The Cold Commands by Richard K. Morgan

I reviewed this ages ago, but have just gotten around to re-posting.

If what you feel has been missing from your average Tolkien-clone is hot, gay sex, then this is the book for you.

No, j/k, I’m being immature, and I’ve never been one to let a one-liner lie. What I have been missing from your average Tolkien-clone is hot, gay sex. While I love Tolkien, his far-reaching over-shadowing influence on later fantasists results in an awful lot of heraldic bullshit and courtly fol-de-rol, with wide-eyed teenage boys who are Ken-like from the waist down pining for perfect gfs and bloodlessly questing for the Sparkly McGuffin. Oh, the Sparkly McGuffin! Forged in the fires of Mount Plot by the Great Evil Tautology!

Richard K. Morgan strides in with his great swinging dick – I mean dirk – and knocks all this stuff over. Smash! Smash! Wheee! This sounds like it could be a lot of fun – and there certainly is fun to be had – but as Morgan’s first foray into fantasy, he seems to fall into some common fantasy traps. The world building is painfully slow, clearly designed to be nuanced enough to cover another couple of books, but I wonder how much of this could have been contracted or excised completely. (I can’t believe I’m bitching about nuance.) The names are all annoyingly polysyllabic and oddly similar, meaning lazy readers such as myself are often confused and lost. I get why people in fantasy can’t be named “Steve” and “Bob,” but the names seemed tin-earish. (Also, why does everything have to start with a G or a K? What is it about these letters that says “sword and sorcery” to English speakers? C’mon, linguists, I need to know.)

At about halfway, I was ready to give up, so I came on bookface and got a little pep-talk from Mike’s review — unfortunately no longer extant —  which reminded me why I tend to dig Morgan’s stuff: the snarling misanthropy, the unbelievably brutal violence that is neither precious nor glorified, the biting political invective. The later half of the book rapidly picks up steam; the almost tedious details of the earlier half of the novel coalescing into textured history – and one that doesn’t feel the need to name every damn rock and twig in remembrance of some heroic act a millennium ago, but one that has a dirty, lived-in feel. All the f-bombs, drug use, whores – and believe me, I’m sick to death of authors using whores to make their fantasy worlds seem “real” – mesh convincingly into a world that values character over genre conventions. I actually lol’d when, late in the novel, one of the principles meets with what is functionally an elf princess, the sister of his new lover, and they have one of those standard heraldic-I-can’t-really-speak-your-language meet-cutes full of ye gads forthwith forsooths, at the end of which she says, “Fuck with my brother, and I’ll kill you” in roughly that phrasing. Ha! Good times.

And did I mention the gay sex? Mostly, I think sex scenes in non-romance novels fail because they do not do work to push the narrative along. (Romance novels tend to understand the importance of the physical mirroring the emotional.) Like Morgan’s fight scenes, the sex is embodied and explicit, and discomforting to read. The protagonist’s homosexuality isn’t something pasted on, theoretical, but a fledged desire. Morgan’s got himself some running themes about how the powers that be build an artifice of morality that they hide behind, using your “sins” – the ones they created for you – as a lever to make you perpetrate real crimes, institutional crimes like war, the kind of crimes you never really come back from. There’s a running gag where characters ask one another “Have you ever killed a child?” Invariably, the answer was, “I was in the war, wasn’t I?” It would almost be funny, if it weren’t so damn sad, that a lot of reviews I’ve read (here and elsewhere) spill more ink about the man-on-man-elf action than they do about the explicit horror of the violence – the thing with the heads in the third act I’m not going to be able to scrub out for a while – and I think this is Morgan’s point. An institutional morality that justifies war while squealing like a bunch of faux-prissy voyeurs over a private, consensual act creates institutions, and moralities, that I find distasteful, to say the least.

Burn it, burn it all, might be Morgan’s take-home message, one that I’m not comfortable with either, but one for which I have no easy retort. Morgan explicitly takes on the “consider the children” argument and tears it to shreds. I’ve often joked about finding nihilism sexy, but it’s mostly because I’m afraid of it, and desire and danger like to hold hands and skip together. I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue reading this trilogy – and Morgan earns my respect for tying this one off in a way that I could end it here – but in writing my review, I’ve talked myself into it. The dark lord is rising. Let’s see what he does next.

The Year in Reading: 2022

I rounded up the books I’d read for the year a couple years back, which I hoped to make into something of a tradition. Alas, I’ve never done well when I assign myself homework, so last year went by without a roundup. But I guess I’m back! We’ll see how this goes. I’m still pretty focused on lighter fare, like I was at the start of the pandemic, but I’ve managed to slip in some horror here and there, mostly stuff I’d read already. In fact, I did a lot of rereading this year; I’m just not interested in surprises. So, without further ado:

Stuff I read for class:

The Collected Works of T.S. Eliot. If you weren’t aware, I finally finished up the English degree I started eleventy million years ago. The class itself was a senior seminar style class — where your grade is based on a single, bigass paper — and the class was called “T. S. Eliot and War.” We started with the WWI poets — Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, &c — and then worked our way into Prufrock, The Wasteland, and the Four Quartets. It’s been a hot minute since I seriously read poetry, so it was very rewarding to get hip deep in the one of the most important poets of the 20th Century. I’m not sure who this is attributed to, but one pithy take on Eliot goes: Modernism begins between the second and third lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham. A small town gets knocked out by an unidentified force, after which it turns out all the women of childrearing age are knocked up. A comedy of manners that ends on a bang.

Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. This novel defies the wisdom that you shouldn’t have too much weird stuff going on in a novel, because first up, almost everyone on earth is blinded by a celestial event, and then, while society is breaking down and everything is a mess, giant, ambulatory, carnivorous plants start preying on the survivors. Fun fact: Alex Garland lifted the opening of Triffids, which follows a patient who was convalescing in hospital & who doesn’t know about the recent cataclysm, for 28 Days Later.

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. O.G. alien invasion narrative, which reads really weird now. Published in 1897, it pre-dates both world wars, and it shows. My paper ended up being on what Wyndham took from Wells when he wrote his own alien invasion narrative, fifty years and two world wars later.

Hidden Wyndham by Amy Binns. As far as I know, the only biography of Wyndham available, published in the last few years. I feel like Wyndham is experiencing a little bitty renaissance, because he is so much more interesting than many of his peers. Hidden Wyndham publishes just scads of his letters to the love of his life while they were separated by the war, and I admit I cried.

The History of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts. I also read a lot of academical stuff for the paper, but I’m not going to bore you with psychoanalytic takes on mid-century scifi or whatnot. I mention The History of Science Fiction because I read around for sections which dealt with my specific topics, and hit a three page analysis of The Midwich Cuckoos which was better than every other bit of criticism I’d read about that novel by a country mile. I made a mental note to get back to his fiction when I remember; Roberts is also a science fiction writer himself. I recommend following his twitter if you’re into extremely erudite dad jokes and multi-lingual puns.

Zombies!

Most of my zombie reads were rereads, so we’ll start with the new stuff.

Love, Lust, and Zombies: Short Stories edited by Mitzi Szereto. Short story collection about people banging the undead. Look, I know. Would you believe I read it for the articles? I do think it’s notable, given the burgeoning subgenre of monsterotica, that zombies almost never are portrayed as fuckable, a paradox of the zombie’s curious detachment and their voraciousness. Something something, quip about the little death and the big one.

The Down Home Zombie Blues by Linnea Sinclair. Turns out, not actually about zombies, which I found incredibly disappointing. Buddy-cop alien-invasion narrative with hive-mind space chthulu, set in Florida. Make of that what you will.

Everything Dies by T. W. Malpass. I read the first “season”; this is apparently some kind of serial. Decent, but it’s got the wordiness of serials and the tendency to jump around in a way that works when you’re consuming something episodically, but not so much in a binge. I’m on the fence about whether to continue.

The First Thirty Days by Lora Powell. Self-pub with the requisite typos and infelicities, but stronger than most. Kinda not into the fact that a vaccine is responsible for the zombie apocalypse. Given the pub date, this isn’t Covid vaccine denialism, just the regular kind, but it still rankles. I liked the slow collection of survivors; I didn’t like the cartoony bad guys in the third act. I also enjoyed that these zombies were fast zombies initially, but as they decomposed, they got more like the shamblers of yore. Not that physics exists in zombie stories, but I liked that these zombies decomposed like bodies would.

This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers. YA novel about a young woman who is suicidal when the zombie apocalypse hits, and ends up riding it out in the high school with a collection of frenemies. There’s a real thing that depressed people tend to do better in crisis situations, because they’ve been catastrophizing the whole time so sure, why not zombies. Beautifully written and worth the reread.

Severance by Ling Ma. Legit, I reread this almost exclusively because I watched the AppleTV series, Severance (no relation). This novel definitely cemented my opinion that zombie novels more accurately capture the experience of living through a pandemic than fiction about pandemics. This lappingly memoirish novel follows a post-college millennial through a global outbreak of Shen fever, which strips its victims down to one rote action until they die of exposure or malnutrition. She keeps working her publishing job as New York empties, masked and Zooming with a smaller and smaller group of people.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead. This is maybe the third time I’ve read this, second time I’ve listened to the audio, which is very good. Once you get past the 50c words and the complex syntax — not to mention how aggressively deadpan the narrative voice is — Zone One is seriously freaking funny. It’s honestly become one of my favorite novels. Zone One is also elegiac about a lost New York, like Severance, and is probably best understood as a 9/11 novel, of sorts.

The Dark Earth by John Hornor Jacobs. Another super rewarding reread. Jacobs isn’t reinventing the zombie wheel here — they’re pretty standard shamblers — but this book really cemented a lot of my early ponderings about the American instinct towards fascism, what zombie stories tend to say about domesticity, etc. The way the story is told through interlocking perspectives is absolutely aces, and there’s a sequence with a steam train which rules.

Seanan McGuire

The InCryptid Series. McGuire is seriously seriously prolific, so if you’re looking for three dozen novels or so because you’ve got a long weekend, look no further. I read the first four InCryptid books — Discount Armageddon, Midnight Blue-Light Special, Half-Off Ragnarok, and Pocket Apocalypse (I was today years old when I got the pun the title; the novel takes place in Australia), but I bounced off the fifth, Chaos Choreography. This is notable, because it usually takes me two books to run out steam with a series and have to take a break. InCryptid features a sprawling family of cryptozoologists (some of whom happen to be cryptids themselves). The first was published in 2012, and it isn’t so different from the glut of urban fantasy published in the 2010s, but they get weirder and more McGuire-like as they go on, which is cool to watch happen.

Wayward Children. I continued my read of Wayward Children with Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Beneath the Sugar Sky, and In an Absent Dream. I can’t recommend this series enough. It’s a sort of meta-portal fantasy, and the plots have the logic of dreams and nightmares. In an Absent Dream is absolutely gutting so I had to take a break, but I’ll be back.

Mira Grant. I also read a couple of her novels published under the Mira Grant name, which I think largely she uses for her more science horror stuff, but who even knows. Alien Echo is a YA novel set in the Alien universe. Olivia and Viola are the twin daughters of xenobiologists whose colony gets overrun with xenomorphs. Totally decent tie-in novel. Kingdom of Needle and Bone has a similar vibe to the Newsflesh books, which I enjoyed greatly despite my often loud bitching. Unfortunately, the book is about a pandemic, and I am not capable of reading about pandemics right now. I suspect this was supposed to be the start of a series, but Covid put an end to that, along with so much else. Oh, and speaking of that, I am absolutely dying for another killer mermaids book, like Into the Drowning Deep, but I think there might be some fuckery with the publisher? I really hope they get that nonsense worked out.

Ann Aguirre

Galactic Love. I’ve found my way working through Aguirre’s back catalogue because she’s a rock solid journeyman writer who is often quietly subversive as hell, especially when it comes to toxic genre tropes. Like in the first of her Galactic Love series, Strange Love, Aguirre takes on alien abduction romance, a sub-genre which is often a trash fire of dub-con and dudes with weird dicks. Strange Love is instead a charming, funny story with a talking dog and a Eurovision-ish contest, and the alien doesn’t even have a dick. This year I read the third, Renegade Love, which isn’t as great as Strange Love, but is still pretty great. It’s about a froggy dude in a murder suit, what more could you possibly need to know?

Mirror, Mirror. Mirror, Mirror is the second in her Gothic Fairytales series, after Bitterburn. I really enjoyed the Beauty & the Best retelling in Bitterburn, even if the end fizzled a bit, but I feel like Mirror, Mirror, which takes on Sleeping Beauty (sort of), was a misfire. The novel’s protagonist is the step-mother, and while I appreciated the attempt at inverting the tropes — it’s the mother that’s evil, not the step-mother — I don’t think the novel really gets under the hood of what those tropes say about motherhood, etc. The novel instead just relabels the good mom and the bad one.

Grimspace. The first in the Sirantha Jax novels about an FTL pilot who gets pinned as the patsy in some galactic political fuckery. Peripatetic space opera which moves pretty fast. The main character sometimes annoyed me with the gormlessly naïve thing that is common to this kind of protagonist, but still a totally decent novel.

Witch Please. Bounced off this hard, but then I have close to zero patience for contemporary romance, which this is. Just including it because Aguirre writes in a lot of different genres, which I think is nifty, even if they’re not to my taste.

Jessie Mihalik

I discovered Mihalik some time in October, and I’ve been tearing through her books. Incredibly fast-moving space operas, often with labyrinthine galactic court drama and some light kissing. The Consortium Rebellion series — Polaris Rising, Aurora Blazing and Chaos Reigning — just keep getting better, partially because I think she stops relying on tropes and types so hard. (Like one of the characters in Polaris Rising is 100% Riddick with the serial numbers filed off). Too be clear: tropes and types are what makes a genre, so I’m not slagging this, just observing. The first two of the Starlight’s Shadow series, Hunt the Stars and Eclipse the Moon, have a Vulcan-y psychic race which I am totally into, but I think the books are occasionally hamstrung by their first person narrators, especially the first. I’m reading The Queen’s Advantage, the second of the Rogue Queen series right now. The first, The Queen’s Gambit, has an Amadala-type elected queen, which is silly, but then mostly she’s queen so the title works, which is whatever. They’re all superfun books, and if you’re looking to while away an attack of insomnia, don’t pick these up because you will never go back to sleep. Just one more chapter.

Various Series I Continued Reading

Kiss of the Spindle by Nancy Campbell Allen. Steampunky take on Sleeping Beauty, and the second in a series begun with Beauty and the Clockwork Beast. The previous novel had a really cool protagonist, but the mystery plot was almost offensively stupid. Kiss of the Spindle improves on this by having a cool protagonist, and then also the whole locked room mystery was fun to watch play out. The antagonist ended up being the most compelling character by far, and I was bummed to see the next novel in the series wasn’t about him.

Raven Unveiled by Grace Draven. The last (?) of the Fallen Empire series didn’t quite work for me. We’ve met both main characters before — Gharek of Cabast and Siora — and the novel is supposed to be a redemption arc for the former. Alas, I felt like he was too much of a jerk to be redeemed, so I was ambivalent about the novel. I will always love Draven’s prose style, but I just can’t love Gharek. (I also reread all of the Wraith Kings series, of course.)

Irin Chronicles by Elizabeth Hunter. I read the first three of the Irin Chronicles series ages ago, when PNR was in its angel phase. I loved how Hunter dealt with the concept of a mate bond. Hunter addresses a specific fucked up situation which would inevitably happen if indeed the mate bond existed in book 2 or 3 of the Irin books — can’t remember exactly. I’ve only seen one other writer address this situation (but not this well). I never continued on with the series because of my aforementioned need for series breaks, but I finally got around to reading books 6, 7 & 8, The Silent, The Storm, and The Seeker. (I skipped #4, The Staff and the Blade, because I find Damien and Sari kind of annoying.) They were all enjoyable in their own ways, but The Seeker rises to a crescendo which could serve as a series ender, if she decides not to go on.

Ruby Fever by Ilona Andrews. Perfectly cromulent conclusion to Catalina’s arc in the Hidden Legacy series. The husband and wife team behind the pen name have this tendency to rely on eugenics in their magic systems, which can flower into full-on magical fascism. (The Kate Daniels books especially are guilty of this, most egregiously in Blood Heir, which I also read this year. I did not like Blood Heir.) Fortunately, in Ruby Fever they seem to be aware of how screwed up a system based on heritable magic would be, and there’s some direct critique in the novel. Ruby Fever also showcases their trademark ability to begin a novel with three totally screwed up but seemingly unrelated situations, and then have them escalate and entwine into a massive disaster. Even if I’m not into a book of theirs, they are very, very good at what they do. (Oh also, apparently I read Fated Blades, their most recent novella in the Kinsmen Universe, a series which they started and abandoned over a decade ago. I didn’t love it, but it was fine.)

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells. The sixth Murderbot Diaries book, Fugitive Telemetry takes place before book 5, so the timeline was a little confusing at points. I thought we were going to get a road trip with ART after the last? Anyway, fun little locked room (locked space station?) mystery, full of Murderbot’s trademark kvetching. For a series based on a bot what murders, the Murderbot Diaries are surprisingly cozy reads. Murderbot just wants to get back to its stories when other peoples’ horseshit gets in the way. Big same, Murderbot.

Last Guard by Nalini Singh. I reread a few Psy-Changeling novels this year, to better and worse results. I invariably enjoy the books which focus on two Psy as the romantic leads, because all the growling and posturing of the changelings gets real old fast. The Psy are dealing with massive trauma, on a society-wide level, and Singh never defaults to the love of a good woman (or shape-shifter, whatever) to heal the damage. Her characters are going to have to work for it. Anyway, Last Gaurd has for its protagonists two Psy with disabilities — one physical and one mental. This is notable, because the Psy have practiced an incredibly nasty form of eugenics for last 100 years. We also get a closer look at the first gay couple I’ve ever seen in the Psy-Changeling novels. I think this is probably the best of the Psy-Changeling Trinity books to date.

Dukes are Forever and From London with Love by Bec McMaster. Dukes are Forever is the conclusion to McMaster’s London Steampunk series, and it absolutely sticks the landing. The series takes place in an alt-Victorian England where the upper classes have turned into literal blood-sucking parasites due to a communicable disease which is basically vampirism. It’s not a particularly careful alt-history — if you want that from your steampunk, read Meljean Brook’s Iron Seas series instead — but it is incredibly pulpy and energetic. From London with Love is an epilogue novella, which isn’t required reading or anything, but it was a nice denouement to a series I followed for whatever dozen books.

Various One-Offs

A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs. Two novellas in a cosmic horror vein. While I liked The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky, a post-traumatic wig-out set in a South American country’s slide into dictatorship and its horrific aftermath, it didn’t quite get me like My Heart Struck Sorrow, about some librarians collecting the textured horror, sorrow, and folklore of the American south. There’s an alt-history where I became a folklorist, and I deeply appreciate the porousness of the collector and the collected. Also, while there’s some eldritch stuff going on in the center of both novels, the real horror is other godamn people.

Half a Soul and Ten Thousand Stitches by Olivia Atwater. Gaslamp fantasies set in the Regency period, and really very good. Atwater has a delightful way of shifting the perspective just enough so that somewhat tired tropes become interesting again. The main character in Half a Soul reads to me as non-neurotypical, and the protagonist in Ten Thousand Stitches is a servant, of all things. Both act as pretty furious indictments of the class system — far beyond the more anodyne “it sucks to be a penniless relation” kind one can find in this sort of thing.

Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree. Baldree pinned the coziness slider all the way up on Legends & Lattes, a fantasy novel about an orc mercenary putting up her sword and opening a coffeeshop. If you’re looking for a comfort read with a focus on simple, sensual pleasures, this is the book for you. Also, there’s a huge, adorable dire cat.

Titus Groan by Melvyn Peake. Technically finished this in ’21, but I never did a round up last year, so. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is almost always invoked alongside the Gormenghast trilogy, and I can see why that is to a degree: they are both essentially English in a way I can identify but not define, and both describe a world on the knife’s edge. Both Gormenghast and Middle Earth are close to, if not wholly, a fantasy of manners, describing worlds circumscribed by the weight and the import of tradition and legend. Both end with this tightening sense of change introduced into a system which has been essentially (purportedly, nominally) changeless. Peake uses the language of apostasy to describe this coming cataclysm: the concepts of both heresy and blasphemy permeate those last chapters which detail the young Titus’s earling: the world of Gormenghast is as rule-bound as any horror novel, and often more obscene. It’s completely legible to me that someone born at the burnt end of the Edwardian era and who lived through the second world war would produce something as strange as Gormenghast — born as the old world falls away and the new one burns. All hail Titus, the 77th Earl of Gormenghast. God save us all.

Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk. Probably the best read-alike to Midnight Bargain would be Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal: the setting is Regency-ish, but the situation is complicated by a tiny bit of magic. Beatrice Clayborn comes to Bargaining Season with her family mortgaged to the hilt to fund whatever alliance can be made through her marriage. She’s also practicing magic in secret, a magic which will be severed and suppressed by a marital collar. The metaphors at play could absolutely be too on the nose, but Polk has a Regency-level restraint and never overplays the obvious gendered (and class) dynamics. 

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I could probably put this in the “books I read for class” category, because I peer reviewed a paper about this, Brave New World and 1984. I’d already read the other two, so I thought, what the hell. And I’m glad I did, because this book ended up being an absolute banger. Written in the Soviet Union in 1920-ish, We is THE classic dystopia; both Huxley and Orwell cribbed from Zamyatin. D-503 is an engineer in a city made of glass and organized by scare quote “rational principles” un-scare-quote. The novel itself is an epistolary, of sorts: the One State is building a generation ship to colonize and proselytize aliens, when they find them; he is writing to the as yet undiscovered aliens. He kinda reminded me of the narrator in “The Horla,” a short story by Guy de Maupassant, the way he gets more and more unhinged as the narrative progressive, the difference being that We is a satirical comedy and “The Horla” is not.

So that’s it! I probably read some other stuff I can’t remember, but this is definitely the high notes. Another year, another teetering TBR.

Cozy Catastrophes: A Very British Invasion in The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham deliberately invokes The War of the Worlds to repudiate the concept of social Darwinism, but in such a way to be legible to a post-war audience. The Midwich Cuckoos, a novel about a group of otherworldly children born to a quiet English village, doesn’t look much like an alien invasion story, let alone Wells’s Martian invasion. A flying saucer is photographed on the town green during an event called the Dayout, in which the entire town is rendered unconscious, and all the women of childbearing age become pregnant. This photo and some impressions in the grass are the extent of the direct evidence that the Children – as they come to be known – are alien in nature.[1] Indeed, the sometime authorial mouthpiece, Dr. Zellaby, posits that the Children aren’t alien so much as the next iteration of human (Wyndham, 197). Like the strangeness of describing the birth of sixty-odd children as an alien invasion, it seems odd that the events in The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells are described as a war at all. Technologically superior Martians do, indeed, invade Surrey, but the Edwardian British military is so outmatched there is only the most cursory resistance. The invasion continues unchecked, until the Martians are felled, ironically, by the “transient creatures”[2] of bacteria. The war alluded to in the title is one of evolutionary struggle: because humans have been locked in “an incessant struggle for survival” with microorganisms, we have developed a resistance to their ill effects (Wells, 168). The Midwich Cuckoos is in dialogue with The War of the Worlds throughout, updating and localizing the Wellsian position against social Darwinism in what is best understood as a post-Holocaust novel.[3]

Several times in the novel, Wells invokes the contemporary debate between T. H. Huxley and Herbert Spenser. Huxley was vigorously opposed to Spenser’s concept of “evolutionary ethics:” that societies are subject to the same evolutionary forces as individual biota, and that this evolution always tends toward higher forms. Spencer saw the competition apparent in nature as an appropriate model for human ethical conduct. To wit: society should be constructed to allow maximum competition between individuals, with the accumulation of wealth as the indicator of “fitness.”[4] To Huxley, fitness in biological terms didn’t equate to moral rightness, and evolution was a biological process that didn’t require our intervention. Put another way: society is not natural process like evolution, a process which is morally neutral precisely because it is outside of our control.[5] That being said, the Darwinism in The War of the Worlds does perform a moral function, and the themes of the novel are overtly about the conflict between science and religion, and the brutality of colonialism. Wells uses the Martian invasion to illustrate to his Imperial British audience what it might feel like to be colonized by a technologically superior force.[6] Sarcastically invoking the language of social Darwinism, the unnamed narrator lays bare the cruelty of colonialism:

And before we judge of [the Martians] too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought. […] The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit? (Wells, 9)

The extermination of the Tasmanians is attributed to “our own species,” not the British Empire. The Tasmanians themselves have a “human likeness,” but ultimately aren’t human. Blaming rote biology and Darwinian competition for the destruction caused by colonialism both justifies and excuses that violence. It is all to the good of the species, in the end.

Another reason The War of the Worlds reads so strangely to a modern audience is because it was written before both world wars. This leads to odd little moments, like when one of the rubberneckers at the site where the Martians’ cylindrical craft has landed suggests building a trench around the craft, and his friend responds, “You always want trenches” (Wells, 39). Given the British experience in World War I, the mention of trenches becomes ruefully comic, an accident of history Wells certainly couldn’t have anticipated. Though Wyndham’s experience of the World Wars was almost exactly as he describes Gordon Zellaby’s – “Too young for one war, tethered to a desk in the Ministry of Information in the next” (Wyndham, 15) – the cultural, and, in some cases, literal landscape had profoundly changed in the time between the two novels’ publication. The man christened John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris wrote under a half a dozen pen names during his life, all of them variations and permutations of his given name.[7] His works in the 1930s, when writing for largely American pulp science fiction magazines, are in line with their contemporaries: often occurring on spaceships peopled with Venusians or Martians, occasionally with lurid, sexualized covers.[8] But the outset of World War II put an end to the era of pulp serials of the 1930s, and the Beynon and Harris personae. While a couple short stories written before the War were published during, he wrote no fiction during the war years. During the Blitz, he lived and worked in London as a censor for Military Intelligence,[9] and eventually joined the war effort directly, including taking part in the Normandy Invasion. It isn’t until 1951 that he publishes a novel under the Wyndham name. While the John Wyndham novels in some ways have the ornament of earlier pulp serials – ambulatory carnivorous plants![10] abyssal aliens![11] – they work by “submerging his fantastic element”[12] into the everyday in the tradition of H. G. Wells. In The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham reaches back before both World Wars, and updates The War of the Worlds, the original British Invasion narrative.

Wyndham manipulates the reader into identifying with the concentration camp guard, whose moral imperative is to commit genocide, paradoxically to save civilization.[13] As Zellaby, the man who detonates the bomb, says days before the end: “It is our duty to our race and our culture to liquidate the Children” (Wyndham, 201). Not kill, not defeat – liquidate the Children. Just after this stunning utterance by a man who has acted as father figure and teacher to the Children – in addition to functioning as the expository mouthpiece – Zellaby yet again invokes Wells, bemoaning how Wells didn’t anticipate a moment in history when governments contemplated – then perpetrated – the systematic eradication of their citizens.

Take H. G. Wells’s Martians, for instance. As the original exponents of the death-ray they were formidable, but their behavior was quite conventional: they simply conducted a straightforward campaign with a weapon which outclassed anything that could be brought against it. […] Yet, over-all, what do we have? Just another war. The motivations are simplified, the armaments complicated, but the pattern is the same and, as a result, not one of the prognostications, speculations, or extrapolations turns out to be of the least use to us when the thing actually happens (Wyndham, 180-81).

The invasion of Midwich by its own children and their eventual destruction is not “just another war:” it is something decidedly worse. Zellaby uses the language of Darwinism to conceptualize and situate the Children of Midwich, invoking the social Darwinism used to justify some of the most horrific atrocities of the 20th Century. Social Darwinism recasts a fight for “our way of life” into an existential struggle, and ultimately, a zero-sum game.

Welcome to Midwich

From the very beginning there are several similarities between The War of the Worlds and The Midwich Cuckoos, the most foundational being the sense of place. The events in the Wells novel are so perfectly mapped to turn of the 19th century Surrey and London that a contemporary reader would feel deep familiarity with the landscape.[14] For a reader at a remove of place and time, this can be alienating in and of itself, so the most successful of adaptions – such as Orson Welles’s 1938 radio play – retain the original novel’s almost documentary feel. In his radio play, Orson Welles relocates the invasion to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey,[15]and the action moves through similarly legible locales towards New York City. This verisimilitude famously resulted in more than a few listeners taking the story of invasion as fact.[16] Situating alien horror in carefully recreated local spaces both imbues the alien with a sense of reality and heightens the effects of the horror.[17] Wyndham also details the locale of Midwich, site of his alien invasion, with cartographic clarity; the first chapter is given almost completely over to description of the town and the second its inhabitants. Like The War of the Worlds, the portrait of the mundane detail of Midwich foregrounds the uncanniness of the Children once they arrive on the scene. The key difference in these portraits is two-fold: first, the town of Midwich doesn’t exist, and second, the portrait is satirical.

Midwich is positioned as a sort of everywhere and nowhere, embodying an “Arcadian undistinction” of composite and consummate Englishness. “The vicarage is Georgian; The Grange Victorian; Kyle Manor has Tudor roots with numerous later graftings. The cottages show most of the styles which have existed between the two Elizabeths” (Wyndham, 6). The town’s minor claims to fame are so minor they would only ever be known to locals, and the narrator’s description pokes some gentle fun at various English luminaries. “Other events include the stabling of Cromwell’s horses in the church, and a visit by William Wordsworth, who was inspired by the Abbey ruins to the production of one of his more routine commendatory sonnets.” When the narrator, Richard Gayford, returns to Midwich to find the road into the town blocked, it is made all the stranger due to the “simple ordinariness of the place” (Wyndham, 5). Consequently, the events of the Dayout – the 24-hour period in which the inhabitants of Midwich lose consciousness and 61 women become pregnant – has all the elements of a farce. People, cows, cars, buses, ambulances, and any other creature that strays into the influence of the invisible dome over the town fall unconscious in visible but unapproachable heaps. On the other side of the line, a corresponding collection of rubberneckers, firemen, constables, and a not insignificant number of military men collect, trying to ascertain the scope and radius of the affected area. This culminates in two ferrets being dangled over Midwich in a helicopter, at about which time the people of Midwich revivify, presumably to the ferrets’ relief (Wyndham, 22-34).

Unlike the locations in The War of the Worlds, Midwich can feel generally familiar to anyone because it is not precisely familiar, but the satirical nature of the portraiture cues us into the fact that not everything that occurs in the novel is to be taken at face value. Midwich is encased in a dome and scrutinized by an increasing military presence in the beginning, and ultimately, that dome never comes off, and the military presence never relents. Starting with the Dayout and continuing through to the Children’s psychic compulsion which entraps the locals in roughly the same space, the town of Midwich is effectively isolated from their neighbors, and from larger British life. Even before the pregnancies are discovered or the Children born, military intelligence endeavors to hush up the Dayout. The diegetic reason for suppressing information about the Dayout, at first, is the presence of The Grange, a scientific research installation run by the military within the affected area. This furtiveness seems to be a reflexive act by a society still on a military footing after the end of World War II, because even the Colonel in charge of “Operation Midwich” doesn’t know what the Grange does. “Trouble is, for all we know it may be some little trick of our own gone wrong. So much damned secrecy nowadays that nobody knows anything” (Wyndham, 28).

Given the publication date and the internal timeline, the Children must have been born in the two years after VE Day. Many of the major characters are former (or current) soldiers – including the narrator, Richard Gayford, his war buddy now in military intelligence, Bernard Westcott, and Gordon Zellaby. The events of the Dayout are put under “the intimidating muzzle of the Offical Secrets Act” (Wyndham, 40). All through the novel, the relationship between the Children and the larger world is discussed in military terms: the impending birth of the Children is referred to as “D-Day” and a “battle” for which they’ve booked a “commando of midwives” (Wyndham, 78-79), and after their birth the vicar, Mr. Leebody, observes: “It has been a battle, […] but battles, after all, are just the highlights of a campaign. There are more to come” (Wyndham, 86). A militarized society has turned its gaze inward, towards the next generation.[18]

The Narrator

The narrative style in The Midwich Cuckoos leans hard on what Damon Knight calls “Wellsian retrospective clarity”[19] – subjective narration with the imprimatur of an objective perspective. Like in The War of the Worlds, the events in Midwich are related at a comfortable remove in time, a “narrative focalization which invests the text with the aura of authenticity.”[20] The reader never questions the information provided by the narrator in The War of the Worlds, despite the narrator being untrustworthy in several key regards.[21] In the rhetorically masterful opening, the narrator details the motivations and preparations of the Martians. The Martians “scrutinized and studied humanity,” and “slowly and surely drew their plans against us” (Wells, 7). At no point does the narrator mention humans and Martians meaningfully communicating, even in the six years following the invasion; he simply cannot know this about the Martians’ intent. His assertion is instead designed to shock Wells’s contemporaries out of their “infinite complacency” (Wells, 7). Because these assertions are made at the very beginning, the narrator’s suppositions are presented as fact in a way the audience won’t question, even if they are never corroborated.

In The Midwich Cuckoos, the narrator, Richard Gayford, and his wife Janet are new members of the Midwich community. Despite their year spent living in Midwich, transplants are rarely considered a local after the passage of several years (and, indeed, often not even after the passage of several decades.) He’s further at a remove in that he and his wife were absent for the Dayout, and therefore avoided gestating one of the Children themselves. The opening of the novel, wherein he details the events of the Dayout and its direct aftermath, are within his lived experience – a first-hand account. But it doesn’t take long for the narrative to spread beyond what our narrator himself experiences. Richard himself addresses this: 

And now I come to a technical difficulty, for this, as I have explained, is not my story; it is Midwich’s story. If I were to set down my information in the order it came to me I should be flitting back and forth in the account, producing an almost incomprehensible hotchpotch of incidents out of order, and effects preceding causes. Therefore it is necessary that I rearrange my information, disregarding entirely the dates and times when I acquired it, and put it into chronological order. If this method of approach should result in the suggestion of uncanny perception, or disquieting multiscience, in the writer, the reader must bear with it the assurance that it is entirely the product of hindsight (Wyndham, 46).

At this point, the narrative assumes almost a third person impartiality for the second act, only occasionally broken by Richard’s often milquetoast interjections or his wife Janet’s more pointed barbs. Like the Wellsian narrator, Richard is part of the action, but often peripherally. For instance, several chapters of The War of the Worlds are given over to an account of the Martian invasion told from the perspective of the narrator’s brother.

Wyndham makes several important changes to the Wellsian storytelling style which subtly undercut the overt message and its messengers. Many of the biographical details from Wells’s narrator are relocated into the character of Dr. Gordon Zellaby. Zellaby and the narrator from The War of the Worlds are writers of cultural criticism, of the type that largely exists to be ironic considering subsequent events in the novel. (Richard is also a writer, but there is one allusion to his publisher on the first page, and it is never mentioned again.) Zellaby’s son-in-law says about While We Last, one of two of Zellaby’s Works named in the text: “It had been an interesting, but, he thought, gloomy book; the author had not seemed to him to give proper weight to the fact that the new generation was more dynamic, and rather more-clearsighted than those that preceded it…” (Wyndham, 12). The other named text is, fittingly, The British Twilight (Wyndham, 75). The unnamed narrator in The War of the Worlds, at the time of invasion, is “busy upon a series of papers discussing the probable developments of moral ideals as civilization progressed” (Wells, 12). When he returns home after the novel’s cataclysmic events, he finds his work in progress interrupted at the moment of (no doubt now thoroughly wrong) prognostication: “’In about two hundred years,’ I had written, ‘we may expect–‘” (Wells, 176).

Wyndham relocates the expository authority to Dr. Zellaby, while the voice of credibility – scientific or otherwise – resides in the unnamed narrator in The War of the Worlds. Largely Richard serves to ask prompting questions when Zellaby is holding forth; Wells’s narrator can more than hold forth on his own. In The War of the Worlds, because the narrator can control how his expository scientific speculations are perceived, we tend not to question some very questionable things. The narrator only tells us in the epilogue that his “knowledge of comparative physiology is confined to a book or two” and that the operating theory in the narrative for the Martians’ sudden, collective demise – that they have no natural resistance to earthly bacteria – is an assumption “so probable as to be regarded almost as a proven conclusion” (Wells, 175). Because he’s the one telling the story, he can present his subjective experience as objective fact. He boasts: “Now no surviving human being saw so much of the Martians in action as I did” (Wells, 128), but we have no way of knowing if that is true.[22]

By splitting the functions of the narrator in two, Wyndham ends up undercutting both Richard and Zellaby. This split creates the opportunity for the depiction of contrary reactions to Zellaby’s Darwinian speculation. In one humorous instance, Richard glances over at his wife, Janet, which shows him she’s not listening anymore. “When she has decided that someone is talking nonsense she makes a quick decision to waste no more effort upon it, and pulls down an impervious mental curtain” (Wyndham, 117). Richard, who is narrator but not mouthpiece, can subtly impact how that mouthpiece is perceived by showing reactions other than his own. While there is occasionally pushback against the narrator in The War of the Worlds, he can frame those objections as meritless or specious. The narrator at one point falls in with a curate, and the curate’s reaction is like Janet Gayford’s reaction to Zellaby. “I began to explain my view of our position. He listened at first, but as I went on the dawning interest in his eyes gave place to their former stare, and his regard wandered from me” (Wells, 71). At this point, the curate interrupts, ranting in biblical terms. The narrator responds by questioning the curate’s manhood and derisively dismissing his theology. “Do you think God had exempted Weybridge? He is not an insurance agent, man” (Wells, 72). The curate’s inattention to the narrator’s exposition says something about the curate – that he is hysterical and irrational – while Janet Gayford’s inattention to says something about Zellaby’s theorizing – that it’s nonsense.

While Zellaby’s disquisitions don’t have the imprint of a true narrator’s authority, Richard is a much more damaged narrator than the one in The War of the Worlds. Once past his own (slight) involvement with the Dayout, everything that Richard Gayford records must be an aggregate of information told to him by the people of Midwich, and subject to the same embellishments and distortions of any collected folklore. This becomes most apparent when Richard recounts events for which not only was he not present but were not attended by any other men. After the powers that be – the vicar, the doctor, and Zellaby, critically – figure out that all the pregnancy-capable people of Midwich are capably pregnant, they set up a town meeting to be managed by the brusquely efficient Angela Zellaby, Dr. Zellaby’s wife. This is after the men decide not to inform the women of the likely alien nature of their pregnancies, something Zellaby blithely refers to as “benign censorship” (Wyndham, 58). During the meeting, it becomes clear that the women already know this. Angela’s opening statement alludes to this directly: “If any married woman here is tempted to consider herself more virtuous than her unmarried neighbor, she might do well to consider how, if she were challenged, she could prove that the child she now carries is her husband’s child” (Wyndham, 64).

The meeting itself is precipitated by the attempted suicide of a pregnant 17-year-old, information which is relayed to the reader after a long list of abortion attempts. 

One not-so-young woman suddenly bought a bicycle, and pedaled it madly for astonishing distances, with fierce determination. 

Two young women collapsed in over-hot baths. 

Three inexplicably tripped, and fell downstairs. 

A number suffered from unusual gastric upsets (Wyndham, 52).

The words “pregnancy” and “abortion” do not occur in the text. Instead, information is conveyed stating plain facts, with a twist of wryness or mild sarcasm: the bike ride is laden with superlatives, marking the act with strangeness, and the falls down the stairs are “inexplicable,” a feigned ignorance which gestures to a reason that can be explained but not articulated. The satirical nature of the proceedings puts a spin on everything we hear. Everything that happens in that single-sex meeting is by needs relayed to Richard, and while they might accurately describe events, much will be encoded in gendered language and lacuna, the gaps as well as the utterances. Like the Children, the people of Midwich exist in two gendered collectives, and the social conventions are so strong that a lot of information can be conveyed with very little actually said.

The Treatment of Religion

Wyndham uses the characters of Reverend Hubert Leebody and his wife, Dora, to illustrate religious responses to the Children. Mrs. Leebody most easily maps to the curate character in The War of the Worlds, with whom, in one of the stranger interludes in the novel, the unnamed narrator finds himself trapped in a partially collapsed house. While the narrator witnesses the Martians doing truly terrible things from his hidden vantage – the image of the alien sucking the blood of a captured human through a pipette, like a straw, horrifies – he saves much of his fury for his fellow human. The stress of the invasion has driven the curate into a kind of catatonia, alternating between gibbering inaction and hyper-mania. He refers to the Martians as “God’s ministers” (Wells, 71), and understands the attack as a form of divine retribution.[23] This infuriates the narrator – “What good is religion if it collapses under calamity?” (Wells, 71) – and expresses Wells’s own hostility towards organized religion, which he felt deliberately impeded the improvement of humanity under rational and scientific principles.[24]

Similarly, Mrs. Leebody sees her unnatural pregnancy as a form of divine punishment, though she expresses feelings of godly persecution with considerably more restraint. “When things – unusual things like this – suddenly happen to a community there is a reason. I mean, look at the plagues of Egypt, and Sodom and Gomorrah, and that kind of thing.” Immediately in the text, there are three immediate responses: by Zellaby, Zellaby’s pragmatic wife, Angela, and Dora Leebody’s husband, the Vicar.

“For my part,” [Zellaby] observed, “I regard the plagues of Egypt as an unedifying example of celestial bullying; a technique now known as power-politics. As for Sodom” He broke off and subsided as he caught his wife’s eye.

“Er—” said the Vicar, since something seemed to be expected of him. “Er—”

Angela came to his rescue.

“I really don’t think you need worry about that, Mrs. Leebody. Barrenness is, of course, a classical form of curse; but I really can’t remember any instance where retribution took the form of fruitfulness. After all, it scarcely seems reasonable, does it?”

“That would depend on the fruit,” Mrs. Leebody said, darkly (Wyndham, 69).

In addition to being typical of Wyndham’s low-key satirical humor, the three responses to Mrs. Leebody’s feelings of collective punishment are illuminating. Zellaby, as usual, while feeling “impelled to relieve the awkwardness,” only contributes to it by walking right up to talking openly about homosexuality in mixed company. He conceives of religion as a sort of political theater, which he discards as “unedifying.” Her husband, the vicar – much like the curate in The War of the Worlds – ends up sputtering: he has no coherent response to his wife’s feelings of spiritual retribution. It is Angela Zellaby, yet again, who delivers a brusquely reasonable response, one that Dora Leebody dismisses. “I am a sinner, you see. If I had had my child twelve years ago, none of this would have happened. Now I must pay for my sin by bearing a child that is not my husband” (Wyndham, 70). I’m not sure if this circumlocution refers to an abortion, a miscarriage, or simply a desire not to have children, but Dora Leebody nonetheless occupies the position that events are divinely ordained.

Rev. Leebody, while nonetheless tirelessly ministering to the people of Midwich, doesn’t express theological consideration of the Children until near the very end, after the Children have impelled the Pawle brothers to commit suicide. (Honestly, this is a little surprising, given that Leebody is introduced listening to a program on “pre-Sophoclean Conception of the Oedipus Complex,” a title which evinces an obtuse intellectualism more closely aligned with Zellaby’s rhetorical style (Wyndham, 17)). He posits that because the Children are not made in God’s image – God is, apparently, singular, and the Children exist as gendered collective-individuals, to use Zallaby’s term (Wyndham, 117) – they cannot be considered using the same moral yardstick. Despite this theological argument, Leebody nevertheless uses the language of Darwinism. “They have the look of the genus homo, but not the nature. And since they are of another kind, and murder is, by definition, the killing of one of one’s own kind, can the killing of one of them by us be, in fact, murder? It would appear not” (Wyndham, 151). Zellaby sees the implications of this argument straight away: if it is morally permissible for the villagers to kill the Children, then the converse is true. Notably, given his actions in the end, Zellaby rejects this reasoning as “ethically unsatisfactory.” He sees Leebody’s version of God’s likeness as too parochial. “But, as I understand it, your God is a universal God; He is God on all suns and all planets” (Wyndham, 152). Tellingly, Zellaby distances himself from viewing the Children in theological terms – it is “your God”, not his – even when it comes wrapped up in scientific jargon.  

By contrast, while the narrator in The War of the Worlds finds the anxious, vituperative morality of the curate infuriating, he ultimately sees the death of the Martians in religious terms. When the Martians are felled by simple bacteria, which he describes as “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put up on the earth” (Wells, 168), he finds their deaths “incomprehensible.” He only begins to understand their destruction through biblical analogy. “For a moment I believed that the destruction of Sennacherib[25] had been repeated, that God had repented, that the Angel of Death had slain them in the night” (Wells, 169). He ends this epiphany with his hands reaching for the sky, thanking God (Wells, 170). He does downplay this religious exultation later in the epilogue, in a passage which eloquently captures the lingering effect of trauma.

I must confess the stress and danger of the time have left an abiding sense of doubt and insecurity in my mind. I sit in my study writing by lamplight, and suddenly I see again the healing valley below set with writhing flames, and feel the house behind and about me empty and desolate (Wells, 179).

It is in the heat of the crisis that the Wellsian narrator turns to the religion of his childhood. The Martians chose Surrey according to some providential scheme – despite his heated dismissal to the curate earlier – and therefore his suffering has meaningful purpose.[26] Zellaby evinces no such religious framing. While he jokes after the Dayout – during which he and his wife were chilled to the point of hypothermia – about the “underlying soundness of fire-worship” (Wyndham, 57), this isn’t a meaningful religious statement. In the end, Zellaby’s justifications for murdering the Children arise from the brutal logic of evolutionary struggle interpolated into polite society. The threat the Children pose is existential, not rhetorical, or moral. Wyndham very carefully strips out any religious justification for Zellaby’s actions, implicitly or explicitly. There will be no Darwin ex machina.

Welcome to the Jungle

The War of the Worlds ends with more whimper than bang, something that seems to trouble later adaptions. Having the Martian antagonist simply fall over dead serves the point Wells is making about Edwardian colonial complacency or the applicability of Darwinian evolutionary struggle in society, but it isn’t particularly satisfying on a narrative level. The Orson Welles radio play from 1938 – when the world was on the brink of the defining global conflict of the 20th century – punches up the call to arms by the artilleryman, a character the narrator meets in the ruined, empty streets of London. In the novel, the narrator is initially taken by the artilleryman’s rhetoric, which is a fever dream of Darwinian descent, where the survivors will have to “invent a sort of life where men can live and breed, and be sufficiently secure to bring children up” (Wells, 156). They’ll live in the underground and “degenerate into a sort of big, savage rat” (Wells, 157).[27] In the radio play, the artilleryman’s speech is a rousing call to arms; in the novel, the narrator is chagrined to have been susceptible to the man’s “imaginative daring” which, in the cold light of day, seem unhinged (Wells, 158). For Wells, evolution was a force greater than his Martian invaders. While his characters may conceptualize the war between the worlds as a religious, moral, or ethical struggle, the simple unalterable fact is that the true struggle occurs outside of conscious thought, on a biological level. “With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter” (Wells, 7).

Wyndham’s take on the alien invasion neatly reverses the action of Wells’s novel. While it may end on a literal bang, the invasion itself is submerged under – to quote a snarling contemporary review – “layers of polite restraint, sentimentality, lethargy and women’s-magazine masochism.”[28] There are no heat rays or chaotic retreats, no monstrous antagonists. The invasion occurs within the confines of the domestic, and its focus is a group of children who are, from the very first, defined in military terms and as a racially constructed other.[29] If indeed the Children are the next iteration of humanity, as Zellaby posits (Wyndham, 197), then there is no rational reason not to step aside and let nature take its course. In Wells’s narrative, the Darwinian struggle is both inexorable and outside of conscious control. In The Midwich Cuckoos, by defining the Children as evolutionary antagonists, Zellaby positions himself as an agent of evolution. The Children must die so his children can live.

Zellaby describes his final act as a “heroic sacrifice” (Wyndham, 212), and Wyndham is careful remove any moral objections but the most glaringly obvious one: the premeditated murder of children by a suicide bomber.[30]  None of these children are either his own or his grandchildren – his own wife was already pregnant during the Dayout, and his daughter’s cuckoo child one of three who died of influenza (Wyndham, 110). He himself has “a matter of a few weeks to live” (Wyndham, 212), and he takes pains to ensure only he and the Children will be killed in the blast. In a purely intellectual way, this is an elegant (final) solution to the Gordian knot the novel has twisted itself into. The Children themselves (assuming, for the moment, the usual role of Dr. Zellaby), while talking to Bernard, describe the political gridlock which will ensue should the perceived threat of the Children become more widely known. Even if parliament could be roused to contemplate annihilating the Children, “what government in this country could survive such a massacre of innocents on the grounds of expediency?” (Wyndham, 193). Immediately preceding their destruction, Wyndham takes a moment to remind you forcefully that these are still children. The narrator observes, as the Children remove AV equipment from Zellaby’s car:

There was nothing odd or mysterious about the Children now unless it was the suggestion of musical-comedy chorus work given by their similarity. For the first time since my return I was able to appreciate that the Children had ‘a small ‘c,’ too’” (Wyndham, 208).

The chapter heading here is “Zellaby of Macedon.” The most famous leader from Macedonia was, of course, Alexander the Great, who amassed one of the largest empires in antiquity during his short reign. He is also known for cutting the Gordian knot – or solving an intractable problem by bypassing the perceived constraints of the problem. Zellaby solves the problem posed by the Children by personally acting against them, thus bypassing all the thorny issues of societal or governmental ethics. Yet again, Wyndham is using his subtle satire to undercut Zellaby. Aligning Zellaby with Alexander the Great seems highfalutin and shows off one’s classical education, but when you get right down to it, the appellation “Zellaby of Macedon” is ridiculous. A sick old man is not comparable to one of the greatest generals of antiquity. This is in line with the treatment of Zellaby throughout the text: Zellaby looks like the authorial mouthpiece, but there’s a twist to his portrayal. 

The final epigraph – Si fueris Romae, Romani vivito more – which is typically translated as “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is instead parsed as “If you want to keep alive in the jungle, you must live as the jungle does….” Zellaby neatly inverts the meaning of the phrase, which is originally about operating within spaces of different cultural rules and expectations by those rules and expectations. Peeling back the artifact of society reveals the more “fundamental expression,” to use Zellaby’s phrasing: brute, biological survival (Wyndham, 213). That the ending invokes the jungle after the events of a novel which could comfortably be described as a comedy of manners feels jarring, just as jarring as a verbally circumambulatory philosopher calculatingly suicide-bombing a classroom full of children. The Children are strange and often uncanny, but not obviously so. They are gestated and born to human mothers; they can be carried off by flu or killed in car accidents; they like sweets and movies like other children. They have what Wells called the “human likeness” when ironically discussing the British destruction of indigenous people (Wells, 9). The acts of violence attributable to them are exclusively reflexive: they respond to attack with an aggressive defense. When one of the girls discusses how they will supersede humanity in the end, it is in terms of biological superiority, not wholesale annihilation. When their destruction by the British seems imminent, their response is to try to flee. Their danger to humanity is only inferred or imagined in the context of Darwinian struggle. As Zellaby says, “[The Children’s] immediate concern is to survive, in order, eventually, to dominate” (Wyndham, 199). If one’s simple existence is couched in terms of existential struggle, the final, genocidal act in The Midwich Cuckoos, perpetrated by an avuncular figure against a classroom full of children, becomes inevitable.


[1] John Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos (New York: Modern Library, 2022), 29-30, 40. All subsequent references are to this edition and are noted parenthetically in the text.

[2] H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds, ed. Patrick Parrinder (New York, NY: Penguin, 2005), 7. All subsequent references are to this edition and are noted parenthetically in the text.

[3] Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 310-312.

[4] McLean details how Wells dismantles Spenser’s Darwinism. See Steven McLean, “The Descent of Mars: Evolution and Ethics in The War of the Worlds,” in The Early Fiction of H. G. Wells: Fantasies of Science (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 89-113, 98.

[5] Their philosophical disagreement is, of course, considerably more complicated than what is written here. See Klára Netíková, “T. H. Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics: Struggle for Survival and Society,” E-LOGOS 26, no. 1 (2019): pp. 4-18, https://doi.org/10.18267/j.e-logos.460, 4-7.

[6] Paul K. Alkon, Science Fiction Before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology (New York, NY: Twayne Publishers, 1994), 48.

[7] In one bizarre instance, one of his novels, The Outward Urge, is attributed to not one but two pen names: John Wyndham and Lucas Parkes. For description of the publishing history see Amy Binns, Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters (Hebden Bridge, UK: Grace Judson Press, 2019), 220.

[8] Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973). 290.

[9] Amy Binns, Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters (Hebden Bridge, UK: Grace Judson Press, 2019), 108-111.

[10] The titular triffids are exactly this. John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids (New York, NY: The Modern Library, 2022).

[11] The alien antagonists of The Kraken Wakes are deep sea creatures who wage war literally on earth. John Wyndham, The Kraken Wakes (New York, NY: Modern Library, 2022).

[12] Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction (Chicago, IL: Advent Publishers, 1974), 178.

[13] Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 310-312.

[14] The appendix to the Penguin edition includes several maps where you can follow the action of the novel, in addition to annotation of the locales mentioned. H. G. Wells and Andy Sawyer, “Appendix: Note on Places in the Novel,” in The War of the Worlds (London, UK: Penguin Classics, 2018), pp. 181-185.

[15] Howard Koch, Orson Welles, and H. G. Wells, “Mercury Theatre on the Air: War of the Worlds,” Indiana University Bloomington (Indiana University, 2017), https://orsonwelles.indiana.edu/items/show/1972.

[16] My grandfather, G. Edward Busch, was 31 at the time of the broadcast, unmarried, and still living with his parents in Pennsylvania, which wasn’t that far from the invasion site in New Jersey. He returned home from work to find his parents very upset by the broadcast. As both a scientist and a dramatist, Ed was a keen fan of Orson Welles, and assured them the broadcast was during the Mercury Theatre hour, and that the country was not being invaded. There is dispute about how many people took this broadcast seriously, but family lore, at least, suggests it was, albeit provisionally. For a discussion of the panic from the man who wrote the script for the radio play, see Howard Koch, The Panic Broadcast: Portrait of an Event (New York, NY: Avon, 1970).

[17] Károly Pintér, “The Analogical Alien: Constructing and Construing Extraterrestrial Invasion in Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds.’ ,” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS) 18, no. 1/2 (2012): pp. 133-149, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43488465, 137.

[18] For in depth psychoanalytic analysis of the Children of Midwich, see Steven Bruhm, “The Global Village of the Damned: A Counter-Narrative for the Post-War Child,” Narrative 24, no. 2 (May 2016): pp. 156-173, https://doi.org/10.1353/nar.2016.0013.

[19] Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction (Chicago, IL: Advent Publishers, 1974), 253.

[20] Károly Pintér, “The Analogical Alien: Constructing and Construing Extraterrestrial Invasion in Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds,’” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS) 18, no. 1/2 (2012): pp. 133-149, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43488465, 137.

[21] Wells scholar Patrick Parrinder addresses the many ways the narrator of The War of the Worlds is ultimately untrustworthy, especially about the Martians. Patrick Parrinder, “How Far Can We Trust the Narrator of ‘The War of the Worlds,’” Foundation 28 (1999): pp. 15-24, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/how-far-can-we-trust-narrator-war-worlds/docview/1312028428/se-2.

[22] Patrick Parrinder, “How Far Can We Trust the Narrator of ‘The War of the Worlds,’” Foundation 28 (1999): pp. 15-24, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/how-far-can-we-trust-narrator-war-worlds/docview/1312028428/se-2, 16-18.

[23] Denis Gailor, “‘Wells’s War of the Worlds’, the ‘Invasion Story’ and Victorian Moralism,” Critical Survey 8, no. 3 (1996): pp. 270-276, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41556021, 273.

[24] S. J. James, “Witnessing the End of the World: H.G. Wells’ Educational Apocalypses,” Literature and Theology 26, no. 4 (December 21, 2012): pp. 459-473, https://doi.org/10.1093/litthe/frs052, 461-462.

[25] This refers to the biblical account of the historical Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC by Assyrian king Sennacherib described in 2 Kings 18–19 and Isaiah 36–37

[26] Patrick Parrinder, “How Far Can We Trust the Narrator of ‘The War of the Worlds,’” Foundation 28 (1999): pp. 15-24, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/how-far-can-we-trust-narrator-war-worlds/docview/1312028428/se-2, 23.

[27] This scenario is what more or less plays out in Wells’s The Time Machine, which was published two years previous to The War of the Worlds. H. G. Wells, The Time Machine, ed. Patrick Parrinder (New York, NY: Penguin, 2005).

[28] Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction (Chicago, IL: Advent Publishers, 1974), 254.

[29] Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 311.

[30] David Ketterer, “‘A Part of the … Family [?]’: John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos as Estranged Autobiography,” in Learning from Other Worlds: Estrangement, Cognition, and the Politics of Science Fiction and Utopia, ed. Patrick Parrinder (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), pp. 146-177, 165.

Book review: Love, Lust and Zombies

I’ve been doing a crap job of keeping up with ye olde blogge. Some of it is the way the pandemic screwed up my reading, sending me straight to historical romance and lighter fantasy. Fantasy I could have probably pulled out some bullshitting about: it’s close enough to my wheelhouse, if not in it entirely. Romance, less so. I don’t want to be that dilettante dabbler in a genre talking out my ass, like every Valentine’s Day column of “romantic books which aren’t romance novels because cooties” which includes motherfucking Lolita. I’m better versed now, but, judging from how often I’m out of step with other readers when I check bookface reviews, I just don’t want the grief. Sometimes reading for pleasure is just that, and I’m not going to assign myself homework out of some misbegotten sense of staying current or whatever.

That said, I’ve recently been sidling back up to my old love, horror fiction, specifically zombie fiction. I reread both Severance by Ling Ma and Zone One by Colson Whitehead. They both only get better with a reread. They’re both the kind of lapping retrospective memoirishly close-third-person which doesn’t tell their stories linear-like, so during a second pass (or third), you already have the shape of things, and can really marinate on the details.

Like my experience with rereading World War Z at the beginning of the pandemic, it was kind of alarming how prescient they were, Severance especially. Also because I’d reread Severance after watching the series of the same name (no relation), I definitely took home some millennial ruminating about the nature of work that, while I’d noticed it before, became much more foregrounded this time. Even the indefatigable Mark Spitz from Zone One, whose musings cover that storied island, New York City, more than the workaday, presses his attention to the nature of work:

Hard to believe that reconstruction had progressed so far that clock-watching had returned, the slacker’s code, the concept of weekend. It had been a humdrum couple of days, reaffirming his belief in reincarnation: everything was so boring that this could not be the first time he’d experienced it.

Colson Whitehead, Zone One

Then I started reading an anthology of zombie short stories called Zombies! Tales of the Walking Dead edited by one Stephen Jones. (Not, as I’d mistakenly thought, Stephen Graham Jones, who is a very different writer.) After reading the introduction, I was afeared Zombies! was going to be a snore-fest. I was initially rebuked by a rollicking short story by Clive Barker called “Sex, Death and Starshine”, which was both sick and delightful. But then as I trudged on, my initial fears came true. Zombies! takes a kitchen sink approach to inclusion in the collection.

While this can be sort of fun for the completist — hey I didn’t know Edgar Allan Poe wrote a zombie-ish story! called “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” — so many of the stories I encountered were dated, clumsy, or only peripherally about zombies, more in the vein of cosmic horror than the living dead. (Look, I get that arguing genre is a losing game, so I’m not going to do it, but things are about what they are about, and not other things, and cosmic horror has decidedly different concerns.) Anyway, I’ll probably hack my way through this eventually, as a completist, but it’ll be homework and not any fun.

Which brings me rather long-windedly to Love, Lust and Zombies, edited by Mitzi Szereto. I was poking around in the library catalog because I was looking for this book I know is about a thinking zombie, but couldn’t remember the name of. (It ended up being Dust by Joan Frances Turner, fyi.) My ears perked up when I saw Szereto’s name. She’s the author of The Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray, which I read a while back when I was into a bunch of literary monster mash-ups and continuations. Most of the continuations I read were kind of ok to fucking bad, but Szereto’s take on Oscar Wilde’s only novel was actually inspired. Wilde Passions is a catalog of the literary erotic, running from the Belle Epoch’s class warfare to Thomas Mann’s monastery to Anne Rice’s New Orleans, and while I don’t think it works, entirely, it’s definitely some of the most thoughtful sex writing I’ve seen in the genre.

Now, I’ve said this more than a couple times, but: my sister’s quip about vampire fiction is that “vampires are high-functioning zombies.” Which, if you read any vampire romance, feels accurate. There’s a lot of breathless description of cold, white flesh out there in vampire romance, about the intractability and immutability of the body of the immortal lover. On some level, I think this invokes deep-structure cultural ideas about the incorruptibility of sainthood. Flesh and spirit are one, and both flesh and spirit are perfectly and eternally static. Or to put it crudely, these vampiric love stories are literally about banging Jesus, the original risen dead man. Drink of my blood, eat of my flesh, &c.

After the success of Twilight and roughly one million iterations, it wasn’t a huge surprise when urban fantasy and paranormal romance trained its libido on angels and devils, beings who make this theological passion explicit. (Lest we not forget, the word passion can refer to the suffering and death of Jesus, not only sexual passion.) Since then, paranormal romance has taken on all manner of unsexy beasts, everything from ghosts to orcs to dinosaurs, but largely writers stay away from the humble zombie as a source of pants feelings. I think this is a notable lacuna — the lack of sex writing about zombies even in the gleeful perversity of monsterotica — and indicates something intractably unsexy about the walking dead, both metaphorically and physically.

I can think of two novels which attempt a romance between a living person and a zombie: Warm Bodies and Dearly, Departed. Warm Bodies ended up setting my back with its incorrect reading of Romeo & Juliet –and look I know I’m supposed to pretend that there aren’t incorrect readings, but I have something of A Thing about R&J, and I cannot listen to reason — but it’s decent, if a little dippy. Dearly, Departed is messy — it’s clearly a first novel — but it’s energetic and exuberant, which counts for a lot in my book. Obviously this worked for other people, but I could not get over the thought of these heroines making out with a decaying or desiccated corpse. And, to be fair, the courtship between the living girl and undead soldier in Dearly, Departed takes place through a wall, Paramus and Thisbe style, and is honestly emotionally affecting. Ultimately, neither novel really addresses sex anyway, maybe because of their YA designation, maybe because it’s too gross to contemplate. Which is why Love, Lust and Zombies is so fascinating: it’s dealing with sex and zombies head on.

While I joked earlier about vampires just being high-functioning zombies, that’s not actually the case, either metaphorically or practically. A zombie is characterized by its degradation, by its lack of personality and agency. By contrast, vampires are defined by the very opposite. They may both be undead, but the vampire is incorruptible, while the zombie corrupts everything it can get its teeth into. And while the rotting flesh angle may be a hard bar to clear when sex writing about zombies, the lack of agency makes actual zombie romance doubly difficult to pull off. Appetite is appetite, sure, but its tough to build sexual tension when at least one of the lovers is mindless carrion. I can think of a couple movies which feature the living fucking the dead, and it’s never the good guys wetting their wicks.

So. I checked out Love, Lust and Zombies with a swiftness, because all of this is in my wheelhouse, and hard. I’m not going to get up and ride my hobby horse about zombies, violence and domesticity just yet, but let it be read into the record that an anthology of short fiction which involves conflating the little death with the big one is right up my godamn alley. I read through the forward by Mark Onspaugh, which is good, trotting around both art history and psychology which manages a breezy profundity — no mean feat — and Szereto’s introduction, which is less good, more cringe-y Boomer joking than anything.

Without further ado, to the individual stories.

“Vanilla” by Janice Eidus

My first reaction was that I hated this fucking story, which seems to enact a bunch of stupid romance tropes in a way I find distasteful. But with some thought, it might actually be subverting said stupid romance tropes, so maybe I don’t hate its guts. A young woman who works as a librarian and characterizes herself as “vanilla” sexually falls into a relationship with a man who is surely the walking dead. He comes into the library and orders her around like an alphole, which makes her wet and compliant. By the end he announces “Vanilla is my favorite flavor” and she understands “that once he licks my vanilla clean, I will be a librarian no more”.

The librarian is a cliché romance profession, and our heroine’s protestations of vanillaness are entirely a doth protest too much situation. While it may be culturally common, I think the sexualization of dead flesh which one finds all over vampire romance is pretty freaking kinky. “Vanilla” taking that one step further and making the love interest a straight up zombie might be a cool commentary, but then it might just be an accident. Just structurally, this fetishization of dead flesh is almost inevitable when zombies and sex writing collide, and it’ll show up in a number of other stories in this anthology. Honestly, I can’t tell from the prose, which seems kinda weak, tbh. Shrug emoticon.

“In the Red Light” by A. M. Hartnett

The set-up is kind of like Romero’s third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, in which mad scientists and military personnel ‘speriment on some zombies to try to reawaken their humanity or whatever. There’s a mad scientist, a lady soldier, and a zombie called Bub. Being Romero, the zombie called Bud is basically the only character with identifiable human emotions in the whole mess; humans are the real monsters, &c. The zombie in this story is more fully cognizant than Bub, and considerably less decayed: He was a death row inmate bitten when the prison warden released the undead into the prison. There’s some kind of chip in his head to keep him from zombiing out. The lady scientist (this time a shrink) is tasked with seeing to his mental state when they’re not hacking him open to see how his guts work.

There is potentially a lot here to unpack in this scenario about the treatment of institutionalized people, how they are dehumanized by systems which see them as resources, not persons. Alas, I don’t think any of that was more than cursorily touched on. I doubly don’t think the writer fully considered the consent issues involving a therapist sleeping with someone who is both her incarcerated patient and an experimental subject. The writer avoids the usual consent problems with zombies by making the zombie fully cognizant of himself, then screws that all up by having a therapist bang her patient. Like, I get that in the zombie apocalypse, probably there’s no board to revoke her license and/or bring her up on charges, but that crosses alllll kinds of ethical lines. Not great, Bob.

“Smile” by Laura Huntley

Honestly, I don’t even get it. A young woman in the zombie apocalypse goes rambling around outside every day instead of staying holed up with other survivors. She thinks they’re a bunch of emotionally stunted losers. She’s sad she lost a sister, finds a hot zombie dude at the park who lost a daughter. They bang it out. He smiles. I think I’m supposed to take home some message about how living isn’t just surviving or somesuch, but it’s not particularly well drawn. I also have serious questions about zombie physiology, specifically how they get boners and ejaculate. It’s fine though, just a situation and not really a story. That can be ok too.

“Dead from the Waist Down” by August Kent

This one does address the boner issue! Thank the Lord. This story is kind of goofy and cute, set in a sort of monster high school attended by ghosts, zombies, vampires, harpies, and whatnot. Our zombie protagonist, Nicholas, has been pining for a vamp girl called Dani. Vamps appear to be the top of the heap, socially speaking, so Nicholas is dragged by other vamps for even looking her way. Dani is a MPDG though, so they get together at a party sort of. He’s not actually capable of getting it up, but she’s unfazed, and eventually announces to the party that they’re dating. Pretty cute little scenario, and I laughed every time the zombie narrator slagged harpies for no apparent reason. Good stuff.

“Sweeter Than to Wake” by Thana Niveau

Another strangely sweet one. A man takes his bitten, frozen wife and removes all of her internal organs, sews her mouth shut, and embalms her. Zombies (or the Woken, as they are styled here) break down just like any dead body, and he’s trying to draw out their last days together as long as he can. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but this is easily the most heartfelt, poetic, and romantic conclusion to any story in this collection. This is one of a number of stories in this collection which deal with couples where one is a zombie and one isn’t, which is probably the most emotionally fruitful scenario involving Romero-style or post-Romero zombies.

“The Wild Ones” by Erin O’Riordan

Oddball little story about a love triangle of sorts playing out in an enclave of living humans protected from the undead by a bunch of ghosts. The main pair is the community leader and her wife. The community leader wants the wife to have a baby with another survivor called Steven, so they can give hope to a demoralized and dejected community. This one felt like the kind of situation where the world-building took a back seat to the interpersonal scenario, because I have close to zero understanding of how anything works in this world, especially i/r/t ghosts. Maybe there was something there about living for the memory of the dead or something, but it wasn’t clear.

“So You Want to Date a Zombie” by Shane Vaughn

Repellent story about an unlikable asshole who goes on a dating show, and ends up getting paired with an old girlfriend, only she’s undead this time. Either misogynist or so jaundiced that I’m misreading a hatred for humanity for a hatred of women.

“Still” by Delilah Devlin

Another husband and wife trying to navigate what happens when one becomes a zombie and the other doesn’t. Felt like real emotional stakes and a legitimate dilemma. The way the couple had to evade the authorities because the husband was zombifying also felt like maybe you could read the couple as LGBT or other identities who can sometimes “pass”, but I admit it’s something of a stretch.

“The Dying Time” by E.C. Myers

Probably the stand out of the collection, as it is utterly unlike any of the other stories, its own little sealed world of strange magic. A loner blows into town just as they are are battening down for a kind of winter. He develops a tendre for the town sex worker, which she numbly thinks is naïve, sweet, and stupid as hell. This might sound bitcher than I mean it, but: This is maybe the only story in this collection which fully uses the stiletto sharpness of a short story. We are given just enough to think we understand both the world and characters: insular town, drifter, town whore. Then the very end of the story rearranges how we understand everything: world, plot, and character. It’s deftly done, almost like a fairy tale, the Grimm kind, where folk die and live on a whim, and the moral of the story is survival.

“My Zombie, My Lover” by Mitzi Szereto

I’ve generally found it to be true that if an editor contributes fiction to a collection they are editing, the story is going to be not great, and that’s the case here. The narrator lives a solitary existence in the Appalachian hills. She has a distasteful tendency to sneer at the community around her. Someone starts breaking into her house and eating her leftovers; it’s a zombie; they bang. It’s a situation, not a story, which is fine, but it’s not an interesting situation, which is not.

“Come Back to Me” by Chantal Noordeloos

Another real standout, just deeply alarming. This story deals with your old school zombie reanimated and directed by Vodoun magic, not the Romero kind which is a member of a mindless mob. A young woman whose grandmother is a Bokor (which the internet informs me is a practitioner of dark sorcery) has her heart broken by a feckless summer person (or whatever seasonal tourists are called in Louisiana.) Her grandmother gives her the means to compel his death and reanimation, with the admonishment to release him from her magic once specific conditions occur. (This is what we call in folklore a “narrative lack”, when the writer introduces conditions which will precipitate action. “Don’t feed them after midnight,” the man says, which, narratively speaking, means they will inevitably be fed after midnight.) Inevitably, she does not release her lover, and some super bad shit happens.

Like “The Dying Time, “Come Back to Me” absolutely gets right into the viscera of what animates the zombie, culturally and metaphorically speaking. I feel like a number of these stories try to tart up zombies so much they’re not even zombies anymore — there’s no guts — while these two revel in paradox of the zombie’s curious detachment and their voraciousness. Fucking great.

“Not Ready to Let Go” by Deanna K. Deavers

Another story about a couple, this time from the point of view of the dying partner spending her last moments with the man she loves, and then into her reanimation and the hungers that provokes. There was something unsettling to me about this scenario, something deeper than the obvious fucked-upedness of the situation. Maybe it was that the story was told from the zombie’s point of view? A common theme of zombie stories is the horror of the loved ones transformation from lover to killer. This can work well as a metaphor for how traumatizing it is to watch a loved one waste and die, and how our bodies ultimately betray us unto death. Death reaching out from the death bed to consume the living freaks me out, apparently. Nice.

“Night of the Lovin’ Dead” by Ashley Lister

A young woman goes with the elders of her village to perform a ritual which will conjure an undead army to protect them from a living one. She’s not sure what the ritual will be, but she’s been told it will be pleasurable, so she’s all in. Both the living and the undead end up pulling a train on her, which she’s super into. Honestly, while I was reading, I kept thinking of Men Write Women, which details the worst examples of dudes writing how women boob breastily. Like this line: “From the periphery of her vision she could see the rigid thrust of her erect nipples.” I think I speak for most breast-havers that I only notice my nips when I’m specifically checking to make sure I’m presentable. I sure as shit don’t see them from the periphery of my vision — however that’s supposed to work — while I’m walking in forest so dark I can barely see the ground I’m walking on. The entire situation was priapic male gaze nonsense, and the girl’s characterization ridiculous. No.

“Under a Perfect Sun” by Zander Vyne

“Under a Perfect Sun” concerns a group of people riding out the zombie apocalypse in the biosphere in Arizona. Before the inhabitants of the biodome figured out what was going on, one of the men is bitten. Before he turns, he locks himself in a closet and writes out detailed instructions on how to stretch food and power within the dome for as long as possible. Later, his wife has to decide whether to sleep with her zombified husband to get pregnant — apparently he’s technically still alive; it’s more of a rage virus — and if she’ll allow the other women to do the same, repopulating the planet-style. This one is the most stylistically interesting of the bunch — it skips through time and characters’ perspectives, including some epistolary passages.

This is one of two stories in this collection which deals with survivor communities grappling with questions of procreation. (“The Dying Time” also deals with pregnancy, but that is in a very different scenario.) On some level, I think this goes back to the fact that we’re kind of living through a slow-moving apocalypse right now, so an isolated community deciding whether to continue existing is going to resonate. I mean, have you seen millennial birth rates? But I think the thing to note about these stories is that both place the question of procreation solidly on the woman. Zombie stories often trade in questions of how to build and defend domesticity, but mostly it’s about how men are supposed to use violence to keep their families “safe”. (Rick Grimes is the absolute avatar of this.) So it was pretty dope to see a less 2A approach to society’s survival.

Anyway! So this was a fun little read because I have some feelings about zombies and domesticity, but this collection didn’t knock my socks off or anything. Mostly I’m glad it exists, because it’s cool to see that other people have the same dumb obsessions I do, even if we do our dumb obsessions in different ways.

Book Review: Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker

Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker is the kind of book, and reading experience, I find very difficult to talk about. I know that, theoretically, I am capable of actual criticism of the book — like, maybe it’s not great how Hardaker keeps the reveal for the last pages, and then the coda is kind of a retroactive infodump — but then none of that actually matters. This book set me wailing around the house, absolutely distraught for no reason I could identify with precision. It’s like my interior state became too large, too full with the proceedings, and I end up this inchoate mess who has lost language.

I’ve had this experience a handful of other times, where I have this paralyzed, almost jealous feeling about a novel. Notably, they all tend to be debut or early novels by women in often claustrophobic environments: The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke, Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng, Severance by Ling Ma, even God’s War by Kameron Hurley, even though that’s a bit of an outlier in terms of tone. They’re all a little messy, but have the viscera of an artist’s early work.

I’ve always been a fan of the Gothic, which can sometimes be almost cartoonishly large, in both literal and emotional spaces. Degenerate, aristocratic families rot in their crumbling manses, dead wives haunt the folly in diaphanous dresses, and hulking, Byronic figures silhouette themselves on the mountaintop, in the sheeting rain. The trappings of the hardcore, Victorian Gothic are so outsized they verge on comedy, if not deliberately, then in that blinking naiveté which is hard to discern from actual irony. Sometimes the satire can’t be told apart from its object, and Gothics often play with that ambiguity. I’ve been reading the Gormenghast books, for example, and that has both the gravidity and comedy of Gothic fiction in spades.

But Gothic that goes small — that details a cozy bungalow in some suburb, and the inconsequential denizens therein — absolutely catches me where I live. I’m completely susceptible to narratives of women locked in domestic environments which have been rendered inexorably, permanently strange. My outsized reactions might seem easy to psychoanalyze — look at mom, mommishly momming — though I think my affinities are probably at least as messy as the works that provoke them.

We meet Norah on a first date with Art, and everything about it feels jumbled and and wrong-footed. Their relationship with each other has been mediated by an ominous medical corporation called Easton Grove for inscrutble reasons. Though their first date feels no better than average, they are overly congratulatory of how well they got on, and seemingly rush into a cohabitation and marriage. Their first holiday party, to which Norah invites friends from her Life Before, is a master class in social anxiety and dangerous subterranean fault lines. The conversation always dances around some essential violation or transgression of Norah’s, one which must be worse than that Art is boring and American. Norah shies constantly from thinking of her previous lover, the one the friends knew, and this avoidance is a central lacuna, both in terms of narrative, and her personality.

Into this void, Easton Grove sends Nut, a mysterious creature who feels, at least in the beginning, like cross between a cat and an infant. They’re not supposed to name her, nor are they supposed to give her run of the house, but both things happen inexorably, even as these encroachments upend their lives. Art is a midlist writer of crime novels of some success, and Nut’s (and to a lesser extent, Norah’s) intrusion into his writing space disorders his ability to write. Norah more wholly embraces Nut, going against the edicts of Easton Grove, and her everyday companionship with the creature is shot through with anxiety and transgression. Norah often feels to me like Kat from The Mad Scientist’s Daughter: Both live with this inexplicable being in a cozy home in a dying world. Because the world is dying, quite literally, outside the windows of their small domestic spaces.

Norah’s relationship to art is all over this novel, and it would probably be easy to make some pat announcement about domesticity and its impact on creatively or whatnot. For one, her husband’s name is Art, and he is, indeed, an artist (though there’s a lowkey but constant denigration of his crime novels as unserious or lower order, both self-deprecatingly from him, and from others.) More importantly, Norah came into some money — the money that made it possible for her to enter into her relationship with Easton Grove, Nut, and Art him/itself — because of her artist mother. Her mother was locally influential painter, and after her death, her paintings acquired a posthumous cache, and sold for much more than they could have while she was living. Norah, by contrast, works some sort of corporate drone job, and even with Easton Grove’s meddling, is content largely to languish in the middle of the org chart. A large part of her emotional energies go to Nut, and though I think it could be possible to read this as the ways women are lanced of creative purpose by child minding — a sort of A Room of One’s Own where the room contains a fucking baby — but that’s too simple a reading.

I have two children — teenagers — on the cusp of becoming. I live in a comfortable house occasionally uncomfortably. Outside of our domesticity, the oceans literally burn. While I may (and do) struggle with my creativity — maybe some day I’ll finish that novel of Gothic spaces — I am absolutely paralyzed by how fucked up the world is, how terrifying it is to have brought people into this world, who then have to survive the coming cataclysm. Norah’s crisis is both creative and procreative, and I feel in my guts how they both consume and create one another. The old saw about both art and children is that they are a form of immortality. When the world dies around us, neither feels permanent, which is the whole point of immortality, n’est pas?

There feels like a line out from Composite Creatures to Wittgenstein’s Mistress in a weird and winding way. I know my appreciation of Markson’s po-mo novel is all ass-backwards — like, I couldn’t care less about whatever bullshit he’s going on about i/r/t philosophy, but I am gutted — gutted — by the overt plot of the novel. In Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a woman possibly named Kate is the only living animal left on earth. She writes Twitter-length missives on a typewriter in the basement of a house she’s occasionally inhabiting, about what she’s doing and Classic literature and only very rarely her past. It is a record that will be read by no one, not even the narrator, who eschews retrospection. Of course, it’s fiction, so it is read, and by thousands, but that’s not the point.

The point is a dead and dying world inhabited by a being self aware enough to worry about the future, and self-involved enough to cannibalize whatever is at hand to survive. Kate pulls down a house on a beach and burns it for warmth. Norah, well. Her response is what happens in Composite Creatures, isn’t it?

And you know what? I can’t even blame her, even if much of what she does is unforgivable. There but for the grace go I.

Review: His Lordship’s Last Wager by Miranda Davis

A million years ago, I picked up The Duke’s Tattoo by Miranda Davis because I read some sniggering reviews about it: get a load of this. And it’s true, and funny, that the opening action is one of the heroine sedating and then permanently inking a certain peer’s unmentionables, and then how their rivalry and his revenge turns into love, &c &c. Oh, and all of this takes place in a Regency romance, I believe in Bath. It’s pretty much the best. Sure, whatever, none of that is likely, but neither is getting lucky in a barouche, and that happens in Regency romances all the freaking time. 

a four wheeled horse drawn carriage which seats two, open, but with a sort of umbrella over the passengers

Seriously, you’re not getting laid in this comfortably even in modern clothing, let alone the yards of fabric those poor assholes had to wear in the Regency. 

Anyway, Davis’s almost overblown prose — she has an excellent vocabulary and isn’t afraid to use it — and sideways sense of humor completely won me over.

But then came the The Baron’s Betrothal, which, while written in the same winsome prose, was a tiresome will-they-won’t-they that I didn’t appreciate. Admittedly, I almost never appreciate a will-they-won’t-they, but then The Baron’s Betrothal also was thin with the humor that so radiated from The Duke’s Tattoo, so I don’t think it wasn’t just my predilections talking. Fast forward several years, and Davis’s newest book, His Lordship’s Last Wager, pops up on one of my if-you’ve-read-this-then situations, and I figured I’d give her another go. I mean, even the book I didn’t like wasn’t bad, just not to my tastes.

Boy, but I found His Lordship’s Last Wager charming. The set up is ludicrous, again: a zesty young woman gulls a lord-type into helping her transport a trained bear to Ireland. Look, I’m not going to explain how such a situation comes to be, partially because I can’t remember exactly. Like the lord-type, the reader finds herself wondering what the hell happened to result in a trip through the aqueducts and canals of England of yore. I was super into it, because, wait, lemme tell you a story. 

My great-grandmother, the one I’m named after, was born in the US just months after her parents stepped off the boat. (I think assholes would call her an anchor baby.) Though we don’t know for sure, my family suspects that great-great-grandpa knocked up the neighbor girl in a small town in Wales, and due to the fact that he was an inveterate alcoholic (ah, the Welsh), the families sent them on their way to America. She managed to have another child, a boy, before she succumbed to Industrial Revolution Pittsburgh. Great-grandma and her brother were settled into an orphanage — her father being too drunk to care for them — but not after the family in Wales entreated her and her brother to “come home”. The trans-Atlantic voyage was too scary for a young girl, so they stayed.

Fast forward many moons, and my mother took that faded correspondence, and tried to find our living relatives in Wales. Several things hampered this: the family names were Jones and Edwards, which are about as common as you can get; the family wasn’t Church of Wales, which would be the establishment church, but Baptist; and the Baptist church in the area burned down in the early 70s, so all the records were ash. We found the house on a trip to Froncysyllte when I was a teenager, and the current owners were kind enough to let us look at the deeds (which corroborated pretty much all of the family lore), but it was a dead end.

But we were in the area, so we touristed around for a while. One of our more memorable visits was to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which is still functional, a crazy waterway strung between high Welsh hills. Observe: 

a black and white photo of a large aqueduct being drained

Though I don’t think our intrepid Regency lovers plied this waterway, much of the action of the novel takes place on the canals that crisscrossed Britain, moving goods and people just like the railroads. Davis notes that there is little contemporary description of the canals in their heyday in the 1800s, as they were largely commercial. Who writes stories about truck stops or container ships? So too, back then. But they’re fascinating places, and it was entirely enjoyable to read a Recency romance that took place on the rough waterfront instead of the cultivated lawn.

Obviously, this is still a romance, so it’s not going to get too icky or realz. And that’s fine. I’m not usually reading Regency romance for the articles, and I don’t need some big bummer to prove the situation serious. That said, this novel was charming and lively, funny and unusual, and totally worth it for the reverie about my lost family alone. 

How to Find a Princess by Alyssa Cole

Somehow, I missed the previous and first installment to the Runaway Royals series by Alyssa Cole, How to Catch a Queen, though I have read all of the Reluctant Royals books. My enjoyment of How to Find a Princess was not dependent on having read the previous novel, though it’s possible I would have a better understanding of things like the World Federation of Monarchies, an organization which one of the heroines works for, and the fictional country Ibarania. Maybe not; often this kind of series is more shared world than anything.

Makeda Hicks is having one of those epically bad weeks that one finds in comedies. She’s not only passed over for promotion for a job she has earnestly thrown herself into, but is summarily laid off. (Adding insult to injury, the job she was applying for is given to an unqualified Becky whom Makeda has been propping up. Said Becky keeps calling Makeda for unpaid instruction, which.) When she heads home early to the apartment she shares with a girlfriend, the girlfriend is more than halfway out the door, saddling Makeda with both the rent and a small business loan Makeda co-signed. She drags ass back to her grandmother’s B&B to try regroup, which is where Beznaria Chetchevaliere finds her. Bez is an investigator for the aforementioned World Federation of Monarchies — which appears to be run by broad caricatures of Upper Class Twits, and is a delight to read about — and is searching for the lost princess of Ibarania. She has a personal stake in this as well: the Chetchevaliere family has acted as bodyguard to the royal family for ages, and Bez’s grandmother has taken some heat for “losing” the previous queen. In contrast with Makeda, whose self-effacement threatens to become self-annihilating, Bez is brusquely self-assured.

Makeda is wounded and tetchy when Beznaria first appears, and her antipathy only deepens when Makeda learns Bez is on a search for the Ibaranian heir. Apparently, Makeda’s mother, due to her own mother’s stories of a tryst with a Ibaranian king, made Makeda’s childhood very difficult? So she wants nothing to do with either Beznaria or Ibarania? Honestly, this aspect of the novel made the least psychological (and logistical) sense to me. I understand the psychological effects of growing up with absent or neglectful parents, and Makeda makes sense as a product of that environment. It tracks that Makeda has become almost hyper-competent after parenting her own addict mother, and that she’d have a heightened sense of shame. But I don’t really understand how the Ibaranian monarchy is at fault, even if her mom focused on that as a sort of addictive fixation. Maybe this is just growing up white, but I knew several people who claimed some sort of nonsense pedigree, and no one much made fun of them. Hell, I even had the full on national costume of a country some of my people were from, and they were all alcoholic slate miners. I also don’t understand why the Ibaranian monarchy didn’t investigate Mama Hicks’s claims 20 years previous, waiting instead to focus on her daughter. Makeda’s mom would be all over that. Makeda, instead, is totally over it.

This little infelicity isn’t that big of a deal though: the story is about the ways Bez and Makeda’s distinctly different but complimentary personalities strike sparks off each other. Bez reads to me as neurodivergent, which she thinks of as her too-much-ness. She has a weirdly confident resignation to eventual rejection: she’s not going to change for people, but she fully expects them to disappoint her by wanting her to change. Makeda, by contrast, bends over backwards for everyone, but in a way that can occasionally seem thoughtless? For serious, the ex-girlfriend shouldn’t have defaulted on that loan. But Makeda similarly shouldn’t have pushed the ex into running a business she was unqualified and unsuited to run. It looks like she’s helping, but her assistance is sometimes compulsive, more about internal motivations than external necessity. By the time Bez comes striding into her life, Makeda is in full on snapping wounded phase, trying to reorder her personality to its exact opposite. This is going as well as one might expect. Which is to say: not.

The first third of the novel tracks Bez and Makeda while they are both living at the grandmother’s B&B, and this is the most broadly comic section. There are hijinks with both cats and plumbing, and Grandma Hicks is one of those dirty old ladies who is wise by way of teasing. Once Makeda agrees to return to Ibarania, the middle section switches locales to a container ship, where several romance tropes are deployed with a vengeance: only one bed! fake marriage! forced proximity! I am here for all of that, but others may feel differently. In the last third, once they’ve finally reached Ibarania, Cole delivers a fairly epic plot twist, one that I didn’t see coming, not even a little. (This is the second time she’s caught me out; I was similarly surprised by the reveal at the end of The A.I. Who Loved Me.)

I enjoyed the tight relationships both heroines had with their grandmothers, and the story’s offbeat and unexpected directions. Stories involving royalty often focus on makeovers and the trappings of wealth, and this was well-grounded in a reality of loan payments and rent. However, because the container ship was so cut off from both events in Ibarania and the States, sometimes the emotional through-lines felt a little disconnected. It does very much keep the focus on Makeda and Bez’s relationship, which I think is a good thing, but it was still a little disjointed. How to Find a Princess was an engaging read with likeable characters and a big surprise at the end. I’m happy I have another book to read in this series, even if it is out of order.

I received my copy from Netgalley.

Review: Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs

I have a definite thing with the paranormal concept of “mating”, which is mostly understood to be an unbreakable romantic bond that exists independent of the emotional state of love. Obviously, romance novels have certain parameters to them, namely, that there be an HEA or HFN, so mostly they don’t address the glaring problem that a bond like this, one independent of emotion, can represent. So I kind of freak out when writers address the potential disconnect between mated bond and honest affection, because it’s so vanishingly rare. The newest Alpha & Omega novel, Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs, addresses this issue. The only other novel that I can think of that takes on a disconnect between mated bonding and real affection was one of Elizabeth Hunter’s Irin Chronicles, The Secret. That instance was utterly heartbreaking.

I have a pet theory that the “mating bond” acts as a sort of safety net for people writing overbearing asshole types, which many of these shifters tend to be. The whole pack hierarchy of dominance/submission, which is de rigueur in shifter narratives, offers up a steady supply of pushy, domineering alpha males (literally! har har) whose behavior towards women would be legitimately alarming in real world contexts. (Hell, often their behavior towards other men as well.) With the introduction of the mating bond, that more or less ensures the romantic lead won’t go fully physically abusive, though of course the more intangible methods of abusing and controlling one’s partner are still fully on the table. Admittedly, the Alpha & Omega series isn’t quite a romance series, though it includes a strong romantic through-line, so much of my noodling about the mating bond doesn’t apply, exactly.

The Alpha & Omega books follow the married couple and mated werewolf pair, Anna and Charles Cornick, the Omega and Alpha of the series name, respectively. The werewolves in this universe are often incredibly violent, and the pack bonds are just the thinnest check on that violence. This is in direct contrast with shifters like the Changelings in the Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh, whose shifter nature instills a sense of protectiveness and community. Singh’s Changelings are almost constitutionally incapable of abuse; Briggs’s werewolves are all too capable of violent outbreaks, and in some cases predisposed. Further, Charles acts as his father, Bran Cornick’s enforcer, and Bran is the pack leader of all North American werewolf packs, a sort of uber-alpha. His direct pack is made up of the hurt, damaged, unstable, and otherwise not housebroken werewolves. As his dad’s strong arm, violence is literally Charles’s job. His bond with Anna provides ballast for him, a line out to softer, kinder human emotion.

But the mating bond between Anna and Charles — one that seems genuinely enviable — is not the relationship at issue in Wild Sign: it’s the prickly, disconnected connection between Bran Cornick and his mate, Leah. The fact that they are mated but seem to have a deep antipathy for one another has been a thing not just in the Alpha & Omega series, but the Mercy Thompson books as well, where Leah acted as mean step-mom antagonist. Frankly, the way the antagonism between Mercy and Leah was introduced and maintained was indicative of a problem Briggs had writing relationships between women, at the very least in the earlier novels in that series, but really going up to the one that took place in Europe? I find the individual novel names forgettable. Anna’s relationship with Leah has been less antagonistic, but largely Leah is portrayed as a harpy Bran ruefully puts up with. And honestly, if I were Leah, I would be less than impressed with Bran’s lackluster care and concern. His treatment of her as an irritant has never sat well with me.

Wild Sign acts as a corrective to this, and gives us not just Leah’s backstory, but also the origin story for her relationship with Bran Cornick. Anna and Charles head out to the California wilderness to investigate an off-the-grid town full of magical users which seems to have vanished without a trace. Apparently, this town was on land that Leah owns, and both the land and the reason for the town’s disappearance are connected to her mating bond with Bran. Suffice it to say, there’s some real nasty shit in her backstory, the kind of thing even Briggs addresses mostly euphemistically. Her bond with Bran is anything but ideal, almost an echo of said nasty shit, and it’s completely legible why they would hold each other at a distance. They are bonded by trauma, unbreakably so, but trauma isn’t actually ennobling, and intimate violations can play havoc with one’s ability to be intimate.

It’s a lot, and there were certainly points where I wondered if maybe it was too much. But then Briggs has never much shied from really nasty traumas, especially in Alpha & Omega. Charles and Anna met, after all, when he had to execute her pack leader because of the alpha’s brutal sexual, physical, and psychological abuse of Anna and others. And indeed, the antagonist in Wild Sign dredges up this history of violence for Anna — makes her relive it — in a way that felt true to the ways trauma can resurface, even for people who are functionally healed. Shifter narratives, especially those that center on werewolves, deal often with body trauma, I find, something having to do with the werewolf’s lack of control over their body, and the violence of the physical change.

That said, there are some real moments of levity in Wild Sign, like Anna and Charles’s run in with some sasquatch, or the basis for the monster of the week the novel has going. Which is good, because darkness pushes on everything they do, threatening to snuff out the sometimes tremulous light. It’ll be interesting to see what comes next.

Alpha Night by Nalini Singh

I went back and forth about even reviewing Alpha Night, the most recent Psy-Changeling Trinity novel, because it didn’t quite work for me, but for the usual reasons that Psy-Changeling books sometimes don’t work for me. At a certain point it’s on me that I keep reading books that have general themes that can bug me. But then I also want to noodle around and figure out why so few of the Psy-Changeling Trinity books work for me so far, when the last 4 or 5 of the Psy-Changeling installments are my most favoritest of any of them.

So, a quick rundown of the series: Psy-Changeling is a 14-book series set on an alt-Earth where there are 3 kinds of humans: regular humans, like you and me; the Psy, a psychic race who have subjected themselves to brutal anti-emotional conditioning called Silence for the last century; and the Changelings, animal shifters who cluster in packs of Changelings and who shift to similar animals. Changelings can be insular about other changelings — like wolves and cats won’t get on — but humans intermix fine, and do fairly broadly. Also, the Psy often treat humans like shit, as humans have no natural defense against psychic interference. Because the Psy actively repress emotion, child-bearing and rearing is a contractual affair, and the whole race has been cut off, both socially and genetically speaking, from the other two under Silence. The larger arc of the series shows the slow dismantling of Silence, as it turns out repressing emotion in a psychic race is debilitating to the point of species-level collapse.

As a romance series, this larger arc was seen through individual novels that focused on a specific pairing, and gave the background arc a really broad, global sense, like this really was fate-of-the-world stuff, but seen though the eyes of individuals. Mostly the individual outings focused on Psy/Changeling pairings (hence, like, the name of the series), but there are also plenty of Psy/Psy or Changeling/Changeling couples. As a huge nerd, I just went through and counted up: there are 5 Psy/Changeling pairings, 3 Changeling/Changeling pairings, 3 Psy/Psy pairings, and 3ish that include a human. (I say 3ish because one of the “humans” is a member of the Forgotten, a sort of rogue Psy population who submerged into humanity once Silence was initiated.)

On a personal level, I always much prefer a Psy-Changeling novel which focuses on the Psy. On a racial level, they are dealing with profound trauma and abuse, and I think romance novels, with their focus on emotional connection and physical pleasure, can be a perfect environment in which to explore recovery from trauma, especially body trauma. Singh is especially good at this kind of plot, as she never succumbs to the Magical Vagina, those ladyparts whose simple application can heal the most traumatic of injuries. Trauma is real, recovery is often slow, and sometimes people don’t heal completely. The Psy narratives often detail the beauty of the most simple pleasures, anything from burst of sweetness and warmth when you take a sip of hot cocoa, to the feel of silk on the skin. I’m a pretty big sucker for Beautiful Life philosophies.

I’m less interested in Changelings because I find the pack construction frustrating, and the dominant/submissive stuff actively annoying. There is nothing uniquely annoying about the way Changeling culture is constructed compared to other UF/PNR, so I’m not trying to single Singh out. In most shifter narratives, the animal shifters organize themselves around an alpha who is the mostest dominant. In Changeling packs, the dominants act as the government/cops of the pack, while the submissives and maternals, you know, act as healers or school teachers or whatnot. Of course, as you can see from the nomenclature, this is all highly gendered. Occasionally the dominants will talk about how terrifying it is to be called up in front of the maternals, but this strikes me as more of a joke situation: haha, look at the strong dude afraid of his mommy! I literally can’t think of a single maternal named character. (ETA: Wait, that’s not true: I can think of one, and it’s one of the very few female Sentinels. Having her be a maternal solves the problem of her love interest’s fragile ego when he thought she was more dominant than him. Which, that’s pretty fucked up.)

Anyway, The Psy-Changeling books reach a crescendo with the fall of Silence, which then necessitates a global change on all levels of society, and including all three races. During Silence, the three races seemed largely to govern themselves. The Psy were subject to the Psy Counsel, a collection of a dozen or so complete psychos. Psy who showed any kind of emotion were subject to reconditioning or rehabilitation: the first was painful and cruel, and the second resulted in a vegetative state. Changeling packs were organized around an Alpha, as I mentioned before, though there is some law regarding the interaction of the members of Changeling packs with each other. (There was apparently a series of disastrous Territory Wars in the previous century.) Humans seem to have the usual human systems, but then I can’t tell if the nation-state exists, or if there is a global body that advocates for their rights. That doesn’t really matter, I just bring it up because a lot of the legal structures in this world are very lightly sketched, which gives Singh a lot of latitude to bend the world to the characters.

Anyway, after the fall of Silence, and therefore the dissolution of the Psy Council, there are a few books showing the messy interim period until they get their new government systems off the ground. I positively live for this period, in fiction, as I think it’s hard to pull off, but incredibly rewarding. And Singh positively shines given a situation where individual relationships mirror real and important changes in the larger world. By the close of Allegiance of Honor (which honestly read like a clip show, because we check in with literally all the couples from the previous 14 books), global government has been realigned under the Trinity Accord. Trinity, as the name suggests, brings representatives of the three races together, in addition to various important factions within the larger groups: the E-designation Psy, the Forgotten, the Human Alliance, the Arrows, &c &c.

The Psy-Changeling Trinity books are absolutely a continuation of Psy-Changeling, so it’s more like season two than a whole new series. That said, I’ve been kinda bored by them. The first Trinity novel, Silver Silence, I was pretty excited about because it followed a major supporting character, Silver Mercant, who was aide to Kaleb Krychek. Alas, I find bear changelings annoying, which is who the Psy Silver falls in with. (Though, honestly, after spending time with the Moscow wolves in Alpha Night, who are all self-serious bores, I’m more than ready to hang out with the dopey drunk bears again.) Ocean Light also follows a long-running character, the guy who was the head of the Human Alliance, but it recycled the “medical tech might kill me” plot that was way better deployed in Vasic’s book, Shield of Winter, plus the hero was not the kind of asshole I appreciate. (Kaleb Krychek being the ❤️️asshole❤️️ standard.) I did enjoy Wolf Rain, which complicated the E-designation in a really cool way, though the heroine was a million times more interesting than the hero.

Alpha Night follows the alpha of the Russian wolf pack who lives in Moscow along with the Silver Silence bears and Kaleb Krychek. (This is a not dissimilar set up to San Francisco which has cat and wolf packs, and also major Psy players Nikita Duncan and the NightStar family.) Selenka Durev is not the only Changeling alpha who is also a woman — the ocean-wide pack of BlackSea’s First (basically an alpha) is also a girl — but she’s the first we’ve focused on. At a conference of E-designation Psy — who act as a bulwark for the PsyNet, a psychic plane which is necessary for all Psy to, like, continue being alive — Selenka has a fateful meeting with Ethan Night, a member of an insular Psy military unit called the Arrows. Mating at first sight is not supposed to exist, but that’s exactly what happens.

Which, this is right up my damn alley. I dig the narratives that complicate or otherwise rough up tropes of whatever genre, and the mating bond one finds in shifter stories especially makes me itchy. A really fucking fascinating series which does this particularly well is Elizabeth Hunter’s Irin Chronicles, specifically the third in that series, The Secret. That story features a woman who is permanently bonded to another supernatural creature as sort of experiment by that being, which results in both of them locked into both mutual need and mutual antipathy. It’s tragic as hell, and completely, horribly abusive. Alpha Night, unfortunately, doesn’t really do anything with this mating-bond-at-first-sight situation. It’s not supposed to be a thing in the Psy-Changeling universe, so it’s remarked on a lot by the characters, who then often reference genre fiction. Singh also includes excerpts from publications supposedly written in-world. (For example, there’s a soap called Hourglass Lives that I think is a riff on Day of Our Lives, which is so adorable.) I get a kick out of genre fiction commenting on the genre through showing their characters interact with in-world media. (For robust examples of this, check out the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, or Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gate.) It could have been an easy thing to interrogate instalove in this context. Alas.

The interpersonal conflict instead is largely the one between Selenka and her father, who was passed over as alpha when her grandfather died. He’s whiny and entitled, and gives Selenka no small amount of grief. I really love when Singh writes about shitty Changelings who have shitty relationships, because sometimes they’re just a little too perfect. Mating bonds render things like spousal abuse impossible, and they’re so full up with protective instincts that they can be incredibly high-handed and high-and-mighty. (And, honestly, sometimes the way those protective instincts are portrayed looks pretty overbearing to me. The loudest example I can think of was Jenna’s brothers’ behavior in Caressed by Ice. She managed to get them to stand the fuck down, but she had to be really, really assertive in a situation where they were almost physically restricting her. They don’t own her, and nothing about that was healthy.) Selenka’s relationship with her father is heartbreaking, especially because its based on real, longstanding resentments and disconnects. And legit, her relationship with her mom is pretty fucked up too.

Her relationship with Ethan, by contract, is remarkably frictionless. He snaps into his role as the alpha’s consort pretty easily. He even interacts with pack mates with exactly what the situation requires, something which stretched credulity when coming from a scarred and traumatized member of an insular paramilitary unit. Like, how? Even his relationships with other Arrows heretofore have been bad. Most of the frisson in their relationship had to do with his bizarre and sometimes out of control psychic powers, which isn’t a conflict but a situation. I really could have used a little more conflict between these two, because suddenly being bonded to someone you don’t even know sounds kinda nightmarish, and that isn’t really acknowledged.

So I don’t know! I think my sense of malaise with the Trinity novels is that I don’t feel an especial sense of danger anymore. Unless they’re singular psychos like Ming Le Bon or the serial-killing Psy Council member, Singh’s evil organizations are often cartoonish. I don’t credit their motivations, so I don’t feel that much tension. The Trinity series has had really remote antagonists, so the overt plot doesn’t really resonate with the romantic plot for me. You’ll notice I didn’t even mention the overt plot of Alpha Night, because it really made no impression. In comparison, I can remember both the advancing mythology and the interpersonal relationships in, say, Heart of Obsidian, with perfect clarity, even years later. I think I read somewhere that the next Trinity book is going to deal with the PsyNet breaking apart, which is the kind of BFD that might really provide some grist for the main couple. Here’s hoping! I legitimately love this series, and I don’t like feeling on the outs.

Review: Beauty and the Clockwork Beast by Nancy Campbell Allen

This was written a while ago, after our move, but I only got around to posting it in its edited and spellchecked form like half a year ago. Then there was some catastrophe and I lost a bunch of posts. So this is it again!

I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks recently. We recently moved, so I’ve been working on the various paint and plaster projects necessary to make this house not be the godforsaken beige that the previous owners thought was a good idea. Which means I have hours and hours of monotonous work that is perfect for audio. I listened to an urban fantasy trilogy I’ve read before, hit some China Miéville because rwrrr, and then moved on to midlist steampunk.

Beauty and the Clockwork Beast by Nancy Campbell Allen is one of those titles that promises some stupid stuff. I am sometimes in the mood for stupid stuff, and I felt reasonably sure I knew what I was going to get, given my experience with steampunk on the romance end. There would be an inventor’s daughter, one of those irrepressibly zesty daughters of the upper class who be impressed upon to find her father’s killer / continue his work / fall in love with the staff / automaton / vampire / werewolf. I once read a short story collection of steampunk stories where two thirds of the entries went this way. Two thirds.

But that is not what I found in Beauty and the Clockwork Beast! Or it is, just a very little, but the bulk of the novel is character study, riffs on Gothic fiction, and well written prose. Jeez, who even does that?

The plot follows one Lucy Pickett as she goes to stay with a cousin who is more like a sister to her. The cousin, Kate, was recently married to the younger brother of an earl, but has been ailing since she took up residence as the lady of Blackwell Manor. The earl himself, Miles, has a pall upon him, after his wife and sister died within a day of each other half a year ago. The wife died in a manner befitting the Blackwell curse, and the sister was torn apart by wild animals. It’s all pretty sketchy.

Lucy is a botanist herself, and a member of a society that is working towards the usual medicinal uses, but also pharmacology that is useful against vampires. This is a world with magic and animal shifters (of which Miles is one) and vampires. But it’s not a world with ghosts, so it troubles Lucy some to encounter the ghost of the earl’s sister for several nights running. She and Miles end up playing detective in the earlier deaths, Lucy’s sister’s illness, and Miles’ blackmail.

While there are many things about the detective plot that make me want to tear out my hair — there are ONLY TWO OR THREE VIABLE SUSPECTS JFC — I was so in love with Lucy. She’s no inventor’s daughter, an appendage on a Great Man, but a scientist in her own right. I do want to acknowledge that in the world this fantasy is based on, women really didn’t have many opportunities to education short of what they could filch from their fathers and brothers. That often steampunk girls have mad scientist or inventor fathers is not my issue. It’s that most often the father is a Great Man, and the daughter-protagonist a mere shadow of his genius or keeper of his legacy, without a lot of agency in her own vocations or avocations.

This might be a little harder to explain, but hear me out: she’s also not gadding about in trousers because she’s so transgressive zomg, but a careful woman of her class and station. Look, I love me a firebrand, a character who smashes shit and gets stuff done. But I weary of 1) characters who haven’t earned it and are just middle class fantasies of rebellion dressed up in pantaloons 2) Strong Female Characters ™ who do everything in their power to shit on girlishness, the trappings of femininity, and any woman who might still live under its aegis. Lucy is often well and truly frustrated by how she as treated as a scientist and a woman, but she’s got good table manners, and knows how perform a perfect curtsy. She has good relationships with other women — not just one, but several — and even treats unlikable female characters with kindness and empathy. In short, she is a good person.

Aspects of her prescribed gender roles chaff, absolutely, but some don’t, which make Lucy an altogether more believable and nuanced character than someone wearing a leather corset on the outside of her clothes shooting out the lights all the time or whatever. She’s not someone’s bondage fantasy of a Strong Woman. Moreover, her worth isn’t predicated on her father, or her magical powers (she has none other than education and experience) or her anachronistic badassery. It comes from her diligent work ethic, loyalty to those she loves, and innate kindness. Which, whoa. I was well pleased to encounter someone of Lucy’s mettle in this sort of steampunkery.

There are things to complain about, for sure. The detective plot is almost offensively stupid, even while the technical details of this specific steampunk world are careful and considered. Miles holds onto his secrets 80 pages past when he should. People almost never ask the obvious questions when confronted with a mystery, and blithely go about their business like idiots. At a couple crucial points, characters forget important details like wow. Oh, and the most childish complaint: dude is not a clockwork beast, whatever that means, just the regular kind. (Of course I know writers rarely have control over titles; chill.)

That said! I feel like this was ahead of the curve. Lucy is such a practical, well drawn character, and she acquits herself with grace. May we all, etc.