a seventeenth-century playwright, or both), as he searches for his missing business partner, Mike the Minoan, in Eliot’s Unreal City: London, though a disconnected and fragmented version of it. (“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.”)

A Goodreads reviewer, Liam Guilar, suggests that Marlowe’s search for his partner in Waste Land London is a performance of the search for meaning with which befuddled first-time readers approach Eliot’s poem – “the irony being the only coherence the poem has to offer is the reader’s search for it.” This is a brilliant and elegant reading which, frankly, I wish I’d come up with myself. (There are also interesting resonances here with the theme of the Grail quest Eliot threads half-heartedly through the poem.)

So Rowson renders Eliot’s text as place – specifically, as a nightmarish version of London, identified mainly (as it is in the poem) by the River Thames, curling its symbolic, stinking way through the text’s heart. Marlowe is literally a stranger in this city; in the first chapter of the book he’s knocked out and shipped across the Atlantic to London, and we see it through his stranger’s eyes – the caricature grotesquerie of Rowson’s art style rendering it larger than life and half-unrecognisable. As another Goodreads reviewer pointed out, rather less insightfully, “the story seems to jump all over the place.” Well, yes. That disconnection is pretty much the whole point of both texts: Eliot renders it linguistically, as a breakdown of cultural touchstones, a scattergun range of quotations and intertexts that don’t relate to anything, “a heap of broken images” with no shaping connective tissue; Rowson renders it narratively, in a search that doesn’t make sense with a solution that “is no solution” (Guilar again), and spatially, in a London that doesn’t look quite like our London, teetering on the edge of the familiar, and populated by anachronistic historical figures: Queen Elizabeth I in a modern-looking crowd on the banks of the Thames, Joseph Conrad in a London pub.

That spatial rendering is rather Gothic, in the sense that Rowson’s London looks and works a lot like the huge, impossibly rambly castles and country homes in Gothic literature – like Gormenghast and Manderley and the Navidson house. These Gothic spaces are uncanny: they take the familiar, ordered space of the home and render it unknowable, unmappable, architecturally impossible. The Gothic as a mode is often associated with the bourgeoisie, but here Rowson’s making a connection with Modernism too; a connection that’s always been latent, because if the Gothic disturbs the rational space of the home then it also, simultaneously, disrupts the rationalism of the Word – the Western Christian construct of the written word as holy, always true, a perfect window into the thoughts of men. The Gothic, characterised by linguistic excess (there’s a reason all those eighteenth-century moralists were appalled by the idea of young ladies reading The Mysteries of Udolpho), by sentence structures that you can get lost in just as you get lost in the corridors of the castles they describe, conceals and reveals the void at the heart of all things, especially at the heart of Western rationalism. And that’s something Eliot’s Waste Land, not to mention Modernism at large, is also urgently concerned with: “the centre cannot hold”, as Yeats wrote just three years before Eliot published The Waste Land; Western morality and thought has become a haunted house, the shared cultural and religious touchstones we used to have in common dissolved and vanished. “I can connect/Nothing with nothing.”

Why is this important? What does it add to our understanding of The Waste Land?

Something which I do find suggestive about Rowson’s treatment of the poem – which links back to Guilar’s point above about the search for coherency in Eliot’s poem constituting the only coherency the poem possesses or can offer – is that, for readers familiar with the original, it becomes a way to navigate Rowson’s text; we decode Marlowe’s search for Mike the Minoan by spotting the references to the poem, a self-reflexive circle which points out the essential meaninglessness of critical approaches to The Waste Land. The poem by its very form denies meaning, even obfuscates it deliberately; that’s ultimately what Rowson’s parodic treatment brings us to realise.

I still love Eliot’s poem, and you get the sense that despite his mockery Rowson does too. His graphic novel treats it as the cultural touchstone it (ironically) is nowadays, and yet it also uncovers and deflates the nihilism that lies behind its artistic vision (and, by extension, the artistic vision of much of today’s literary establishment). It seems sort of pointless to write anything else about The Waste Land – Rowson’s said everything there is to say. Which is good value, for 20p.

Top Ten Classics

  1. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens. This was my first Dickens, and so it retains a special place in my heart. It’s sprawling, melodramatic, often sentimental, sometimes angry, and altogether wonderful. And it features one of Dickens’ most spirited heroines: Lizzie Hexam.
  2. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen. I also love Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, but Pride and Prejudice takes the crown because of Elizabeth’s spirit, and because Jane and Bingley are simply charming.
  3. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. This is a remarkable novel that smushes together Dickensian caricature and Gothic menace. Threatening, ponderous, hypnotic.
  4. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. Every politician should read this. It’s a stark warning about the consequences of social isolation, the folly of oppression, and the perils of hubris.
  5. Paradise Lost – John Milton. Milton’s verse is a revelation (hah): resonant, spirited and grand, and surprisingly accessible to a modern reader.
  6. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe. Much like Titus Groan, this is a novel that draws you into its melodramatic world and won’t let go: a lush and richly described work full of foreshadowings and pathetic fallacies and moustache-twirling villains.
  7. Evelina – Fanny Burney. Burney was a sort of proto-Jane Austen, and her first novel is her best: an epistolary tale of a young woman in London for the first time, it combines social comedy with, um, high melodrama. (There is definitely a theme to this post.)
  8. The Tempest – William Shakespeare. My favourite Shakespeare play varies wildly depending on the version I’ve seen most recently. But The Tempest is definitely up there for its elegiac tone, and the way its action takes place in strange boundary states, between the sea and the land, between the city and the wilderness, between life and death.
  9. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad. I’ve only read this once, at university: but I loved the lush menace of Conrad’s writing, the gathering sense of dread as we advance along the Congo.
  10. Morte Darthur – Thomas Malory. I’m a sucker for Arthurian stories, and though Malory’s Arthurian cycle was by no means the first version of the Once and Future King’s story (or the best), it’s certainly been one of the most influential on Western literature.

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

Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

This review contains spoilers.

The protagonist of Daughter of Smoke and Bone is Karou, a young woman living in Prague, studying art and running esoteric errands for Brimstone, a shady underworld-type character who also happens to be part-human, part-bull. Brimstone’s the only parent Karou’s ever known, alongside his two assistants, who are also part-human, part-animal.

In Brimstone’s workshop (which is not quite of this world: its front door opens onto more than one place) is a door Karou’s never been allowed to pass. When she finally gets a chance to sneak through, she finds a caged city, almost Lovecraftian in its alienness, full of people like Brimstone: chimera.

And then Akiva appears while she’s running an errand: an impossibly handsome man who can fly, an angel who tries to kill Karou for reasons she’s unsure of.

Turns out the seraphim and the chimera are locked in an endless, ageless war, and have been for millennia, after the chimera rose up against oppressors who saw in them only animals. Karou (and here be major spoilers) is, all unknowingly, one of the chimera, reincarnated after being executed for loving Akiva, her enemy, and raised in the human world by Brimstone to keep her safe.

I struggled with thinking about Daughter of Smoke and Bone; it’s slippery, and defies simple readings. It’s tempting to look only at its paranormal romance elements, its tragic, brooding hero who has more than a whiff of the Edward Cullen about him, and read it as the kind of YA fantasy which transmutes the heady emotion of teenagerhood and makes it objectively as earth-shattering as it feels – so that our two young lovers (I think we have to ignore the fact that Akiva must be at least twice as old as the reincarnated Karou, lest we become too cynical) are literally a star-crossed Romeo and Juliet, separated by thousands of years of enmity.

And the book’s fantastic elements do work in a way that supports this reading: specifically, in the way that the novel is split neatly into two parts, one set in Prague following Karou’s present day life and one in the world behind Brimstone’s door (which is properly called Eretz, but which Karou rather more interestingly dubs Elsewhere), exploring her past life. It’s a structure that seems to reinforce the idea of fantasy as a mirror to the real world, one in which repressed or invisible forces (viz., teenage lust and confusion) get free rein.

But. That’s actually too reductive a reading. Taylor’s setting is too strange and vivid, the horrors of the war she describes not even close to adequately contained by the love story it foregrounds. Elsewhere reminds me very strongly of (strangely enough) William Blake’s work: the militant joylessness of the seraphim and the contrasting joyful physicality and grace of the supposedly demonic chimera; the sense of the nigh-apocalyptic age of this war; above all, the saturated symbolic colour of it, the way everything feels significant and vibrant and strange. Elsewhere isn’t a place that lives, really; it’s a place that is. You can’t imagine living there; it exists as a way to tell stories. And yet, like Blake’s work, the moral ambiguity here is nigh-untangleable. The seraphim are oppressors, but the chimera are too, in their own way. What we end up with is a war so vast and terrible that it is literally unspeakable, un-containable, overflowing the narrow bounds of psychological fantasy.

It feels vaguely ridiculous to be comparing Daughter of Smoke and Bone to Blake’s work; not because Laini Taylor is a bad writer, but because Blake was a visionary of such genius that to compare almost anything to him is practically a category error. But I think that Blake’s subversion, particularly his religious subversion (see, for instance, “Holy Thursday” from Songs of Experience), is important to Daughter of Smoke and Bone: I think what Taylor is doing here is rethinking monstrosity.

Let’s say: Daughter of Smoke and Bone is not in fact a romance, at least not primarily. Karou’s family – Brimstone and his assistants – and her female friend Zuzana are at least as important to her (refreshingly) as Akiva is. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is the story of Karou’s finding out who she is; who her family and friends are; what she means. The question Taylor’s asking is: what happens if you find out you’re a monster?

When Karou fights angels above the streets of Prague, she’s aware of how the watching public will react. She knows that she looks like the bad guy in this story, no matter that the angels are trying to kill her. The chimera are devils – given that name by the seraphim, and worse besides. What do you do if you find out you are Other, that you are coded as monstrous by nature?

Going further: this is a story about oppression; about a society that has divided itself so completely, through such deliberate, sustained mutual incomprehension, that all it can do is fight. It’s also a story that destabilises our expectations, shows up the essentially sterile nature of the Biblical good/evil binary, the toxicity of coding an entire group of people as monstrously Other. If we’re rooting for anyone in this war, we’re rooting for the chimera, because of Karou and her identification with them.

Elsewhere, then, is sterile and static. It cannot change by itself; which is why Karou’s being raised outside that world is important. Her name means (so we’re told) “hope”; she is, potentially, an agent of change, a way to break the stalemate.

There are two further books in the series, where I suspect we find out what becomes of Elsewhere. I’m not sure, yet, if I’ll read them: I found Daughter of Smoke and Bone OK, but it doesn’t quite deliver on the shivering horror of its barren, warring world. Still: I think there are some great ideas here, if you can read around Akiva’s brooding.

Review: The King

the-kingOK. So I think The King is working to produce a very specific and quite interesting literary effect, and I think that work and that effect is worthwhile and important. I just didn’t enjoy it very much.

This is the story of the modernisation of Persia – modern-day Iran. Its central character is Shah Naser, a weak and unpredictable ruler whose ideologies are rooted in old ideas of the glories of Persia, smashing its enemies, kings exalted, diamonds uncounted, etc. But the world around him is changing; the telegraph and the railway are coming; news from the West is reaching the Persian people. Soon, he’s embattled by popular dissent, European politics and the march of modernisation.

The usual reviewerly disclaimers apply here: I’m white, I’m British, I know next to nothing about Iran’s history, and I am very happy to hear other opinions.

With that in mind, I think the most interesting thing about The King is how it sites its conflict between tradition and modernity in its style, which is simple, domestic in its single-minded focus on the shah, descriptive rather than demonstrative; it reads, in fact, much like a fairytale. That style very deliberately clashes with the complex international politics it needs to describe; the world of the telegraph and the railway sits within it uneasily, just as the shah has difficulties fitting a changing world with all its disparate forces, its rising democracies, into a worldview in which the king is the only person who really matters.

But Abdolah’s project isn’t really about consigning an unenlightened Shah Naser to irrelevancy; that’s far too simplistic a reading. As the introductory note to the novel attests, The King is really a nationalistic endeavour:

[The Persian poet] Ferdowsi created the hero Rostam. He had Rostam live for about nine hundred years, thereby rescuing the nation’s lost heritage from oblivion.

The teller of this story is following in that poet’s footsteps.

Abdolah’s Shah Naser is as temporally unfixed as his description of Rostam: while the shah is based on the real-life Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, other real-life references in the novel seem to suggest a reign of about a century. This disjunction, linked so explicitly to a key Persian poet, effectively reclaims a particular historical moment as specifically Iranian, despite the European pressures that are so often presented as the dominant narrative, especially in recent history.

I’m veering into territory I know little about here, so I’m actually going to stop. I didn’t enjoy reading The King all that much (which is quite possibly a Western bias rather than anything actually wrong with the book), but I have quite enjoyed thinking about it.

Top Ten Romances in Books

  1. Beren/Luthien – The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien. There are so many things wrong with this romance (the age difference, the fact that Luthien gives up literally everything because Beren is such a manly Man, the codependency) but, ugh, it is my fave and will continue to be unto the ending of the world.
  2. Rosemary/Sissix – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers. It’s always heartwarming to see characters navigating something other than a conventional hetero monogamous relationship, and Chambers does it with such good humour.
  3. Alana/Marko – Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I love that this is already an established relationship by the time the story starts. I think Saga is doing character work around Being In A Relationship which I don’t see very often in genre, and Alana and Marko feel like a properly strong couple.
  4. Axl/Beatrice – The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro. Another long-established couple, looking back (or trying to) over their lives together. Again, their relationship just feels strong because of, not despite, the shadows that beset it.
  5. Holly Sykes/Hugo Lamb – The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell. From a life-long marriage to a one-night stand. I don’t think I’ll ever stop shipping these two: I really, really hope there’s a fanfic somewhere in which Hugo doesn’t go off to become a soul-sucking immortal.
  6. Beatrice/Benedick – Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare. Beatrice and Benedick have such chemistry: Beatrice is one of Shakespeare’s great female characters, gutsy and witty, and Benedick is perfect as her foil.
  7. Agniezka/the Dragon – Uprooted, Naomi Novik. Again: yes, my fave is problematic. But I love that Agniezka doesn’t even think of pining for the Dragon when she’s away; she just gets on with her life.
  8. Glenda/Nutt – Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett. I just think these two are adorable. Nutt is awkward and geeky and also an orc and Glenda is pragmatic and only very secretly romantic and their romance is quiet but true.
  9. Callanish/North – The Gracekeepers, Kirsty Logan. I just finished this book, and admittedly it is not a fantastic read, but one thing I do like about it is that it makes absolutely no fanfare about the fact that Callanish and North are both women. It doesn’t even bother making it an issue.
  10. Eugene Wrayburn/Lizzie Hexam – Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens. Lizzie is, unlike so many of her Dickensian leading-lady counterparts, sort of a badass. She drags her love interest out of a river after he’s attacked and carries him to the nearest inn. Of course, she could only do that because she is working class (I cannot see Bella Wilfer even contemplating rescuing John from any body of water), but it’s still fantastic.

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