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

History and Historical Romance: It Started With a Scandal by Julie Anne Long

I tend to get all breathless and twitterpated when I discover a new historical romance writer I enjoy, sending out profligate hold requests at the library. That was the case with Julie Anne Long, whose Lady Derring Takes a Lover was so beautifully choleric on the ingrained sexism of the time, and features a found family plot and exquisitely rendered female relationships. I maybe don’t need to say this, but I will anyway: as much I enjoy a historical, the baked in acceptance of social norms which are, to put mildly, antique, and to put more specifically, fucked beyond the telling of it, makes me often quite itchy while I read. Lady Derring was a salve.

This is figleafed in ur average historical romance: industrialists are all, to a man, fair minded and generous, having acquired their fortunes without being the rapacious monsters they all, to a man, were. The aristocrats — the dukes and earls and the like — may have daddy issues, struggling under the injurious regard of their Old Testament fathers, but these paternal and paternalistic dinosaurs are emblematic of an outdated mode of lording over great swaths of land and hundreds, maybe thousands of people. These new sons are embodiments of a New Aristocracy, one that views its marriages as meritocracies, the perfect embodiment of noblesse oblige. 

I was just reading one recently where the industrialist romantic lead mentioned offhand his ownership of cotton mills, and my mind leapt right to tour of Lowell, MA I took some years ago. Lowell is a locus of both early American industrialization, and the inevitable labor movements that follow once people grow weary of being ground down by engines, spitted by the spearpoint of progress. (It is also the hometown of Jack Kerouac.) That’s the problem with historicals: they are inescapably based on history, which features a boot on a throat in one permutation or another for as far back as one can manage.  

So, the endgame of this little sermonette was some dissatisfaction with It Started With a Scandal. On every objective metric, this is a fine novel, with excellent characterization, smooth pacing, and well drawn sexual tension. Long is a smart, interesting writer, and I will continue to read the shit out of her back catalog. However, I was never quite able to get over the fact that our romantic lead was a prince of Burgundy or Bourbon or somesuch, a French aristocrat who fled France during the Revolution. He’s very put out by the fact that his ancestral lands are not in his family’s possession anymore, and spends much time glowering and throwing vases in fits of pique. The leading lady, his housekeeper, vouchsafes to feel bad for him quite enormously. She is herself just weeks from penury — she and her child — so she knows what it is to lose things. 

To which I say: bah. The French aristocracy deserved to have their heads separated from their necks. They were indolent, greedy, dissolute shits whose venality resulted in the abject poverty and misery of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people. So boo fucking hoo about getting run out of the country where our hero was born into incredible wealth and privilege. (I may have my back up after seeing some billionaire — there are only 600 or so in America, a listable group of people — literally crying on television because someone might tax him commensurate with his wealth. Meanwhile millions of Americans go bankrupt or just fucking die due to a medical insurance system designed to maximize profits at a brutal human cost. Fuck, and I can’t stress this enough, every single billionaire.) 

I am aware of, and engage in quite happily, the sort of historical blindness required to enjoy a historical romance. I am not going to nitpick inconsistencies unless they are egregious and/or not in service of the final resolution. But sometimes I’m in my own place in history, where I cannot unsee the parallels to current, ongoing, often fatal injustices in the world. I am not going to waste time feeling bad for people who have had everything and then some given to them by accident of birth who, just occasionally, feel thwarted in their every impulse. Our heroine’s soft-heartedness looks soft-headed.

I’ve said this before, but I’m going to repeat it: every romance has the echoes of a less satisfactory conclusion embedded within it. Without the invisible authorial hand, our housekeeper’s life would end in brutal poverty, discarded by a “polite” society predicated on systematic exploitation. Mostly I’m satisfied with these romantic revisions — that is the point of a historical romance novel, n’est-ce pas? I can and do acknowledge this freakout is largely on me — I do not want to enbussen Long, who seems a very fine writer, because of a personal convergence of things. But sometimes I just can’t. The romantic conclusion ends up seeming such a petty, priapic thing, the tumescence of love blotting out all impediments to our lovers, even the important, necessary, and structural ones. 

Probably I should just back way from historical romance for the time being, library holds notwithstanding, until some improbable time when our brutal history is less brutal. I’ll be busy holding my breath. 

I Knight Thee Good Fun: Alyssa Cole’s Reluctant Royals Series

I started reading Alyssa Cole a few years ago. I think I saw her name on a list of women of color writing contemporary romance, and given how tragically white much romance is, I thought I should give her a shot. I read her Off the Grid series, which, in addition to being both science fictional and post-apocalyptic (these things are not necessarily the same things, a distinction I’m happy to fight about), also include a gay romance and one with an Asian dude as the hottie, neither of which are necessarily standard in contemporary romance. Additionally, the apocalypse in those novels is a Carrington Event, which is one of my favorite apocalypses. (Yes, I have favorite apocalypses.) Oh, and Cole is clearly a nerd and a geek, and she is not afraid of some pop cultural jokes or meticulous research. Really good stuff.

I didn’t read more, at the time, because I’m, like, not as interested in modern day princess stories, and Reluctant Royals was what was popping up as read-next. (Cole also has a historical romance series, but I’m not sure the first had been published when I picked up Duke by Default.) I tend to get all pissy about the whole rubber-necking industry that has grown up around the English royal family. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that I grew up in the Anglican Church, which is peopled, unsurprisingly, with a fucktonne of anglophiles. Like, commemorative plate style anglophiles, so simultaneously snotty and trashy, which is a neat trick.

But also: I once went regularly to this open mic at an Irish bar run by a Welshman, and there was this woman who showed up regularly in full on tartan explosion. (Yes, I recognize that’s all very Celticly confused, but this is America; none of this stuff has any meaning). She tended to sit in the booth behind mine, and we were nodding acquaintances. She drove me absolutely fucking bananas with her bullshit.

See, she claimed to be some sort of Scottish royalty, like maybe not a duchess, exactly, but more like a countess? Honestly, I find it hard to give a fig about titles so none of that stuff is going to track for me. (This isn’t really getting into the retconning of the Scottish royalty, especially after the Battle of Colloden which put down the Jacobite rebellion and lead to the Highland Clearances. After the English depopulated Scotland of anyone who might complain, they went in and prettied up the Scottish clan system, which heretofore had been families of cattle thieves who tended to dress alike, but otherwise wasn’t codified. All that tartan stuff is nonsense.) Anyway, she had this younger dude who liked to do sweeping bows and a bunch of hand-kissing, probably because he spent too much time at the Ren Fest. Once, he tried to drag me into it, and I was like, sorry, I live in a representational democracy* which threw over a monarchy for a reason.** I have zero interest in kowtowing to someone because of who their grandparents are.

There was a record scratch noise and some people got pissed at me for being a buzzkill, which I admit I was being. But also fuck royalty. Some of my people were hapless drunks, others were fleeing various wars, some just hated their hometowns. I feel neither pride nor shame about my ancestors; they were just people: good, bad, and indifferent.

Point being, I have something of a chip when it comes to the concept of hereditary monarchy. Sure, fine, if they’re figureheads like in Denmark (though I’m still not bowing and scraping), but actual ruling dynasties like the al Saud family are monsters, as one recently brutally murdered journalist could attest if he hadn’t been dismembered and murdered, not exactly in that order. Which is to say, I’m a fucking crank about a little subgenre of romance novels with lighthearted wish fulfillment about being a princess.

I recognize I have issues.

So, it came as something of a surprise when I actually earnestly enjoyed Duke by Default. Cole dives right into the class issues of the peerage, and doesn’t cut those assholes any slack. Her Duke character is actually the child of a Scottish Duke and a refugee, raised by a step-father and with half siblings who are straight up black. He’s not some ponce, and more’s the better. Oh, and his love interest is coming to terms with an ADHD diagnosis, which was sensitively written. All told, well done. 

Princess in Theory, I was less enamored of, but it’s still a good read. (Note: I read these books out of order.) The main character, who has aged out of the American foster care system and is struggling to make it in the STEM field as a black woman of no means, was a fucking great character. Prince what’s his face from an imaginary African country, him I did not like as much. (Sure, some of this is intentional: he’s to have a redemption arc from being a rich dickhead to monarch with a heart of gold. But I just couldn’t get fully on board, though of course some of this is my aforementioned issues. And Princess in Theory is still a well written novel with an admirable heroine, so do not credit my bitching too much.

Anyway! So, one which didn’t work so great for me (due mostly to me), and one which knocked it out the park. I would totally read number three, A Prince on Paper, once I’m back in the mood for smart contemporary romance. Alyssa Cole is pretty great.

*Snort; as if.

**Actually a lot of those reasons were shitty and self-serving, George III notwithstanding.

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.

Review: Ocean Light by Nalini Singh

This was originally written in July 2018.

If I believed in such a thing, the Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh would be a “guilty pleasure.” While I don’t believe in feeling bad for reading enormously successful and interesting books – that’s ridiculous – there are aspects of the series that nonetheless make me me feel kinda embarrassed. Any romance involving one of the changelings – and they are always predatory changelings – is so hopelessly mired in kinky Victorian notions of biological determinism and dominance and submission. I mean, that’s usually what you find in animal shifter narratives, so Psy-Changeling isn’t outside the norm, but I know I’m going to have to grit my teeth through that stuff to get to the extremely cool mythology she’s been spinning for almost 20 novels now. (I don’t have the same problem with the Psy, who are Vulcan-like psychics, because their romances tend to center around recovery from severe abuse and personal sexual awakening, which I find much more interesting than YOU MAH WOMAN GRARR.)

Technically, Psy-Changeling wrapped up with Allegiance of Honor, which was a sort of clip show, where we checked back in with literally everyone who had ever been mentioned in the previous 14 books. I get why it was written that way, but romance epilogues make my teeth ache, and this was more than a dozen of them all piled up. It was also a letdown because the previous three novels, Heart of Obsidian, Shield of Winter, and Shards of Hope, are hands down the best novels in the series. Singh brings all of her complicated mythology to full flower in those novels, and in ways that make the romance plot absolutely integral to the narrative. Heart of Obsidian especially. That they’re a dozen novels deep in a series makes them even more impressive; Singh had the opposite of burnout. 

Silver Silence, the novel directly previous to Ocean Light, was the first of the novels in Psy-Changeling Trinity, which details life after the fall of Silence (a form of widespread social conditioning practiced by the Psy designed to repress all emotion.) Like Ocean Light, it follows a character seen on the periphery for most of the series: Silver Mercant, personal assistant to all-around badass and ex-Psy Council member Kaleb Krychek. She falls in with a bear pack outside of Moscow, which was interesting because we’ve never seen bear changelings in action before. Bear changelings end up being annoying, but then they’re not as drearily serious as either the cats or the wolves, so on the balance more fun to read about.

Like Silver Silence, Ocean Light centers on a peripheral group, one that has heretofore been shrouded in mystery: the BlackSea pack, the changeling clan that encompasses the entirety of the earth’s oceans. Even the land-bound changelings think of them as out there. While we’ve encountered some of the BlackSea characters in Psy-Changeling novels, specifically Miane, the alpha, and her security guy, the pack itself has been secretive. BlackSea takes in Bowen Knight, head of the Human Alliance, in order for BlackSea scientists to remove a degrading chip in Knight’s head. This is a conflict we’ve seen before in Psy-Changeling, most recently in Shield of Winter, where it was the secondary plot. It is not as good as a primary conflict, like it is in Ocean Light, because it is a relatively inert situation: people worry, maybe they go to the doctor, then they worry some more. Either dude dies or he doesn’t.

We’ve met Bowen many times before. As the head of the Human Alliance, he’s tangled with both the Psy and Changelings (both of whom tend to treat humans like butt monkeys, but more so the Psy). He’s also been kind of a dick, which doesn’t necessarily change in Ocean Light. I don’t think that’s all bad – I like when dickish folk remain true to their characters even after, like, emotional and sexual awakening. That’s one of the best things about the romance between Kaleb and Sahara in Heart of Obsidian: Kaleb is a stone cold psycho and Sahara is his only emotional human relationship. In fact, I think he generally characterizes her as his only “weakness”: he sees his strength as flowing from his emotional sterility, and in many real ways it does. Even after they fall in love, he remains completely cut off from the rest of humanity. Sometimes the damage is just too great, and love is not a magic elixir. So it’s fine, good even, that Bo remains a dick, but he’s just less compelling than Kaleb all around, so I’m way less into it.

The romance in Ocean Light largely consists of Bowen and the BlackSea chef, Kaia, making eyes at one another while agonizing about how Bowen might die from a medical procedure. Further complicating their relationship is that Kaia, while being a water changeling, has Psy ancestry and some of their mental gifts. Bo is pretty much an anti-Psy bigot, so this could be a problem. The non-romance plot has to do with ongoing kidnappings of BlackSea members, kidnappings that seem to be perpetrated by the Human Alliance. Knight and Miane’s [sic, I super want this name to be Maine for no good reason] security guy work towards figuring out who the traitors in their organizations must be, but mostly through phone calls and data searches, and we don’t get to see changeling kicking down doors and apprehending bad guys for the most part. They spend most of the novel hanging out in the BlackSea HQ chatting and making sandwiches. There is some movement at the very end, but reading about a grueling transatlantic flight isn’t exactly action either.

BlackSea itself, though, was interesting to read about. There’s still a fair amount we don’t know about the pack – pack members tend to be especially secretive about what their animal is – but the underwater city was beautifully rendered. While shifter narratives almost never address bestiality – and I am not suggesting they should – there was an ongoing tentacle-sex gag going on here that surprised a laugh out of me. All considered, Ocean Light was fine, but I felt like more could have been done with both BlackSea and Bowen Knight, alas.  

I received my copy from Netgalley.

Bray House by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

There my be something about the experience of writing in Ireland that drives writers into exile. For every Yeats who holes up in a castle in County Sligo at the end of his days, there’s a Joyce or Beckett or Shaw or Wilde who leaves Ireland and doesn’t so much not look back as look back with love and pride and revulsion and irritation, look back compulsively and minutely. (Although, arguably, Yeats didn’t really live in Ireland either. He lived in a magical place called Yeatsland.) The Irelands of these writers are mirages of the retreating horizon, full of equal measures of hate and longing. Like the bragging protagonist in “Playboy of the Western World,” Irish writers conjure and murder their Irish father again and again, but the joke’s on them when Ireland continues to plug along in its Irish way, spitting out more exile-artists from the fertile ground of lost and sublimated languages, religion, peat smoke, and god knows what all. 

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is not just Irish, but the kind of Irish that has an unpronounceable Irish name with the little thingy over some of the vowels. When she looks back, she doesn’t turn into a pillar of salt, Ireland does. She nukes it to a hard uninhabitable crust of ash and loss, and then catalogs its innards with the fine and almost-loving hands of an anthropologist scrying meaning from a collection of everyday objects and unfinished lives. Set in an ecologically devastated future, The Bray House is the first-person account of a Swedish academic, Robin, who organizes a expedition to return to Ireland and excavate one house out of the nuclear wasteland that is now Ireland. (When I said Ní Dhuibhne nuked Ireland, I wasn’t being funny; a series of nuclear accidents some time before the events of the book utterly destroyed the British Isles.)

It seems very rare to me that writers create truly horrible, unlikeable characters. Now that I say that, I realize that statement needs some clarification. There are plenty of unlikeable sorts in lit, but they’re usually shot through with some kind of redemptive humanity, some moment where they stand below the prostitute’s window and realize she’s a better person, and has been all along. (Having read Lolita, I understand that HH can bring the serious lulz, even while where his soul should be is radioactive sludge.) I can see why authors wouldn’t want to do this. Not because they shy from the unlikable and dishonest, but because who really wants to bring a creature like that into being, think like them, craft words they’d use? Blech. It was bad enough listening to Robin spin her entirely untrustworthy narrative of what happened on the expedition, what things she lost and found, what the events meant. I wouldn’t want to be the one who had to craft her voice, construct her guts and her lies. 

I don’t care much about plot, and I get the impression that the author didn’t either, but someone told her she should. This is too bad, because there are some things that happen that felt unnecessary or overly metaphoric, simply for the sake of having some events. The ending shows a restraint that many authors can’t muster though, although I won’t say too much more for fear of spoilers. The part that absolutely killed me was the little anthropological whaling section in the middle, written in dry academicese, that details the contents of the house they excavated, divines the characters of its inhabitants, and conjures the culture of Ireland in the moments before it vanished. It’s like the cast of the lovers from Pompeii, encased in ash and burned away, found later when archaeologists poured plaster into the voids. Robin isn’t a plaster person; she’s worse than this. She’s real and talking back at us from the void. It’s not a plaster Ireland, it’s sadder than this. 

When Americans annihilate our home country in fiction, we get Jerry Bruckheimer to direct, pack the White House with gasoline and a timer, and hire Charleton Heston and Will Smith to pose heroically in the foreground. It’s not a conflagration so much as a cook-out, a chance for neighbors to gab while the neighbor’s house burns to the ground. Such a pity! I envy the way the Irish return to their Irelands, a concrete and shifting mirage of conditional statements: might have been, was possible once, could be soon. As a nation of immigrants, we Americans are always arriving, finding new Americas when we cast off the old. Ireland is written by a nation of artists in exile, who keep trying to set the plaster while the dust shifts.

Built Ford Tough: Brave New World

I have this little theory — a “little theory” being one of those half-assed ideas one has that won’t stand up to scrutiny — that a person can have either a Macbeth English major or a Hamlet English major. I myself had theMacbeth kind, having read the Scottish play three times for various classes during undergrad, and never once Hamlet. (In fact, I have never read Hamlet, though I’ve seen it maybe a dozen times.) That Macbeth was the thing when I was in school says something about the pulse of that moment in time. Maybe it’s too histrionic to see something in my profs choosing the Macbeths and their overreaching pas de deux over Hamlet’s leaderly meltdown during the Clinton era, but then again, maybe not.This little theory falls apart once I factor in the twice-read Tempest or King Lear— it’s silly to decant ones formative Shakespeare into two plays, and then roshambo — but like all little theories, I do cleave to it inordinately.

To stretch this little theory a bit, I see this kind of small theoretical split in a bunch of sub-genres: The Yearling or Old Yeller, in the dead animal department; Monty Python or Hitchhiker’s Guide, in ye 70s British humor department; and for the purposes of this essay, 1984 or Brave New World in your classic dystopia department. People tend to have read one or the other, and if both are read, the one you encountered earliest is the one you prefer. I had a 1984 childhood, finishing that book on a bus back from a school trip to Quebec, and feeling that bullet right in my brain. [spoiler alert] It’s entirely possible that I would feel the same way about Brave New World if I’d read it at the time — the adolescent brain being what it is — but I didn’t. Instead, Huxley’s classic had to contend with dreary old me, a me that couldn’t ever get a leg over. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy many facets of Brave New World, but just that much of my enjoyment was at arm’s length — ironic, critical, or historical — and not in the moment of narrative. It was worth reading to be read, and not in the reading of it. Ah, my lost youth.

I was honestly surprised at how science fictional the opening was. There’s a whole lot of technobabble and der blinken lights, mouthpiece characters yammering on about how the axlotl tanks work and embryonic division and sleep hypnosis and the like. I feel like — and this could be certainly another “little theory”, but bear with me — contemporary literary fiction tends to avoid hard science trappings, lest one get genre cooties all over one’s magnum opus (cf. The Road, Zone One, et al.) Huxley’s got no squeamishness about that, and his future has the hard patina of 30s futurism, all aeronautics and chemistry. I was recently regaling a friend about Gibson’s “Gernsback Continuum”, and its elucidation of the semiotic phantom of  “American streamline Moderne” that gets the story’s narrator so twitterpated. Which, whoa.

The future of the past is a detritus we all live with — in our nostalgia and anxiety dreams — and it’s odd to see such an early one, such an embryonic one: 1932, before the Great War that informed 1984, before any of the other condensed catastrophes of the world we inhabit now. I found the way Huxley is taking aim at American consumerism — the social engineers are called “Fords”, and there are a variety of almost funny jokes about this — and Soviet authoritarianism — Lenina is our almost heroine — just touching. I can’t imagine a contemporary writer cutting these two things together; they’ve been too solidly set as a dialectic in the interregnum. Plus, none of these things mean the same anymore anyway. I mean, the first Stalinist purges had just happened a few years before Brave New World, but these early purges didn’t involve arrest and death like they would later, starting with the Great Purge of 1936. They were ideological litmus tests, sure, but Stalin had not yet begun to dream of the gulag and all the other nightmares that have since been associated with (at least) Soviet communist. And Ford had not yet begun collaborating with the fucking Nazis, because the Brownshirts were still just vigilante skinheads. Anyway.

The part that made me lose my shit was when our cheerful fordians spend a weekend in the “human reservation” somewhere in the American southwest, probably Arizona, which is peopled with folk who look a lot like the Pueblo people of the American Southwest. Americans certainly have a kinky view of the native peoples of North America: in historical contexts, there’s this spiritual largess afforded conquered people, and in modern ones, an irritation that aboriginal Americans continue to exist. Why do you still keep making claims to shit we legit conquered you for, noble savage? It’s not dissimilar to a British view of colonial artifacts: certainly the Greeks cannot be trusted to caretake the Elgin Parthenon Marbles. Huxley’s description of the reservation hews to this, with an irritation towards pagan “superstition” and general backwardsness, married to a strange in-the-reverse satire of sterile “progress”.

The story of John the Savage — the Englishman born in the reservation — ends up being this completely bananas expression of an inherent Englishness. Though born into the community, he somehow has problems with the language and never quite fits in. (Though, admittedly, some of this is his mom being the town drunk and whore, if you’ll excuse the expression.) I’ve known a lot of children of immigrants, and they know English as well as I; it’s their first language too. He’s given the collected works of Shakespeare at some point, and, like Frankenstein’s monster lurking at the edges of English society, somehow manages to divine the history of Christianity, all the trappings of traditional gender roles, and Romantic love. Which he then hews to when confronted by fordian society, like British culture is something that can be activated by a book, regardless of where you were raised. At least given the right blood quantum, to filch nomenclature from the American reservation.

It’s a trip watching John freak out when the woman he’s decided to courtly love propositions him sexually: omg, good girls don’t even do that!! Casual sex is super bad for you!! I get the impression I’m supposed to agree, and put in context of the fordian society which constantly describes women as “pneumatic” I kinda do, but I really don’t. It’s a false binary: harsh traditionalism or completely freewheeling sluttery. I’m not even going to go into all the feminist virgin/whore stuff, and you are welcome to fill it in yourself. Suffice it to say when John meets his inevitable end [uh, spoiler, except not really, because we can all see where this is going] in a welter of OH DO YOU SEE, I couldn’t do much more than laugh cynically. I was happy just to be done with all the fucking speachifying that typifies the end, good Lord.

I’m just going to note here, briefly, that the racial categories in the fordian society are completely fucked. While there are moments when I felt this was meant satirically, there are at least as many, if not more, where I felt it was not. Emphatically.

So. Strange New World is a trip, and I recommend a pass at it if you’re into the history of science fiction or the social satire, or where those two things connect, but I’ve gotta say it’s not aging too well. While I appreciate the ways Huxley anticipated the soporific effects of media on labor — and, weirdly, the horror of the paparazzi — his satire is bound by the rules of the day, as all satire is. That’s the sad thing about satire, which bites best when it’s specific, situated, in the moment, but then the moment moves on and it’s left as a relic, a joke that has to be explained to get the punchline. Same goes for horror and comedy, which says something about all of them.

The Wizard’s Promise by Cassandra Rose Clarke

It kills me to say this, but The Wizard’s Promise didn’t work for me. I think I can see what the book was attempting to do, but I don’t think it did it. The reason I’m so sad I didn’t love this is that Cassandra Rose Clarke absolutely slayed me with The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, killed me so hard I was willing to follow her into young adult fantasy with her duology The Assassin’s Curse/The Pirate’s Wish. I was a rut of being sick of young adult fantasy — all the Chosen Ones and half-assed magical systems, the violet eyes and virgins. The Assassin’s Curse duology ended up rewarding my lovesick mooning over Clarke. While it wasn’t on the gut-punching level of Mad Scientist’s Daughter, the story was active and emotional, with just enough subversion of the tropes to feel fresh in a sometimes moldering genre.

The Wizard’s Promise takes place in the same world as the Assassin’s Curse books do, a generation later, long enough for the exploits of the pirate Ananna to become something between tall tales and legend. Our main character here is even named after Ananna — her mother knew her, apparently — but she goes by Hanna. She lives on one of the northern islands, a spare, insular place. She’s at that itchy cusp of adulthood, still living with the ‘rents, but struggling with what she wants to do with her life in that gauzy, dreamy way of the inexperienced. Maybe I’ll become a famous witch after stunning everyone at school!

Hanna is apprenticing with a fisherman of no particular talent named Kolur at the behest of her mom, and the action of the novel begins when what should be an everyday fishing expedition goes pear-shaped. Hanna and Kolur end up well off course, with a mysterious old friend of Kolur’s — a witch of some talent — along for the ride. Kolur and his witch friend are just obnoxiously withholding about what is going on, and Hanna responds with an equally obnoxious foot-stomping petulance. In the dreary sailing that occurs after they find themselves in the wrong place on the map, Hanna meets a not-quite-human boy named Isolfr, who also is withholding about the shape of things, but less so than the grown ups.

Here is where I want to talk about magic. I generally like the magic in this world, which is both concrete and not over-explained. Hanna’s magical talent is wind-magic, the sort of useful calling up the of the elements for fishermen and boats. There’s also earth-magic — something Hanna’s mother practices — and sea-magic. The rules of magic aren’t gotten into too closely, which I can appreciate, because practice and theory are well two different things. I had a blacksmith once explain to me that “all the goodness” goes out of iron when its been reheated too often and too hotly, and it doesn’t make me a good blacksmith to be able to explain what he means on a molecular level (which I can, but it requires some hand waving and a napkin to write on.)

That doesn’t mean that some of the spell-casting didn’t frustrate me. Isolfr — the not-quite-human boy — casts a spell on Hanna such that the fisherman and the witch she shares a boat with cannot hear anything Hanna says about the boy. This isn’t magic so much as narrative convenience, a football-hiding maneuver that serves the storyteller more than the story. And even though we get some reveals about the purposes of the boy and the fisherman, I couldn’t even tell you why that information was withheld from the reader or from Hanna. Much of the action is inert, without discernible reason for most of the novel. I felt like luggage, carried along by hands unattached to a more vital body of purpose, and this is no place to be as a reader. Magic shouldn’t be convenient; it should be structural.

Which is not to say there weren’t things I enjoyed about The Wizard’s Promise. The couple who befriends Hanna when she’s stuck on some godforsaken rock in the north are wonderfully domestic, with the kind of easy, kindly relationship that’s both kinda obtuse and profoundly enviable. I like how Hanna is forced at a point to work diligently towards amassing enough money to buy her way home, and how that really just doesn’t work, or doesn’t work quickly. She eyes a small jar full of coinage, which fills slowly and then drops as she has to do things like make rent and eat. Not many young adult books — fantastic or not — address the hard economic realities of life at a grinding job that doesn’t reward one’s talents or youth. Like one gets at this age.

It’s possible my trouble is the split-novel format — The Wizard’s Promise is the first of another duology — and maybe this pair is to be back-loaded with all the action and promise not exactly come to fruition in the first. Not even come to the middle, really. I can’t really assess this novel on books that haven’t been written yet (much as I’d like to, loving Clarke the way I do) so I have to say this is not a success as a standalone novel. I’m on the hook for the next, because my heart, but that’s more nostalgia than sensibility. And y’all really should read The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, kthxbai.

 

I received an ARC through NetGalley and Strange Chemistry, and thank them kindly.

Sharcano!!!1!

There’s this dismissive, tautological quote that goes something like, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” I can’t find a reputable source for this line — it’s been attributed to Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, or a tumblr image of some cats — but it has the kind of epigrammatic pithiness that makes for great ad copy. I think you can fairly easily tell by the title whether you are in the audience of this book. Sharcano = shark + volcano!!!1! You know if this math is for you.

I guess I expected Sharcano to be a nod to pulp horror like anything by Guy N Smith, a journeyman writer who churned out well over a hundred novels, and, given that he isn’t dead yet, likely is churning them out still. (His wiki page notes that he is an “active pro-smoking campaigner”, which I find inordinately charming. I even smoke, and I know that shit ain’t good for anyone, mostly because I smoke.) I was expecting shoddy continuity, uproarious misogyny, and lurid bloodbath, the kind of thing banged out in two non-consecutive weekends with a lot of uppers in the mix.

But no, Sharcano is more a nod to big budget action disaster films, movies like Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow. This is not a criticism; more an observation. There’s an estranged couple — one of whom is a massive television personality slash dillhole — so you’ve got your remarriage plot; a couple of moppets of various ethnicity; a priest at the focus of a shady Vatican conspiracy; some bubbas; sasquatch &c. There’s a lot of destruction that would work well better on the screen with Michael Bay-ish craptacular jump cuts, but then there’s a wry comedy aspect that would never be evident in a Michael Bay film.

What Sharcano reminds me most of is The Core, which is a silly disaster film complete with unobtainium and Stanley Tucci. The scene where Tucci is in a train car thing, about to die, bloviating into a tape recorder in his showboat way, and then starts laughing at the ridiculousness of such an act is one of my legit favorites. Almost as good as Samuel L in Deep Blue Sea starting into a monologue about how we’re not going to fight anymore! right before the supershark fucking drops the knowledge. Drop the knowledge, sharks made out of lava. We’ll catch up.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure this book needs to be 400+ pages, and I’m seriously unsure that it should be the first in a trilogy. Sharcano is well better than it should be, a quality which gives with one hand and takes with another. Pulp’s got a certain energy to it, a rough, unedited pulse. Sharcano has a more arms-reach approach to the material, a half-ironic tone that tries to split the difference between straight up satire and gleeful homage. That’s a hard line to walk, very hard, and that Sharcano manages it at all should be seen as a win. If you like this sort of thing, as the cats of tumblr tell me, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

 

I received my copy from Netgalley. Thanks, dudes.

Nebula Nominees: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

When I was in my first (and, come to think, only) year in the dorms, I had a friend down the hall who was Swiss. By which I mean she had Swiss parents, and her first language was French; she was otherwise American. She was raised, however, in a small Wisconsin town, if not from birth, then from a very young age. She liked to tell this story about her parents taking her to the zoo as a young girl, her French still the primary language, and shouting at the seals, “Le phoque! Le phoque!” You can imagine the consternation of small town Wisconsin when confronted by a girl yelling, “Le fuck!” which is more or less what the French word for seal sounds like.

We didn’t have much in the way of video stores on campus — this is back in the dark ages, before Netflix, or even DVDs, come to think of it — so we were mostly stuck with the selection at the dorm kiosk (which I ran on Saturday and Thursday; a story for another time) which was not good, or the selections at the local library. The library mostly had art films, documentaries about The War, and early cinema weirdness. I can thank the lack of selection for my actually sitting down and watching stuff like VampyrMetropolis, and Battleship Potemkin. My Swiss friend went in for the French art house stuff at the libs, as she actually spoke the language, and knew more than your average bear about French cinema, her upbringing being what it was.

So I watched a series of French films with her — a trilogy, I think, but my memory is a little hazy. They were in an essay style popular (I think) in the 70s. French people chatted and had upheavals of the lunching sort, interspersed with cards that informed the viewer of the philosophical import of the scene. She and I also had a thing where we’d go in together on a bottle of liquor we’d never tried before, purchased by another friend’s upperclass boyfriend with a car and a sense of capitalist opportunity: Everclear (not legal in my home state), stomach-churning gin (which put me off a fine alcohol for years), or, memorably, peach schnapps (I didn’t drink in high school, so I hadn’t learned this lesson yet).

I have this vision, no doubt manufactured, of us sitting in her room sipping a tragedy in the making, watching French films and arguing. I remember quite vividly when she was yelling about some character in the essay film — you know, the Italian woman? — and I was like, what are you even talking about, Italian woman? She blinked at me with the slow blink of the inebriated. You know, the woman with the Italian accent? The one having an affair with the other guy, the husband? Okay, I said, I know who you mean now, but how did you know she was Italian? Couldn’t you hear it in her accent? She asked. No, I most decidedly could not.

She had an entrance into the nuances of the film that I simply did not, raised as I was with English only. I couldn’t hear the accent because all I heard was foreignness, concentrating hard on the philosophical placards and the translations over the lilt of another tongue in a character’s speech. Since then, I’ve caught this lilt in a couple of movie characters in languages foreign to me — Ah Ping in In the Mood for Love, who sounds so different from everyone else, for example — but I couldn’t tell you what this means, exactly. Someone who spoke Chinese — or maybe more importantly, was raised with an understanding of Chinese cultural politics — could explain the inexact, interpersonal meaning to me, but some of it would end up being “le phoque” shouted at seals.

Which is my long-winded, digressive way of getting at We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. There’s something about the narrator that’s off, which is not to say I didn’t completely love her wry, understated anecdotal style, or her loopy, sedimentary storytelling style. Her awkwardness and self-doubt were disarming and lovable. the way a story told by the gawky and odd can take the shine of comedy in retrospect. Comedy happens to other people, as they say; it’s tragedy when it happens to you. She knows how to split the difference between bathos and rhetoric like a champ. She takes the little philosophical placards, and doesn’t so much shred them as fold them into accented shapes that you can’t access through language.

Good gravy, what the holy hell am I on about? The tough thing about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a spoiler which is so central to the book’s bookness that it stops me up, in any language. You have to meet the narrator and stew in her thoughts long enough to understand her accent and where it comes from, her foreignness despite being a fairly average girl from a flyover state. You have to get good and drunk and argue what all that accent might mean, whatever meaning means, and you have to do it grappling with the way personal anecdote, or even possibly memoir, is a slippery, personal delivery mechanism for whatever essayish philosophy, insofar as as any of our lives can exemplify an argument.

And I’m at it again, twisty sentence fuckery — or possibly phoquery — blathering and bloviating when I should just get to it. Here’s one thing: the plural of anecdote is not data, as the scientists rightly say. But as a talking ape, the force of the anecdote has its place in rhetoric. I read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves because it was one of the nominees for the Nebula this year. It took me a long time to accept this as science fictional. Doesn’t this all exist in the here and now? Isn’t this the experience of some few — some very few, admittedly; but still, it moves? I eventually looped around, after starting in the middle, the way the narrator does, into acceptance.

There are levels of foreignness beyond the dorm floor Tower of Babel  that occurs when we all get drunk on unfamiliar scotch — one girl lapsing into the Spanish of her native language, another’s Southie accent thickening to incomprehension, the French, the Wisconsin, all of us speaking the language of our homes at each other in some kind of bonding exercise that won’t be remembered with clarity the next day. But we’re all human, our accents notwithstanding. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis has been thoroughly discredited. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t resonate at some level, the one that looks around after the party has ended and wonders at our profound miscommunications with those closest to us, let alone the strangers, the neighbors, the acquaintances. Alien isn’t just alien, in the end; it’s the familiar. Which is the worst and best thing about it, the end.