Tag: steampunk shenanigans

Review: The True Queen

This review contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Boneshaker

Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker begins with a disaster. Sometime in the early 1860s, inventor Leviticus Blue of Seattle creates a steam-powered gold-mining machine, the titular Boneshaker, which promptly runs horribly out of control, destroying several city blocks and releasing a noxious gas called the Blight which turns people into zombies. The survivors build a wall around the city to contain the gas and the zombies, and many of them go on to scratch out a living in its shadow.

That’s exactly what we find Leviticus’ widow Briar doing sixteen years later, working in a water treatment plant to counteract the effects of the Blight. When her son Zeke ventures into the walled city, now a no-go zone, she follows, determined to keep him safe and bring him home.

It’s hard not to read Boneshaker as a critique of capitalist greed, at least in part. Leviticus is selfish and money-hungry; his lack of care and consideration for the community he lives in leaves hundreds of people dead, hundreds more reduced to poverty and an entire city and its water supply polluted and barely livable. It also unleashes an environmental menace in the form of the zombie hordes who occupy the walled city. (Zombies, of course, are infamously common metaphors for capitalist consumers!) The poisonous, gas-filled streets Zeke and Briar move through call to mind horrific industrial disasters like the Bhopal tragedy [content warning: link contains descriptions of the effects of toxic gas on human bodies] – which was caused by corporate negligence and an utter disregard for human life and health. Later on in the novel, it even turns out that someone in the city is using the disaster for his own ends: the mysterious machine-builder Doctor Minnericht.

But the novel’s potential as capitalism critique is undermined by one of steampunk’s key flaws: its emphasis on individualism. Steampunk as an aesthetic is all about being unique, standing out; it tends towards exclusivity and classism. Priest avoids this to an extent by focusing on characters who are functionally working-class (although Briar and Zeke were both upper-class before the Blight – in fact, the prospect of hidden gold in their old house is a moderately significant plot point, and the end of the novel seems to hint at a return to prosperity). But both of her villains are individuals, crazed inventors who’ve been able to change the course of history by personal achievement alone. And she doesn’t seem massively interested in digging into the forces that allowed these men to occupy positions of such power in the first place – Leviticus’ pre-existing wealth, for instance. Without an awareness of such systems, Boneshaker is less corporate critique than it is a work that just draws on those images for emotional affect. Which makes it feel a bit hollow, honestly.

I mean, I guess my criticism of Boneshaker is more a criticism of steampunk: the only steampunk works that are actively advocating social change are things like Nisi Shawl’s Everfair that are highly aware of their genre and deliberately working against it, or things like China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station that are only taking parts of steampunk to put in new contexts. Steampunk in itself – especially in its fashion guise! – is not really capable of cultural subversion; that’s just not how it functions as a phenomenon.

To return to Boneshaker: I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I read it while ill in bed, and it was not the book I would have chosen to be stuck with in that situation. It’s not as problematic as much steampunk is: it does focus on social outcasts, and it does feature people of colour, albeit as very minor characters. But, meh. It doesn’t feel like it’s doing that much work as a novel.

Review: The Dream of Perpetual Motion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Night Circus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Children’s Book

What a lovely, rich novel AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book is!

It begins in the waning years of the Victorians and ends on the battlefields of the First World War: 1895-1918, roughly. It begins when the son of a curator at the nascent Victoria & Albert Museum finds a potter’s boy living in the basement, sketching wonders by day and sleeping in a sarcophagus by night. The potter’s boy is Philip, who’s run away from drudgery and ill-health in the factories of the north; rescued by the curator, he’s put up by a singular family, the Wellwoods, who live in a rambling country house in Kent. Olive Wellwood is a writer of fairy tales and children’s fables, and it’s largely her labour that sustains her large family’s sunlit, charmed existence in the breadbasket of England. (Her husband, Humphrey, is a lecturer, journalist and activist – none of them particularly lucrative professions.) In due course, the Wellwoods find Philip a position with a local potter, moody, unstable Benedict Fludd, an artistic genius who refuses responsibility for anything practical.

The family of Humphrey’s banker brother Basil rounds out this cast of characters: they are artists, thinkers, teachers, writers, activists, all of them people interested in engaging with the world meaningfully, through politics or art or theory. But as Byatt’s title suggests, what the novel is really interested in is childhood – more specifically (and per Rudd, in Reading the Child in Children’s Literature), how the concept of childhood is represented by and mediated through adults. Byatt’s said that the novel grew out of an idea that the children of many classic children’s authors have become suicidal: what does the commodification of a specific child’s experience do to the child in question? And, what does that child’s experience really look like?

It’s in service to this project that The Children’s Book exploits the gap between children’s literature and literature about children. The novel frequently inhabits children’s points of view – particularly those of Philip and of Tom, one of the Wellwood children. When it does so, it frequently touches on things you’d never find in children’s literature: nascent romantic longing, questions about a parent’s fidelity or otherwise. And in doing so, it points up how children are simplified, idealised, by adults.

A key motive for that idealisation is nostalgia – the longing for an Edenic golden age when we were responsible for nothing and ran carefree in the endless summer woods. Much of the novel is suffused with this Edenic quality, with many of its adult characters engaged in the work of planning or attending retreats, artists’ communes, exhibitions; creating, evoking or in some cases defending ideal spaces free from crass economic considerations.

And yet the novel’s ironising perspective on childhood makes it clear that such frozen, idealised bubbles of time did not, cannot, should not exist. The novel’s children do have real, “adult” concerns: poverty, parentage, the fights of adults around them, the shape of their futures. And attempting to “freeze” these children – to encourage them, like Peter Pan, never to grow up – has disastrous consequences for at least one of them. Even the titles of the novel’s three sections make it clear that Eden does not exist: Age of Silver, Age of Bronze, Age of Lead. There is no Golden Age.

What all of this is building up to, of course, is the apocalypse of the First World War – the conflict that irrevocably, inevitably shapes the lives of all these children (as we know it must right from the beginning of the novel), that puts an end to all thoughts of utopia once and for all. In Lacanian terms – also per Rudd – we can say that the war is the savage, uncontrollable irruption of the Real into the Imaginary, the ideal artistic Eden that Byatt’s characters have been striving towards for 600 pages. It shatters all illusions of meaning; in fact it co-opts Edenic meanings, as we see when a character starts collecting the whimsical children’s names men on the front have given to the trenches that become their tombs, grim travesties of the wonderlands those names are drawn from.

It’s the same kind of semantic breakdown that we see in T.S. Eliot’s great Modernist poem The Waste Land: “I think we are in rats’ alley/Where the dead men lost their bones.” Perhaps what Byatt is offering us here, then, is an evocation of our own golden age, the golden age that postmodernism looks back to – a nostalgia for a pre-ironic era when revolutionary ideals and ideas were sincerely held and the woods of England were still wonderful. In this reading, even the war is comforting: it is a telos, an ending we always already know is coming; even in its meaninglessness it gives these characters’ lives a meaningful shape.

But the novel’s layers of irony have already alerted us to the perils of nostalgia. There is no golden age. So this apparently nostalgic text ironises itself, in its final ultra-postmodern move: it becomes, like all the works of fiction and imagination it describes, unstable and contingent exactly where it seems most permanent, most ideal.

Review: League of Dragons

So here it is: the last in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, an alternative history of the Napoleonic wars, with dragons.

League of Dragons opens with Napoleon’s forces fleeing through frozen Russia after a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the allied armies. It’s a major victory for everyone who doesn’t want to see Napoleon ruling over Europe, but it’s not the end of the war – especially when Napoleon’s dragon Lien steals a precious egg belonging to Temeraire (the series’ draconic co-protagonist) and fire-breathing Iskierka. The egg, and the creature that hatches from it, could be key to the war effort, and is in any case personally important to Temeraire and Iskierka – so of course it’s up to Temeraire’s Captain Laurence and his crew to get it back.

It’s actually a pretty episodic novel for a series ender. There’s the bitter trek across Russia at the beginning of the book; a stay in a peasant’s house; the rescue expedition itself; a spell in England while Laurence tries to win the allegiance of dragon captains who think poorly of him; and a lot of battlefield action, which involves plenty of military strategy and planning.

The theme running through much of the novel is that of Laurence’s unbending concept of honour: when is it useful, and when is it dangerous? For him, it’s one of the things that keeps military society together: having strict social codes and hierarchies avoids dangerous dissensions in military units, and that’s something Laurence struggles with when multiple dragon captains are placed under his command despite his historical trial for treason. But it can also lead him outside the very social codes it’s established to protect – as when he becomes involved in a duel with a pampered aristocrat; duels are frowned upon for dragon captains because it potentially robs the army of a valuable weapon (one dragon being much more valuable than one person).

This is a discussion that’s been happening throughout the series, though, and I’m not convinced League of Dragons advances it particularly. The episodic form of the novel is potentially more interesting – although, again, previous novels have done this (notably Throne of Jade, one of my favourites). I see lots of Goodreads commenters complaining that League of Dragons isn’t very climactic, but maybe that’s the point? For me, this isn’t a series whose best points are made by big battles and military strategy – it’s about relationships and the different kinds of allegiances people have to each other and their countries and societies, and how and where those allegiances clash. So it makes sense that this last novel would focus on putting its protagonist in all sorts of uncomfortable situations and seeing how he copes with them.

I do think that this novel has less of a focus on colonialism and other social justice issues than the series as a whole does. We see comparatively little of Laurence’s female crew member Emily Roland, and still less of her mother, Admiral Roland. Having said that, we do get flights of Chinese dragons and Napoleon’s wife, the Incan Empress Anahuarque – if not the detailed engagement with their societies that some of the earlier novels have delivered. It’s still great to see these cultures written into Novik’s universe in such a fundamental way, though.

I don’t know that this series particularly stands out for me. I’m fond of it; I love the gentle, caring interactions we get between Laurence and Temeraire (even if I think Novik infantilises the supposedly sentient dragons a little too much to make their case for independence and self-governance entirely credible). And I like the way it engages with Europe’s colonialist history and rewrites marginalised groups into what is in part a military comedy of manners (Laurence’s crew features at various points in the story a Black boy, a female crew member and a canonically gay man). I enjoy its discussion of honour and Novik’s careful depiction of her characters’ various relationships. I think it’s working hard, and largely succeeds in what it’s trying to do. Which – well, I don’t think there’s that much more you can ask for from a series.

Review: Feet of Clay

Feet of Clay is the nineteenth Discworld novel, which (astonishingly, when you think about it) puts it relatively early in the series. It’s the third novel about Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch, a police force which is slowly regaining relevance under Commander Samuel Vimes.

As with all of the Discworld novels, the plot is so encrusted with wordplay and humour and rich vital detail that it’s pretty much vestigial, but it is, more or less, a murder mystery. Someone has been killing old men. Somehow, the golems of the city are involved: giant clay people without voices, who are feared at worst and ignored at best, although they’re highly prized as workers because they don’t need to rest or eat or sleep. There’s also a plot to depose Ankh-Morpork’s supreme ruler Havelock Vetinari, because there’s always a plot to depose Vetinari. And there’s a dwarf who defies convention by openly identifying as female, in what is possibly Discworld’s closest approach to a queer storyline.

There is, in other words, a lot going on. That’s one of the great joys of the Ankh-Morpork novels, though: how full they are of life and incident, of the anarchic and wonderful energies of the archetypal city. (Ankh-Morpork is pretty obviously a mirror of London, with its great curving polluted river, its Isle of Gods, its defunct city gates.)

Much of that energy is generated by the social tensions the novel lays out, conflicts between old and new: the centuries-old vampire who manipulates short-lived humans like pawns on a chessboard comes up against the newly-relevant Watch and its stubbornly working-class Commander Vimes, fast rising to prominence; the brand-new concept of dwarf femininity attracts the opprobrium of much of dwarf-kind; the idea of golems suddenly having rights and thoughts and plans of their own is abhorrent, even terrifying, to Ankh-Morpork’s citizenry. But there’s nothing schematic or straightforward about this broad pattern of tension. Cherry Littlebottom, the lipstick-wearing, skirt-clad dwarf, harbours a commonly-held prejudice against werewolves, which she expresses repeatedly to her friend Constable Angua, who is herself a closeted werewolf. Vetinari, despite being the best ruler the city has ever had, despite being despised by aristocrats and generally on the side of justice, is an unelected tyrant with the capacity for occasional cruelty. The golems aren’t really new, they’re old, much like the Watch: so old they’ve become invisible. It’s this seething complexity, this web of allegiances and relationships, that makes Feet of Clay one of the very best of the Discworld novels: its view on the world is not simple.

But there is an arc, of course, and it is the long arc of justice. Discworld, and especially Ankh-Morpork, is founded on a vaguely Victorian idea of progress: the idea that things are getting better, slowly, by degrees, but inexorably. Things tend to be slightly better for people at the end of a Discworld novel than they do at the beginning.

Which is what makes these novels so comforting to return to, over and over again, in a time when things seem to be going backwards, when civil rights campaigns are appropriated by the interests of capital. That reassurance that things will get better, coupled with that acknowledgement that the world is messy and complex. The energies of a city slowly climbing to the light.