Category Archives: magic

Nebula Nominees: Ironskin

Retellings of Gothic and/or Romantic classics in this here age of the happy ending are fraught with dangers. Plucky girls are given pluck and beauty, in defiance of people who are oh so jealous of them, and not much else; growling, terrible, inhuman assholes like Rochester and Heathcliff are neutered down to lapdogs like Edward Cullen; and the very worst of all: everything works out in the end. There should be fire and death and blood on the moors. Which is not to say that Jane Eyre, from which Ironskinwas heavily cribbed, doesn’t work out in some ways, just that the ways it works out aren’t facile natterings about Jane’s plainness. 

But, before I let my irritation get the best of me, let me back up. I read this because I’d idly picked it up off a library display last week, and just a few days later, learned it was one of the nominees for the 2012 Nebula Award. I have an equally idle thought of reading (or attempting to read) all of the five before May, but I know my track record when I assign myself homework, i.e. not good. 

Ironskinstarts credibly enough, with a war-damaged Jane Eyre Eliot starting her employ as governess for daughter of the growling and elusive Mr. Rochart. Helen Burns is transformed into Jane’s sister Helen, a sort of Holly Golightly ingenue type. Jane herself isn’t a battered, abused orphan, but a girl who was scarred late in the Great War, a WWI analog, but with the fey this time instead of Germans. Having written all that out, I’m impressed I didn’t dash this book down in the first pages, because put baldly, all of that sucks. (I mean, Jane had a brother Charlie? Bah.) 

All of this, of course, being the problem of being too closely hitched to the Jane Eyre plot, because the first half is decent if you ignore the intertext. I liked the just-after-the-war vibe, all that Lost Generation desperation. I’m maybe not as excited about Jane’s wounded face, impregnated with a leaking fey curse that must be covered with a mask; it felt too much like using an acquired disability as metaphor. Or, that’s not really fair, because Jane’s curse is dealt with okay in the first half. The curse is anger that leaks and affects those around her, and as someone whose main character flaw may be wrath, I appreciated how pissed Jane was, how she struggled with positioning her masks and calming the fires within. 

Jane’s charge is also fey-cursed, but uniquely so: whole-bodied, but with strange, unnatural gifts. Rochart is some kind of artist, always vanished into his tower, and altogether a watered down version of the Romantic psycho. All of the requisite myths are hat-tipped: Bluebeard, Tam Lin, Beauty & the Beast. At a certain point the plot diverges from Jane Eyre though, centering on some high society hijinks and the desire by silly women to be beautiful at all costs, costs that include being a Trojan horse for the fey. Even our plain Jane gets in on the superficiality, but desiring only to be “normal”, not beautiful, because she’s, you know, ennobled by suffering and all that. Rochart feels all bad about his part in the fey business, but it wasn’t really his fault because reasons. 

Jesus, is this what we’re taking from Jane Eyre today? That how women look & their facile desire to be beautiful is a threat to the entire human race? That Rochester was luggage in the thrall of fey beauty – boo hoo I know not what I did? Rochester was an asshole and Jane loved him, and even though both of these things were true, she walked away from him. She was a fiercely moral creature who suffered because of her morality, because love is a bitch goddess who can set your heart for assholes, and not because she was plain to look upon. Godamn does this ending piss me off. 

I think the thing that really gets me is that this whole mess had potential, and I do like how Connolly writes. This Jane’s mid-book revelations about how to manage her anger felt true to me, as did how she worked with her charge. Look, I know much of my anger is about my Jane Eyre, and my feelings of ownership over that text are probably unfair. (Though, of course, comparisons are invited by the obvious intertext; that’s the Faustian deal you make when you hitch your cart to the Romantic wagon.) But even stripping out my irritation with the use of my Jane, all this mask and beauty business was sloppy, badly considered stuff, with a lot of shitty implications if you think about it for, like, 15 seconds. Probably not getting my vote for the Nebula, not that I have one. 

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories

Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Storiesis a cromulent collection of short stories, though uneven like most (maybe all) multi-author collections. I do appreciate the emphasis by editor Kelly Link on steampunk stories outside of the now-iconic Victorian London steampunk setting. I like the thickly urban setting – it’s what drew me to the sub-genre in the first place – but I can get fiercely irritated with the way some steampunk fetishizes the upper class twit of the year with his goggles and laboratory that I sometimes find in that setting. So, to the individual stories.

“Some Unfortunate Future Day” by Cassandra Clare: Inoffensive piece of atmosphere that fails to say anything at all, cutting out right when the real narrative choices need to be made. The daughter of a mad scientist is abandoned by her father to go fight in some ill-defined war, leaving her in the care of Romantic talking dolls in a crumbling Gothic house. A soldier falls out of the sky, which leads to a lot of naive narrative imaginings from the girl, and then the obvious use of a Chekhovian timepiece and then…the end! It’s like a chapter cut out of a larger narrative where all the implications come to fruition in the next chapter. But the story is pretty enough, I guess, and the only thing I really hated was the entirety of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64 used as an epigraph. Seriously, who does that for a short story? Ugh. 

“The Last Ride of the Glory Girls” by Libba Bray. I would absolutely kill for a Glory Girls novel, which is not to say this doesn’t function as a short story. Reminded me strongly of Firefly, with its frontier planet full of harsh religion and frontier cruelties, written in a stylized dialect that totally works. Pinkertons, train heists, girl bandits, divided loyalties: all the things that make Old West stories a hand-to-hand combat of colonialism. There is also arresting baptism by sludge sequence here, a very tactile metaphor for the industrial revolution, etc etc. 

“Clockwork Fagin” by Cory Doctorow. Very anecdotal story, told in the first person by a boy matriculating in an orphanage of children mangled in punk-shifted industrial factories. “Clockwork Fagin” is obviously a Dickens riff – Fagin was the antagonist in Oliver Twist - with its social consciousness and the plight of youngsters in the industrial machine. Full marks for being a story that doesn’t fetishize the corsets and monocles set, instead focusing on the organized rebellion of the working class. Workers of the world, unite! 

“Seven Days Beset by Demons” by Shawn Cheng. Seven deadly sins in comic form with perplexing steampunk ornament and terrible lettering. At least it’s short. 

“Hand in Glove” by Ysabeau S. Wilce. Too smart for her own good detective gets on the trail of a serial killer, despite an indigent man having already been convicted to hang for the murders. Some of the plot mechanics were unsuccessful – I didn’t like the mad scientists much – but the narrative voice is snappy, and the overall aims of the story worthy. The ways entrenched bureaucracies, like the police force, use and abuse science are always worth examining. 

“Ghost of Cwmlech Manor” by Delia Sherman. Not really to my taste, but a goodhearted little story. Cwmlech Manor is haunted by the ghost of the once mistress of the manor, killed in the English Civil War by Cavaliers looking for loot. The main character is a plucky girl type, who is pragmatic about her romanticism. 

Best of all, I loved the story that went with [Cwmlech Manor] – very romantic and a girl as the hero – a rare enough thing in romantic tales, where the young girls always act like ninnies and end up dead of a broken heart, often as not.

You can see the grammar is tortured, but the sentiment is neat. Her remark about the legend ends up describing her own story. Go girls. 

“Gethsemane” by Elizabeth Knox. A perplexing story, one with interesting themes that never came together satisfactorily for me. The setting on a Caribbean island (?) was cool, as were the racial themes: passing, folklore, even the old school non-Romerian zombie. But the plot ranged over too many characters, and shifted perspectives weirdly. I admit I just didn’t get it, but I suspect there was something here to get. 

“The Summer People” by Kelly Link. Editor, edit thyself! Which is a bitchy thing to say, and I don’t really mean it. This isn’t a bad story at all, but its steampunk elements are so nominal as to make it feel like a shoehorn job in the collection. It’s not even so much that I don’t think magic has a place in steampunkery – there’s a growing body of dash-punk work out there that shifts history by magic instead of technology – but that this magic doesn’t really do that. That said, I enjoyed this story about a girl tasked with minding the summer people, who we first are to understand are summer vacationers to her poor, rural setting. I liked her relationship with a vacationer-turned-resident, a girl who is slightly enamored of all the folksy poverty, which is of course only folksy to outsiders. The ending is a bit obvious, and the denouement more truncated than I would like, but a good story anyway. Fine, Kelly, you win. 

“Peace in Our Time” by Garth Nix. I’m on record as a Nix fan, but the more I see of his short fiction, the more I think he shouldn’t write it. The narrative voice was daft and grated, and the characterization poor. It wasn’t so much a story as a situation, one that ended in a OH DO YOU SEE? reveal that hearkened to the hokiest of Twilight Zone endings. Bah. 

“Nowhere Fast” by Christopher Rowe. Another short story that ends right before it should get interesting, where the real conflicts are going to begin. I don’t feel as irritated by this as the Clare short story, because at least this world is aiming for something more than pretty but useless. This is one of those post-apocalyptic utopias that no one bothers to write anymore – two generations past peak oil in a fiercely local America. A boy in a car, of all things, shows up in town, which kicks over a bunch of anthills. Given how bound up in our national identity the automobile is, it was interesting to consider the American landscape without them. 

“Finishing School” by Kathleen Jennings. Another comic. Slender reimagining of the invention of flight, this time by a daughter of Scottish and Chinese parents who is stuck in an Australian school for girls. Nice metaphors of girlish exuberance. When a friend’s mom got divorced, she took Amelia as a middle name. We long for flight sometimes, and sometimes we should get it. 

“Steam Girl” by Dylan Horrocks. I think I’m going to call this one out as the stand out of this collection. A nerdy, chubby boy semi-befriends a poor, outcast girl. She tells him stories of Steam Girl, an obvious self-avatar grown long-limbed and beautiful in her pulpy imaginings. Horrocks has a good sense of the teenage outcast – not the romantic one, with his bangs in his eyes, but the real kind: uncomfortable in his body, clueless, and slightly horndoggish, but not in a particularly nasty or cruel way. Escapism is important for people who have something to escape from, and this story is so sensitive to that equation. 

“Everything Amiable and Obliging” by Holly Black. Fine, I guess, but I don’t think all the implications of the central metaphors here were considered, so I feel all squicky in the end. A girl falls in love with a house automaton, and her family tries to dissuade her from her love of the dancing instructor robot. He’s part of the hive consciousness of the house, and there’s a lot of shouting and stuff about loving robots designed to give you exactly what you want. That’s not the squick part for me. The squick part was when this was equated with the other girl’s lack of agency in her own relationships, and then my brain started shouting, but wait! Are we characterizing the working class as automata? Are we really saying girls lack agency? I can see where Black was going with this, I just don’t think it was thought out enough. 

“The Oracle Engine” by M. T. Anderson. A Roman steampunk story. And not modern Roman, but the Classical kind. Holy shit, but this was fun. Written in that gossipy historian’s voice, the one that relates a bunch of folklore and quotes the classics, and then pulls back demurely and says there isn’t any basis for that conjecture. I was fully expecting a Mechanical Turk at the center of this story, which, if you are not familiar with the concept, was a chess-playing engine invented in the 18th C, but turned out to be a dude hiding in a box and not an automaton at all. (Amazon has named it’s crowd-sourcing venture after this, and this enterprise is why capchas have gotten so freaking annoying.) That would have been neat, but the actual center of the story is so much cooler and weirder. GIGO. 

Oh, and also? The scientific ornament was brilliant. Archimedes almost invented calculus, for crissakes, and while there’s no guarantees that the lunatics of the Middle Ages wouldn’t have lost his discoveries – like they did with how to make concrete - had Archimedes’s discoveries become widely known, it is a fun thought experiment to consider.

Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

When I read Yellow Blue Tibia, I was struck by the lack: why isn’t there more more Soviet Noir? It seemed obvious when I saw it there: the world-weary gumshoe, the crushing, predatory bureaucracy, the hidden history that is the very history of authoritarian regime. The official story is such glossy fiction, wrapped like a carapace over the bleeding sinew of the body politic. Yellow Blue Tibiais less alternate history and more historiography, the speculative fiction of national narrative and the secret speech that underpins it. Though, of course, Americans were the most well voiced creators of the Noir genre, Noir seems attuned to the Soviet history in a weird way. The commissioner won’t just bust you down to the beat, but disappear your ass to the gulag. Soviets had some of the most fabulously Noir bureaucracies ever built, only sputteringly efficient, capricious, and absolutely deadly. 

 Wolfhound Centuryis a strange animal, existing in the tidal edges of genre, the marshlands that are moving silt. Backwater police Inspector Vissarion Lom is called in by high ranking police official in the capitol city Mirgorod to investigate a Moriarty-ish terrorist, and gets caught up in the wheels within wheels of the Noir plot. I wouldn’t call this densely plotted, as at least part of the time has to be spent introducing us to the world. In this, Wolfhound Centuryprobably has some similarities with Mieville’s The City & The City. And I say “probably” just because I’ve never read The City & The City, but gossip has it that the detective plot of C&C is maybe perfunctory, while the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma are not. I felt there was a good balance of world building and happening here, anyway, and the action is relatively breathless, if you’re into that sort of thing. Short chapters, shifting points of view, a fair amount of bloodshed once the stakes start escalating like floodwaters. 

Much of the ornament and language is Soviet Russian, something I once knew enough about to be smart, but that has gone hazy for me. Still though, Mirgorod (which translates to “world city” or “peace city”) and its origin myths smack hard of Peter the Great, standing out over the swamp that would become St Petersberg with his near seven feet. Or the Akhmatova hat-tip, or the fact that the secret police are call the NKVD (this the precursor to the KGB), or any of a hundred things. But this is not our world, not an alternate history in the strictest sense. The Vlast with its great unconquerable forests stretching off to the west, the steampunk-ish mudjhiks, the fairy tale palubas like some thing Baba Yaga would create, the fallen angels hard and stony: all of these strange, fantastical things shift the Soviet history, twist it. All in all, I get the impression that Higgins’s grasp of history is very, very good, and his choice to set this in an alternate reality is pointed, not lazy. 

I probably don’t even need to say this isn’t going to work for everyone – no novel does, even your darlings – but it sure worked for me. I usually get really cranky when writers eschew the alternate history in favor of Bullshit Fantasy Planet, where the writer constructs a near-simulacrum of a time period, but then fudges the details for the needs of the protagonists. (Later day steampunk is guilty of this a good deal, and high fantasy, don’t even get me started.) But that is not what happens here. This isn’t so much alt-history as coded history: the extremity of the details, the weirdness, the bent genres, all calling into relief the ugly extremity of history, its non-inevitability despite the fact that it happened, and so on. There’s a time leakage at the center of the plots, a breakage of possible futures and presents, and given the harsh relief between lived lives and the propagandistic gloss under Stalin, this sort of fantastic time slippery is just a beautiful metaphor. 

There’s a character called Vishnik here, a member of old aristocracy who, for a time, managed to hide his manored upbringing. But discovery was inevitable, and he was deposed from the university where he taught. He became an archivist of Mirgorod, a sinecure which he more or less takes seriously. He has been recording the moments when the possible present splits from the actual one, and those moments are stoppingly beautiful, half out of time and within it like a gestating creature. There are dog’s brains within armored suits which smash the way they must. There are fallen angels – harshly alien – who are at war with the forest. God, this kind of encoding and inflection makes me all giddy, especially hitched to a Noir plot that has breathless short chapters that run and scream from one encounter to the next. 

Here’s the thing: I’m not pumped about this ending. I don’t hate it. I get why we end in the marshlands outside Mirgorod, in the interstitial place of sinking land and silted water. That part works for me. 

The world and everything in it, everything that is and was and will be, was the unfolding story of itself, and every separate thing in the world – every particle of rock and air and light, every life, every thought and every event – was also a story, its own story, the story of everything becoming more like itself and less like everything else. The might-be becoming the is. The winter moths, on their pheromone trails, intent on love and flight, were heroes.

But the confrontation between antagonists drags, feeling like this itchy diversion before the real confrontations, which, whoops, apparently won’t be happening in this book. I suppose I could work a justification here for why the book never comes to the final crisis – blah blah, something about the insignificance of individual will versus the state kind, etc – and certain personal trajectories are completed satisfactorily, but if there isn’t a second book, I will be a cranky cat indeed. So, Mr Peter Higgins, get on that shit.

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.

Previous book 
Next book 

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.) 

Previous book 
Next book 

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.

Next book 

The Demon Lover: Tam Lin in Newford

For the last month, I’ve been working my way through the ridiculous number of NetGalley titles I downloaded in a big frenzy once I remembered I had an account there. Of course I started with the stuff I knew was in my wheelhouse, to very good results. So time to start in on the less likely stuff! I’m generally not looking for taxing on my Sunday on the couch reads (or Sunday on the back porch, in more clement weather), and I figured something called The Demon Lover (by Juliet Dark, of course) with that cover would fit the bill. There’s a whole passel of books that have more or less that cover, and they tend to be young adult paranormal romance type stuff. Observe:

I’m not casting aspersions here, just making observations (partially because I have not read any of these books in question.) But given general impressions from reviews of similarly covered books, I figured I knew what I was in for here: young girl, maybe some tragedy in her young life to make her “deep”, meet cute with a bad boy/otherworldly creature, sudden love bordering on obsession, lots of angsting and misreading of the classics of Romantic literature. (Sorry to say, kids, but Cathy and Heathcliff can never be made to have a happy ending, and if they do, they are not Cathy and Heathcliff. Character is bloody destiny in that instance.)(Just kidding. I’m not sorry to say it.) But whatever Chardonnay-snorting near-snobbery from me aside, often these kinds of books have a vibrating energy to them, a pulse of often deeply misguided, but very real passion. You can do worse on a Sunday after reading a collection of considered, thoughtful, careful prose. Sometimes I don’t want to think but feel. 

So it was hugely surprising to me to find a musing, allusive, and referential novel here, complete with affectionate send-ups of academia and an almost matter-of-fact tone. Callie McFay – and I will take this moment to note that the names are awful, across the board – McFay barf is an adjunct professor type who has had some minor success with a Master’s-thesis-turned-pop-criticism book about vampires in the contemporary Gothic, and is now figuring out whether to publish or perish. She’s got a long-term long-distance bi-coastal relationship, and has obviously read a lot of Bakhtin, Gilbert & Gubar, and Marina Warner. Not that those things are related, making for a terrible sentence from me. Anyway, she decides to go in for a small college in upstate New York because of feelings, and pretty much all of the bitchy things I said would happen come to pass, except for the misreading of the classics part. Ms McFay (barf) has the Gothic classics down. And goddamn right. Oorah. 

If I were writing a blurb for this novel, which I would never be asked to do because my sentences heretofore have been for shit, I would say: Pamela Dean’s Tam Linmeets Charles de Lint‘s Newford. On acid. Actually, just kidding about the on acid part; that’s just a bad joke about blurbcraft. But The Demon Loverhas the everyday boringness (and I mean this mostly kindly) of Dean’s college fairy tale, and the nose-picking earnest wonder of de Lint’s “North American” - this means Canadian - city and its denizens. (I kind of can’t believe what a bitch I’m being here, and I’m sorry.) I had to swear off reading any more de Lint (except for short fiction) because of inherent blackness in my heart – Newford is just too wonderful for me – so the parts of this that reminded me of that fell flat. But Dean’s Blackstone College is pretty much my collegiate soul, so split differences at will. 

There are many aside observations here I enjoyed about the contemporary Gothic and its workings, but ultimately the action of the prose didn’t do it for me, and I can’t figure what the thesis might be, if you’ll allow me academical phrasing on this. Ms McFay falls in with an incubus, that soul-sucking Romantic/Gothic fantasy of the perfectly Byronic, tragic dude, and while I appreciated the clear-eyed, innuendo-less conversations about what that might mean, I had a hard time connecting with the emotional stakes. Some of this is tone, which is more sensible than usually found in Gothic romance. But certainly, this could be a function of my long-married pragmatic heart, which doesn’t have much patience with dramatic passion with assholes and users anymore. That is too much like work, and the rewards of not being sucked dry and killed by your lover are pretty awesome, especially if you don’t have the dress-billowing mania to make up for the whole Romantic death business. Lest I sound too negative, I do appreciate how this all works out for McFay, and the hard choices she makes, I just…I’m going to have to admit I’m getting old here. Gothic romance is freaking exhausting, which is possibly the take-home message here, which makes this book a little bit awesome. 

So, anyway, enjoyably smart fun, though maybe not the kind of fun advertised on the tin. And I downloaded this because I really wanted to get to The Water Witch, whose cover was much more enticing to me. Billowy dresses, you’re fine and all, but half-naked chicks rising out of the water? That’s the show. We’ll see what happens next Sunday on the couch.

Murder of Crows by Athena

I’m not sure how to review, per usual with my 3-star outings, which in my universe means “I liked it” just to be clear. The prose and a lot of the ornament, characters, and set-pieces really worked for me. The overall structure of the novel and its pacing did not. I was confounded at least once in my expectation that this was paranormal romance, which is a problem of my expectations, and not of the book. It is closer to dark fantasy, nearer in tone to Neil Gaiman than Karen Marie Moning. Maybe Charles de Lint is the best comparison. 

Fable Montgomery returns to Portland to deal with her beloved Aunt Celeste’s murder. The opening is slow, the hot cop and his chilly female partner settling in for some round-the-clock surveillance, with what I felt like was the usual hand-wringing about pasts and lost opportunities and tense conversations, cut with a little spooking for fun. The fairy statue keeps moving whyyyy? Then, the whole thing shifted leftwise, and the air filled with feathered beings and the house filled with funny, drunk aunts, and I really started enjoying myself. 

Fable is whisked to a otherworld called Aria, learning her lost history and managing her grief for her aunt. I find these paranormal otherlands pretty great landscapes for characters to work out grief. It’s a good metaphor because the world no longer makes sense without the loved one in it, its customs antique and occult, and if only she were living everything would make sense. Fable flounders, learning the way we often do more about her aunt in death than she knew in life. We sit in rooms, hearing stories from those who knew the dead in ways we couldn’t or didn’t, and it’s an otherworld. That this otherworld is also cut with half-remembered childhood – the way the lost family member is also the loss of childhood on some level – that was some seriously cool stuff. 

As I said, the ornament here is fantastic, in both senses of the word, and there’s some great stuff involving evil ravens that bloom out of tattoos on the edge of a knife, or the landscape blurring past in the arms of what is morphologically an angel. However, I don’t think this is a spoiler to say that Fable’s past is a secret history, a childhood in Narnian escapes run to amnesia for occult reasons, a common enough trope in fantasy literature to be both familiar and frustrating. She catches up much slower than I would prefer, especially given the complex backstory and world-building that is attempted in the blank space of her memory, characters allowed to explain at length what is going on, but not what really is going on. The expository restraint was too restrained. 

I think I’ve said this before, but an intrinsic problem with modern characters swooped into fantasy worlds is that that characters have to spend too much time on the exposition couch mutteringthis is not happening. We as readers know they are in a fantasy novel, but they don’t, and while it would blow character believability to have them accept their new fantastic surroundings too fast, it’s still a little frustrating to watch them flounder. This can can be made up for by the potential for neat, anachronistic – this is the wrong word, but whatever – dialogue, where fantastic creatures ask about the most recent season of Survivor, or Fable drops an f-bomb. Maybe this is sounding like a cut-down, but I really do dig this, when modern folk rub shoulders with all the ye gads fol de rol of the Grimmish mythic idiom, and the modern folk get all Buffy dialogue up in the house. Good. 

The device of the lost manuscript – Fable writes a seemingly prescient account of the novel’s proceedings in a near swoon, which is then stolen but for precious pages – is deployed somewhat clumsily. At times it is this nifty almost postmodern commentary on linearity in story and the whole bothersome fate business in fantastic fiction, and at others it’s a tiresome infodump that set me itching to skim. The lost manuscript folds up really nicely in the end, so my issue is more structural than anything – I think there could have been a mechanism other than the bald reading-out of the pages that transpires. 

Though I said this wasn’t paranormal romance, and it isn’t, there is a love story on the edge of the proceedings, which in many ways I dug. Fable’s not some half-assed virginal dimbulb who doesn’t understand her own feeeelings down there. And while I said that her love interest was functionally an angel, the fact that dude is part bird is understood and freaked out about as the partial bestiality it is. No, he’s not a dumb beast, but he isn’t exactly human either, right? Maybe this sounds like a turn-off – oh noes, TEH BESTIALITY – but I really dig when writers own the unsafe edges of these creatures and their hybrid natures. 

This bit here is an actual spoiler, I think, dealing with something that happens very late in the book. It isn’t, like, totally plot pivotal, but it is an aspect of the love interest’s relationship that is pretty central. SPOILERS. Anyway, the only thing that flipped my shit – and I admit this is a personal hang up of mine – is that my eyes roll back into my head whenever the mate-for-life trope is activated. And when angel man high-handedly pulled off some lifelong “mating” with Fable without her knowledge or consent, I was eye-rolling. This wasn’t as coercive as I’ve seen it done before when the trope comes up – there are complexities due to the secret history which make consent/identity/etc murky – and the lead up was cooler and more sexy than usual – but mate-for-life still ticks me off.

I think my real problem is I don’t get the point of the mate-for-life trope in fiction, except as a pander to lame, simplistic readerly or authorial instincts. This man is not just true-blue, he’s so true-blue he’s biologically incapable of loving someone else ever! No worries, forever! (See, for example, the treatment of Jacob and all of the other imprinted wolves in the Twilight books.) And one that introduces ethical and behavioral complications no writer yet has taken on, as far as I’ve seen. So, he’s bound for life to his mate? And she is not in the same manner? What happens when, in a couple months when the thrill is gone for her, she tries to leave? Or even, let’s give it 20 years, and they’re empty nesters (har-de-har-har) who have grown increasingly apart, and she discovers the writings of Erica Jong? He descends into martyred alcoholism? Or does he kill her because he owns her in his mind? 

Love is an emotion, and never unconditional or unbreakable. Nor should it be, imao; people are capable of terrible, love-destroying acts, and while it’s tempting to pull out a bunch of genocide and other rhetorical point-scorers to make my point, even some of the more garden variety betrayals and cruelties should not (or cannot) be forgiven or gotten over. That someone could be stuck in a love relationship he has no emotional agency within – literally forced to love – regardless of anything the other person does, this strikes me as seriously depressing. Admittedly, I’m a bitter old crank though, and given how often I run into mate-for-life motifs, I’m probably an outlier in freaking out about it. And, the way it was used here was more to establish our fella as a gauzy dreamboat with feeelings, which is the best of the options with this trope. /SPOILERS

Again, this is not a huge part of their relationship, and in other regards I liked the ways they interacted and related, especially Fable’s checkered romantic history and her general competence despite the weirdness and danger going on here. There’s another situation that impinges on her autonomy, but that is also politically sensitive. She doesn’t lay out an offensive monologue about how unfair it is waa-waa, and then everyone reorders their civilization to make her feel better – something I see happen a lot in fantasy; Mary Sue reorders it all. Nor does she dissolve into a dishrag, but wends to a third option. That’s neat. 

So. I enjoyed this world and its characters. There’s a lot of there there, and some real comings to terms with grief and lost childhood. However, the plot felt thin, with no solid payoffs, and the ending dot-dot-dots to the next installment in what I felt was a frustrating manner. This felt like scene-setting or prologue, and the ending is not so much a cliffhanger as an indecisive break. Which bums me out, because there is certainly something here. All that said, I think I’m on the hook for the next installment. First novels are what they are, and given the strengths of this one, there’s a lot of potential. And actual and fantastical. Which, boo yah. Plus, I adore the cover. 

(And, just a final aside, although I almost never, ever do this, I was approached by the author on GR offering me a copy, and the description was honestly interesting to me. I bought it fair and square, because I geek out a little about direct transactions between authors and readers, but she did kindly send me a cleaned up copy about halfway through my read. As a self-pub, the usual typos had slipped though the editing process – I noticed a few before I switched to the new version – but have since been expunged. So. Here is your stupidly detailed full disclosure abut how I exchanged a few emails with Athena, who seems like a really cool lady. The end.)

Stormdancer: Huge Tangents

First off, I’m going to put in my Nice White Lady disclaimer, which is that, as a middle-class white lady, I have shaky standing to speak to how cultural appropriations read to members of the cultures appropriated. While I may be aware that I am the recipient of enormous cultural privilege, by virtue of that very privilege, I am inevitably going to be blind to certain things. Just take a look at the clusterfuck that is Racefail - and actually, other resources here; this whole thing is such an unbelievable googlehole – which starts with a Nice White Lady addressing the issue of how white people might go about writing non-white characters without being a dick about it. (Here is where I complain about the terminology I have at hand. Throughout Racefail, the acceptable nomenclature is Person of Color, which gets abbreviated as PoC, which strikes me as…inelegant. Non-white is used a lot too, but both non-white and people of color are these huge fucking rhetorical catch-alls that lack the crap out of nuance, and have the additional problem of encoding race as a binary, which is obviously bullshit.) Several people point out that her thinking on the matter is somewhat racially tone deaf – you can’t just file the serial numbers off of white characters and make them members of a different culture. We may all be humans and stuff, but our treatment at the hands of other humans due to appearance or accent or cultural membership fundamentally affects how a character thinks and feels. At this point, the whole conversation goes completely insane and people start shouting about how they are not racists, etc. 

Rather than get into all the twists and turns of Racefail, the thing I found so demoralizing about it was how quickly the conversation about cultural appropriations and writing cross-culturally – genuinely interesting and important topics – turned into an almost all-white wank about who has standing to comment in the first place, whether classism is more important than racism, and the usual toolbox of derailing tactics. And, I know I like to link to this a lot, but I really like this video about the difference between the What You Did conversation and the What You Are Conversation. White people like to freak out and act like getting called out for saying some racist stuff – and I’m not talking about hardcore obviously KKK level shit, but just the dumb shit we say (and I am including myself here) that displays our cluelessness or ignorance – means that the person calling us out called us a Racist™ – the hardcore obviously KKK level kind. Which is probably my Nice White Lady way of saying that when I enact my own personal racefails in this here essay – which certainly could happen – please just call out my words so I don’t have my feelings hurt, because lord knows, being called a racist when you obviously aren’t – I have several black friends! – is so much worse than actually being racist. 

Fantasy, Steampunk, and the Mythic Past

There’s been some chatter about this interview with Jay Kristoff on the bookonets where he cops to the fact that most of his source material for the Japanese-inflected steampunk novel Stormdancer is pop cultural stuff like anime and manga. On a genre level, I don’t really have any problems with this, because steampunk is a pulp genre, not concerned with strict historical or cultural accuracy. Oh, shit, you guys, I feel a huge sermonette about genre coming on, because I have some serious things with that little genre. My Ideas About Steampunk: Let Me Show You Them. 

So, steampunk has its roots as an off-shoot of cyberpunk, and at its roots, its concerns are alt-historical and somewhat science fictional. The early stuff I encountered, mostly starting with my man William Gibson, kinda blew my mind by relocating the futurism of the past back into the past, like if the House of the Future actually came to pass like Disney envisioned, or Jules Verne, or whoever. There’s this really great story called “The Gernsback Continuum” collected in Burning Chrome– honestly, that story is somewhere top five for short stories for me – which concerns a photographer sent out to record 30s futurist architecture who starts hallucinating their Aryan efficient future laying out in forgotten buildings and molding cars. Science fiction – and I mean this term at its most expansive – has often been concerned with futures, and folding back old futures and laying them against the present – man does this get me all hot and bothered. But there’s a pulp edge to steampunk too – the pulp-history. Alan Moore punks around with steampunk with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, taking more pulp characters from the Victorian period, but fucking with them. Even though League occurs in a world more or less our own, it’s not so much alt-history as punk-history, because, hello, Martians. It’s the futurism of the past located in the past, and when it works, it makes me giddy.

But steampunk has been around for a while now, and as a genre, seems to be slipping more to cosplay than alt-history. Take something like Soulless or Geared for Pleasure, which are decidedly more about cool trappings than they are about coherent alt-history or even punk-history stuff. And while Soulless‘s alt-history, when it attempts it, are absolute shit, Geared for Pleasure(like Stormdancer, actually) dispenses with the whole idea that we’re even on earth at all – we’re in a fantasy land that looks Victorian-ish, and has some dirigibles and clockwork to settle it within the genre. (And here’s where I plug Meljean Brook‘s steampunk books, because she’s enacting a freaking excellent alt-history under the cover of romance novels, though the referents are more Georgian-Regency than Victorian.) Anyway, point being, I would argue that given the books I see labeled as steampunk as a group, adherence to some kind of alt-history framework that gets everything right is not a requirement of the genre. Pop cultural or pulp cultural sensibilities are more central to the definition of the genre, playing in gadgets and trinkets, playing dress up, having some chase scenes and whatnot. In this vein, I dig Kristoff using Japanese pulp culture to artifact his little world here, especially because the world is understood to be not strictly an alt-historical Japan – the landmass has been reordered and renamed – but a fantasy land that snarky genre readers could characterize as Not!Japan. 

Which brings us to fantasy. I’ve spilled some ink about fantasy – and here I mean mostly high-fantasy, the stuff in Not!Medieval!Europe! – but I’ll try to hit the high notes. I often get my back up about high fantasy because it’s this lamely nostalgic playset about Simpler Times, with regressive gender roles and a bunch of heraldic folderol about honor and quests and whatever. And when you go to criticize it on those terms, some basement-bound virgin always pops in with, “But that’s how things were in the medieval period! Don’t blame the writer for creating a Not!Medieval!Europe without interrogating all the fucking horrible shit that went down in what even scholars refer to as the Dark Ages! Look! Crossbows are sweet! Luke Skywalker has a really great time!” Which cheeses me the fuck right off, because this Not!Medieval!Europe! was created by a modern storyteller, for a modern audience, and if the writer thought it was just fine to throw in a bunch of regressive cultural shit in there “for historical authenticity,” often while positing dragons and Dark Lords and a bunch of other frankly inauthentic shit, then…I don’t know what then. But then, fuck you. You can’t have your medieval cake and eat it too. When you create a mythic past-ish place which is understood to be sweet as fuck, and then make that place a hellhole, just casually, for huge swaths of characters so your little hero can be heroic, what you’re doing is bunk-ass historical self-insert which justifies current shitty injustice. Casually. Which may be the thing I hate so much about it. 

But before I go off the ledge of frothing at the mouth about high fantasy, I have enjoyed the occasional Not!Asian setting – the Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham being the gold standard, imho. The Khai are sorta khans, the ornament and texture of the world is more medieval Asia than medieval Europe. The key difference may be that Abraham does not inject real world terms and language into his story, just letting the lack of primogeniture and tea drinking and scroll writing set a scene that feels less medieval European and more medieval Mongolia (though, I get the impression, more genteel than both). Kristoff goes to freaking town with a ton of Japanese words, especially in the beginning, which is problematic on a couple of levels, not the least of them being readability. For any fantasy world, not even just the ones that use real, if unusual, words, you have to lower your readers into the pot slowly. Much as I complained about the staging of the first of the Long Price books – and that first one is stagey – the staging here is too much, too soon, with even the infodumps using dozens of terms and concepts that confused. Fantasy, putting aside all the cultural appropriation stuff, should not take nearly a hundred pages to get into. 

But then speaking of Not!Europes, much as I enjoy A Song of Ice and Fire, I have read some really great critical analyses that unpack Martin’s sometimes hinky use of racial and cultural stereotypes. I mean, the Dothraki are Not!Mongolians, but the rapedy-rapeness of their culture, and the ways Daenerys’s story turns into your typical WhiteSavior™ narrative – Oh, You People™ do not understand the horrors of slavery! – this is actually pretty badly done. (And I’m not going to entertain arguments that just because the people are bunch of raping asshats in Westeros too, this makes it okay. For one, rape culture isn’t a zero sum game, and for two, in Westeros rape is understood as rape, even while it is justified and tolerated, while in Dothraki culture, no one thinks it’s a Bad Thing until the Nice White Lady points it out. Because brown people rape and slave like handshakes. We’re here to serve, us Nice White Ladies. You’re welcome.) 

I guess what I’m saying is that I can understand criticisms that come at Stormdanceras not being authentically Japanese. Even though this world is avowedly Not!Japan, the door was opened for these criticisms by using so, so much Japanese terminology, language, and sort of half-assed pulp Japanese culture, but then occasionally mixing it in with stuff like lotuses and pandas into this Asian-fusion slurry that just isn’t a good idea. I said before you can’t just file the serial numbers off of culture and make all characters a-historical a-cultural humans – tralala, can’t we all get along – but here the serial numbers are sill showing point of origin so strongly that this Not!Japan is still pretty much Japan. And you can’t rightly call this an alt-history or punk-history – this does not have a deep enough understanding of Japanese culture to be such – so it could probably be successfully argued that use of Japanese culture is an example of our old friend, Orientalism. I’m going to duck out of these criticisms of Stormdancerthough, even while I set up the conceptual framework for them, because I lack an understanding of Japanese history and culture myself. Most likely it’s a subtle thing, best explained by my Nice White Lady counterparts Subservient Asian Lady in Need of Rescue or her mother, Tiger Mom. Hold on; I’ll send them a text message. 

Oh, and, one last thing. Just because I’m ragging on A Song of Ice and Firea little, I’m doing that because I love it and I want it to be better. Not to get too far down this rabbit hole, but people seem to get their panties in a bunch when beloved properties are criticized, which strikes me as wrongheaded. Or overly touchy? One of the problems of talking about cultural appropriations is everyone gets all “I’m not a racist!” which is fine, but calm the heck down for a minute and listen – this is not about you. There are many many good things in A Song of Ice and Fire, if you like soapy bloodbaths and the descriptions of food, which I avowedly do, and my criticisms of the Dothraki storyline aren’t meant to negate the whole thing. I criticize because I love, because if I didn’t love, I wouldn’t have fucking bothered with several thousand pages that, at this point, don’t look like they’re going to wrap up anytime soon. At its most interesting, the critical enterprise seeks to understand and comment on why things bring us narrative pleasure, and sometimes those reasons are a little fucked up and weird, because we are all a little fucked up and weird, and we can always be better. The end. 

In Which I Actually Talk About the Book

As I’ve hinted before, this story takes place in a Not!Japan which is a generation or three into an industrial revolution. There are SFF elements, in that there is an agricultural product not dissimilar from spice melange in Dune– speaking of your cultural appropriations, because you guys see how much Herbert ripped from Mideastern religion and politics, yo? – which both gets the populace hiiiigh and powers all of the fantastic technology. The lotus, as this is called, is also a huge ecological nightmare, a sort of super-cotton which drains the soil of nutrients, or a super-coal belching filth into the air. As I also noted before, the opening is tough sledding, far too jargony and with too much term salad and infodumps – which on some level is funny, because the prologue, which I normally turn my nose up at, is clean and full of stakes and action. 

So we settle down with Yikiko, daughter of the Imperial Huntsman or whatever he’s actually called, and they are sent on a mission most likely to end in failure by the Emperor or Shogun or whatever he’s called. The Shogun (I think Shogun) who is possibly the Character Most Likely To Be An Orientalist Stereotype has had a dream that the griffin – or thunder tiger or whatever – is still extant despite the fact that, like, everything is extinct. So off we go! Yukiko has some unfortunate daddy issues, and there are some boys (two of them, in fact, making something of a triangle, you see) and some other stuff. Which is when I put the book down maybe a month ago, not feeling all that good about this. 

The prose is probably love it or hate it, which is a stupid thing to say now that I’ve typed it. I did neither one nor the other. I guess what I mean that it is very florid and descriptive of sensation, so if that is not your bag, steer clear. There’s some tendency to repetition that I found somewhat annoying – we get the lotus is bad - but I’m willing to give this a pass a little given the YA format. Heads up, kids, we’ve got the one planet and all. But Kristoff writes really excellent fight scenes – which is much harder than it looks, I say – and the way he deals with the dreaded love triangle is brutal and awesome. And the way he dealt with sex in general was pretty refreshing. Though all fade to black, like YA does, Yikiko deals with her sexuality very matter of factly, without a bunch of purity terror and the like. There could probably be more mention of um, certain biological realities, but this isn’t Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., so that is just fine. 

The latter half of the book is more fun to read, once Yukiko stops bitching and infodumping on the airship. Her relationship with Buruu – he’s the thunder tiger, in a sort of Dragonflightscenario – turns on a dime it doesn’t deserve, to mangle a metaphor, as do several of Yikiko’s revelations, where she’s all YOU GUYS ARE THE WORST one minute and ALL IN WOOO the next. I did like dad’s ninja-girlfriend a lot, and felt like it was unusual to see the sexual partners of parents – other than the other parent, of course – dealt with with anything other than evil stop-mom writing, so that was cool. But, also, sadface on some things that are spoilers. 

Anyway, I feel like as usual with my three-star outings, I’m struggling with something to say about the text itself, and obviously I’ve already blathered like crazy about a thousand concerns that might be a bit more peripheral. I did like this story, in the end, and I did enjoy the less simple than usual political/economic sensibility of the book, but I admit this is pretty much grading on a curve with other deeply politically stupid young adult dystopias. (Cough, Divergent, cough.) (And I’m not talking about partisanship – I’m talking about a complex sense of the polis and how it functions, which is something often sorely lacking in books aimed at teens.) 

Plus, whatever, chainsaw kitanas are freaking sweet, and don’t let anyone tell you different. 

The Hidden Goddess: Second Verse, Same as the First!

Second verse, same as the first! 

Just kidding. 

Sort of. 

I liked the first of this series, The Native Star by M.K. Hobson, almost despite myself. The opening is rough, like a chainsaw working out the bite into the flesh of the log. But it finds its bite partway through the book in a way that treats American history with respect, even though I wish a little more of that history made it into the book. Or, you know, in a way that mattered. 

Second verse, same as the first. By which I mean, this epilogue starts with some seriously interesting stuff about Grant’s presidency and alt-history stuff about the sources for the American Civil War, and then, and then, well, nevermind all that! I’m not really complaining, I guess, because Hobson took some things about the first book that I really sparkled on and expanded them – like the effects of gender on the credomancy explained in the first book – the magic of belief – in the character of Miss Jesczenka. I almost wanted her to chuck Emily – our heroine from the first book – and focus on the spectacular Miss Jesczenka, who articulates an astonishingly personal and accurate ambivalence about the experience of being a woman in a misogynist society. Just, good Lord, she’s so awesome. 

It’s not even so much that I’m bagging on Emily – she is a fine main character, with her fish-out-of-water folksy ways – but I felt like the inevitable second book issues between Emily and her paramour, Dreadnought (oh, just barf on the names here, even though they are explained better in this outing) fell into a lot of lameness traps. Emily and Dreadnought (ugh) spend a lot of the first book sniping at each other in that antipathy-is-attraction way, while here, they are kept apart by a bunch of logistics and the occasional bullshit misunderstanding. Some of the misunderstandings were valid – Emily’s search for her birth parents, and the varying allegiances and mis-allegiances found and lost by her questings were spot on – but sometimes it was like, ZOMG IMMA MISUNDERSTAND SOMETHING I JUST WALKED IN ON THAT IS EASILY MISCONSTRUED. Bah. 

Emily and Dreadnought’s (ugh) relationship is never anything more that paint-by-numbers – right down to the argument-ending kisses he plants on her more than once – which, I would like to know if that has ever actually worked for a dude irl. I’m not sure why the wisdom is that lovers have to be kept apart in book two, but I’ve see it often enough for it to be a thing. Shame, really, because there were a number of developments that I could easily imagine Dreadnought (ugh) and Emily tackling together, because the implications had more than enough potential for conflict between them to arise – real conflicts, rather that logistical bumbling and iffy misunderstandings. The baddie here is so over the top she’s maybe hard to take seriously, but certain political situations were neat enough to keep me from focusing on the unreality of the bad guy’s motivations. 

It’s been a while, but I felt like the tone of this book was more consistent, and more consistently goofy than the first, though I do not mean that as a dig. A failing of the first book might be that that it expected me to take some very silly stuff seriously, while here there’s some very serious stuff that might have been treated more lightly than it should have been. The question of tone is a tricky one, one that I don’t have an easy answers for, though I get the difficulties of managing a story that is equal parts end-of-the-world, banter-y romance, and alt-history. That the tone is managed as well as it is is certainly something. 

The ending dot dot dots to a certain kind of romantic completeness, which both irritates and satisfies in equal measures. I went to look for the next book in this series – that’s how on the hook I am – and it looks as though the narrative of Emily and her Dreadnought (ugh) will be skipped over to writhe in the stories of their kids. Which, boo a little bit. Given the end, I would like to hear some stuff about how Dreadnought (ugh) deals with…some things, how he copes with losing something fairly vital to his personality. Love is the answer and all, but, as the narrative here says, it’s just a start. Too bad that’s all we get here.