Reading: Steph Swainston — Fair Rebel

Late-2015, for vague reasons I couldn’t plumb, I threw myself into Steph Swainston’s massive The Castle Omnibus. Three books in one. Was most impressive. One of those rare stories and worlds which keep churning in the background of my thoughts, like you know a second reading will be rich with detail you’d forgotten or not even noticed the first time.

And at that time she’d retired from writing to be a chemistry teacher, so besides Above the Snowline (which I’m currently reading), that was to be the entirety of her literary brilliance. Lucky for me she found an arrangement between the demands of publishers and fans, and her need to write, and returned with an absolute slammer of a novel.

Or maybe she just wanted to smash down the world she’d created. Or maybe she needed to do that to open it to the possibilities of these worlds. For whatever reason, she annihilates people and buildings with methodical, dispassionate relentlessness throughout the Fourlands and not stopping at the Castle itself. Immortals are sloughed off; art, industry, culture, history burned and razed; and not the minor cast either. She goes straight for the leads who have filled her previous four novels. It’s gloriously brutal and tragic.

I’ve been quietly raving about Swainston to my friends, but don’t really know how to describe her. Sometimes it’s like William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch; other times like ancient Greek literature. There’s a logic in the many worlds like some science-fiction yet there’s obviously a lineage with Western European fantasy, but to say, “If you liked Lord of the Rings, you’ll love this” is entirely what it isn’t. Sometimes it’s like a deranged and drug-addled version of Poldark. I was looking through writers to go, “It’s like them,” and usually I can get close, but with Swainston … maybe a bit of Sophie Samatar or Jo Walton’s The Just City trilogy, but really all three are so different.

I’m not sure if reading Fair Rebel without The Castle Omnibus would be so satisfying — or such a punch in the face — but this is the kind of series you’re either all in for or don’t make it through the first chapter. Obviously I’m all in.

Reading: Steph Swainston — The Castle Omnibus

I don’t even know why I’m reading this, so … off to Teh Internetz & search my hard drive. Charles Stross in 2011 had a post called, “What do you think is the most important novel of the past 10-and-a-bit years (published since January 1st 2000)?” After some 280 comments in which 5-10% of the authors mentioned were female, he started a new post called, “More on books” where he qualifies that with “All male authors are disqualified.” First comment is “This is going to be brief, and interesting…” Fifth is “I’ve just come to a shocked realisation that I haven’t read any female authors in the last 10 years.” Which is why, barring occasional exceptions—and in my mind I am making exceptions—I don’t read male fiction authors.

(For those who give a fuck about exceptions: 1. currently alive writers whom I’ve been reading for years: Charles Stross, China Miéville, plus an occasional couple of others; 2. new writers who are not white, like Saladin Ahmed or Ayize Jama-Everett, and come highly recommended by people who know what they’re talking about.)

Steph Swainston got mentioned a few times, both for and against ‘important’ so let’s presume this is one of the places I picked her up from. Possibly io9 … yeah maybe slash not really, I dunno. What does Wikipedia say? Trained archaeologist, gave up full-time writing to teach chemistry, dislikes much traditional fantasy for its inherent conservatism, likes writing about drug use and heavy sex—on the former, Jant, the main character in The Castle Omnibus, a winged immortal, is introduced by hanging out and searching for his stash to hit up—China Miéville raves about her (apparently, can’t find where, do assume he did based off the first score of pages).

I’m pretty sure previous me put various bits of all that together and went, “Fuck Jaaa!” Also pretty sure previous me did that some years ago, ’cos I have this feeling it’s been on my Want List for years. Ordered months ago, picked up on Thursday, began this morning. Drugs! War! In-fighting! Insects! Insect War! (Starship Troopers?!?!) 867 pages of not-large typeface and thin margins and “Of God that’s fucking heavy” when I tried to one-hand heft it. You could throw it at someone and do serious damage.

Reading: Ayize Jama-Everett — The Entropy of Bones

In the previous instalment, the protagonists hitch a ride across the Atlantic on a boat with a dead woman. She’s an aside in the main story, but in The Entropy of Bones, it’s all about her. Chabi, half-black, half-Mongolian, mute, living on a boat and training her teens away in various occult martial arts practices under the tutelage of Narayana, who’s turned up in the previous two books and is the kind of entropic person who would altruistically build orphanages only to see them all burn down, children inside (yup, that’s how Ayize Jama-Everett describes him).

Martial art girl fighting her way into and through life as irresistible force, absent father, problem mother, street tough and walls all round. I like Jama-Everett’s world, writing, imagination—duh, obviously, I’ve just read all three of his books and got through this one between Friday night and Saturday morning (with sleep)—and taking the Liminal War series off away from Taggert, his daughter, that story line and axis of Morocco to London via Marseille, to a distinctly minor character in the second book and building a whole new line from her, that’s good story-telling.

Martial art girl, etc yeah, that’s a bit of a cliché. The most recent I’ve read of that stereotrope is Tricia Sullivan’s Shadowboxer, and both indulge in and suffer from the endless descriptions of fighting, training, and corporeality, the body as a thing that only becomes true when it surmounts technique and training and finds its natural movement. There’s a shit tonne of essentialist problems in that model, as much as it is a fact—a fact that derives from the simple physicality of human bodies, how joints can articulate, muscles contract and release, nerves hold conversations, all the mess of having a body; and you can’t move outside your body without breaking it so, yeah, ‘natural’ movement—that fact doesn’t necessarily correlate to a truth. The truth being postulated is that of the authentic body and self, like Martha fucking Graham saying, “The body doesn’t lie” (yeah dunno if she said that or if it’s been corrupted from “Movement never lies” but much the same), or Star fucking Wars and “Use the Force, Luke” it’s an asshole full of orientalist shit.

And ’cos the protagonist always has to find the passive way, not be the irresistible force, be like wind or grass, which sure, is a legitimate way of fighting, Aikido, Tai Qi others work from these principles, but hitting shit until it breaks is also no less natural movement and authentic self (if we’re gonna talk in those terms), and the unspoken statement here is Chabi (or whoever else) is broken, incomplete, inauthentic until they find this ‘true’ technique-less movement. As someone who’s spent close to two decades training and suffering from the pervasiveness of that bullshit, I think I can say fuck off, and also, drop your essentialism and orientalism, it’s fucked up and it’s like you don’t even realise.

Otherwise, The Entropy of Bones is pretty bloody good. It’s not going to be book of the year—thinking there isn’t going to be a fiction one this year—partially for the above, partially for the stereotrope of ‘tough martial art chick grows up when irresistible force hits immoveable object’, partially for Jama-Everett’s need to mention one character in particular is gay when he never labels any of the others as hetero except for through their actions (a bit like Sullivan’s really awful attempt at a trans/kathoey/wtf?Idunno character), so it’s like he went through a checklist of tokens and … yeah, I’m as cynical as fuck about this stuff (no, I’m totally down with Taggert calling people “Faggot,” that’s the person he is) … partially cos there’s a darkness in these books that—I mean you can’t call any of the protagonists heroes or necessarily good people given what they do, but it’s not that darkness, it’s something underlying that, like a pessimism in the writing where everything is a rearguard action, like Anna Kavan’s Ice, brilliant book but God you come out the other side feeling hopeless and in need of a shot of heroin.

Like I said of the other Liminal books, read this if you love China Miéville (especially his stuff like Kraken, and Un Lun Dun) or Saladin Ahmed, or you’re looking for a world that isn’t full of hero white people.

Reading: Ayize Jama-Everett — The Liminal War

Yeah, a little behind here. I just finished reading the sequel and nope, haven’t even written about this one. So, Ayize Jama-Everett. The Liminal War. Recommended I think by someone at the Tiptree Award. The first book, The Liminal People is fucking brilliant. Dark brilliant like what’s-his-name in the first Transporter film, when it wasn’t funny (and when you could ignore the stupidity).

The sequel, this one, continues on, but mostly in London instead of Morocco. It did manage to do that thing which sequels often fail at, expand the universe in which the characters reside, and introduced a few new characters, but wasn’t brilliant like the first. Yeah, pretty good, I read it in one inhale, somehow became too urban trustafarian where the first one was more like Saldin Ahmed’s Arabian fantasy. The was one though, on a boat, in the ocean, dead. She turns up again. Definitely worth reading if you’re looking for urban-ish fantasy and like the Ahmed-Miévilles of this world.

Reading: Ayize Jama-Everett — The Liminal People

Who are you, Ayiza Jama-Everett? And why are you so good? Eight pages in you write, “…he massacres Arabic as though it were a heathen in the noose of the Lord.” Is that not one of the most pristine sentences in the history of English? It’s like fucking Chaucer. The Liminal People—I’m halfway through—is fucking glorious. It’s Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon and China Miéville’s Kraken, dark, violent disturbance. Ignore the cover blurb. I didn’t, had my legs kicked out. The first time I was in Vienna I thought, this is a city where bodies pass through in the trunks of cars. Liminal People is that kind of book. Plus Islam. Plus Bad Things. If it was an album, it’d be Asian Dub Foundation’s Enemy Of The Enemy and Ensemble Al-Kindî. At the same time—Ooo! Ooo! There’s a sequel! I just ordered it!

Reading: Rachel Hartmann — Shadow Scale

Got home Saturday with this brick of a book, read the dust jacket and realised Shadow Scale is the sequel to Seraphina, which I read almost two years ago and thought was well-smart. One of the smartest. I went through something of a fantasy reading stage back then, really trying to give it a go, and did find some brilliant works, like Jo Walton’s Among Others, and quite a bit of disappointment. More of the latter than the former. My expectations are so easily spoilt.

No connection then in my doddering brain between Rachel Hartmann’s two books, just reading in a couple of places that Shadow Scale was rather bloody good, and me needing some fiction respite, and knowing there’s months to go before all the things I’m actively waiting for get published, decided OK, I’ll give it a whirl, and only then realising the connection, but having such a poor recollection, was it that one that was quite good, or that other one (several ones) that were quite not-good? Good it is. Very good. Fucking love Seraphina’s world to bits.

Almost 600 pages too.

And so far it seems to have escaped the horrible default sequel abyss, the one The Matrix fell into (almost everything Hollywood does, and many things not) because the story has actually been told and now it’s just “Further Adventures of …” Just realised it reminds me of Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, in characters if not in something of the setting. Oh hey, and it’s YA (that’s Young Adult to you). Saints’ dogs but it never occurred to me. Amazing how much YA I read is so very better than A. Likely to be very high on my favourite books of the year, this one.

Reading: Genevieve Cogman — The Invisible Library

My book for Düsseldorf, as recommended by Charles Stross (ooh yeah, authors on Twitter!) (And I finally worked out it’s possible to search single user’s Tweets, otherwise I’d be saying “as recommended by Ysabeau Wilce or Anne Leckie or Saladin Ahmed or someone completely other.) It lasted on the train from Berlin to around Bielefeld. Isabelle said, “Have you finished it already??!?!” I made sad face.

Wow it’s awesome when you read a writer’s first published novel and it’s like they’ve popped out fully formed and mature and running like buggery and causing mayhem. Anne Leckie, I’m looking at you! Saladin Ahmed! Genevieve Cogman now also. Considering how bereft I was when Iain Banks died, thinking I’d never have so much fun in skiffy again, I mean, I’m biting my foot over here, far too much amazingness for me.

So I was trying to think what I’d read recently that it reminded me a bit of, The Lies of Locke Lamora? Nah, a bit but not really, The Folding Knife? Also nah-a-bit-but-not-really, I think Living with Ghosts, but maybe I’m making that up. It’s actually a crime suspense thriller with a library, so I should mention Among Others, though it’s far from that. Anyway, when a good writer throws out a killer tale of inter-dimensional libraries (Legend of Korra!) I am totally there and down with it.

So we’ve established I loved The Invisible Library and I will read the shit out of whatever Cogman writes next, and this has turned into a review. A moment of criticism then. Basically I expect three things from any fiction I read (sci-fi & fantasy, cos I don’t read anything else), things that largely I don’t get from the dominant genre written by straight white men, things that don’t necessarily appear just because an author isn’t one of that triad: I want a lot of women, women who are complete characters and not tropes or clichés; I want fucking queerness (for want of a better word), bisexuality, gender diversity, bodies that reflect the reality that science has been unambiguous about for decades now; I want different skin colours, eye colours, hair colours—and not just on the ‘aliens’. Of course if it’s a specific dystopia or whatever where there’s a clear and justifiable reason (not fucking likely, but) for not having this, then ok. Probably not going to read it though.

The Invisible Library is kinda gothic, vampire, steam-punk-ish—or at least draws on tropes and clichés from these and other skiffy/fantasy worlds—because of particular (magical-ish) plot devices. Unfortunately in these tropes as they exist in the history of real novels published in this world, vampires tend to be pale, white, european, blonde (maaaybe not if it’s a Christopher Lee type reference), historical fantasy novels tend to this also (and so very much in the history of sci-fi), and there seemed to be a lot of characters here who were pale and blah. Maybe it’s how I read it, maybe even some of the central characters weren’t this. It’s not about individuals, it’s the milieu in which they exist, and I just have this memory of being introduced frequently to characters described as pale. (I did a quick re-read in case my brain actually was tofu, and Kai, Brandamant, Silver were all described as pale; Vale as an “aquiline … perfect example of a lead protagonist in certain types of detective fiction”, so I’m presuming Bogart white; Coppelia and Dominic (who was murdered) as dark. Interestingly Irene, from whose perspective the story comes from is never described this way; (unless I—yah likely—missed something) her lack of definition seems a purposeful decision). Anyway, I want black or Chinese or Persian vampires fuck it. (Or pale and Turkish?) Look at Mr. Vampire, it’s not as though there isn’t at least 30 years of precedent. Same applies also for relationships, attraction, desire, looks, gazes. Even two of the main characters (Kai and Vale) who seemed ambiguous, or at least bisexual were somehow corralled towards the end into more overt or defined heterosexual identities. I want sex and desire in my fiction reading like I get it in Oglaf!

I’m cheering, but it’s a bit subdued. I wanna like The Invisible Library as much as I think it deserves, but I’m kinda suspicious over here, I’m not entirely convinced, even though it’s published by Tor Books, even though it’s really good. I have this feeling that there are things here that I can’t quite explain away by the narrative device of staging within a world where fantasy clichés have come to life. Or perhaps I’m too uptight about this stuff from always seeing the world in this way and need to smoke a joint before reading & blogging.

Reading: Ysabeau S. Wilce — Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog

Yes, the title is that long. Yes, there are two more adventures with Flora. Yes, their titles are that long too. Yes, highly likely to be my Book of the Year. No, I have no idea where I first heard of Ysabeau S. Wilce, nor did I know this is a “children’s book”.

I regularly find myself reading children’s books or that dreadful, condescending genre Young Adult, because I have no standards or expectations that might make me dismissive of such books, and luckily the people whose writing often lead me to discover new authors similarly don’t differentiate between proper books for adults and books for all the rest. Probably in large part because the science-fiction and fantasy genres tend to be looked down upon by serious literature, and these genres are full of an endless avalanche of embarrassments intended for said adults, whereas the really good works transcend their intended audience, irrespective of age.

Flora Segunda is certainly one of these transcendent works. The Flora on my cover looks a lot like a slightly older Merida from the movie Brave (which is by the way another one of those works), and it’s probably wherever I first heard about this book mentioned the two things of significance for me to consider further perusal: woman author and female lead character. Yes, this is important. I am extremely unlikely to read a work of fiction if the author is not female unless there’s a very good reason to do so. Saladin Ahmed is a good example of one, author of Throne of the Crescent Moon, and currently researching American comics pre-Comics Code — his Twitter feed is a glorious joy of brilliance. Charles Stross also (yes, also Iain).

As with Throne of the Crescent Moon, there is a substantial, highly imaginative and coherent world which the characters inhabit. I can’t not mention first Flora’s best friend, the sartorial genius Udo. Come to think of it, this would make as good a film as Brave, though Disney would probably do their eugenic princessification ‘redesign’ on her as they did on Merida. So, yes, read it! Exceptional cold, rainy Zürich summer weekend reading. So very good I ordered the next two Flora adventures before finishing breakfast.

Reading: Ellen Klages — Portable Childhoods

One of the last of my current pile of reading, once again arriving because of Saladin Ahmed leading me to Fearsome Journeys and then me doing my anthology reading trick of lurking around authors of stories I liked then deciding to read the ones who seemed to have something interesting for me beyond the one story I’d read. The others were Elizabeth Bear, K.J. Parker, and Scott Lynch. Four authors. Pretty good for one anthology.

By the end of Elizabeth Bear’s collection I was thinking I’d remembered why I was not so interested in her, that perhaps I’d read some short story of hers online, or maybe her blog, anyway, something that had not convinced me. There were some very nice stories (and I especially love her theory of 4-dimensional surgery), but I found it a little tiresome for two reasons in particular, which are intertwined and so more like one convoluted, ill-considered by me reason.

The first was a heavy white US American-centric perspective. Possibly I find British/Scottish fiction less afflicted by this – it may be that I’m less conscious of its obviousness, or it may be simply that there is a somewhat hegemonic style in American fiction that is much more pronounced. It’s kinda like the cool gang at school that isn’t aware of how overbearing it is, and how claustrophobic it feels for everyone else. The other seemed to manifest in a few different ways but to me seem to come from the same source. Part of this was what felt like a habit of many of the stories having a character who had some kind of disability, or was not hetero- or cisnormative, sometimes a combination of them all. This came up against a protagonist who largely was both hetero- and cisnormative, as well as able-bodied.

So obviously I’m wondering as I’m writing this if I have not paid attention to some unease around reading stories with disabled characters, and thinking through what I can remember having read is I tend to have an unease with the author because more often than not these characters are a stand-in for representing The Other, or used as a pathetic symbolic plot device for the narrative process tension and drama. And it would be well-awkward for me to actually be writing that I don’t like those books because weird people make me feel weird – especially when I’m hobbling on crutches and having a first-hand experience of how people with visible disabilities get regarded in public.

So I do a bit of searching to see what others think and came across the RaceFail ’09 incident, which I think helped me consolidate my thoughts about what I find problematic in some of the structural tropes of eurocentric fantasy, both the more historical ones rooted in monarchy and racism, and the newer ones of ‘inclusivity’. I see some of Bear’s writing falling into both these problem-holes – particularly having just read Afrofuturism and having a bit of a perspective on non-white North American sci-fi and fantasy – as do I have with some of Ellen Klages stories in Portable Childhoods.

Both Bear and Klages had stories about a young girl growing up in far from ideal circumstances who discovers something magical (a Harpy in the former, a Parrotfish in the latter), and escapes her grim life by transforming themselves into this creature. A different reading of both is a young girl who suffering from severe environmental stress and possibly undiagnosed mental disorder commits suicide while in a hallucinatory state, which the author then romanticises.

I had planned to write about Portable Childhoods much more briefly, but it seems I’d been thinking about these problems with the authors’ position from which they write. I enjoyed Klages much more than Bear, who as well as the above suffers from a lack of rigour in her writing, her stories often feel belted out and left as-is, really needing some disciplined editing and attention – this evinced also in the utterly shoddy proofreading. Klages on the other hand is uniformly meticulous and careful; she loves books and words and is a reader, perhaps even before she is a writer.

I loved that some of her stories barely filled a page, yet this was clearly the length they needed to be. I also found her story of the child with Down Syndrome poignant and sensitive, clearly personal and not just another disability to be used for a plot device. I also loved her last story, In the House of the Seven Librarians, which I read sitting waiting to get my ankle seen to at 2am Thursday morning.

hmm … Curiously, when I read Afrofuturism, I found the lack of attention to feminist and queer issues within the genre by the author troubling, as though the default protagonist or hero of the afrofuturist milieu was a hetero black cisgender man. It seemed to me that there was a missed chance for addressing structural inequality in itself, beyond just reversing the polarity of one of the most obvious manifestations of inequality (kind of what radical lesbian separatist feminism did in the ’70s and ’80s). Subsequently, my decision to focus on women writers seems to have banged up against a similar problem. Perhaps I shouldn’t care. I think it’s an acceptable option sometimes – which is why I can sometimes enjoy hollywood action movies. There is a big ‘however’ after that which I am not competent to monologue on at the moment, but which does have the practical outcome that I will be more diligent in researching new authors before throwing euros at them.

Which sounds quite harsh on Klages. If I hadn’t read Bear first, I suspect I wouldn’t be throwing such an analysis on Klages; it was the similarity to me in certain stories that caused me to think about these issues of mental disorders, physical disabilities, racism, the use of The Other in works written by people who in some way (even if only as female writers) are themselves cast as Other. There are some great stories here, it’s just that some of them read odd when regarded from a certain perspective.