Category Archives: feminist

World War Z: The Movie

Of course when I started seeing trailers and reading descriptions of the film adaption of Max Brooks’s journal of the zombie apocalypse, World War Z, I immediately jumped up onto my high horse and started penning angry screeds in the comment sections of Reddit. (Just kidding. I don’t use Reddit.) Why in the hell were they even calling this movie World War Z if exactly nothing was taken from the book but the title? The book World War Z is nerdy and wonky, very much what a serious military history geek would write about the zombie apocalypse with CNN on mute in the background. So, maybe the individual voices were a little same-same; Brooks’s take was refreshing in its long, global pan, broken out from the locked room scenarios of so many zombie narratives. Instead of the usual how will we survive tomorrow, it was a consideration of how society - societies - would respond to such a threat.

Admittedly, the book is a little bloodless – the snap gone out of recountings because we know the raconteur has survived – and I was expecting changes. Much of Brooks’s book simply wouldn’t work on the screen. I did have some fantasies about the film being about the soldier’s narrative. He pops up at least three times in the book, moving from the Battle of Yonkers – which is actually beautifully narrated, and a pretty biting criticism of the ways military tacticians refuse to adapt to changing realities – to a West Coast enclave, and then back out through the flyover states, reclaiming this grand America. The zombie herds like buffalo, the consideration of the in-fill towns and the feral domestic animals, the drudgery and mud-covered victories: all this would have worked on the screen. Alas, no mas.

World War Z, the film, opens with a languorous morning flipping pancakes and only occasionally tense domesticity. Gerry Lane is an ex-CIA investigator, clearly still in the recovery phase of adjustment to stay-at-home dad and unemployment. His kids are moppets, and while I think it might be indicted that his wife is a professional of some kind, this isn’t lingered on. The New York setting and the traffic snarl action pieces reminded me of Will Smith’s I Am Legend, but the New Yorkiness and generally elegiac tone is absent from the movie. Pitt’s Gerry Lane seems like someone who would be better played by Tom Cruise, whose asshole Ethan Hunt routine from the Mission Impossible movies might register stronger than Pitt’s surfer insouciance. Much as I generally like Pitt, here he lacked an edge that made his supposed backstory anything but narrative justification. I was in the CIA, like, I guess.

From here, the movie bops around the zombie apocalypse, running set pieces with the thinnest of narrative fiber between them. Some of the set pieces were honestly thrilling – like the zombies swarming over the Israeli wall, or some of the stuff in North Korea. Some of them felt like hey, what about an outbreak on a plane??? I felt twitchy about a wasted David Morse vamping through a toothless mouth prosthetic about Jews and how they never forget, although the chatty Jurgen Warbrunn – one of the few characters (sort of) from the novel – explains a little better what looks like unvarnished antisemitism in Morse’s explanations of the Israeli response. I liked the look of the androgyne Israeli soldier tasked to escort Lane out of Israel, but there wasn’t much more than a look to her character. All in all, the movie was the kind of contentless flash-bang that can be fun in the dollar theater on a Sunday, but will likely diminish on the small screen to the point of boring.

Rather than just complain about fast zombies, because honestly, that’s maybe the lamest criticism one can level at the zombie narrative, my complaints more have to do with the lack of viscera. (Seriously, I’ve been trolled one too many times by people exclaiming that fast zombies aren’t really zombies, like the taxonomy of imaginary creatures isn’t flexible enough to include a little sprinting.) But really it was the lack of guts that got me, because whatever other societal jibber jabber zombie narrative might capture, they can thrill because of entrail-rending zombie bouquets, the mob ripping someone limb from limb. They’re about physical fear, body horror, our fear of the inevitably declining meat-sack we all live in. It’s not about the fear of death, but of decomposing life. Blood splatter was notably absent in World War Z, which seems a crying shame.

But that’s not even what I want to note about this movie. What I want to talk about is Gerry Lane’s wife. I’ve noted before that zombie stories deal with domesticity in a weird way, and the housewife, as the embodiment of domesticity, ends up bearing the brunt of the weirdness. And maybe I should just take a minute to define terms. Yes, obviously, Lane’s wife is working outside the home, and Lane himself is playing emasculated parent to her harping worry. There’s a quelling quality to their marital interactions: you shouldn’t want to go back out into that manly, war-torn landscape, Gerry. No, no, of course I don’t. I’m using housewife as a shorthand term for the straight, white, middle class momming set, working or not, who regularly are the focal point of the Mommy Wars, the cultural wars, and apparently, now the zombie wars. The housewife is a category more mythic than actual, but she’s got teeth like any other monster, and sometimes she sprints.

But when the fit hits the shan, it’s Gerry’s war skills that nurture domesticity. Gerry mansplains to the Hispanic family that they have to move to be safe in crisis, and they don’t listen, bringing moppet count up to three when their son takes the advice they don’t. By the time the Lane family makes it to the aircraft carrier, Mrs Lane is in full on helicopter mom mode, hissing at Gerry and the UN dude that they should take their conversation about zombies outside lest they upset the children. I punched my husband at this point in the film – in the arm, jeez – why wouldn’t she want to know wtf was going on? Fair enough, don’t freak out the kids anymore than you have to, but given that they were pretty much unconscious in every scene from here on out, maybe you have a shred of curiosity about anything but making sandwiches? Why would a professional woman just wring her hands and push her sleeping babies’ hair out of their eyes? You’re in danger of getting chucked from the relative safety of the carrier, why don’t you offer up whatever hastily sketched skills you have?

Mrs Lane’s story reaches a nadir when she calls Gerry in a panic while he’s on a dangerous op in North Korea, the squeal of the phone alerting the zombies to their locale. Pro life tip: set your cell phone to buzz when in the zombie apocalypse. (Also: cell phones work?) His world-weary decision not to tell her that her domestic panic got a lot of good men killed – good men! – just exhausted me. Broads, man, amiright? Don’t text me right now because I’m in a v. important meeting. Mrs Lane ends up as this tragic impetus for action, inert and often interfering, but without agency or motivation beyond the cheesy invocation of family. Someone smacks down Gerry near the end when he invokes it right back – I watched the thing that became my wife kill my children – but this is a weird conversation, bros ruminating on their obligations that are little more than luggage. Think of the children! Because that’s all we can do!

I don’t know. It’s late, and I’m tired, and maybe I’ll be back to bloviate tomorrow. I thought WWZ: the Movie was fine when people were running and screaming, but it wasn’t much more than that in the end.

Oh, and also, the scene where Gerry pops open a Pepsi machine and the cans all rolled with their labels out cracked my shit up. Pepsi: The Choice of the Undead! Pepsi quenches your thirst for brains.

katniss barbie

Capitol Girls: Hunger Games Make-Up

My daughter and I ditched over to the Walgreens on Lake St in Minneapolis to get a gift for a birthday party she was to attend. I’ve always liked that drug store, despite it being down heel and over-stuffed. Even though my neighborhood is very mixed – residential and commercial, foreign and domestic born, poor and maybe not rich, but certainly middle class, different races – the clientele for businesses tend to sort by class or ethnicity. White girl that I am, I don’t frequent the botanica two blocks down; that store is not for me. I also don’t go into the punker store (too old), nor the saddle shop (too not a cowboy), nor the various halal groceries (too…atheist?) Even within our mixed neighborhood, we sort.

But the Walgreens on Lake cuts this really cool cross-section. Some of this is, admittedly, the fact that it’s a drug store, and the need for microwave popcorn and some $2 novelty socks at 11pm cuts across all socioeconomic and racial divides. But still, even then, when you compare that Walgreens with the CVS just blocks up, which has roughly the same kind of 2-for-1, as-seen-on-TV kind of endcaps, the Lake St Walgreens has a decidedly more broad clientele. And really garrulous employees. I was in there getting a prescription filled for my husband a couple of weeks ago, and the pharmacist browbeat me into getting a flu shot, at which point a young woman in a hijab stuck me efficiently, and then gave me a sticker.

So I was just jaw-dropped when I saw the following spinning display rack right smack in the middle of the make-up section.

spinning display of Covergirl ads using the districts as themes.  The idea of Hunger Games district-themed make-up was bad enough, but to be confronted with it in one of the few places I can think of in my city that don’t exemplify the (admittedly simplistic) divisions of Collins’s dystopia, well, that was another thing entirely. But I’m probably getting ahead of myself here, because when I posted this image on facebook, those who hadn’t read the books didn’t get how egregious this ad campaign is.

So, a little back story on the country of Panem, where Collins’s story unfolds. Panem is a post-America America, occupying the same landmass, but there are hints this a post-peak-oil and/or other post-apocalyptic environment, but centuries past whatever crisis changed the US into Panem. The political/economic system has been reordered into twelve districts controlled by an unnumbered district known as The Capitol. Each district is defined by a primary industry: coal-mining, agriculture, small electronics, heavy industry, etc. Due to a rebellion by the districts 75 years earlier, each of these districts offer up two teenagers to the Capitol as tribute every year to fight to the death in the Hunger Games. Out of 24 tributes, only one will survive. The whole event is televised.

 

Map of Panem

Now, I’m the first to admit this political/economic system is ridiculous, and it wouldn’t take more than a minute to rip it apart as unrealistic in concrete terms. But when you’re dealing with dystopia, and to a lesser extent young adult literature, strict realism isn’t the point, nor should it be. I was bowled over by Collins’s country of Panem because she captured a certain emotional reality that we live every day. My neighborhood is a Capitol sorted by districts. It is a microcosm of Panem, a country which makes manifest our American economic disconnects into the rigid structures of barbed wire and geography. Collins turns the economic, political, racial divides into someplace clarified and concrete, and then she has our children fight to death within it. Sure, it’s unrealistic, but it’s also happening every godamn day of the week.

But what does this have to do with make-up? Lemmee tell you. The plot of Hunger Games deals with Katniss Everdeen, a teenager from District  12, the poorest and least populated district in Panem, and her experience as one of the tributes in the Hunger Games. The main industry of District 12 is coal mining. Mum and I took a tour of the coal mines in the coal districts of Wales, and what I took from the experience was that mining is the most out-of-sight-out-of-mind of the heavy industries. Men disappear underground to bring up fuel for the capitalist fire, and when they die in cave-ins and of suffocation or eaten by machinery, their bodies are often not recovered. Like fishing towns, the graves are predominantly for women, because the men just disappear into a pit. The labor movements roil underground in thousands of unmarked tombs. (At this point I highly recommend doing a google for “pit ponies poetry” and just freaking out at the poems you’ll find. They were brought down to work until they died. I won’t put a fine point on the definition of “they.”)

pit pony with his handler in a mine

One of the things I love so fiercely about Hunger Games is how it has this nuanced engagement with things generally seen as girly frivolity, things like fashion. Katniss is brought from her district to the Capitol, and denuded and perfected according to the beauty standards of the capital city. The sequence of her bodily perfection reads like an assault, almost a sexual one, her body flensed and bitten, her poverty stripped and removed. The Capitol takes away the marks of poverty in order to kill her with spectacle. She wakes up to the the gentle tutelage of Cinna, who will be her fashion consultant through the Hunger Games. He knows what she’s gone through, and he has a game plan. While Katniss, rube teen, wants to reject all the trappings of her assault and the cruel spectacle of the Hunger Games, he sees the subversive utility of playing the game to other ends. He reads it all against the grain.

As a completely unacculturated teen, Katniss can only see her engagement with the Capitol in all-or-nothing ways. She will wear black and combat boots and scowl. She will act the part of her resistance because she cannot look the part of her resistance. But the character of Cinna shows the beauty of subversion, the ways you can twist things designed to oppress you to uplift you. It’s not as simple as “looking pretty makes you stupid”, but something weirder like “looking like you have authority means you have authority” or maybe “take seriously the deliberately unserious” or maybe “not everything is as it seems.” To misquote Elizabeth Bishop: sometimes we are living in imaginary gardens with real toads in them. Panem is an imaginary garden with real toads.

After the first movie came out, I was confronted by a Katniss Barbie doll in the toy aisle, and I really had to consider whether I thought this was a nightmare or not. After a ton of searching my late-model feminist soul, I eventually decided Katniss Barbie was okay. It’s kind of perfect, in a way, because the Hunger Games series can be consumed as just addictive pop fiction, this present tense hurtle to finish all about love triangles and teen tragedy and the like.  It’s a Barbie, totally all about consumption, which you watch, glued to set just as surely as any Capitol citizen.

Two racist ethnic caricature Barbies, Katniss, and Holiday Barbie.

I’ve seen a lot of teen reviews of the series that seem to have zero idea that there’s a deeper message to the Hunger Games series, training their attention on love triangles and pretty dresses. But one day those kids might wake up, bolted out of sleep that, wait, omigod, I’m living in the godamn Capitol. That’s the power of the series. That’s the power of the Katniss Barbie: something you play with until you realize that play is action. It’s practice, and it’s a subversion.

But, boy howdy, is the Covergirl Hunger Games campaign completely message-deaf. Dressing up as a coal miner, with “flamed out” eyeliner and mascara, with nails black and blue like bruises or coal is the kind of horrible poverty porn that every single person in Panem who doesn’t live in the Capitol hates about the Capitol, and with good reason. Don’t play dress up with the inescapable economic hardships of other people, people who on some level live and die so you can swan around in the comfort you so richly deserve. Accessorize with black lung, and malnutrition, and infant mortality, and short lives that don’t matter to anyone but those who lived them. Accessorize with injustice.

a look from District 10 marked livestock

This isn’t even getting into the model marked “livestock” from District 10, with a feather headdress and a fur collar, animistic eye make-up fanning out over her stark blue eyes. It’s almost too easy to rip this easy equation of female bodies with cattle for the slaughter, the invocation of bestiality, the dehumanizing furriness. Or the dreary Orientalism of the model for District 3, all made up like some cyberpunk fantasy, denuded of hair, even her eyebrows replaced with sharp triangles. When I think cheap electronics, I think Asian woman, amiright?

District 3 look: technology

Or the District 1 “luxury” model whose look invokes Marie Antoinette. Which, okay, maybe that’s hilarious. Maybe that’s the only look here that isn’t repulsive, that gets on some level the symbolic structure of the districts to the Capitol. I don’t even know what to say about the model for District 4: Fishing, which dresses up a black woman as a fish.  Or the District 2: Masonry look which puts Kabuki slash Mod make-up on a white woman. I just…my feminist background has no ways of dealing with this mess.

I’m kind of getting rage fatigue thinking about these looks, and the fact that probably dozens of people, maybe hundreds, were involved in their creation; that thousands, probably tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars went into this campaign, and not one person said, “You guys, we should be ashamed of ourselves.” These aren’t, presumably, teens who have an excuse when they miss the point completely, but grown ass adults. I’m not even trashing the models or peons – we all have to work, and eat – I’m trashing all the damn people with the power to greenlight such a complete disaster. Who have no sense of irony. Who can’t even read.

District 1 luxury model

 I’m not even saying I’m not a Capitol dweller myself. I am. I’m not even saying that shame is enough of a political act to counter the wrong in the world. It isn’t. The wrongs in the world are staggeringly large and crushingly intractable. But compounding them by playing poverty dress-up is disgusting, and worse than that, it’s the wrong kind of subversion. 

Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me. 

But I’m not buying it this time.

 

gilmour

David Gilmour is a Bad Canadian

I’m not interested in reading books by David Gilmour. In an interview with Random House two days ago, Gilmour stated:

“I’m not interested in teaching books by women,” he says, making an exception for one female writer.

“Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories,” he says. “But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love.”

Instead, Gilmour says, “[w]hat I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.”

CBC

Now I know what you’re thinking: here goes another one of them Feminazi queer-loving bra-burners trying to impinge on this man’s free speech. So he doesn’t like the squawk-talk and jibber-jabber of female writers, gay writers, or Chinese writers? What’s it to you? Fair enough, imaginary Internet commenter.

But he’s said something much worse. You might want to sit down for this. David Gilmour, Canadian author, doesn’t like other Canadian authors.

Now, I’m not Canadian, but I’ve played one on tv, and some of my best friends are Canadian. My accent is in the ballpark, and if I drop in a couple “ehs” and “take off, hosers,” I can pass for one. From my intimate knowledge of the Canadas, I know that it is Canadianly constitutionally mandated that every time you have a conversation about any subject, you are required to note which famous people are from Canada. Talking to nerds? You know, Shatner is Canadian. Doing the chicken dance from Arrested Development? Michael Cera is Canadian. People with huge boobs? Boom: Pamela Anderson.

But that’s not all. The Canadian constitution requires that you don’t ever shittalk whole classes of Canadian citizens in front of Americans. You just can’t even do that, or Mounties will triangulate your location and force you to eat a bowl of moose cock and a case of Molson for your reeducation. I presume that right now, Gilmour is being very politely set upon by men in really hot red outfits while they prize his mouth open to accept the ungulate tumescence. (Oops, I started slipping into some of my Due South fanfiction. Is it hot in here?)

Due-South

So there you have it: David Gilmour has committed treason. Now, I know that I’m not allowed to write reviews based on author behavior anymore, but I think maybe Goodreads should make an exception in this case. I’m not dismissing Gilmour because he dismissed all writers who have a vagina, or are homos, or them Chinese. Obviously, that’s his right as a professor of literature who has been entrusted with educating Canada’s tender youth. That’s just table stakes for the Western Canon. But when you mess with the Queen, you get the horns, David. Who’s that knocking on your door?

Dial H for Hawt: Miéville Writes a Comic

Netgalley, y u never approve me on Miéville titles? Maybe if you had approved me for Dial H, Vol. 1: Into You, I wouldn’t be months down the road after twice unsuccessfully requesting this from the library, unsuccessful because they blew up my local library branch, and it’s sometimes tough to get down to Central. (See also: The Shining Girls, which just got sent back because I didn’t make it in time. Sob.) Anyway, once something turns into an epic quest, I’m half-expecting the payoff to blow my circuits, which this, alas, did not. 

I’m not saying I didn’t like it, just that it’s all over the place and uneven. In that, it reminds me a little bit of the first of the Sandman collections, The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes, which spent a fair amount of time sorting out how Morpheus of Gaiman’s work was related to the Sandman of the 30s serial and hat-tipping a bunch of DC properties like John Dee and John Constantine. (Everyone to be named John, I see.) Which is one of the reasons I find comics so fucking frustrating: all these connections and referents, this huge world spanning decades with re-starts and blind alleys everywhere. How can the casual reader be expected to get into this sprawling inside joke at all? It’s very rewarding, of course, if you know all that stuff. So a little like the Western Canon, but, like, with more pictures and spandex. 

Some of my bitching being the point, undoubtedly, of Dial H, which takes a playful tone in regards to the powers of superheros and the like. Overweight, unemployed slob Nelson Jent is being returned home by a friend after a heart attack when he and his friend argue about his general lack of care towards his life and person. The friend takes off; Nelse follows to apologize; the friend is beset by knee-cappers. When Nelse goes to call the police in an old timey phone booth, he instead is transformed into Boy Chimney and saves the day, transporting his friend to the hospital. There’s a plot involving a bunch of people who didn’t make any sense to me, but it turns out any time Nelson dials H-E-R-O on the sketchy phone, he turns into a different comic hero, characters like Captain Lachrymose and Chief Mighty Arrow.

After a fair amount of confusion on my part in the beginning – who are these people, and how are they related? whatever, moving on – the plot shapes into your usual origin story with your usual surprises and the like. Maybe I’m being jaded, because maybe the usual reversals aren’t nearly as usual as I expect, superhero comics being the last refuge of the lame, heteronormative boyfest. Making the ersatz hero a big, bumbling bumblefuck maybe is a pointed commentary about the self-insert or something. I felt stronger about the reveal of Maneau’s true identity, because who she is a stranger animal to find in superhero comics, except as a wise aphorist. She’s still sometimes a wise aphorist though, straight up. Nelson has some real identity problems with his swirling changes into the myriad of oddball supes, and Manteau’s covering of her supe-identity with yet another mask was honestly a cool choice. There’s a baddie who has a typically Miévillain (get it? GET IT??) esoteric weirdness, and I dug the head-spin thinking about nothing fighting nothing. 

Later, when things begin to make more sense, and Nelse is kicking it sidekick style with Manteau, Dial H gets into some pointed criticisms of the racism and sexism that often punctuates superhero comics. Nelse turns into a hugely war-bonneted Indian chief, and Manteau is like, you are NOT leaving the house like that. Then the Hi-Yo-Silver-like horse eats her yard. Dang you, horse! I dug that immensely. The last episode has that what-the-fuck-is-happening vibe with a shift to an ancient Mesopotamish locale and a cuneiform dialer that was cute, but also began to deepen the mystery of how the dialers work, and what kind of universe(s) we’re living in. 

So, like Sandman, it’s possible this uneven plot will settle down into something truly game-changing, but for the moment, things seem a little…rote is the wrong word, but something like that. Comics are about mid-season payoff, once they’ve found their legs and start really messing around in earnest. Origin stories are necessary, I guess, but they feel, to me, like placeholders until the writers can finally get something done. And I wrote myself out of this observation, but I’m not sure that the comic format plays to Miéville’s strengths as a writer, as he tends to go in for verbose, profane sidebars, and, frankly, his abilities in the punchy humor department are lacking. So I’ll check out volume two, for sure, but I’m not overwowed at the moment.

The Price of Spring: Well Paid

This is an impossible review to write. I don’t even feel like I can go with a simple plot description, given that the events in The Price of Springby Daniel Abraham are so dependent on the ugly climax of the last book, a climax I do not want to spoil for those readers who eventually might get around to this series. I guess I’ll just blather a bit about the general trends in these novels as a group. 

So, high fantasy, yeah? The Long Price Quartet takes place in a mildly medieval mildly Asian setting – farms and courts and no electric lights. (But no elves or dragons.) You just kind of accept this, as a reader, because, hey, why not? And the costumes are sweet. But there is this very tiny piece of magic in the mix, a very careful, deliberate magic, so careful and deliberate that it blows my mind here in the last book. The magic is embodied in creatures called andats, who are called into being by poets; the embodiment of concepts. Once a concept has been bound – and this binding takes physical form in something that looks human – it cannot be bound in the same way again. In the beginning, many, many generations before the start of this book, poets bound and released andats almost playfully not realizing there would be a cost down the road. A binding gone wrong – one that is too close in grammar to one already done – will result in the death of the poet.

So that’s where we are at the start of A Shadow in Summer, which details the plots of some failed poets, some not failed poets, women, and empires. I said this in the review for the first book, but the magic, the andat, is an almost-allegory for technology, a sort of nuclear power that can light up a thousand homes, or murder an entire culture. Take, for example, Seedless, the only andat we meet in Summer. He (and this pronoun is off – these are not gendered humans, but more on that later) can be called Removing That Which Continues, and this bound idea mostly works to remove the seeds from cotton – a cotton djinn. (Ba-dump-tss.) But he can also remove a gestating child, and he could, through his magic, cause every woman to miscarry in the enemy state of Galt, who, unlike the city-states of the Khaiem (in which these events occur), have to rely on the more mundane magic of steam ships and clever technology.

But the stories of these four books mostly follow the fortunes and misfortunes of two men, Otah and Maati. I’m sitting here staring at the cursor, trying to will an easy encapsulation of their relationship into being. These books occur at roughly 15 year intervals, so Otah, Maati, and all of the other players age and change, not just in the books, but in the interstitial periods between them. We met them as boys, and here they are men, old men, dealing with their failures and horrible successes, trying to salvage their lives, their legacies, and the inescapable fact that more of the candle has been burned than not. A lot more. 

The last book dealt with a war, and while it was not a civil war in the strictest of senses, it has become intimate in the aftermath and reparations. Civil in the sense of of or relating to citizens and their interrelations with one another or with the state. Again, I’m not saying this is Tolkien’s dreaded allegory, but this last book got me thinking abut our own American civil conflict, and the Reconstruction period just after. The andat – and these creatures view themselves, and are, slaves – are out of the world, the books burned, the poets put to the knife. The societies in question have to put the world back together, have to build an economy and a shared civil identity that isn’t predicated on that slavery, and they don’t like it at all.

And why would they? I sat there, as a reader, wanting to shake everyone. Maati, oh god, what you are doing is going to end in tears – and what he is doing is trying to build a women’s grammar to bind a new andat. (Of course, in this semi-medieval setting, women’s rights do not figure, and poets have always been men, which is dealt with so amazingly well that I amaze.) I mean, this is a personal tick of mine, but I believe strongly that fantasy, and especially high fantasy, almost always trades in nostalgia of one stripe or another. That nostalgia often works out to this faux medievalism where the ladies wear dresses and are chattel, but it’s okay, because harvesting grain and being pretty is so rewarding, yo! Not here. Abraham is so much better than this, and he addresses the gender imbalances, calls them into question, makes gender both the question and the answer. The good ole days were good because of slavery, so they weren’t good for everyone. It’s seriously awesome. 

As much as I wanted to shake Maati, at least when I wasn’t covering my eyes knowing that what he was doing was going to end in horrors, I was wanting to shake his friend/enemy, Otah, for doing things that have a terrible, necessary purpose on many levels, but were absolutely sickening. Otah, oh god, you get to take the high road in your own mind, but that’s such total bullshit. And the worst part? He even knows it. They all do. And they do what they do anyway because it makes sense. Because people are people. Because we all pine for lost countries, ones we even lived in, and want to make our perfected memories into perfect futures. The whole thing is bananas. 

All this blather I’ve been making about society and gender and stuff – ignore this. This is not why you should read this. You should read this because it has some of the most careful, beautiful character sketches, sketches that move through time, that build, that allow characters to make bad choices and be assholes, characters that try to do the right thing, who fail and burn and regret. I love that we see whole lives in this series, from young lovers to regretting widowers with bad knees. 

And another thing I say about fantasy: the land is character, the cities and places. There’s a moment in here where some characters (no spoilers) are in a ruined city, and they have this reverie about the food carts that used to ply the overgrown streets, how with your food, wrapped in careful paper, you would also receive a collection of seeds in a twist. After eating, you threw the seeds on the ground, and the birds that came to eat the seeds were a divination tool: a thrush for luck, a crow for bad omens. It’s throwaway, but it’s beautiful, and it’s careful. It’s a moment for a place that never existed, but never existed in a way that had its own customs. Omigod. Go read this series now.

(And the previous book, An Autumn War, and this can be found in the omnibus edition called The Price of War. So good.) 

Previous book  

An Autumn War: Anvils

I’ve realized something about Abraham’s writing. He shows you the anvil he’s going to drop on your head. There’s a sussurus of silk as he slowly lifts the cover away, a hint of jasmine in the air as you sip tea, growing cold the way everything warm does. You consider the anvil, the way it is dark and sits, anvil-like, unassuming as the inevitable. You watch it lift, slowly, and the servant that moves the pulleys pulls hand over hand, one fist in front of another. It’s beautiful, the way the lines stretch taunt, and then go slack, and then stretch taunt again. It’s like life in its consideration, a bowl going cold because you are too busy living to drink, and then you drink and it’s cold and regretful. 

And then the fucking anvil hits you on the head, and it’s not about how unassuming the anvil is, or its color or shape, but about how the expectation is not the same as the experience, and the experience is not the same as the aftermath. There are birds and little arcane symbols tweeting around your head, and you can’t understand how that damn black and metal thing hit you so hard because you knew it was coming. You saw it unwrapped, like a stiptease of your coming mortification. 

It took me forever to get through An Autumn War (The Long Price Quartet). I cheated on it with several other books, because I could feel that coming shock. This series is stagy like nobody’s business, and that is intentional, deliberate, one foot in front of the other, a chess move that moves the other pieces like a diagram. I don’t like military books, as a rule, because I’m a squirming girl who can’t handle glory. There’s no glory here, just ash and pain and a thousand bad and completely understandable choices that end in the worse and the incomprehensible. Good Lord, this anvil. It is hard and dark and made of metal. I will grope my way through the next book, but not right now. I’m going to lie down and consider the patterns on the insides of my eyelids for a while.


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A Betrayal in Winter

It pisses me off how good a writer Daniel Abraham is. It pisses me off more that you lot don’t seem to be reading him at all. I’m going to start buying his books and mailing them to you for your birthday, L. Ron Hubbard style. This is not an idle threat. 

 A Betrayal in Winteris the second in the Long Price Quartet. I always feel a little weird writing reviews for later books in series, because I’m going inevitably to drop spoilers from the first book. With that in mind, there may be mild spoilers for A Shadow in Summer, but that can’t be helped. (As an aside, I keep having to look up the names for these books as I write this review, which is a pretty serious problem, I think. I get how they work together thematically, or whatever, but they do not marry to their content well and are pretty forgettable. I never know who to credit/blame with titles – bad titles can be the fault of either writers or publishers, for different reasons – but these are straight up bad.)

A Betrayal in Winterstarts roughly a decade after the first book, in another city, with some cast changes. I really feel the absence of the character Amat at first, with her mashalled, gendered anger, but she’s found her corollary in Idaan. Maybe corollary is the wrong word; Idaan is more a cautionary tale. I keep getting surprised by these books, because they have this really sly, cutting gender commentary, and fantasy, Goddess bless it, often doesn’t. Come to think of it, books that deal with fantasies of one stripe or other often fall into gender ghettos. Fantasies for women play out one register of stereotypes; fantasies for men another. (Arguably, Fantasy with a capital F is fantasy for men. I do not say this to start fights.) When either kinds of fantasies play out in semi-medieval settings, I think you get a lot of sexist play-set action. Not so, here, at all. 

The plot is almost Shakespearean: the king is dying. There is no primogeniture; his sons will have to kill one another to determine succession. His daughters, well, they do not count. All of them are too old to start the killing game, but one of the four sons dies suddenly, of poison, in an opening gambit blamed on our Otah, our upstart, from the first book. This would probably have more frission with an Elizabethan audience, having just gone through the whole mess with, um, something historical that I have forgotten about? Scottish succession and what a total mess it was? Anyway, um, back to my point, which is that if I spend much more time outlining the plot, I’m going to make it sound like one of those court intrigue jobs that I have mixed success with. No. My Dad is fond of quoting the following aphorism: all politics are local. Then he winks and says: No, actually, all politics are personal. Sometimes I fall asleep when I’m reading court intrigue dramas because they forget the actors are people, and not just widgets in a system. At some point, one of the characters says, “We are all men under our robes,” which is beautiful and perfect, because they are, of course, when they are men. But sometimes they are women, and that makes a difference. That difference fuels some of the plot. 

There’s other loves for me in here. The first book set forward some fantasy mechanics that have deepened here. There’s the poets, who call into being andats – semi-living embodiments of an idea who are something between a metaphor and bound god. We met one in the first book, Seedless, and here we meet another, who changes our ideas of how the andats work, how metaphors work. There is still the gesture-language, not as fully utilized as in the last book, but one that puts a spin on the statements of characters in this book. And then there is the continuing metaphor of the sleeve, where people keep their correspondence, or have it spill on the pavement; the cloth that covers the wrist also conceals the heart, or reveals; the difference between the mask and the person, the clothes and the man. Or woman. Ah ah ah. 

I think this book could almost be read as a stand-alone text, something that makes me quake. I blame Tolkien’s editors for breaking LotR into three books when it should have been one, and giving later fantasists license to write a bunch of narratives that never culminate, never complete. I mean, sure, I like how Fellowship ends, with it’s downbeat incompleteness, but I can’t remember the break between Two Towers and King, and King is mostly appendix, and OMG, I’ll stop nerding out here. This book does not ramble to its end, to be begun again where it finished like after a nap. That said, there are things in Winter that tighten into the next arc, a late moment when I realized that the library is at the heart of the metaphors in a way that makes my booknerd soul become incandescent with glee. I’m really impressed, and you lot should get up off your asses and start reading Abraham right now. Now. 

(And this, and the previous book, A Shadow in Summer, can be be found packaged in an omnibus called Shadow and Betrayal. Get on that shit.) 

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A Shadow in Summer: The Cotton Djinn

Regularly, I spend maybe too much time agonizing about star-ratings, because they are dumb and evil and should be abolished. There’s a lot in A Shadow in Summerby Daniel Abraham to love – a lot – but I cheated on it with no less than three other books, profligate that I am, and usually when I get to cuckolding it is Not A Good Sign. But now, a week or so past when I finally finished this novel, I think the cheating was vital to my enjoyment. (Look at me justify the sluttiness!) No, seriously, this book is weird. It’s difficult to sum up the plot; the ideas are subtle, textured, and more intimate that the usual OMG SMASH SMASH of science fiction or fantasy.

And now, a random digression into genre. I fight Richard tooth and nail about the distinction between fantasy and scifi, because he’s always saying thing like, “I hate fantasy. All those godamn elves.” And then I point out that he totally hearts Neil Gaiman and Tolkien, so what is he talking about? And he says if it doesn’t have elves in it, it’s not fantasy. And then comes the name calling and taunting. When I went to class this book on my admittedly bullshit shelves here on GoodReads, I realized I’d internalized his hard line in the sand between genres – a book is either one or the other, with no meeting in the middle.

This book meets in the middle. There’s magic, but it is so tightly circumscribed as to be just a mind-blowing metaphor for the ways in which a technology encompasses a world view. Tolkien, in all of the snore-inducing extra-biblical writings about Middle Earth, re-writes God’s Divine Logos as a song, each life adding a note or chord into the chorus of history. Le Guin’s Earthsea books use word-magic, the idea of a pre-Fallen language, to sketch her ideas about the Tao. Even crappy young Christopher Paolini, not so much standing on the shoulders of giants as having a piggy-back ride, sees magic as resting in language, even if his magic is stupid and pointless.

In A Shadow in Summer, the magic is language-based, but language-based the way my computer is programmed. I have a really bad background in math, so I took a lot of logic classes in college because they count as math credit – it’s all, like, symbolic, man! So I’d translate an argument into a proof – all of those neat symbols adding up into incontrovertible proof of God’s existence one page, or His divine non-existence the other, and eventually that translation seemed as slippery as fish, as cold as fish, as fishy as fish. The proof is not proof, as they say. The argument can be watertight and wrong. “And” and “but” are both translated into the same symbol – & – but they do not have the same connotation.

Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that in this book, a group of people called “poets” call into being beings called “andats” who are slippery folk, fishy folk, complex non-persons who embody an idea. Much of the plot of ASIS deals with the andat Removing That Which Continues, who is commonly called Seedless. He’s person-like – he walks and talks but doesn’t really breathe – but he was called into being by a poet for the purposes of continuing the monopoly on the cotton trade that his culture enjoys. The previous andat ripened cotton; this one removes the seeds. As an almost unintended effect, Seedless also presides over the Sad Trade, as abortion is called in this reality. The andat are called and bound by poets after long study, and the failure to bind the idea results in the death of the poet. Released after the death of their poet, the andat returns to the great-unbeing, and calling them up again becomes harder and harder for later poets. 

Ideas are tricky; technology, magical as it is, is tricky. The pocket watch made of gears is rendered obsolete by the digital watch, not only because digital information is more useful to culture – arguably, arguably – but because the pocket watch was invented to compute longitude, and that’s simply not a concern in the digital age, because the digital is an analog for the analog, and we’ve harness the digital to entirely different ends. And now I’m talking nonsense, but I’m sure there’s something to my nonsense. Abraham’s andats are technology manifest – the way a new invention, a new idea, insinuates into our history almost compulsively – reworking what we think about society and people and the order of those things. How much of our ideas of the nation-state are dependent on the Bomb, the machine gun? How did the printing press reorder Medieval notions of God – and would the Enlightenment have happened without it? 

I’ve been blathering pseudo-metaphysically, but the beauty of this book is in how careful the character sketches are, how concise the language is. There were moments when I would ah-ah-ah ah ah – the way Abraham would describe the skin on almost-frozen water, or the moment of revelation when you see the possibilities blooming like blood into water, and I would be stopped cold by the power of his language. I’ve got some problems with the multi-volume fantasy/sf “trilogy”, and this is no exception: the first half is almost inert, stagy, setting the players very carefully on the playing field like little green army men about to work out their inevitable battle. But (and?) then in the latter half the characters come to life and start moving unexpectedly – not in violation with their characters, but in the way people make stunning choices that make sense only after the fact. Like logic, Abraham translates a technology into a person, a person who speaks back, who schemes and plans, and his translation turns on the subtle distinction between “and” and “but” – the diction of culture. 

There’s other clever things in this story – Abraham alludes to a language of posture that exists in the culture he’s created – how someone can say something, and then raise their arms to mean welcome or irony or gratitude. This takes some getting used to, but this is subtly done, the way some characters use this body language easily, and others don’t – how any ritualized behavior has implications as to cultural status and placement. My most giggle-producing moment was when I realized that Seedless is a Cotton Djinn – sound it out – maybe this is funny to me and maybe just me, but I wonder even now if that’s what Abraham intended, this sly pun that turns on the way translation is both funny and sad, bound by language that is untranslatable.



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Mists of Avalon: My Mythic Past

Many moons ago, when Clintons roamed the earth, I was in my first year of college. The broomball ice rink had melted, the grass was greening where it wasn’t yellowed by frat boy pee, and I dragged my mother’s copy of The Mists of Avalon out in front of the dorm with a blanket, and read. And read and read. People would come by, and bother me about stuff like eating and sleeping and classes, and I would wave them on, obsessed with the story I was reading, and the spring, and the sun.

This is by far my favorite reading experience. It was like a drug, like sex, like neither of these things, like itself. I would read, and my elbows would go numb, so I would lay on my back until my thumbs hurt, and then flip over again. I had read some Zimmer Bradley in high school and enjoyed it, Firebrand and the one about trapeze artists, but I hadn’t been swallowed by the story, hadn’t consumed it in turn, like I did with this book. She blew my post-adolescent mind with her view of history, of legend, of the long, dark story of men and women. 

She tells the Arthurian legend, but not in any way I had experienced it before. The protagonist is Morgan la Fey, who is usually one of the villains. Here she is a priestess of the Old Religion, the Druids, trying to hold her own as the Christians insinuate and change the whole of society around her. It’s not one of those perfect pasts; I remember long passages about the mind-numbing banality that is women’s work in any given culture. Gwenhyfar is something of a silly girl, Aurthur a bit of a clueless jock. Morgana prays to the goddess Ceridwen a bunch too, which warmed my heart, as that is what my parents named me. And tattoos! And sex! And a bunch of other stuff that had never, ever occurred to me before, because I was young, and it was spring, and maybe I was a little sheltered, but in a good way. 

Zimmer Bradley broke new ground with this book, in terms of feminist re-imaginings of the classics. She didn’t just put Morgan la Fey in a leather bustier, and have her shoot sex arrows at Arthur. (Hey man, I’m as sex-positive as the next feminist, but I’m pretty sure putting a historical figure in a bustier has nothing to do with wage parity.) She changed the form, used the language and modes of mass produced fantasy for women to utterly subvert the ideas of literature, of women’s literature. 

I don’t know if you’ve watched soaps recently, but mostly characters sit around the kitchen and talk about other characters. It’s like this mirror world, reflected back from the kitchens where the shows are watched. Zimmer Bradley uses this kind of comfortable feminine form to turn the legend upside down and shake all the change out of its pockets. History is important, right? the purview of important men and their important modes of speech. Zimmer Bradley tackles this most manly of subjects using the language of women, and it was a stroke of genius. (Although, the Arthur stuff is maybe the most girly of all the big legends: no unified text, a sort of gossipy, back-and-forth quality of many of the tales, love triangles, love potions. I mean, Knights of the Round Table? You might as well be the Knights of the Giant Metaphorical Vagina. But, whatever.)

I’ve never read The Mists of Avalon again, and I don’t think I ever will. It’s too located in my own private history, too perfect. I have a feeling returning this book would be cringe-inducing, and I’d be confronted by a story in need of an editor and an unsubtle view of men and women and religion. My memory is a way to experience my younger self, and my rating reflects that. It’s spring again, and I’m feeling nostalgic for springs past, for books past, for selves past. You’d probably have to be a naive, confident girl from the Midwest, living at the beginning of the end of the millennium, to love this book like I do. It’s possible you may have whatever oddball collection of character traits that will make you love this book too. I hope so.

Io9 Quotes Me in a Cute Little Article of Happy Making Science Fiction!

Many moons ago I wrote a sappy little review for Mists of Avalon over on Goodreads.com. Breaking my usual rule of not reviewing things I hadn’t just read – I cannot trust younger me not to entirely miss the point – I instead focused on the reading experience. It was spring, and I was nostalgic. So io9, doing a round up of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels to Cheer You the Frak Up quoted my nostalgia piece. Awww.

The interesting thing to me is that I have been thinking a lot about the effects of nostalgia on our assessments of the fantasy genre, both as it is located in the genre itself, and as that pertains to the readership. A lot of fantasy – and I’m talking here mostly of high fantasy, the kind set in faux medieval settings with kings and questing and the like – is often heavily nostalgic for Ye Olde Times, when men could be men and women could be chattel or nonexistent.

Some of this is just the simplification of the historical record, which is inevitable. There is simply no way to record all of history, and it gets winnowed and simplified down to the Coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800, then the Battle of Hastings, 1066, then maybe the Crusades/Plague Years and then Boom! Renaissance! The ways that history gets elided makes us think that somehow politics and economics and all that jazz were somehow less complex than it is today. (Though, admittedly, without instantaneous communications and with a much smaller population, there were fewer players acting on a longer time scale.) Add in the fact that history tends to be recorded by those with the means to record – freedom of the press being limited to those who own one, etc – and you have a recipe for a modern vision of medieval Europe that doesn’t reflect the actual shitshow it was for huge swaths of the population.

So, on that level, I can kinda understand how fantasy writers tend to build these little heraldic semi-Klingon empires with all of their honor and pretty, pointless ladies. (If indeed there are ladies at all; I’m looking at you, Tolkien.) But then I also just get depressed a little because these are modern writers who are writing to a modern audience, and why is this fantasy of white, male, monarchic dominance seen as a good thing? I’m an American, and while I often don’t have a lot to be happy about in our history, the fact that we threw Old George III over and built a functioning democracy – nevermind that our methods and motives might have been way less than pure, lalala – is something I am very proud of. Fuck hereditary monarchy.

So, regardless of how Mists of Avalon might read to me now, I was just bowled over at 19 by a  fantasy world that not just included women, but included women who mattered, who were political, and interrogated the whole business of monarchy, power, religion & what have you. It is very easy to be dismissive of this time in my life – O, Lilith Fair, O, Tori Amos – but it was a godamn revelation to see people like me – by which I mean with vaginas – in a genre that tended to take for granted that a Heroic Mythic Past was one predicated on the subjugation of my entire gender.

And, just to be clear, I am aware how phrases like “subjugation of my entire gender” sound. This is the thing: given how common it is to find depressing, regressive gender roles in a genre that exalts the cultures that enforce them, I truly believe that the take home message, whether intended or not, is that depressing, regressive gender roles are a proximal condition for said exalted cultures. I may be but a lowly lady, but I think that is utter bullshit. Nostalgia, as I have said before, is memory without shame. We shouldn’t be ashamed of the mythic past – we were not there – but we should be ashamed of exalting pasts that were predicated on subjugation. Which might possibly be all of them, unfortunately.

Well, that ended on a sour note. I’m going to go hang out in my house full of electricity and running water, exalting in my right to vote.