Review: Roar of Sky by Beth Cato

Beth Cato’s Blood of Earth trilogy – which began with Breath of Earth, continued with Call of Fire, and now completes with Roar of Sky – has been an incredibly active and peripatetic series. While Roar of Sky does cover at least as much ground as its predecessors – our heroine Ingrid, her lover Cy, and their friend and pilot Fenris move from Hawaii to California to Arizona and several points between – there’s something almost internal about the movement, contemplative and personal. After the pyrotechnics (almost literally) of the climax of Call of Fire, Ingrid is bruised and hurt, seeking answers to deeper questions of who she is and where she came from. Even as she seeks answers to her origins, she struggles with limited mobility and persistent pain from her last encounter with the antagonist, Ambassador Blum, physical disabilities that may likely be permanent. She is coming to terms with her origins, even as she learns – painstakingly, painfully – how to go forward.

We first met Ingrid Carmichael in the weeks leading up to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which leveled 80% of the city and still ranks as the largest loss of life from a natural disaster in California’s history (in both our timeline and hers). But while the earthquake may the same, the California it takes place in is profoundly different. The United States and Japan have merged into a larger empire called the United Pacific, and have since waged war on China. As a nation at war, the Unified Pacific is in the grips of dangerous xenophobia against anyone who isn’t Japanese or white American (but especially against Chinese-Americans). As the dark-skinned daughter of a prominent geomancer, Ingrid is both insulated from public animus, and deep in the heart of a system that devalues and judges her. Because Ingrid has a secret: she is a geomancer too.

Which brings me to another key difference between Ingrid’s world and our own history: geomancy, Reiki, kitsune, qilin, sylphs, and all manner of mythical powers and strange creatures exist in world of the Unified Pacific. Ingrid’s closest relationship is with geomancy, a sensitivity and mastery over the seismic power of the earth. This power can be siphoned off by geomancers and locked into crystals, which are then used like batteries to power everything from lightbulbs to dirigibles. This is not just an alternate history, but an alternate reality. Women are not supposed to be able to work geomancy, so when Ingrid’s powers of geomancy manifest during the earthquake, it thrusts her into dangerous geopolitics (pun absolutely intended.)

Roar of Sky begins in Hawaii, where Ingrid, Cy, and Fenris have fled after their confrontation with the kitsune (a fox deity, of sorts) who is living as a high-ranking official in the United Pacific, and absolutely dedicated to the destruction of all Chinese people – both in America and Asia. Ingrid was told by her father that she has a familial relationship with the Hawaiian goddess Pele, so she braves the active geology of the Hawaiian islands (as a geomancer, this kind of seismic activity can be deadly) in order to find out more about her kin. Ingrid is wheelchair bound at times, her nervous system burned out by the overflow of magic she used to protect herself from the kitsune previously. Ingrid’s visit to the crater of Kilauea is tactile and detailed, with the kind of description that feels lived in. She thrills at her feelings of connection with the landscape, even while acknowledging she will never quite be Hawaiian, even if it is her family’s heritage.

Her interactions with Madame Pele are even more interesting. I’ve seen a lot of characters damaged by magic, like Ingrid, who then drag around for a while until they are magically healed. Magic takes, then it gives back. But that is not what happens for Ingrid, even while she treats with goddesses, qilin, and other forces of nature. Ingrid’s legs are permanently damaged, and no amount of narrative convenience or wishful thinking will heal them. Cy and Fenris work tirelessly to fit her with braces and other helpful apparatuses, but even those that work force Ingrid to adjust to her new physical limitations. Never have stockings been more annoying. In a real way, Ingrid is learning to walk again, even as she’s in a flight, and then fight, for her life and those she loves.

As Ingrid, Cy, and Fenris move through the United Pacific, they encounter and re-encounter people who are pivotal to both their pasts and their futures – everyone from Theodore Roosevelt (recast as ambassador in this reality) to Ingrid and Cy’s fathers, mentors, sisters, and friends. Ingrid has always been a likable character, though her naivete occasionally rankled. That naivete has been dampened by the real limitations she’s encountered, though it never quite goes away entirely. (Ingrid, after all, has been somewhat sheltered.) That naivete – which some would call optimism – is her weakness and her strength, and both are put on full display in Roar of Sky. Roar of Sky is as much the story of empire as it is of one woman, and her journey both within and without.

Review: Novice Dragoneer by E.E. Knight

E. E. Knight returns with Novice Dragoneer, which promises to be the beginning of a rich fantasy series. We first meet Ileth on the doorstop of the Serpentine Academy, where people train to become the companions of dragons. She’s arrived just moments after the gate was barred, but before the end of the day when anyone can apply to the academy. Due to a childhood interaction with a dragoneer, Ileth has been working toward admission to the Serpentine for years, going so far as to run away from her precarious situation in the north. She has nowhere to return to; she has bet everything on admission. And they still don’t let her in. She waits for long days on that doorstop, watching with anticipation as those better connected and more noble than she pass through the gate. At long last, and due to her indefatigable mettle, she’s admitted into the Serpentine Academy.

The focus of the novel is tight on Ileth and her concerns, so we only begin to understand the larger politics at play though glancing and offhand interactions. She’s given the unenviable job of fishmonger at first, under the thumb of a failed novice who has built something of a fiefdom out of cruel treatment. He’s largely the regular kind of self-important jerk, but he’s also glad to heap misogynist punishment on any woman who has the bad fortune to fall under his aegis. Due to a sequence of bad events, Ileth and this fishmonger manager end up in a duel. She wins not due to native or acquired skill, but because he’s bad faith personified, breaking rules that he feels justified breaking because he’s never been taken to task heretofore.

He’s run off in a manner that promises his return eventually, and Ileth is shuffled off to a group of dancer novices. This section of the novel was itchy to me just on principles, even while I enjoyed the intimate nature of Ileth’s relationships during this period. Ileth moves from the girls’ dorm, which is ruled over by an Aunt Lydia sort of person, to a group who dances both for the dragons and for politically important people in the Vale Republic. It’s the kind of group who is, impossibly, both treated like a bunch of whores, and feted everywhere they go. I think the idea of sweaty, dancing women acting as a kind of soporific for dragons is ultimately weird, positioning dragons as a sort of male gaze, even while there is much exclamation to the fact that that’s not the case. This isn’t lingered on too much, which is good, because I could rapidly become both bored and angry with this idea.

But despite this shaky world-building, Ileth’s time in the dancer corps is the most intimately rendered part of the novel. Up until Ileth’s placement with the dancers, dragons were largely theoretical. They are always pulling on the fortunes of those in the academy, even as they remain largely off-screen; here we meet one face to face. They are like gravitational bodies mostly inferred through affect. But when Ileth is assigned a duty way down in the bottom of the keep to dance for an ailing dragon, that’s when the real magic of the novel starts.

Her relationship with the ailing dragon is like her relationship with the Serpentine in miniature. Her great strength is in watchful waiting, which she then turns into resourceful action. She spends much time simply observing the somnolent dragon, then carefully, carefully, begins to work on his behalf. She equally carefully observes the indifferent guards who round out the slim cadre of people on that level, and, like in her work as a fishmonger, divines a corrupt purpose to those who are supposed to care for the ailing dragon. Her conversations with the dragon are some of the more heartfelt of any in Novice Dragoneer, the sly imparting of wisdom from one just about run down but nonetheless full of history, to an ambitious, dedicated, but ultimately naive child on her way to matriculation.

Novice Dragoneer doesn’t so much end as middle. It decidedly has the feel of a novel that is to be a first in a series, laying out the world in a deft but sometimes withholding hand. The tight focus on Ileth’s concerns both gives and takes away, though ultimately I think it’s a good choice. The concept of world-building is one of those contested things, but I find myself much more drawn to fictions that hew to a character’s specific point of view over some scatterdash high level “As you know, Bob” way of building a universe. So not everything worked for me in Novice Dragoneer, but its main character did, completely and emphatically. She was a still and moving point in a complicated world, embodying the paradox of a young person on the edge of matriculation.

I received my copy from Netgalley.com

Review: The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

I first stumbled upon T. Kingfisher not quite knowing what to expect. Or, that’s not precisely true: I stumbled on The Seventh Bride thinking I was going to get one thing — dumb, light romance-adjacent fairy tale retelling — and then what I got was decidedly not that — smart, twisty, disturbing iteration of an already disturbing tale. I mean, most of this misapprehension was on me, because who is going to write a romance-adjacent version of Bluebeard with a straight face, at least that I’m going to run across and then think is a good idea to read. The Seventh Bride was really top shelf stuff, the kind of thing that made me make note of the author’s name. (I’m fairly disastrous with names, so this is a much bigger deal than it might appear.) So I picked up The Twisted Ones on the strength of The Seventh Bride, and I was oh so richly rewarded.The Twisted Ones is the sort of novel that infected my dreams, my evil, eldritch subconscious redressing my nightmares with imagery from the novel because so much of it is horror-adjacent to my own subconscious terrors. Yeesh.

A thirty something woman called Mouse returns to her grandmother’s home in one of the Carolinas to clean it out after her death. Her father, her grandmother’s son, is wasting from one of those unspoken tangle of diseases — maybe cancer with some dementia thrown in — so he doesn’t feel up to emptying his childhood home. Mouse’s grandmother was a hateful old hoarder, and no one much mourns her passing. Nothing about this set up seems a good idea, even to Mouse, who is our rueful, retrospective narrator. She’s constantly breaking in to say: yes, I know how bad this looks, and you’re reading this thinking I should have just cut bait, but that’s not exactly how people work when hip deep in a situation. It might seem a little like meta-textual fuckery, but she’s not wrong. Which is exactly the worst thing about it.

When I was a house painter, I spent a lot of time in people’s homes. Mostly, they were in habitation while I was working, the family mostly off set during the day as they worked or went to school. The house would have a kind of ringing emptiness, so when I was there changing the skin of the house, there was the impression of visitation. Working for hoarders is like this, but also somehow more full. They tend to keep themselves in residence while you work — lest we disrupt the fragile teetering equilibrium — but there’s another presence of the stuff itself. For hoarders, their house and its contents are a memory hoard, and you can feel the weight of that memory as you work in the house.

An anecdote: Due to a tangle of friendships and professional obligations, we worked once for a hoarder in a post-war expansion suburb. We went to pull a permit before we began work, and — I swear this is true — no less than three inspectors manifested, their faces full of thunderous disapproval. She had been in arrears to the city for so long, and so egregiously, that they were about to throw her in jail. My business partner and I did a little softshoe — we’re here to help, not hinder — but they were right sick of her shit, and had little to no faith we could fix anything. You really really have to be fucking up, as a land owner, for the civic system to escalate to that level. Mostly you can do what you want if you own land outright, America being what it is.

We would push into rooms and start the process of beating back mold and powdered plaster. In the afternoon we’d clean up, leaving things empty and drying. When you work in the average person’s home, they don’t want tools and drop cloths set down mid-work, to be picked up in the morning. Something about it is unsettling to homeowners, so we tried to keep a light footprint from the end of one workday and the start of the next. But at the hoarder’s house, we’d return in the morning to find a truly prodigious amount of activity in our absence, as the homeowner busied herself moving the mass of her hoard right into our workspace, trying to cover our disruptive rehabilitation with whatever her shit represented. This did not go well; there was yelling; we eventually cleared it back out.

So Mouse’s project of clearing out a hoarder’s house felt very accurate, to my experience, full up with not just the ghosts of the dead, but the strange fullness of memory and the indefinable tenor of any given person’s stuff. (I’ve also emptied houses after a person’s death or incarceration, and you get this weird sense of a person through their stuff. I have dozens of strange anecdotes that go nowhere about how people live.) Mouse finds a journal, which tries to recreate another journal, which details the supernatural experiences of both journal writers. Again, this could be just preciously meta-textual — a wry commentary on the Gothic novel and its bracketed and embedded narratives — but Mouse’s voice is so authentic, so perfectly pitched, that any literary assholery by me was well and truly disarmed.

Mouse’s voice is so forcefully written — and with such a ringing trueness — that I never questioned why she was staying in this horrific home full up with doll bones and the lingering hatefulness of an old hateful woman — not more than she did. The Twisted Ones reveals the horror slowly, a lapping reveal of the uncanny and the unearthly. The slow reveal is excruciating, the kind of storytelling that reveals the sinister behind the everyday, like the tok tok of what must be woodpeckers, or the almost-not-quite figures in stone. Kingfisher beautifully captures the itchy discomfort that city dwellers feel in the woods — even, and maybe especially, woods we encountered in our muzzy childhoods. She does a nice job with the sort of nosy and judgy experience of being in small towns, but then how such communities will fiercely claim people with even tenuous, distaff relationships in the right circumstances. She draws excellent portraiture of a long-eared dog, whose unflappable dumbassery was an odd comfort in the most horrible moments. All told, an excellent novel, and for sure I’ll be seeking out more of her work.

I received my copy from Netgalley.com

Written in Red by Anne Bishop: Speshal Snowflake Powers Activate

This review slash rumination was written five years ago, before the term “snowflake” took on specific political meaning. Which is to say: now, it’s a slur from conservatives about liberals, slagging them for being thin-skinned or whatever. Back before the current political shitshow, the term “speshal snowflake” had some limited currency out there in the book-o-sphere. It referred to a character who kept mowing down narrative impediments by virtue of inherent awesomeness, a Mary Sue in terms of plot expediency if not eye color. Pretty much all of these terms are now twisted and/or problematic. So, you know, you’re welcome to my anachronistic musings about urban fantasy novels, half a decade too late.

I’m here today, friends, to talk about the Speshal Snowflake. She’s one of those creatures both more ubiquitous and more soul-wearying than vampires, starring in melodramas in multiple subgenres, both fantastic and literary. Like the Mary Sue, who can be either close cousin or indistinguishable doppelganger, the Snowflake can scythe down impediments through sheer narrative invincibility, the hand of the author cradling her against the slings and arrows. She’s the only person that matters; everyone will love her; all will look on her and despair, etc. The Speshal Snowflake is special precisely because we have been told she is so, and anything she does (or does not do, often tellingly) is special on the dint of this telling, both regardless and irrespective of actual, measurable, ethical worth. 

And like the Mary Sue, reactions to the Speshal Snowflake are decidedly gendered. Very rarely, and only in the most egregious of cases, is a male character understood to be either a Mary Sue or a Snowflake. I can’t think of an instance where anyone seriously called Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead a Speshal Snowflake, but it’s all there: complete lack of narrative danger (for Rick), others dying to prove Rick right slash lend gravitas to Rick’s ethical struggles, an almost preternatural ability to fall upwards into leadership roles. I barked out a laugh when Rick was questioned by some nameless Alexandrian in a recent episode, who then got eaten by walkers just moments later. Rick is right because he is right, and the narrative will bend itself around his rightness. Nevermind if it would be well more interesting to see a world where his ethical choices weren’t immediately upheld by the narrative. If the walking dead are like weather, an implacable force that carries no inherent moral force, they they should be ultimately uncaring of any choices anyone makes. No man should be exempt from winds that blow.

But we’re more inclined to call Katniss Everdeen a Snowflake than Rick, even though I feel like their situations and ethical struggles are roughly commensurate in terms of silliness of premise and direness of consequence.The walking dead violate the very laws of physics, and it makes no sense that a teenage girl would be the center of a struggle for empire. Which is I think my point: the walking dead are not weather, they are a narrative device, just as surely as Panem’s ludicrous and impossible political system is a device. Those things aren’t important because story, narrative, is not reality, it is something heightened and purified and concentrated. Let me tell you a tale of people in extremis, and the choices they made. Let us wind up this automaton and let it go. 

These nerds once made relationship maps for things like the Icelandic Sagas and Beowulf, charting how often various characters are in relationship with one another. Beowulf looks like spikes radiating from Beowulf himself, while the Sagas were a complex web of relationship, with no one person in the middle. The Sagas, of course, are based largely in fact, and there is not one particular protagonist of this here world. That a story is about anyone at all, in particular, makes them special.

We are, all of us, the leading role in the story of our lives, and when we slip into the narrative skin of these our avatars, we bring our native self-importance into the mix. We bend to the “I”, because we are the protagonist in our stories unfolding. Which is to say, there isn’t especially anything wrong with the Speshal Snowflake. Every protagonist is going to have more or less Snowflakiness in their crusts because that is how fiction works: this person or persons is more important than all the rest, which is why you’re bothering reading at all. It’s like asking why no one shows people going to the bathroom in movies: because that’s dumb, and it’s not in service to the story. 

Which is not to say that the Speshal Snowflake can’t get irritating. I found Bella Swan cringingly, horrifyingly accurate to my adolescent sense of self-importance and self-involvement — the way she treats her friends is shabby indeed, just as a start — even though the narrative rewarded her constantly for this awful behavior (insofar as anything in Twilight can be understood as a reward). I just fucking squirmed through most of her interactions with her peers, how every single uncharitable instinct of hers was credited, how everyone else’s interior life was that much more legible compared to how complex and inscrutable she is. 

Edward cottons to her precisely because he can’t read her mind, even though we can, and we know. I found this reason for his ardor just hilarious, btw, because literally every boy on earth cannot read my mind, and I certainly didn’t have anyone tripping over themselves to stalk me (more’s the better). There’s something clever about how Meyer sets this up: putting us right in the mind of a boring B+ student of no particular talent, and then making her desirable for something we can all relate to. You know, no one can read my mind either?! And I just got a B+ in English?? We know what she thinks because on some level we thought it as Speshal Snowflakes ourselves, before the world intruded with its elegant and inevitable smackdowns that come in like a thunderstorm as the years tick on. The Speshal Snowflake is someone who has never been confronted with weather, the rain lashing the windows and the electrical wire down on the ground, hissing. 

So. The reason I bring up the Speshal Snowflake is that 100% the protagonist of Written in Red is one. She rolls into town with naught but the clothes on her back, on the run from dangerous figures who are unaccountable to the usual societal systems, and in short order finds herself a job, a place to live, and the protection of otherworldly forces. She heals a boy who was irreparably damaged by the loss of his mother, makes friends with implacable and deadly forces, and almost accidentally works a political system to her favor. She is, in short, everything I should hate in urban fantasy. But I don’t. 

I fairly love her, and her world. The world of Written in Red is something like the one in Charles DeLint’s Newford books, where crows and coyotes and bears shed skins to walk with us humans; or Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, with its profound alt-history of magic and death. We are on another Earth, where humans exist at the largess of creatures terrible in their needs and powers, and as we humans tend to be, we have to be reminded of that fact over and over. I found the perspective of the non-human characters, who think of us a meat, just terrifying, the kind of thing that slipped into my dreams and conjured up nightmares of being hunted and torn. 

Meg Corbyn is a cassandra sangue, a blood prophet, who has been raised as an asset, as a useful source of prophesy for men rich enough to pay for such a thing, and either enrich themselves or feed their predilections. She escapes somehow — no doubt a tale for later books — and ends up in a mid-sized town in the north. Maybe Buffalo, maybe Milwaukee, maybe Minneapolis; big enough to feel more important than farming communities, but too small to really matter (though its residents would never admit it). Another newcomer (and point of view character) is the police officer Monty, who reads like an old school constable, his work more politics and subtle maneuvering than gun handling and force. 

Meg follows a prophesy she had to the inner-city citadel of the Others, where human law does not apply. She’s hoping she can dodge the people who have very real incentive to control her prophesies by hiding behind inhuman monsters. It’s not really much of a plan, admittedly, but she’s been very sheltered. She gets a job as the liaison between the Others and the humans of the city, and most of the plot bops around watching her steps and missteps as she navigates her new life. And it’s here where her Snowflake powers really activate, almost effortless making friends and allies among the Others.

But here’s the thing: I resent Snowflakes that are only so because I have been told they are, characters who are demonstrably terrible people who win only because the author deems it so. (Jamie McGuire writes a ton of these heroines, boy howdy.) I have some reservations about late-period Harry Potter, for example, who gets told over and over that he is good, when a lot of the stuff he does, like the shit with Gringotts and Griphook, is completely indefensible. Completely indefensible, and I will not entertain arguments that say that because Harry is good, nothing he can do is bad.

That is the problem with the Speshal Snowflake: when authors lose sight of moral agency. I would have accepted the sequence with Griphook if there had been any narrative stank on it, an acknowledgement that that was a shite thing to do, but maybe the ethical landscape is more complex than good or bad, that growing up might mean getting dirty. That a lot of evil in the world is done by people acting on what they believe to be the right reasons. That’s not what happens. We are sung a chorus of Harry’s goodness. We will not linger on the sizable number of deaths perpetrated on a poorly understood and sometimes persecuted minority who look a lot like a Jewish stereotype, if you get right down to it. Their lives and deaths do not matter

Phew, I apologize for the freak out; I’ve been saving that one up. That’s not what’s going on here: Meg has very real reasons for why she’s so innocent, why she doesn’t react like normal people to scary, dangerous predators. As a blood prophet, she was kept secluded and helpless. Everything she knows about the real world was through disconnected images and sounds she was taught. If she doesn’t know what a car is, then she can’t describe her visions to the people who control her. At the same token, she can know what a microwave is, but she should not be taught to use one.

Denying her self-sufficiency was a form of social control. That she takes very real delight in learning the simplest of things, like listening to pop music, ischarming, and reminds us readers of the wonder of our everyday lives. I exclaim this quite regularly, but did you know I carry around in my pocket a tiny computer capable of getting me just about any book, movie, or musical recording; it can connect me to others across the globe and on another floor of the house; it can furnish me with information about just about anything. Good god, you guys, it’s like a goddamn science fiction novel. That Meg is fresh and delighted by all the wondrous things we take for granted is no strike against her. 

Her existence as a blood prophet is also very subtly done. She’s been told a lot of things about what that means and how she is, and she only slowly starts to question that received wisdom. It’s not even lingered on, but that Meg very deliberately chooses to live in a place where she has seen a prophesy of her own death, that she doesn’t run from the prophesy, is a very cool detail. This is how a prophet would behave, trusting her own visions, letting them play in the hopes that she could turn the knife, instead of avoiding it altogether,

That the prophesy is accessed through cutting, and that all of the blood prophets are girls, is another fraught detail. The other point of view characters condescend to feel bad for her, assign her the blame for the scars tracing her body, but it’s not as simple as they made me do it or she’s pathological. Especially when we begin to understand the true violence perpetrated on her in the home for girls, when her skin was sold out for the scars it could bear. The potential violence of the Others, which is still often terrifying, has got nothing on the violence she’s already endured. She’s a Speshal Snowflake precisely because she understands weather, and the things worse than weather. 

I’ll admit there were moments when I was like, aw jeez, that’s a little too much. A young woman who plays as clumsy antagonist, working for the people who would get Meg back for her prophetic skin, has baldly stupid motivations that are lingered on far too long. Meg herself mentions another girl in the place she came from, an openly defiant girl, and I wanted to hear way more about her. Reminded me, in a way, of Moira from The Handmaid’s Tale, this bright, angry, dynamic personality who lays in harsh contrast with the almost passive protagonists, the special ones.

(I don’t really have this thunk completely out, but there’s something about those minor characters, the throwaways and half-remembered, who have so much life in them compared to the drear details of the average protagonist, special or not. I have a number of fictions I love precisely because of the minor characters, and though this isn’t exactly that, it’s interesting to me that people can often write the incidental more strongly than the important. Maybe their lack of importance makes them easier to write true.)

Anyway, Written in Red was just delightful to me, the kind of thing gulped down in all the space I could make for it, running to its prophetic conclusion. I thought it dealt beautifully with the trope of the Speshal Snowflake, grounded her right in the background she needed to exist, in the parameters she was given. No, of course, magic doesn’t work, but if it did, this is what it would look like. It would look like the storm on the horizon, the one we can never exactly escape, right up until we batten down, and do.

Review: Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff

I think it’s generally true — though of course there are exceptions — that mystery novels tend to be about a city. The murder is a wound on the body politic, a blister where something imperfect about the social system rubs. The detectives then move through the various socioeconomic layers of the community, and often find submerged and surprising connections between this sub-culture and that, between families, between the powerful and the powerless. The city can be a small town, or a farming community, or a section of a larger metropolis, but mysteries move through a tight geography, the social layers stirred up like blood in water. The old saw is that the personal is political, and the mystery turns this inside out, in the very oldest senses of the words.

The apocalyptic novel, by contrast, tends to be about something bigger than a city: the nation, or, if that schema is too vague and high-level, the region or country. (I mean this last not to mean nation, but more broad area: north country, back country.) The Road is a Western. The Reapers are the Angels and This Dark Earth are both Southern Gothics. Station Eleven details my Northern Midwest. Parable of the Sower moves through California, and also Black America, a region that is not defined by geography, but nonetheless exists. There are dozens of apocalypses that detail that vast region of America — both the cityest of American cities, and a whole microcosm unto itself — New York: the elegiac Zone One, the chilly millennial Severance, the trash poetry of Monster Island. The writer destroys everything they know, and then sets to scrying the bones, throwing them down to see the immutable characteristics in the cant of ash. The apocalypse strips everything down to essentials: Rick Grimes clings imperfectly to his notions of family and the constabulary; Candace Chen hides behind a camera documenting it all for an Internet that’s blinking out; Mark Spitz relies on the law of averages; some found religions; for others, the play’s the thing. Each acts out their most basic instinct, culturally speaking, as they do the needful of water and food and safety.

One of the most pervasive modes of the apocalyptic novel is that of the road trip: if you’re going to get the pulse of the country, you have to cover some ground. During the road trip, the protagonist finds all the signposts marred and twisted, the roads empty and menacing, snarled with cars, overgrown, rotting. During the road trip, the destination is an illusion; worse, in the apocalypse, so is the road. It is here we first meet Orpen of Sarah Davis-Goff’s Last Ones Left Alive: rolling a wheelbarrow through a quietly destroyed Ireland, with a dog called Danger at her side. (This name is occasionally unintentionally comedic.) One of her more uncomfortable parents — her Mam’s Maeve — is in the wheelbarrow, shaking out with sweats and so silent you mistake her for dead. Maybe Orpen talks to her like a superego, like Job’s unhelpful friends in his blackest hour. But she’s not dead: Maeve has been bitten, about to turn into one of the skrake Orpen has been trained to kill her whole life. Orpen holds onto her childhood by keeping Maeve alive; when Maeve turns, something like Orpen’s childhood will have to die.

When I read The Bray House by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, it seemed to me that when the Irish kill their homeland, the result in fiction is more autopsy than spectacle, a long landscape pan instead of a detonation. Ní Dhuibhne nukes Ireland to a hard nuclear crust, and then lays out the debris with a cold hand. (Lord, but her main character is chilly.) The cataclysm in Last Ones Left Alive is similarly remote in time from the events unspooling, and much of the novel is spent detailing an Ireland in a green dishevelment. The events of the novel move forward and back in time from Orpen and her wheelbarrow, moving from her upbringing on the secluded island of Slanbeg off the west coast of Ireland, out onto the mainland and into Orpen’s matriculation. Though there are some interactions with the skrake — zombies in everything but name — it seemed notable to me how quiet this novel was for a zombie novel. In her youth, Orpen — named after the Irish painter best known for his depictions of WWI soldiers — often ditches her mothers to scratch about in the ephemera of that lost world in their island enclave. (She’s especially take by the graffiti and old newspapers referencing the Banshee: a fighting troupe comprised of women only.) Orpen has been raised in a safe kind of danger, drilled fairly mercilessly (especially by Maeve) but still protected from the real dangers of her world. There are no skrake on Slanbeg.

On the mainland, Orpen is pushing east toward the semi-mythical Phoenix City, where maybe her Mam and Maeve were from. (She doesn’t know much more than that; Mam and Maeve were always very closed mouth about where they were from, and why they left. She’s not Maeve’s biological child either way, and both Orpen’s parents drill her in the dangers of men.) She’s got the hyper-vigilance of the traumatized, spooking at every movement and worrying about the sound of the barrow’s squeaking wheel despite her enclosed upbringing. It’s an interesting mix: her safe upbringing that is nonetheless steeped in so much terror that she exhibits the earmarks of post-traumatic stress.

This reminded me of Colson Whitehead’s coinage of PASD — pronounced past — post-apocalyptic stress disorder. This neologism made me smile when I encountered it in Zone One — how clever — but I’m beginning to think it might be a real thing. Last week my son asked me to come out for a “porch talk” — he does this because he can find me smoking and I’m captive — and he burst into tears about the burning Amazon rain forests, the burning arctic, the geologically fast moving apocalypse we can find on the planet right now. I’m not going to be able to grow up and have children, he said to me, as he wept. I tried to soothe him, but I don’t like lying too much: There’s no reason it’s going to be “okay”, that blandest of reassurances, and the global environmental situation is well out of my control. I’d almost welcome just having to drill him in how to kill a reanimated corpse, because that is a concrete and discrete problem in the world: Either you kill or you die, but you don’t linger on in a worsening world, watching your possibilities narrow to ugly survival.

I was always irritated by religious fictions that brought down the conflict between good and evil into a fist fight. (I’m slagging, here, on C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.) It always seemed like a cop out, even though I get the structural satisfaction of just punching evil into the floor. I’m a huge fan of punching Nazis — they fucking deserve it — but no country defeats them by individuals punching them one at a time. But I’m beginning to get why, beyond mere narrative catharsis, we write the apocalypse this way: half a generation past the panic, in a regrowing world swallowing up the vestiges of modernity.

The apocalyptic novel is about a country, not a city. In a city, your interactions with strangers might be colored by ties of consanguinity. I know I play the Name Game whenever I meet someone in Duluth, and though I wasn’t even raised here — my father was — it only takes minutes to find a connection. But the in the country, this won’t work. You’re going to rely on the broader cultural playbook between strangers, the one full up with the subtle gestures only the acculturated will understand. (Of course, those gestures are still going to fail as often as not. The Ireland she was raised in was right there off the coast, but she has never quite lived there. ) So yeah, it’s a fistfight, the kind we find between Orpen and people she finds on the road. It can come down to a fistfight once all the other fights have been lost. There’s something almost comforting about pushing past the world where children despair of a future bleaker than their past into one where everyday survival is a victory.

Davis-Goff is maybe a little too light in her allusions to the larger Ireland Orpen is moving though and into. I wasn’t quite clear how exactly the Banshees fit with both Maeve and Mam, and the ersatz family she encounters on the road. Is Phoenix City a Handmaid’s Tale style nightmare, or its opposite in sensibilities, if not particulars? But whatever, this is fine. Last Ones Left Alive is a credible sounding of the Irish apocalypse. It’s nowhere near as brutal as Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s, but then that’s an impossible standard. The horror of Last Ones Left Alive ends up being a comfort; Orpen abides, like Ireland always has, and in Ireland’s particular way.

Review: Fray by Rowenna Miller

I was ambivalent about Fray’s predecessor, Torn by Rowenna Miller, and I continue to be ambivalent about the Unraveled Kingdom series. I do think that Sophie is in an interesting position in the novel. As a small business owner who has pulled herself out of poverty and now is betrothed to the crown prince, she’s more than capable of rubbing elbows with all manner of folk, if not comfortably, than at least credibly. But I’m less enamored by Sophie’s burgher judginess and almost willful naivete when it comes to effecting change in the brutally unfair government she lives under. She continues to evince a sort of conservative (lower case c) cowardice that I find distasteful.

After the street violence of Torn, Fray opens on the eve of a reform vote. The government of Galitha seems to be a sort of constitutional monarchy, but more in line with 19th Century Russians than 18th Century English. (I don’t say 19th Century English, because Galitha is maybe only at the very beginning of an Industrial Revolution.) By which I mean, the nobility, who make up the governing body, are bloody brutal bastards. A labyrinthine bureaucracy has a stranglehold on most commerce, and both city workers and farm laborers are kept right on the edge of the most abject poverty. The country is a tinderbox, and the ruling class does not comprehend just how much danger there is of the whole thing erupting into very serious violence, despite being given a taste of the edge of that anger at the close of the last novel.

Sophie herself is in a precarious position. Though she began a love affair with the crown prince at the end of Torn, and they are engaged to be married, his family largely ignores her due to her ignoble birth and wrong ethnicity. (Sophie is a member of a persecuted minority, but this mostly feels like window dressing to me. The way it tends to come up is Sophie commenting to herself about her Otherness, and not in constant, casual microagressions in every interaction she has.) Though I did credit her several panic attacks about what marrying into the royal family will do to his standing — she is the type to offload her true anxieties onto other people — I had a hard time believing the royal family of this backwards country would do anything but work him over until he married someone “respectable”. I’m fairly sure that’s what happened between Charles and Diana, and that monarchy is only a figurehead.

Add in the fact that a distaff relative — who happens to be in a committed relationship with another woman — is being severely pressured to marry a man for political reasons, and the world begins to look like its bending to either the needs of the plot, or Sophie, or both. I am always willing to give some latitude for the sake of the story, so this isn’t a cardinal sin, but it could become one with time. Because the other problem is that Sophie regularly and almost compulsively puts the desires of her wealthy friends over her family, her people, and her neighborhood. Her brother — one of the leaders of the resistance — was denied entrance to the university due to class and race, and he has since poured his prodigious talent into tract-writing and rabble-rousing. He’s absolutely not wrong about anything he says about the injustice of the world.

Even though Sophie ostensibly understands what a raw deal he and most of people like them have been given, she’s constantly frustrated by his disquiet. When violence flairs up in the streets, she blames her brother despite the fact that social inequity is everywhere and that anger is *inevitable*. When the reform bill passes, and then Sophie and the crown prince slowly come to the realization that the nobility is slow-walking any true reformation, I was like, oh my god, OF COURSE that’s what they’re doing. Why is this a surprise? Your brother has always and ever been right, you just refuse to hear anything he has to say. Moreover, even the rich assholes pretty much told Sophie and the prince to their faces that they would cripple the reform. Her middle of the road whataboutism is infuriating. Sure, maybe your boyfriend is a good guy, but its clear to me, and everyone else in the country, that the ruling classes are ripe for having their heads separated from their necks.

But! Then the book will mess with Sophie her bougie preconceptions, so I end up being on the hook for more. I keep hoping for a big SYKE! turns out Sophie is a revolutionary! moment, but then the alternative might be more interesting: a portrait of someone, who, like the rest of us, worries about the news of babies in cages and hopes for incremental change, but can’t be arsed to actually do anything but worry. Shudder. That’s a horror story right there.

Review: Wolf Rain by Nalini Singh

In the third of Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling Trinity novels, Wolf Rain, she returns to origins: back to the Sierra Nevada region where the SnowDancer pack of Changeling wolves rules. The previous two novels – Silver Silence, which takes place in the Changeling bear packs of Russia and Ocean Light, which explored the secretive BlackSea pack of water changelings – struck out into unexplored groups and places to uneven results. Ocean Light especially felt like it was lacking, so it feels like a good move to head back to familiar ground. We know a lot of people in SnowDancer, and when we ran into them, mostly they weren’t just hanging around canoodling and being sooooo in lurrrrrve, which I find happens often in romance sequels. This always sets my teeth.

The novel kicks off with emotionally isolated SnowDancer lieutenant Alexei (whom I’m fairly sure has popped up before in previous novels?) following an anguished psychic broadcast in the middle of nowhere SnowDancer territory. He finds a hatch to a bunker inside a cave, and inside the bunker he finds a Psy woman (named Memory) grieving over her dead cat. They gtfo of there, with Alexei provoking the Psy to anger to keep her moving. He identifies her as an E, the empathic designation, which she balks at: she has an affinity with monsters, in her mind. She nonetheless submits to interviews with such talents as Sascha Duncan, a cardinal E and shield technician, and sets up residence with other Es in the SnowDancer territory.

Since childhood, Memory has been in the clutches of one of those psychopath villains Silence produced in batches since she was maybe eight or nine. Silence, a widespread form of social conditioning used by the Psy for several generations to remove all emotion, has fallen, but the Psy, and by extension Memory, are on a long road to wellness. In some ways, her arc is one of the entire race, post-Silence, a road map out of the recrimination and self-loathing that comes from discarding Silence. The E-built “honeycomb” is fine and all, but they cannot be doing all of the emotional work for the entire race. Wolf Rain addresses head on the problems the Psy face in a post-Silence world, and is probably more mythology-heavy than its predecessors, which I count as a good thing.

Alexei’s trajectory is maybe less interesting, but then I’m just way less into Changeling psychology in general, so it could be me. I find the whole predatory dominant thing – which Alexei embodies to a T – rather tiresome, and the whole “mate for life” trope endlessly frustrating. A biologically based unbreakable bond absolutely destroys any real emotional agency. People have vastly different emotional makeups, and even worse, one’s character changes over time. I don’t get how “mate for life” isn’t anything but an emotional prison when two people bond in their 20s, and then get tethered to one another permanently despite divergent interests and concerns as they age.

Moreover, both mate-bonding and pack-bonding lends the Changelings a form of emotional perfection that can really mar any story that relies on emotional growth. They’re often cast as incapable of hurting children or bullying others, which makes them hard to relate to, and limits their emotional range. (I mean, that may be the ultimate thrust of the series, in a way: the Psy, who are all too capable of horrific abuse must learn from the Changelings, who are almost constitutionally incapable of it. They’re aspects of humanity split out, and the series finds them coming back together.) Alexei’s experiences actually calls some of this Changeling bonding stuff into question; just because two people are mated, doesn’t mean things can’t go horribly, horribly wrong. I still have my reservations, but some of my issues are addressed, and credibly.

Memory’s experience as a sub-designation E mirrors Alexei’s grapplings with the Changeling emotional makeup. Though (of course) her self-image was completely twisted by her Psy captor, she’s still not like the other Es we’ve met, who are stereotypically soft and feminine, true nurturers and providers. Memory is made out of anger and vengeance; it is what got her through her captivity. She is willing to cut a bitch if a bitch needs cutting. I really, really like the idea of an empath who is sensitive to the darker registers of the human emotional experience. It’s more neatly dealt with in Wolf Rain than I would prefer, but that it’s acknowledged at all is aces.

So far, the Psy-Changeling Trinity novels have been slightly shaky, but Wolf Rain gets back to basics in a satisfying way.

I received my copy from Netgalley.

Book Review: Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

History is weird, right? I mean, our lives and actions pass through this lens of the now, and then are magically transmuted into then, and rendered both complete and imperfect, all by the passage of immaterial time. Complete because it is over and done; imperfect because it’s not-whole, artefacted, metonymous. One of the oddest sensations I can think of is that overpowering feeling of “No, no, this can’t have happened this way; there must be a way of wishing this away,” when I screw something up. Not just kind of screw up, but screw up in that soul-rending way; the regretful way. Yeah, yeah, I know one shouldn’t wallow in regret, and we learn best from our mistakes, and all that cheerful shit, but sometimes being confronted by the sheer thickness of my own skull can be mortifying enough to wish for time travel. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, may you live long enough to plumb the depths of your own thoughtlessness. I mean this in the best possible way. 

My grandfather suffered from senior dementia in the last decade of his life, and we first knew something was wrong when he began telling stories about WWII. He was doctor attached to the Marine Raiders in the South Pacific, and due to his temperament and generation, he never much talked about the things he saw during the war. But before the stories vanished into the cruel forgetting of senility, they shook loose and came pouring out of him. We learned about several brushes with death, the insanity and shelling, the bad times and panic. We also learned about good things: the Australian doctor he befriended; the times he spent at the other doctor’s farm which reminded him of the Iowa farming community where he was raised. He said he loved Australia so much that he would have moved the family there after the war, had his elderly father not been living and in need of care. I never knew this, and it kind of blew my mind: how many times he nearly died; how if the wheel had been spun differently, my grandma would have been a widow with a war baby, or if he had lived and they had moved, there’d be an Australian not-Ceridwen, the daughter of my father but not my mother. 

I know, I know, this sort of musing is somewhere near the pinnacle of self-involvement, a personal strong anthropic principle. But I think this sort of thinking can be found in the unconscious assumptions that underpin all manner of historiographies. Is history long or short? Does it cycle, pulse, or is it flat like ticker tape? Are we at the end of days, or the beginning, or is that the wrong answer to the wrong questions? I’m fascinated by how many religions have a get-me-out-of-history lesson as their central idea: the Hindus and Buddhists are both trying to get out of the cycle of rebirth, but they disagree as to methods; the eschatological Christians viewing the world as a giant Rube-Goldberg-like device: if we can just move these people here and those people there, then Christ will return and end history. What’s up with this? I mean, sure, life sucks, except for when it’s insanely cool. Why do we make historical suicide sacred? But I’ve pined for the screw-up changing time-machine, so I guess I get it. 

So, wait, what the heck am I talking about? I haven’t even started talking about The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’m so completely suffused with love and admiration for this book that I feel and dreamy and half-lit. (I mean that both in the inebriated sense and the illuminated sense.) Several people recommended this book to me after I freaked out about how awesome plague narratives were. While this book peripherally deals with the Black Plague, in that the story is a thought experiment that resets history when the 14th Century plague wipes out almost all of the population of Europe, instead of only (only) the 30-50% most historians estimate. Did you know that the population of Europe, didn’t rebound to pre-plague levels until well into the 1800s? This is in the real world, not the world of the book. Although, man, I feel mind-blown enough to see that both histories are constructed, our internalized values of historiography subtly or not so subtly influencing what we accept as real, as fact, or as important. Do you know what I mean? 

I’ve been reading a fair amount of alternate history, authors re-spinning the wheel to different results: what if? what if? I haven’t quite figured out what all this messing with history is about in contemporary lit, but I bet it’s related to magical realism in some way. Magical realism has often re-told personal, familial, and national histories with the metaphors made manifest; the alternate history folks seem to be doing something similar, sort of. I haven’t figured it out yet. (Hey, let me know if you have any ideas.) Sometimes this spinning is comic, sometimes an excuse for some ass-kicking. How do events inform ideas? If there was no European history, it if bled out into ruins and bleached bones, who would Galileo be? Are we going to go down the ugly road of European superiority, and claim that medicine, technology, electricity, modernity, all the shit by which we measure progress, could only be developed by Christians/Europeans? Spin the wheel again: who makes contact with the New World? 

So, okay, this sounds super boring I bet. This sounds like a droning history class. Then the so-and-sos did this, then they did that. This is not how this book is. It’s grounded in character, written in really lovely language, moving and real and determined not to fall for the easy answers. It’s a frame narrative, using the form that Boccaccio developed in the 14th C to tell his own story of plague and history: the Decameron. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this particular frame before, which is kind of interesting, because once you say it out loud, it seems too obvious: it follows the same collection of souls who are reincarnated together in the 700 hundred years since the plague.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the whole concept of reincarnation makes me itchy. I mean, gah, how can be be understood to be ourselves when we’re someone else? Also, I hate the whole idea that we’re here to “learn something” in each life, plunked into a hierarchy of being that strikes me as insanely arbitrary. No, strike that, arbitrary would be better. Men above women; human above animal; the rich above the poor. But, don’t listen to me. Pretty much the Buddha has already articulated all these ideas to better and more poetic effect. This is the way I would put it: fuck your dharma. (That’s one for embroidering on a pillow, I tell you what.) Dharma is playing the shitty hand you’ve been dealt with a smile, because them’s the rules. And what bastard made those rules? Don’t ask! Does a dog have Buddha nature? Well, you get to find out. (Or like the character in the book who has my same problem with dharma: tiger nature.)

That’s why this book is so awesome: it is discomforted by its own frame narrative. “Oh Gods, I’m so sorry,” it says, as it reincarnates an African eunuch into a Hawaiian girl. There are no ridiculous birthmarks that endure from incarnation to incarnation; the names don’t start with the same letter; none of that cheating literary bullshit. Robinson rolls the threads of continuity between one character and the next using, and I know this is avant garde, compelling characterization and culturally specific signifiers. Hard to believe, I know. There’s other awesomeness as well: a sensitivity to women’s history, poetry written for the novel that Robinson need not be embarrassed by, unlike many novelists who dabble in poetry, and remarkable restraint when it comes to exposition. 

I’ll complain a bit, just to let you know I haven’t been paid off or something: the section that deals with the peoples of the New World is totally weak. I was kind of obsessed with the history of Native America for a while, and one of the reasons we have this idea of indigenous Americans chilling in the empty forest passing the peace pipe around is that Old World diseases wiped out as much as 90% of the population of North America before the people of the interior even knew the anglos were coming. Talk about your plague narratives. There was enormous upheaval going on, before whitey showed up to pass around beads and smallpox blankets, and the groups that we like to think of as static from time immemorial were either the remnants of larger groups who synthesized based on similar languages, like the Catawba, or wholly remade by the introduction of new technologies, like the Lakota/Dakota/Sioux. But whatever, I have an embarrassing lack of knowledge about the histories of the Muslim and Chinese worlds, so I’ll let Robinson slide on his rosy portrait of the decimated and traumatized cultures that peopled this fair continent in the century after Contact. But measles lacks ideology; I don’t care who passed it who the New World first. 

I’m trying to figure out how to wrap up; a regular problem for me. I’m no good at plot, as I’ve been told before. Maybe because of this, I like when novels are open-ended. There’s nothing wrong with a puzzle-box: the plots that snick and fold into the origami of meaning. But novelists that capture the zig-zag-whatever of the way my life is actually lived, without being boring or lazy, are often my favorites. So there’s this, from about halfway through the novel, when the reincarnated group, the jati, have just been cut down uselessly by an outbreak of plague. They sit, huddled and demoralized, waiting for their next incarnations:

“Looking back down the vale of the ages at the endless recurrence of their reincarnation, before they were forced to drink their vial of forgetting and all became obscure to them again, they could see no pattern at all to their efforts; if the gods had a plan, or even a set of procedures, if the long train of transmigrations was supposed to add up to anything, if it was not just mindless repetition, time itself nothing but a succession of chaoses, no one could discern it; and the story of their transmigrations, rather than being a narrative without death, as the first experiences of reincarnation perhaps seemed to suggest, had become a veritable charnel house. Why read on? Why pick up their book from the far wall where it had been thrown away in disgust and pain, and read on? Why submit to such cruelty, such bad karma, such bad plotting?

The reason is simple: these things happened. They happened countless times, just like this. The oceans are salt with our tears. No one can deny that these things happened.”


Kim Stanley Robinson, Years of Rice and Salt

I can’t deny it, mired in my own chaoses, subject to the bad plotting of my own life and unrelenting happenstance. I happen, and I continue to happen in this seemingly random way; a way that occasionally, just occasionally points to greater meaning even while it dissolves on closer inspection. I’m not one for big philosophies; I don’t have an overarching theory of history and the world that can account for our cosmic obscurity balanced against individual self-importance. Neither does Robinson, bless his soul. 

Book Review: Perfunctory Affection by Kim Harrison

Sometimes I feel out of step with other readers. I thought THE DRAFTER and its sequel were both excellent novels. The mid-apocalyptic Detroit setting was well detailed. The characters' backstories came out organically as the reader's understanding of the world deepened (and the reader's experience mirrored the protagonist's confusion, at least in the first one.) Also, drafting was just a cool concept, and spy drafters even better. Alas, I felt like those things were absent in PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION. The setting is an indistinct college town in Anywhere, USA, and the mechanics of the magic at play here are rote. Worse, I didn't feel much from or about the characters either.  

PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION starts in medias res as a woman, Meg, barrels down a road in her car, castigating herself for trusting various people. She gets into an accident (which reminds her, briefly, of an older accident that ended in blood on the road) after a man jumps in front of her car. They argue, then we jump back 3 days, and begin following Meg through her day. First stop is to her psychiatrist, who appears to be helping her through social anxiety and agoraphobia, stemming from the death of her mother and a brutal car accident. Meg is put on a new highly experimental drug called Fitrecepon (hint: anagram solvers are a thing) and then sent out into the world. Meg is to keep a diary and watch for paranoia and changes in diet and sleep patterns.

Which is where I run into my first set of problems. From here, Meg goes out and spontaneously makes friends with a visiting professor (Meg is an art teacher, apparently), at which point they become joined at the hip and spend the entire weekend together with escalating intimacy. I think Meg's weird toad-eating and subservience to her new friend Haley is right in line with her dismal self esteem and her fervent desire to overcome her anxiety. I think she also would be hungry for a drug to be a magic bullet, which is how she treats it, even after Dr. Jillium's warnings. But Dr. Jillium should have her license revoked for how she handles a highly experimental drug (which is apparently not even in trials, it's so experimental, which is not how any of that works.)

My mother's best friend has cancer, and last month they decided to try a new chemo drug on her. She went into the office and was hooked up to the rig, where they pushed a few secondary drugs first. Then they hung the bag with the drug in it. Jay watched the drug run down the tube to her hand, and the moment the drug hit her bloodstream, she went into anaphylactic shock. They had to do the whole Pulp Fiction epi pen to the heart thing right there as her husband watched on in horror. This and other terrible side effects of, really, any drug are always possibilities; ask me about how contrast dye makes my body break out in hives! When Meg blows off keeping a diary of the effects of the drug, that should have been the end of it, right there, day one.

The opening bit also blows any sense of creeping dread we may feel. Haley, Haley's roommate, Meg's boyfriend, Austen: they are all under suspicion by the reader, which made me read a lot closer for tells and slip-ups by the characters. Of course Haley and her friend-boy are not to be trusted; we have that knowledge from the first. Meg's escalating paranoia about Jillium and Austen reads exactly like a side effect, which no one seems to see but the reader. That all is not right with Meg's sense of what is real and what isn't is telegraphed so loudly that I had the twist figured well before it hit. While I don't think that's a bad thing in all instances -- sometimes the tension between what the reader knows and the characters do can be a cool effect -- in this case it made me skim a bit until I could get to where Meg catches up.

I don't want to land too hard here. This may come off as a bitchy thing to say, though I don't mean it that way, but PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION is readable as hell, and I was halfway through before my brain started screaming about Dr. Jillium. The novel moves along at such a fast clip that I didn't have any time to start nitpicking, and even when I started, I was compelled to read to the end. I am not in any way a completist, and abandon at least half the books I start. Meg's genuine rush at overcoming some of her anxiety is well rendered, and I think in general her mental illness is dealt with sensitively (though I'm a little unsure about that ending.)

So, on the balance PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION was a nice read on a Sunday, but I just didn't think it was up to the quality of THE DRAFTER, which of course no one read because the world is deeply unfair. The cover is also aces.


I received my copy from Netgalley.

We go a-viking: The Long Ships

Original review, posted April 2012

So, this isn’t entirely a drunk book review, but it’s also not entirely sober. As such, I know I’m not going to bother checking my references and making sure I’m not making stuff up, so fair warning. 

Which is the thing. The Long Ships was written by a Swede (or possibly a Norwegian or a Dane) in the run-up to the second world war, drawing on his fiercely academic background in Old German/English/Norse semi-oral histories, stuff like the Icelandic Sagas, the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, etc. Unlike certain crunchy Oxford dons I can think of, Bengtsson has a super sly sense of humor. He’s not trying to build an Anglo-Saxon mythology that works with his Christian ret-con. Seriously, why I am being so coy here? What I am trying to say is that Bengtsson and J.R.R. Tolkien were both writing at the same time, using the same source materials as their guide posts, but they came home with some seriously different narratives. That Bengtsson is in the dust bin of history, and Tolkien is wherever he is with his name recognition, I can’t say what that means. Something. 

Whatever, moving on. 

So, The Long Ships? I’m again not going to look this up, but I think that Michael Chabon in the introduction called this the “last Victorian novel”. Which is, like, super overheated blurb-fodder, but I get what he was at. There’s something un-psychological un-Modern here. These characters are all recognizably human, and they certainly have their thoughts and motivations, but there’s something charmingly without hand-wringing and deeper purpose in terms of The Psyche here. People are what they are, and things happen, and sometimes these things have anything to do with each other, but mostly they don’t. Plot isn’t discovery; it’s shit that happens. 

Which, can we talk about narrator for a minute? I’ve been reading myself some Anglo-Saxon poetry, and I loves how snide they are. The Beowulf narrator can’t help, when he’s introducing some dude he hates, but warn us that the dude he hates is going to slip on banana peels in the third act and die or worse. He’s gonna get it! But watch him be a jackass now so you can savor it when the banana peels rear up under his heels. The narrator here isn’t as entirely intrusive, but he’s going to let you know that while Orm is rowing as a galley slave, that Orm will get out of it in the end, and it’ll make a good story, don’t worry. And it totally does. This is all good story. 

So, wait, plot? Orm Somethingson leaves his home to go a-viking, gets screwed almost immediately, and in a series of reversals of fortune, ends up as a soldier in Muslim Spain. They he bails and heads back to England/Ireland/Scandinavia, where some stuff happens, mostly involving the Christianization of that area. The first section – and, apparently, this was published as two discrete novels back in the day – is much more rip-roaring, trotting all over Europe, meeting up with Jews and Muslims and Christians, holding turn of the first millennium convos about how god(s) work, getting laid, and plundering booty. Which, fuck yeah. It’s like what Skye O’Malley would have been if that didn’t suck rocks. And donkey balls. Almost literally. 

Book two, or the second section, this was tougher sledding for me. Orm converts to Christianity, and although his conversion is super funny – he’s part of a Viking mission that has England by the short and curlies, and the English king is this total cowardly dork, and I’m not going into it more, because, boring for you – the parts where Orm bolts down in Scandowhereveria and has some babies and fights with his neighbors….zzzzz. Or not entirely zzzzz, but it lacks that broad-stroke of the first section, and as an early second millennium reader, I give Christian converts the stink eye. There’s no fanatic like a convert, as my mother likes to say, though that’s not exactly what happens here. Orm isn’t above beating the holy spirit into folk, which is funny, and his theology, when it runs at odds with the priests’, is sweetly pragmatic. But then we go a-viking again! Boo-yah! There’s not lot of danger here, in the sense that the narrator is warning you that everything will turn out all right, and then it does! Squee! Go Orm and all of his descendants!

And now, off topic. Again, according to sources I am not looking up, Bengtsson refused to let the Nazis publish his books under their occupation (must have been Sweden?) and use them as propaganda. Which, interestingly, nor did Tolkien allow the Allies to use Middle Earth as a propaganda tool.* (Which I’m also not looking up, but I’m fairly sure it’s true. Jesus, can you imagine how effective propaganda based on his sort of Teutonic Christianity would have been? Shudder.) I mean, we probably would have forgiven Tolkien in hindsight, should he engage in propaganda for the winning (and non-Nazi, in all fairness) side, but, interestingly, I think Bengtsson’s work is less suited to propaganda. Orm is living in a much more pluralistic society than Middle Earth, regardless of the varying versions of Western Christian societies that peopled that realm: Rohan, Gondor, The Shire. (Which can be read as Anglo-Saxons, Renaissance Italians, and the bucolic English.) Orm’s latent paganism is all over everything he does, even when embraces the True Faith and all that. Orm abides. Dude. 

An interesting book, and I’m glad I’ve read it, although I’m not going to say it wasn’t trying at times. I’m still not through worrying the idea that this is a Victorian novel, because I’m pretty sure that’s wrong, but I’m not sure how to articulate why. Certainly this is no psychological journey, Freud’s grubby hand-prints all over the action and its meaning. But it’s not sentimental either, which I think you can see heaped in huge flowering beds all over (some) Victorian novels. There’s no moral to the story. No coda. No gloss. So I think I’m going to call bullshit on this being a Victorian novel. I can’t say this is Modernist or post-Modernist or anything else though, which makes it incredibly cool and weird. 

Also, there’s a lot of beards. If you like beards, this is for you. Beardo.

 

*Update, Jan 2015:

Not long after I wrote this, I realized my little tossed off comment about Tolkien and WWII propaganda cannot be true: Lord of the Rings wasn’t published into the early 1950s, though of course it was written during the War, and most certainly drew upon JRRT’s experiences in the previous world war. (What exactly that influence is, you may quibble amongst yourselves.  For sure the Dead Marshes, at the very least, are a WWI reference, as is much of the relationship between Sam and Frodo.)

In the interest of fact-checking previous drunken me’s assertions — I know I must have read somewhere about how Tolkien managed the political application of his Middle Earth, as far as he was able — I googled “Tolkien propaganda”. I got a lot of stuff in German and some other blather. Not looking too closely, I clicked on a link called “Tolkien, his Dwarves, and the Jews”. I’m reading through, getting more and more worried by the antisemitic tone of this thing, when I realize I’m on a white supremacist message board. Ye gads! What the actual fuck!? Get me out of here!!!1!

After nuking my browser and clearing any and all fucking cookies, I can’t quote exactly what these shitheels were saying, but suffice it to say it’s not good. They quote Tolkien saying that the dwarves were modeled after Jews, which surprises the white supremacist. Don’t the dwarves have honor and stuff? And Jews obviously do not, etc, gag. If indeed Tolkien modeled dwarves after Jews — which I don’t find hard to believe, shitty source notwithstanding — then there are a number of troubling implications of this equation.

I’ll try not to get too nerdy here, but let’s just realize how far down the nerd hole we are already. So, basically, Middle Earth is a religious cosmology — we won’t say allegory — in which the main deity, Eru Ilúvatar, creates the races of Elves and Men. The race of Dwarves is created by a demi-god — a sort of Hephaestian character — called Aulë. As such, they’re lesser order beings, imperfect copies of perfect creations. Like Ents or Orcs, who were also created by beings other than Eru Ilúvatar, they struggle with sterility and a bent towards beastliness, tending back to the non-sentient animism of their origin. Eru Ilúvatar eventually gives the Dwarves sapience, but this doesn’t really overturn their origins. Which is why the equation of Dwarves with the Jews is…let’s just use the bullshit term “problematic”.

I’m losing my point here, and mostly I’m just freaking out at Tolkien being used by violent racists to bolster their cause. Oh, I know what my point was! It’s one of those old hoary chestnuts of criticism that “you can’t judge literature from the past with the sensibilities of the present argle bargle”. To which I say, bullshit. I can do anything I want, motherfucker, and if what I want to do is decide that Tolkien’s “races” are treading dangerously close to racial biological determinism and its attendant social violence, then I can do that in the privacy of my own home. And I mos def have both the textual and extra-textual evidence to back that up. It’s not like I’m making shit up; even the white supremacists see it.

But! This determination is a slightly different thing than using Tolkien — or any other writer — and his (admittedly historically determined) blindspots and straight up prejudices as propaganda in perpetuating such diseased worldviews. There is a lot I love about Tolkien, from his shitty poetry to his linguistic ardor for English and a half a dozen other dead languages, but this 1) doesn’t make me blind to his failings and 2) doesn’t mean if I love the baby I need to drink the bathwater. After the LotR movies came out, a bunch of the actors, of myriad political inclinations, came out with various “Tolkien said this or that about politics” statements. To which I say, who gives a shit? I don’t base my political opinions on what my racist great-uncle said about the War, or Jews, or whatever — and dude said plenty, I assure you, and it was all awful — and I’m not going to base my opinions on someone else’s great-uncle either, even if I love his poetry. The personal is the political, sure, but not the other way around.