Tag: steampunk shenanigans

Reivew: Tipping the Velvet

It’s Friday night and I’m pretty exhausted, so this isn’t really a proper review; instead, some notes on a novel I really loved recently.

Tipping the Velvet is the first novel by established historical novelist Sarah Waters, which should tell you most of what you need to know.

Namely, that here be VICTORIAN LESBIANS.

Our Heroine is Nancy, an oyster-girl from Whitstable, Kent, who falls in love with a woman from the theatre: Kitty, a cross-dressing singer. After a suitable period of wistful sighing on both sides, Kitty whisks her off to London, there to become a star – and to embark on a journey through Victorian London’s hidden queer scene in search of a place she can find acceptance.

As in Waters’ wonderful Fingersmith, the romantic suspense, especially in the first half of the novel, is incredible. I don’t often ship couples in novels, because I don’t often stumble across fictional romances that convince me – but the mixture of desire and shame and repressed sexuality that Nancy feels for Kitty is irresistible.

The novel’s quite episodic: Nancy moves through a variety of roles as she moves through London (I have a feeling that she does so west to east, but I may be wrong). There’s a lot of emphasis on how she uses clothing to perform these various roles, which I found pretty interesting: she spends time living as a man, first on the streets of London and then in the home of a sadistic, wealthy lesbian widow. That, and her brief career on stage as a cross-dresser alongside Kitty, makes her clothing choices throughout the novel extremely loaded. To take just a couple of examples: she starts dressing as a man on the streets (as opposed to on the stage) because she can move more freely in the city and attract less attention when she does so; she begins a brief career as a rent boy when she’s wearing the uniform of a specific regiment whose members are known for such activities. Clothes in this novel tend to be catalysts: they can be both empowering and restrictive. There aren’t that many authors who acknowledge this everyday reality, and I found it fascinating.

This attention to the detail of how people perform cultural meanings extends beyond clothing: Waters evokes the sounds and smells and tastes of London settings from the West End theatres to Smithfield Meat Market. It’s detail that gives Tipping the Velvet great verisimilitude – it feels solidly researched and true to how a Victorian person in Nancy’s position might have lived. That’s important from a storytelling point of view, but it’s also relevant to the novel’s political project, which is that of queering Victorian history: imagining a lifestyle that’s been erased by popular culture and by centuries of gatekeeping by straight white cis men. (Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge claims that the queer elements of Tipping the Velvet are not actually based on historical research – it’s a testament to Waters’ writing how much this surprises me.) I love the way that we discover this history, this queer culture that we never imagined might be there, alongside Nancy: as she’s drawn into this hidden side of London, so are we. And so, when Nancy finally does find safety and acceptance and people who will love her in the way she wants to be loved, it’s a relief for us too. I almost cried when I finished Tipping the Velvet. It is more lovely than I can say.

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Ten Diverse Books

  1. The Fifth Season N.K. Jemisin. What I love about The Fifth Season, and the other novels in the Broken Earth trilogy, is the way it decouples minority representation from its discussion of how institutional discrimination traumatises its victims. In its world, queerness of all kinds is unremarkable, women occupy leadership roles unquestioned, and dark skin is the norm. Which means that its queer and female characters and its characters of colour are not defined by those things as they so often are in popular culture. And yet its society is also, like ours, fundamentally shaped by structures intentionally designed to exclude and oppress and discriminate. I don’t think I’ve read another novel that does this work (Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire comes close, I think, but not as elegantly): it embraces the complexity of our world and the people in it in a way that’s equal parts horrifying and gratifying.
  2. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. Palimpsest doesn’t touch directly on issues of oppression and discrimination as Jemisin’s work does, but it’s undoubtedly a very queer novel. Palimpsest is a queer city, and it queers the people who come to it.
  3. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville. This sprawling city fantasy is in part a novel about multiculturalism and integration, and Mieville looks at it from a number of different angles. There’s the experience of Yagharek as he enters polluted New Crobuzon for the first time, and, later on, Isaac’s profound misunderstanding of what his crime means culturally; Lin’s simultaneous discomfort in, and nostalgia for, the khepri ghetto; and the vodyanoi dock workers’ strikes which form a constant background to the novel. Then there are all the entities who are so alien we really can’t comprehend them: the Weavers, with their inscrutable aesthetic sense; the artificial intelligence that is the Construct Council; even Hell’s envoy. It’s a kind of tapestry of ways of seeing the world; again, it’s a novel that embraces complexity.
  4. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. This is just – lovely. It constructs a world founded on the principles of tolerance. There are blind spots, of course: AI rights, some interspecies relationships. There are individual bigots. And there are arguments. But generally it’s a novel full of characters working to understand each other and make space for each other. And I think we also get the sense that the authorities are working to do the same thing, even if it’s a long and difficult process.
  5. Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters. I think this is 2018’s Our Tragic Universe for me; I think it’s going to appear on a lot of lists for the foreseeable future. I just, I love its project of queering Victorian history, digging up a past that’s been largely erased by popular culture and popular memory. I love that it takes its lesbian heroine through heartbreak and isolation but knows better than to leave her there. I love that it (re)constructs this whole disruptive queer community in a society we like to think of as straight-laced and prudish.
  6. God’s War – Kameron Hurley. God’s War has its own problems, not the least of which is that it’s set in an Islamic culture in the throes of a destructive, age-old holy war. Like. I see where Hurley was going with that – it’s important to have SFF that isn’t based on Judaeo-Christian cultures. But it seems like too easy a stereotype. What the novel does have is a whole load of badass women who are unapologetically feminine (even if they’re also ruthless killers) and queer, actual explicit bi representation, and a deeply-rooted portrayal of interracial and international tension.
  7. Everfair – Nisi Shawl. Everfair was really not my favourite novel: I found it a bit of a slog, and I didn’t get on well with the huge cast of characters and the big chronological gaps in each of their stories. But I also think those things are key to its project, which is an important one. Like Tipping the Velvet, it’s a reclamation of history; it revisits and reworks the colonial underpinnings of steampunk, to create a space for those who lose out from them – people of colour, non-Christians, women and queer people, mainly. And it’s also about how oppression is intersectional, and the relative layers of privilege everyone has, and how those privileges conflict.
  8. Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee. This is hard SF set in a heavily Asian-inflected society. As in The Fifth Season, the world of the novel is both structurally oppressive and queer-friendly, and there are all kinds of complexities around class. It’s also a novel that revolves around fundamental differences in the way people think about the world, right down to the conceptual level: its dystopian government’s exotic weapons are powered by consensus reality, so to take a different view of the world is to commit heresy.
  9. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. I have a feeling that if I read this again I might be dreadfully disappointed, but I remember it as a really interesting take on reproductive rights and feminism in a species for whom giving birth is literally and invariably fatal. (There was also lots of physics. With graphs. I ignored it.)
  10. Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie. You’ll have heard that Ancillary Justice‘s big gimmick is using the pronoun “she” for every character. Which is true, and quite interesting as a device; there are some persuasive trans readings of the novel. But…it’s not really a novel about gender; it’s much more interested in imperialism and how it co-opts the identities of its subjects.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

The Last Ten Books That Came Into My Possession

Not counting library books or books lent to me.

  1. The War Poets: an anthology. You know how grandmothers always try and give you random crap when you go visit them? That’s where I got this, a couple of weekends ago. Because poetry. (Actually Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est” has been one of my favourite poems since I read it out in assembly at school. Like all the best poetry, it dictates how you read it aloud; it makes you dramatise its fury through how you sound it out.)
  2. Sisyphean – Dempow Torishima. So apparently the last time I bought something in a bookshop was in April? In New York? Which seems unlikely, but I can’t think of anything I’ve actually bought since then. Sisyphean was okay, a bit organic for my taste.
  3. Space Opera – Catherynne Valente. This was part of my New York haul. I was ridiculously excited about this, as I bought it around the time Amazon sold out and the only copies left were scattered around various Barnes and Nobles and I GOT ONE and it’s lovely.
  4. The Refrigerator Monologues – Catherynne Valente. Yeah, I basically treated America as a chance to buy all the books that are fiendishly difficult to find over here. This included ALL THE VALENTE.
  5. Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I read this a couple of years ago, but I’ve been wanting to own it for a while – the art is so lovely and MY HEART ALANA’S FACIAL EXPRESSIONS. Plus, it actually seemed to be cheaper in New York than over here.
  6. S.  – J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. I actually cannot remember exactly when I bought this, except I know it was definitely in the Oxford Blackwell’s shop. I haven’t read it yet, because of the vagaries of my TBR pile, but I can’t wait.
  7. What Are We Doing Here? – Marilynne Robinson. This was an emergency buy when I was stuck in Bologna without anything to read, and it was a great choice if I do say so myself: engaging, thought-provoking and empathetic.
  8. Imaginary Cities – Darran Anderson. I bought this in Oxford in January. It was rainy and cold and we were looking for somewhere to hide for an hour before dinner, and Blackwell’s rode to the rescue (not literally, although that would be impressive). I read the first couple of chapters of this fascinating book curled up in one of their armchairs.
  9. The Compleat Discworld Atlas – Terry Pratchett and the Discworld Emporium. This was a Christmas present from my sister! It is, physically, a lovely book. It is very geeky. It is also…a bit problematic, and nowhere near as fun as the actual Discworld novels, or even some of the older companion books.
  10. The Book of Dust – Philip Pullman. Also a Christmas present, also from my sister, more interesting than the Discworld Atlas even if it’s not quite what I wanted from a His Dark Materials prequel.

(The prompt for this post comes from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Books I’ve Read So Far in 2018

  1. The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin. The conclusion to the Broken Earth trilogy, and I think the only book that’s made me cry so far this year. In an airport. It is devastating and hopeful, bleak and beautiful all at once. It’s a book about climate change and motherhood and the trauma that systematic oppression inflicts on its victims and its perpetrators alike. It’s extremely unusual, to say the least, to find a fantasy novel that’s even half as ambitious and important.
  2. Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters. I finished this just today, in fact, and it came pretty close to being the second book to make me cry this year. It’s a novel about a Victorian oyster-girl who falls in love with a male impersonator at the theatre, and follows her to London. Waters is amazing at romantic suspense, at writing the sweet painful bliss of seduction, and I spent the four days it took me to read Tipping the Velvet utterly under its spell.
  3. Rosemary and Rue – Seanan McGuire. The first novel in McGuire’s Toby Daye series was exactly what I hoped it would be: smart and fun and not afraid of dealing with darkness, and set in a version of Faerie that’s magical without being twee.
  4. What Are We Doing Here? – Marilynne Robinson. This is a dense book, a collection of essays delving into the depths of philosophy, theology, history and aesthetics. But it’s worth taking the time and the care to engage with it: it’s a book that advocates empathy, and thorough engagement with the world, and the importance of the humanities in this career-obsessed society.
  5. Green Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson. 2018 for me has so far been marked by a growing awareness, and a concomitant grief, of just what a parlous state we’ve brought our planet to. Green Earth contributed to that awareness, but it also gave me some hope: hope that maybe we can fix our broken social system and find the political and social will to do something about rampant climate change before it’s too late.
  6. Space Opera – Catherynne M. Valente. Space Opera’s rather grown on me since I finished it and found it a little insubstantial. Sure, it’s a story about Eurovision in space. Sure, its ending is schmaltzy as all get-out. But it’s hard to resist its glitter and its goodwill and its generous, inclusive approach to the aliens who inhabit the galaxy – as well as the humans fighting for Earth’s survival.
  7. The Refrigerator Monologues – Catherynne M. Valente. While I was reading it, I enjoyed The Refrigerator Monologues a lot more than Space Opera. But…it’s faded a little in my memory by comparison. Partly I think that’s because it’s a collection of short stories about superheroes, or, rather, the girlfriends of superheroes, women who are “fridged” to advance the stories of men. I see Valente’s point, and it’s well and beautifully made, but I just don’t find superheroes that interesting. And the collection as a whole is a little one-note.
  8. Imaginary Cities – Darran Anderson. This is just a fascinating look at how cities have been portrayed and conceived of throughout human history, romping through sources as diverse as Thomas More’s Utopia and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, looping round and round its points in a kind of collage without ever quite saying what it means. I’m fascinated by the connections between architecture and literature, so this was absolutely perfect for me.
  9. The Real-Town Murders – Adam Roberts. This is a novel I admired more than liked. I mean, I enjoyed reading it; but not as much as I enjoyed nearly everything else on this list. But, like all of Roberts’ writing, it is doing complex, interesting work with genre, and genre expectations, and the headlong splintering of our shared culture.
  10. Provenance – Ann Leckie. Provenance has this fascinating double structure – just when you think you’ve got to the bottom of things you find a whole nother world behind them. Like Leckie’s Ancillary series, it places a lot of emphasis on identity politics and cultural norms and etiquette. And it does some very heavy lifting in imagining a culture that’s genuinely different from our own Western one, especially when it comes to gender norms and family structures.

(The prompt for this post came from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

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.

My Ten Favourite Top Ten Posts

  1. Top Ten Characters Who Struggle. This was a great opportunity for me to write about a whole bunch of characters who have emotional or mental struggles that don’t (necessarily) end when the book does. For whom worry and trauma and stress and depression are ways of being, not monsters that can be magically overcome. And they still get to be heroes. They’re still worthy. They’re still awesome. It would be great to see more characters like these ones.
  2. Top Ten Books for Steampunks. Steampunk is one of my current fascinations. Mostly because I find long swooshy skirts and waistcoats and pocket-watches and dirigibles and the whole aesthetic of Victoriana really cool. And yes! I know steampunk is culturally reactionary and a little bit late capitalist and quite colonialist! I can’t help it. But it does also seem to me that there’s a rebellious undertone to steampunk, that it’s in some way pushing at our notions of Victorian England. And that’s the tension that draws my overthinking overanalysing brain right in.
  3. Top Ten Queer CharactersIt was pretty surprising how hard this list was to write: I feel I’ve read a lot of books with a queer sensibility, if that means anything, but I couldn’t think of that many queer characters. And I kept coming up with characters I’d read as queer who maybe canonically weren’t (Frodo and Sam, Sidra in A Closed and Common Orbit, Stanley’s daughter in Told by an Idiot). I’m pretty happy with the final result, though.
  4. Top Ten Bookish Things I’d Like to Own. I feature this one not so much because of the quality of the finished post, but because of how much fun I had writing it and doing the equivalent of window shopping on the Internet. (I never did buy that Gormenghast print.) Plus, Jay Johnstone.
  5. Top Ten Bookish Characters I’d Like to Cosplay. Googling cosplay pictures is never a bad thing. Also, ooh, I’m now re-considering Steerpike for Nine Worlds (and not only because I could potentially reuse bits of last year’s cosplay…)
  6. Top Ten Favourite Book Quotes. I wrote this, dear gods, four years ago, so I’m not particularly proud of my flippant style, but as for the quotes themselves? Good choices, 19-year-old me.
  7. Top Ten Dystopias; Or, True and Accurate Representations of Post-Trump America. Oh, I remember how angry and depressed I was when I wrote this just after the American elections. FUCKING TRUMP.
  8. Top Ten Bookish Emotional Moments, or, All the Feels. My list would maybe look a little different now, but I do still love all these passages. (Well. Perhaps not the Thomas Covenant one, which strikes me now as a bit, uh, overwritten. And not in a good way.) And these are the moments I read for, after all: moments of visceral, terrible-wonderful empathy.
  9. Top Ten Books for Halloween. I just…like all the books on this list? And I think it’s one of my more successful theme posts, partly because almost nothing on here is straight-up horror (I don’t have the stomach for that shit, thanks very much).
  10. Top Ten Reasons I Love Blogging. Because these are all still true. (Especially the explodey bit. I have however somehow managed to find some more people IRL who will listen politely to my rants though. And really what more could you ask for.)

(The prompt for this post comes from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Ten Books That Would Make Good TV

  1. The Dark Tower series – Stephen King. A Dark Tower TV series is already in the works, but given it’s associated with the decidedly lacklustre film I have basically no confidence it will be any good. The whole series is crying out to be televised, with a prestige TV budget: the battle of Jericho! Blaine the Mono and the waste lands! The desert, and the man in black. Roland of Gilead weeping. It would be fucking fantastic. Someone get it done, please. (I can’t believe there wouldn’t be an audience for it, given King’s readership.)
  2. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. Does Peter Jackson do television? Yes, I know he made an unholy mess of The Hobbit (STILL NOT OVER IT), but The Silmarillion is another kind of beast altogether: properly epic and wonderful in the way the Lord of the Rings films are. It wouldn’t work as a film (please don’t do this, anyone, or I will cry) because there’s like a million characters and no overarching plot except for “everyone dies and everything is shit”, but it could make for beautiful TV.
  3. Lirael – Garth Nix. Only, I’m imagining like a version where Lirael stays in the Library and has magical monster-of-the-week adventures with the Disreputable Dog and gradually learns to make friends and accept herself and it would be wholesome and wonderful and full of books.
  4. Perdido Street StationChina Mieville. I know, I know, I wrote a whole post a couple of weeks ago about how Mieville doesn’t work on TV and it should never happen again, but on a purely superficial level I think New Crobuzon would be amazing on screen, if it was done properly. Plus, the novel has that sprawling Dickensian quality that would give a TV series time to explore the world properly while, y’know, having a plot.
  5. The Discworld series – Terry Pratchett. There was a series called The Watch that was happening a while ago. Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge claims it is still happening. I’m hoping a) that it does happen and b) that it is not shit. (The films are fairly shit, but it is pretty fun seeing Discworld come to life, however underfunded it is.)
  6. A Madness of Angels – Kate Griffin. This is another one that would work really well as a monster-of-the-week show, carried by its wise-cracking protagonist and BBC special effects that are dodgy enough to look a little bit real. (See also Doctor Who.)
  7. Soulless – Gail Carriger. Steampunk and vampires and werewolves, oh my! (Seriously, this book is obsessed by scenery. If anything was written for TV it’s this.)
  8. The Temeraire series – Naomi Novik. Temeraire is adorable, and the books are really fascinated by relationships in a way that I think would work well on TV. You could flesh out the arcs of some of the supporting characters, and it would be like Downton Abbey but with dragons. And naval battles.
  9. Night Film – Marisha Pessl. For obvious reasons, this would work well on screen: I mean, it’s literally about film. And you could translate some of the novel’s narrative tricks pretty well into TV. I can also see how a TV adaptation could be disastrous, though.
  10. Green Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson. It would be like The West Wing, except with climate change! And lord knows climate change could do with raising its profile.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)