Tag: #resist

Review: A Natural History of Dragons

The first in Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series, A Natural History of Dragons sets up the conceit that will power the next five books. Isabella Trent is a gentlewoman in a secondary-world analogue of Regency England. Having become a famous naturalist for her study of dragons, she’s now writing her memoirs, with this first book seeing her overcome social prejudice to accompany her husband abroad on her first dangerous expedition to find out more about these evasive beasts.

Its project is similar to that of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, with which its subject matter and setting invite inevitable comparisons: it’s using fantasy – dragons – to push against mainstream forms of discourse (autobiography, natural history) that are traditionally reserved for straight white men, creating space in those discourses to tell the stories of the marginalised and of those who are invisible to the mainstream. In short, it makes the invisible (dragons; women who did early science) visible. So this is a story about a woman who does science, who’s better at writing about anatomy than emotion, who has romance but isn’t defined by it. It’s also a story that critiques the more exoticising forms of travel writing we find in history, and even today: the village where she and her husband go to find dragons to study is not quaint and rustic, its inhabitants not disarmingly friendly in a homely way. Drustanev is cold, the food is over-garlicked, the inhabitants are resentful of the party’s intrusion. This is pointed up specifically in the text, when Isabella mentions writing an early travel memoir where, as was the fashion for young ladies travelling at the time, she does exoticise the place and its people.

There are plenty of other such ripples, where the conventional ideal text (male-authored autobiography) fights with the female scientist it was never designed to contain. Isabella makes a lot of the fact that she is willing to discuss sex, in biological terms, while her readers may be scandalised at a woman so doing – despite the fact that she does it in her books on dragon anatomy.

A more interesting example is her experience of marriage. As I’ve already indicated, Isabella isn’t really a romantic figure: we see little of her marriage and home life until it becomes entangled with her career as a scientist, because she’s not terribly interested in sharing it. Although her marriage eventually turns out to have a lot of love in it (not a euphemism, although…), it is at least initially very much a social contract, assuring financial security for Isabella, while for her husband it represents a chance to have a wife with some intelligence. It’s an interesting alternative relationship paradigm for a Regency story, writing against a tradition of Regency romance – see not Austen’s actual novels, which are invariably more complex than we give them credit for, but our cultural reception of them, which casts them as romantic, airy-fairy chick lit. In particular, Brennan writes about the strangeness of the sudden intimacy between Isabella and her husband, the move from absolute social propriety to sharing their lives and their bed. It’s a nice defamiliarisation of the “romantic” trope of saving yourself for marriage.

Unfortunately, though, Brennan’s just not as good at this textual subversion as Novik is. Her Regency voice, unlike Novik’s, is an odd mix of contemporary directness and Regency formality, and comes across as stilted and artificial – rather undermining the work of writing against a patriarchal discourse when the discourse isn’t quite right. (Incidentally, this reminds me of Brennan’s Midnight Never Come, which also didn’t carry through its historical setting quite right.)

Additionally, the fact that her story is set in a secondary-world analogue containing a place that’s clearly meant to recall Regency England while not actually being it is tricky. While it does avoid some of the issues of appropriation that could spring from Isabella’s expeditions round the world (which I assume continue in the rest of the series), it also sort of defangs Brennan’s critique of Regency discourse and attitude. What the book’s trying to do and how it tries to do it don’t quite map together.

I’ve been comparing A Natural History of Dragons implicitly with Novik’s series all the time I’ve been reading it and thinking about it, which perhaps isn’t quite fair, and it might be that if I hadn’t read about Temeraire before I read about Isabella I might have enjoyed this more. I would probably read more of Brennan’s series if the books came my way – but, for me, Novik’s series does the same thing better.

Top Ten Books I’d Send To Donald Trump

So I read an article the other day about protesters sending books to the White House for Valentine’s Day, and it got me thinking.

  1. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. A powerful warning about the corrosive effects of hate, the irreparable mutual harm that oppression does both to oppressed and oppressors. Plus, it’s written by a woman.
  2. Lagoon – Nnedi Okorafor. A novel that argues, melodiously but forcefully, the blinkered folly of Anglo- and anthropocentrism, how absurd it is to think that we, personally, are the centre of the universe. Okorafor depicts Lagos, Nigeria as a vibrant, modern city; in many ways a more interesting locus for an alien invasion than the more conventional Los Angeles or New York or London.
  3. Six-Gun Snow White – Catherynne M. Valente. Another angry novel, taking two of the great American myths – the Wild West and Disney’s Aryan, prettified Snow White – and making them brutal; describing self-perpetuating cycles of abuse which the marginalised inflict upon themselves and each other in a hopeless attempt to win the approval of their oppressors. Plus, it’s short enough even for Trump’s limited attention span.
  4. Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A sharp, intersectional look at race in America; I defy anyone not to weep and rage.
  5. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. Maybe if Trump read this, he would actually understand how science works, and how it relates to society. (Pro tip: it’s not a hoax invented by the Chinese.) Then again, maybe not.
  6. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. Such a lovely, hopeful story about integration and working alongside those who are different to us. #hopenothate
  7. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell. This is a novel about the incremental value of kindness; the sheer work involved in achieving any kind of progress. Hopeful about humanity’s potential, pragmatic about its reality.
  8. Railsea – China Mieville. Another spin on a classic American myth – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. But whereas Melville’s novel’s about conquest, Mieville’s is about the self-defeating wastefulness of rampant capitalism.
  9. Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi. And yet another retelling, this one (again) of Snow White: there is nothing new under the sun. Anyway, this one also brings the toxic nature of hate to the fore, but its ending is slightly more hopeful than Valente’s version (albeit problematic).
  10. The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Essentially a 700-page feminist rant about the systematic repression inherent in women’s writing of the nineteenth century – albeit an extremely well-researched and readable one. It’s extremely aware of how systems of oppression work.

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

Review: Crucible of Gold

crucible-of-gold-the-temeraire-series-book-7-137958127The seventh novel in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, Crucible of Gold sees William Laurence recalled to the Aerial Corps for a diplomatic mission to Brazil, where the Tswana, who we met in Empire of Ivory, have taken over a key port city in pursuance of their stated intention to retrieve every Tswana slave. The city being Portuguese territory, and Portugal being central to the latest British plan against Napoleon, it is vital to win it back. Apparently Laurence, despite being generally held in contempt by everyone ever, is best placed to negotiate with the Tswana because he has met them before.

The novel from there is fairly standard Temeraire series stuff: a sea voyage, a long journey by air, a new society with dragons playing a startling and unexpected role, culture clash, gritted-teeth politeness, and a play-off between Laurence’s duty and his morality.

If Novik has any project this far into a series that’s become quite formulaic while generally retaining its delightfulness, it’s telling the stories of people who have been left behind by the “official” narrative of history. So we have the Tswana, rulers of Novik’s Africa, fighting against the slavery inflicted on their nation by the West; we have a captain in the Aerial Corps (Granby) coming out as gay; we have an unmarried female military member, Emily Roland, who is open about the fact that she regularly has sex with a black Tswana Corps captain (Demane). This is all couched in Novik’s propriety-bound Regency prose, in forms of dialogue and social interaction never designed to hold, or allow, any of these things, and observed by straitlaced Regency gentleman Laurence, as close to a cultural default as Novik can get: the radical energies of rebellion tug and swirl around a historical narrative trying desperately to exclude them.

This is also, and connectedly, a story about culture shock. As Laurence and the gang journey into the heart of the South American continent, they stumble across situations which highlight the ridiculousness of the proprieties they, and especially Laurence, still cling to. When an mutinous member of the crew sleeps with a local girl, Laurence offers her money, assuming that her chances at marriage will have been affected; she and her caretaker dragon react with incomprehension. Similarly, when the same crew member, lured by the promise of gold, steals away to live in a local village, Laurence refuses to take what he sees as payment for him from the dragon that protects the village: we can’t sell this man! Why not? the dragon asks, and we do, too, I think: he will only be hanged for mutiny if he stays with the British party, and he is, after all, willing to stay behind. In this strange land, with its radically different culture, the defaults of propriety and morality twist and shimmer and become strange: unable to contain these new realities, they lose their privileged position with regards to dictating “normality”, and become simply another set of strange customs.

None of this is very much different to what the rest of the series is doing; but it does it engagingly and enjoyably, and Novik’s Regency prose really is a joy to read. And it’s exactly the kind of book the world needs right now.