Category Archives: Nebula

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My Nebula Predictions (2014)

I managed to pull this stunt off last year where I accurately predicted which book would be awarded the Nebula in the novel category. I’m not sure I can do it again, but I’m going to give it a shot. Unlike last year, I haven’t actually read all of the books on the list (though I’ve hit samples of all of them), but handicapping who will win the award isn’t about my preferences as a reader. I think it’s a dead heat between Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. When I started writing this, I predicted a Gaiman win, but in the process of writing, I think I’ve changed my mind.

I almost just went with Ancillary Justice for the win — the novel just won the Arthur C Clarke, BSFA and a whole raft of other awards — but I flinched when I learned it was a debut novel. Very few debut novels have won the Nebula, though there is some recent precedent with 2010′s Windup Girl. Nebula voters are professional writers, and I think there’s a preference for writers who have paid their dues, so to speak. (A joke, you see, because you don’t actually have to be a member of SFWA to be nominated. Bad joke.)  Ancillary Justice really has Nebula written all over it. It’s solidly science fiction, but isn’t wanking about tech too much, letting the reader experience the futuristic dislocations as the character does. It’s got the right mix of conceptually interesting science fictional ornament, with dazzling near fantastic explorations of culture to charm the New Wavers and the fantasists. It’s a strong novel with a broad appeal to very different kinds of science fiction readers. Plus it’s fun and cool.

I adored A Stranger in Olondria, which set off all the heart fireworks I have for Ursula K Le Guin. If I had a vote, this would be mine. But this is also a debut novel, again. Nebula voters also seem to have a clear preference for science fiction over straight fantasy, unless your name is actually Le Guin or Bujold. (Which goes back to the debut author thing, somewhat circularly, because both Le Guin and Bujold were well established writers of both sf & f when their fantasy novels won. ) The other fantasy novels that have won are set contemporary, like American Gods, or Among Others. This will become a refrain of sorts in this essay, but as much as I loved Olondria, I just don’t think it has broad enough appeal to the more science fictionally minded of the voters.

Two of the nominees are historical fiction of a sort: Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Jinni, which is set in turn of the 20th Century New York, and Hild by Nicola Griffith, which is about a 7th C British abbess. I enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni, partially because I have some unhealthy obsessions about the Gilded Age and the rise of labor movements and the like — ask me about the Panic of 1893 and I will bore. you. to. death. — but that’s ultimately a boutique interest. Fair or not, I also think The Golem and The Jinni will be dismissed by some as “just a romance.” My two cents: the inclusion of romantic elements is less worrisome to me than the rushed and unsatisfying conclusion.

I haven’t read Hild, so I went rolling through reviews to get a feel for reader response, and this line in an io9 review struck me as ominous for its chances: “Call it skeptical fantasy, or an epic that treats magic as politically-charged superstition rather than an otherworldly power.” Now I happen to think that’s really neat — a twisting of the genre conventions — but I think it’s going to result in readers wondering how this story is fantasy at all. Either way, I think historical fantasy is a long shot to win the Nebula. Historical science fiction, sure, like Blackout/All Clear which won in 2011, but not fantasy. Again, the bias towards science fiction novels is clear when you look through the past winners. Throw in historical fiction as well, and I think a fair number of readers are going to nod off.

The question of how the novel fits into the science fiction genre dogs We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as well. Set in contemporary America, with a set up that, while unusual, is not unheard of, the book more explores the intersections of scientific theory, culture, and the family. I would argue that it is science fictional, in that it’s fiction about science, but not everyone is going to agree. The familiar is sometimes the most alien thing we know. That I feel compelled to make this argument means Fowler’s book is likely too much of an edge case to win. It is a really lovely novel, by a well established writer in clear control of her craft, just not science fictional enough.

There are two more space opera-ish jaunts like Ancillary JusticeFire With Fire by Charles E Gannon and The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata. Fire with Fire is kinda cozy in a way: conventionally plotted, with a Golden Age sensibility from prose style to its philosophical concerns. That will invoke a lot of nostalgia for many voters. But, as I’ve said before, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is a coalition government, and I don’t think Fire with Fire will resonate for people who prefer fantasy. It’s conventionality is also a mark against it; Fire with Fire feels like a period piece, which is weird considering it’s set in the future.

When I went to order The Red: First Light, I was surprised to discover it wasn’t stocked in my library. This lead me to the revelation that The Red: First Light is an indie title. I didn’t even know you could do that! While I don’t think there’s a real war going on between indie and traditionally published writers — Tor.com, for example, posted a glowing review of The Red: First Light – but the SFWA membership leans heavily to the traditionally published, and a lot of writers know each other from their professional ties under the same imprint. (And it should be observed that Nagata started out traditionally published.) I’m bullshitting here a little, because I haven’t read The Red: First Light. That it isn’t even stocked in my (very good public) library makes me think it’s pretty well screwed though.

I’m sure there’s some complicated formula which would account for The Red: First Light’s indie status versus the debut novel status of Ancillary Justice, but then when you throw in yet another science fiction novel set in the future with space ships and a lot of military/politics like Fire With Fire, the math gets too complicated. Part of the problem here is that there are too many novels that I think fit into the same broad sub-genre, and I think it’s going to diffuse the voters that are inclined towards that sub-genre in the first place. In other words, it’s going to split the vote. (People haven’t been throwing awards at either Nagata’s or Gannon’s novels though, so I’m thinking they don’t stand a chance, just that they’ll draw away from Ancillary Justice.)

Maybe that gives Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is not so closely matched with other nominated novels, a leg up. (And I’m not trying to imply that the writers of SFWA are all huddling in their narrow sub-genres or something, but the heart wants what it wants.) Even though Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fantasy, it’s the kind of fantasy that Nebula voters seem to embrace: set in the here and now, but with a fantastic twist on the everyday that disrupts the readers perceptions. Gaiman is clearly at the height of his powers as a craftsman of words, and his prose is tight as a drum. Like Among Others, which won two years ago, it’s also got a nostalgic component, as the main character reminisces upon his childhood with a dewy sense of wonder. There’s also a lot of fan service to readers and nerds, like long descriptions of the main character reading and panegyrics to the wonders of literature.

I actually found this fan service somewhat tiresome in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it calculated, but there was definitely a part of me that thought, how easy it is to make your readers (who are, after all, by definition readers) love your main character by having him perform obeisances to the act of reading. The Ocean at the End of the Lane’s protagonist is also an artist of some stripe — writer, maybe — and I think all the ruminating on art and memory and storytelling is going to play to voters who are artists themselves. Writers writing about writing is always a good bet when writers vote on writing awards.

I’ll be clear: I don’t think Gaiman is pandering, even though I’m making fun a little here. The themes of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, including Gaiman’s tendency to insert characters who are artist-observers, are right in line with the themes he’s been exploring his entire writing career. I think Ocean at the End of the Lane sits quite merrily with Graveyard Book (which won the Newbery) and Coraline (which won the Nebula for the novella) in a triangulation of the themes of violence and childhood and memory and matriculation, traversing the uneasy border that separates us grown ups from our childhoods. This has heretofore been a winning mix of themes for Gaiman.

I think my real reticence to call it for Gaiman comes from the slight what the fuck angle to what all happens in Ocean at the End of the Lane. The crisis of the novel is real…let’s say metaphorical, and I would be hard pressed to tell you what exactly that all meant. I’m assuming someone with a more writerly perspective might appreciate this more than I did, but it’s entirely possible that the opposite is true. (Or both; whatever.) The fact that this novel reiterates common themes to Gaiman’s work is also a strike against it: Ocean is sleepy, safe, and treading familiar ground.

Ancillary Justice, by contrast feels energetic and ambitious. Even if it has the occasional first-writer misstep, the book feels like a leap into the black. No, of course Leckie isn’t reinventing the wheel here — nerds more exacting than I can create the list of antecedents (like the Culture novels) — but she is inventing her wheel, and it’s just a kick to be along for the ride. Nor was Ocean nominated at all for the Hugo, which indicates there isn’t this critical whiteheat around it like Ancillary Justice. Given that voting closed last month, maybe that’s not quite a factor, but I do think it’s an indicator.

So, anyway, there you have it. I’m predicting Ancillary Justice for the win. I won’t be a bit surprised if Gaiman wins, just to hedge a little.

Now I’ll have to start reading the novels up for the Hugo.

 

Just kidding, we all know Wheel of Time is a cincher.

 

 

fowler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Nebula Predictions

A couple months ago I set out to read all of the Nebula nominees in the novel category for 2012, which are as follows:

I didn’t have much faith in my completing said project, but here I am, roughly a week before they are to be announced, having read five and a half of the nominees, and also a bonus previous novel. So good job, me. Even though I haven’t finished The Drowning Girl, which if it keeps going like it’s going, is going to be my favorite of the bunch, I feel like I can make some predictions.

2312 is going to win it.

But didn’t you just say that The Drowning Girl was your favorite? Sure, but that’s more personal taste than award trends. Let’s break this down.

I’m going to discount both Ironskin and Throne of the Crescent Moon because they are first novels. I just tried to figure out how many Nebulas have been awarded to first novels without much success. Certainly Neuromancer, which won in 1984, was a first novel, but I’m not seeing much precedent for that to happen. Also because Ironskin sucks. Crescent Moon is fun, but not up to the level of writing in some of the other novels here, much more beholden to genre conventions. I just don’t see such a conventional fantasy novel winning this, especially given the competition.

I’m also going to discount Glamour in Glass, partially because it is a sequel, partially because I don’t like it, and partially because the vote in the half-assed science fictional update of classic literature category is going to be split between that and Ironskin. Both Ironskin and Glamour in Glass take on story styles written by women in the early 19th C; Jane Eyre and Jane Austen being the hat-tips, respectively. Neither was particularly successful, in my opinion, but the deeper problem is that we’re dealing with awards voted on by nerds. Smart, writing nerds, but nerds nonetheless. Nerds can have strong feelings about the Janes (and I get that conflating a character with a novelist is a hugely insensitive thing to do, and still I do it) – case in point, myself – but it’s as much impediment as it is push. I hate every single thing Ironskin does with Jane Eyre, and it’s not a coherent novel there at the end. If I didn’t have the intertext in my mind, I would just be puzzled by it. Glamour in Glass is more successful, being less tethered to source material, but it’s ultimately less fun than the first novel in the series (which was also nominated and didn’t win), and its science fictional aspects are badly considered. (Badly. Is word.)

So that leaves us with 2312The Drowning Girl, and The Killing Moon. Really, any of these could be awarded the Nebula and I wouldn’t be surprised. All three are written by established sff writers who are decidedly in control of their game. Much as I love The Drowning Girl so far, it is a difficult novel with a difficult narrative voice. Despite how into it I am, I keep having to take breaks from Imp and her craziness – using her own term on herself – because, as she says, the ghosts are infectious. The novel is not approachable the way its main character is not approachable, cut through with all kinds of deflective ticks. I think that’s grand, but it’s not the sort of thing that wins awards. (And I’m not saying readers are stupid for not loving this or anything; the heart wants what it wants.)

The Killing Moon too has difficult main characters, though the sheer level of craziness is not at the level of The Drowning Girl. But the high fantasy world is richly drawn, with a coherent and thoughtful magical system, and a believable political conflict. Compared to Throne of the Crescent Moon, which reads as Arab/Persian culture with the serial numbers filed off – and, I totally get that running a slash through Arab/Persian is a hugely insensitive thing to do, yet still I do it - The Killing Moon runs its vaguely ancient Egyptian culture with less reliance on actual cultures both extant and ancient, which I count as a plus. I’d hedge and say this is the likely second choice to be awarded the Nebula.

But what it comes down to is that 2312 is the only novel nominated that is traditional science fiction. Which is weird, right? That five of the novels nominated would be fantasy of one stripe or another, and only one your daddy’s space opera? I think both The Killing Moon and Glamour in Glass have magical systems so tightly defined as to read as science fictional in a way – there are rules, and epistemologies – but they don’t have the gee whizziness of space exploration at their backs. So I think that voters inclined to the strictly science fictional will vote for the only book that registers their predilections,  for better or for worse.

I fairly loved 2312 myself, so this is not a bad choice. Also, and this is going on hearsay because I haven’t read much Kim Stanley Robinson, but I am given to understand that some readers were bored to death by the extremely wanky hard sf tone of the Mars trilogy, and while wanky hard science is in evidence in 2312, it’s not the main or only thing. I feel like KSR is going to be awarded the Nebula the way Bob Dylan was awarded the Grammy for Time Out of Mind. Sorry we fucked up and never gave you an award for Blonde on Blonde, and it’s also good to see you’re out of whatever you were doing in the 80s. (See also: the Nebula for Blackout/All Clear, because that’s not Willis’s best work by half.) Which is not to say that 2312 isn’t pretty freaking great, nor Time Out of Mind. Just that it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

Tune in next week to see how full of shit I am.

ETA:

I was right! Of course.

Nebula Nominees: The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

I am going to begin somewhat uncharitably by making fun of the cover for Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. Now, I know covers ain’t content, and usually authors have close to zero say in cover choice, so I’m not making fun of Ahmed here. However:

The cover for Crescent Moon, which has very cartoony looking D&D people looking boss

Seriously. 

I showed this cover to my husband and asked, “Where’s the Disney singing sidekick?” At which point he retorted, “Is that Mel Brooks?” But snarking hipsterism aside, the cover is kinda perfect, because Throne of the Crescent Moonfeels like very old school, summer vacation reading, sword-and-sandals fantasy, the kind of thing little Ceridwen would stay up reading past her bedtime because OMG, it’s the end of the world! and also maybe some fart jokes; lol; he said fart. The cover conveys that pretty well, as does the completely forgettable title which feels like it was spat out of the Random Fantasy Novel Title Generator. It’s just sad, is all, because the title and cover are so stock fantasy, and I think the book itself is maybe more interesting than the cover implies? Maybe not, because I can’t say I more than liked this, and I only read it because I’m trying to get through the 2012 Nebula nominees before May 18th when they announce the winners. (Kim Stanley Robinson: why did I leave your doorstopper for last?) 

So Doctor Aboulla Makhslood is the last of the ghul-hunters, a wheezy, fat old man with a cheerless, devout dervish apprentice. Abdoulla is definitely getting too old for this shit, but not so old he can’t enjoy giving his apprentice a hard time and opening up a can of whup-ass on some ghuls. The story starts with Abdoulla’s old flame asking for some help in the deaths of some of her kin, and Abdoulla saddles up the donkey and heads out. Abdoulla’s very much like your kinda racist teasing old uncle, who talks a lot of shit but is essentially a good guy. If only he would STFU about how much he loves living in New York. 

There’s a getting-the-band-back-together feel of the opening, which has Abdoulla and his dour dervish meeting up with a badass Cheetara vengeance girl, finding their purpose – we must find the ghul-of-ghuls! – and then chatting over tea with Abdoulla’s neighbors and friends, who just happen to be an alkemist and a mage. Wonder fantasy team activate! There’s a lot of street-fighting and Robin Hoody folk characters, dire magic, out of touch Khalifs and civil unrest, and everything winds up to a pretty perfunctory meeting with a Big Boss – zap! pflash! – complete with moral compromises and the like. Super fantasy friends to the rescue! Huzzah!

I told myself I wasn’t going to be a quipping jerk in this review, and I see I’ve failed at that completely. Let me start again.

There is a lot I liked about Throne of the Crescent Moon, the primary thing being its cranky old main character and his cranky old friends. It’s neat to see a fat old grouch grouse his way through a plot usually left to the young and beautiful, people like his pious apprentice and cat-changing-girl. He and his old friends score a lot of points off of their youthful exuberance, even if it occasionally seems unfair that everyone seems to be written to bear Abdoulla’s quips. It’s also too bad the dervish and the cat-changing-girl are so thinly written, especially the supposed sexual tension between the two of them. I believe that not at all, and none of the “conflict” the dervish experienced rang true to me. 

I also enjoyed the…how do I put this?…religiosity of the characters? Abdoulla and his old friends are cynical, urbane folk who have little faith in institutions or even human nature, and this rubs up against the youthful piety and certainty of the younger characters. But, Abdoulla still has a complicated and dynamic engagement with his religion and his faith, even while it’s kinda crimped and leftways. I’m not a believer in much myself, when it comes to your traditional monotheisms, but Abdoulla read to me like my Grandpa Ed, who for generational reasons could never come out and own his atheism (in the strictest sense), instead subsuming his wonder and prayerfulness into hymns and books. Abdoulla believes in things: his city, his friends, even the concept of duty (despite his constant bitching), and he calls those things God. Even the devil can quote scripture, but it takes a holy fool to make a fart joke and then quote scripture. Grandpa Ed would approve. 

I think I’m going to go out on a limb and say this isn’t going to win the Nebula. Not only is Throne of the Crescent Moon a first novel – like any award, name recognition factors – but it also has a pretty stock fantasy plot, despite the slightly unusual main character. (I don’t think the cranky mentor is unusual, just to be clear, just that it’s unusual for him to be the main character. It’s like if Obi Wan were the protagonist of Star Wars, and also drank and farted more.) So, enjoyable little book that doesn’t set out to accomplish much, but does accomplish the small things it sets out to do. A younger version of me would probably like this more, as she wouldn’t be as jaded about fantasy conventions. I feel like maybe Ahmed was working out his fantasy tropes in this his first novel, and that will leave him open to muck around with convention more in later outings. That would be swell. I’d read ‘em.

Nebula Nominees: The Killing Moon by N K Jemisin

From the author’s note for The Killing Moonby N K Jemisin:

Like most fantasy writers, I have found it challenging to write material influenced by real (if bygone) cultures. [...] Since this is a fantasy novel, not a historical text, I found myself in the odd position of having to de-historify these tales as much as possible — in effect stripping away the substance of reality while leaving behind only the thinnest broth for flavoring. My goal was to give homage; my goal was not to ape humanity. Armchair Egyptologist, you have been forewarned.

Well, thank the baby Jesus. 

I have had a long and loud love/hate relationship with high fantasy, with periods of intense love-making followed by throwing all of its shit out into the yard and setting it on fire. Some of my most favoritest books have hailed from high fantasy’s storied borders - The Long Price QuartetThe Lord of the Rings, the Earthsea Cycle. But I have also found books that just make me keen for their dangerously juvenile wish-fulfillment and naive politics. A penniless goatherd turns out to be the son of a king; a scarred warrior reclaims his honor: all of this occurring in a Medieval Europe clone that appears to be structured by nostalgia for vicious, illusory things like honor, blended with the worst of middle class American values. So much high fantasy wrong-foots it, trying to blend meritocracy with the divine right, ending in a Calvinism of fiction: good wins because it wins. Feh.

And that’s not even getting into the second or third generation “corrections” of this historical/political naïveté evidenced by formative high fantasy, novels that posit lovingly detailed rape-and-murder-a-thons as an expression of their grittiness or historical accuracy or what-fucking-ever. I am not much interested in escapisms that use casual injustice as a backdrop for some idiot imbued with narrative privilege to level up. I see enough of that shit in the real world, thank you, and adding dragons into the mix doesn’t make it easier to swallow. And just to be clear, it’s not the rape and violence that I have a problem with – I enjoy a bloody fight scene as much as the next girl – it’s how so often rape and violence are deployed without interrogation and without consequence. Good still wins because it wins, but now someone can get herself raped to prove the situation is serious and nothing else

I seriously did not intend this review to become a jeremiad about the state of high fantasy, but you go to review with the barely controlled rampage you have bubbling in your mind. Or I do anyway, not to bring you into it. What I really wanted to impart with my freak-out is that I have a complicated relationship with high fantasy, and reading Jemisin’s foreword made me sigh with relief. So often I read high fantasy, and the location is just medieval Europe or medieval Asia with the serial numbers filed off, but not particularly well. The problem I see with much of high fantasy is a sloppy, self-serving use of history which conflates character expediency with historical accuracy, creating a fantasy world with all the problems of the historical record and then some

 The Killing Moon takes place in the city-state of Gujaareh, based very loosely on ancient Egypt, but other than a river-flooded desert city and a pharaonic leader, the Egyptian is gestural or inflected. The plot centers on three people: a priest of the killing class, his apprentice, and an ambassador/spy from another city-state. While the milieu seems broadly pantheistic, Gujaarah is focused on the worship of a specific deity, a moon goddess of death and less so of rebirth. In practice, this works out to a priestly caste who harvest “dreamblood” – a magical but still body-based humor not unlike one of the four Hippocratic humors of the body in Classical and medieval medicine. (There is, for example, dreambile, and I assume dreamphlegm, but no one types out the word phlegm if they can help it.) (Also, someone pointed out that phlegm has been changed to the word “seed”, so we can have some sexytimes ritual prostitutes.) 

The opening is one of those confusing messes that ends up being more calculated than it appears, but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone tossing this book down before the gears catch, because it takes nearly half the book for the teeth to bite. A priest has one of his ritual killings go wrong; there is a murderer demon on the loose; some people have confusing conversations where the political subtext doesn’t necessarily figure, but is extremely important. And politics is decidedly the name of the game in Gujaareh, in a way that even the main characters (other than the ambassador-spy, of course) don’t get. That was one of the things I found so delightful about The Killing Moon: the way the politically naive – what about honor! and piety! and stuff! – aren’t rewarded for their naivete, but aren’t exactly punished either. True belief isn’t exempt from political expediency, and vice versa. 

Unlike Long Price, which I would hold this book in close comparison – if you like this, then – I wasn’t as enamored of the central characters. The priest and his apprentice have an intense Oedipal relationship with a bunch of sexual overlay which I don’t quite connect with, never having been a celibate killing monk. Which is not to say I found them unlikely or incoherent, just that the inherent staginess of the court intrigue plot – which is the basis of much epic fantasy – undercut the interpersonal concerns of a relationship that’s already pretty far out of the experience of most readers. (Celibate killing monks, they prolly totally grok it tho.) The ambassador-spy isn’t nearly as badass as the term ambassador-spy would imply. Not that everything has to be about badassery, of course, I just felt her character was more reactive to the other two main characters, more expedient than personal. 

So, anyway, I greatly enjoyed this, partially just because of personal insanity about high fantasy, but then partially because The Killing Moonis well written and interesting, daring to take on some very odd protagonists. I have some questions, the usual ones I have about magical systems – so there’s a goddess? and a demonstrable magical system? Does that mean there really is a goddess, or does that mean that the almost physics-like magic is just ascribed to the goddess? (These are questions that keep me up at night when dealing with high fantasy, in general, so that’s not new.) I feel a little shitty this review, because I feel like a lot of it sounds like relative faint-praise – high fantasy sux! but this sux less! – but that’s not where I’m at with this book. That said, I only picked this up because it’s one of the Nebula nominees for 2012 – self-assigned homework reading – so there was a definite kicking-and-screaming vibe in the beginning, but I’m glad it worked out in the end.

Nebula Nominees: Glamour in Glass


I would never have read Glamour in Glassby Mary Robinette Kowal on the strength of the first of the Gamourist Histories novels, Shades of Milk and Honey, but I had assigned myself the homework of reading the Nebula nominees in the novel category, and this is book two and the nominee. After the insult of Ironskin - the first Nebula nominee I read – the restraint and the attention to detail in Shades of Milk and Honey felt good, and I did like the book. Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t say anything and it doesn’t really matter. Fine as a diversion, and well written in the strictest, most sentence-level sense, but not actually interesting.


So, you know, second verse, same as the first. 

But actually, probably worse. 


Sorry.  

Shades of Milk and Honeyis very much what would Jane Austen have written if there was a half-assed little bit of magic in the mix. The half-assed magic is called glamour, and even though it’s understood as a woman’s art, Milk and Honey is very much about a growly, dickish artist-type dude who is nevertheless famous for performing the woman’s art of glamour, and how the plain-but-gifted gentry lady doesn’t even understand she loves him. (Spoiler alert, but not really, because c’mon.) 

The trouble with glamour is that it never feels like an integrated facet of this alt-Regency society, and therefore the story never feels very alt-Regency. However well-described the glamour is – and it is – glamour ends up seeming inconsequential and frivolous, which is an unfortunate way to write a magical woman’s art. I could see dozens of uses of glamour other than tarting up the gentry – including military applications – and it really didn’t make much sense that glamour was both a) a woman’s art and b) all the famous glamourists mentioned were men. The world seemed inconsistent. 

Glamour in Glass starts where Shades of Milk and Honey ends, with Jane and Vincent married and practicing glamour for a living, and as a couple. It’s interesting to see an alt-Regency story depict marriage, because so many of the period stories end at the wedding. (Certainly, all of Austen’s major novels end there, and she’s the obvious hat-tip in the first novel.) And Glamour in Glassseems to address some of the criticisms laid out above. Jane and Vincent go to Belgium during Napoleon’s brief sojourn on Elba before the he escapes and stirs shit up again. Again, the alt in the history is nonexistent for the most part, but we do see a lot more of the potential uses for glamour, and when Napoleon makes his escape and starts marching toward the coast (spoiler alert? srsly, no), you get to see a lot more action than your typical Austen novel, and the potential non-domestic uses for glamour are more fully explored. (Still, that glamour can record sound is never looked at once, and why?) 

Other problems are not addressed at all, or get worse; that glamour keeps being referred to as a “woman’s art” being the biggest one. Jane and Vincent are visiting a famous glamourist friend in Belgium, who is also running a school of sorts for glamourists. Most of these people are male. Vincent tells the story of how his earl father disowned him because he was a glamourist, and it’s implied that the earl thinks being a glamourist means you’re gay. This is understood to be a pretty common opinion. Then we briefly meet a “folk glamourist” – who is a woman – and her art is dismissed as crude. Isn’t glamour a folk art? Aren’t the folk in the this case explicitly said to be women? 

If we take glamour to be like music, then any woman of a certain class would be expected to know it, but certainly many or most professional musicians would be dudes, and that wouldn’t be a threat to their masculinity. A music analogy would work. But I think the best folk art analog is embroidery (or any textile craft, like dress-making) – practiced almost exclusively by women, and mostly anonymously (or commercially.) I simply do not understand these men – many from the upper classes – who are given accolades for something that is a “woman’s art”. Nice dress you made there, Vincent, are you going to wear it now? Accessorize with a sampler?
                               A sampler that reads 'you can't tell me what to do'


The real problem here is Jane. Boy, I really don’t like her, and I don’t like the things said through her. Now, I am completely cognizant that the opinions that a character espouses are not the same as the take-home message of the book, or of the author, blablah. I’m not expecting Jane to be all magically modern in her opinions, but I am getting sick to death of main character ladies who humble-brag about how plain-but-smart they are, and cut down every other woman around them. Apparently, every women in England is either a whore or vapid, and on the Continent, either a whore or a spy for Napoleon. Good job, Jane. You win the Girl Olympics, and get to take cigars with the men as a reward at the end, so’iz you don’t have to hang out with the ladies who are dumb and boring.

And then we get into a pregnancy plot which similarly makes me itch. Again, I get that this is Regency England, and their medical understandings are psuedo-scientific at best, but when it’s put forward that women can’t do glamour while pregnant because it might cause miscarriage, I really wanted to know if this was bullshit or not. I’ll totally accept it, but in this Regency setting, with all the leaches and women-can’t-ride-astride-while-pregnant (because why? whatever, Freud), I would like just a minute more of internal push against this idea. I can roll my eyes when Jane isn’t allowed up on a horse because I know that’s bs, but I can’t assess the truth of whether glamour really is a danger during pregnancy. Jane feels sick when she tries to perform glamour before she knows she’s up the duff, sure, but I absolutely couldn’t abide dairy in my first trimester, and that didn’t mean cheese was dangerous. It just meant it tripped off a very capricious morning sickness, which had vanished by the second trimester, where I absolutely stuffed myself with cheese to no ill effects.

If it is real, why has Kowal created this magical system which is understood to be for the ladies which is also stupidly impossible for women to work? While they are in a condition that literally only women can be in? Maybe this is a subtle check on the idea of gendered arts at all, but, no, I’m totally not feeling that given the general thrust of the text. (Remember: whores, spies, vapid or Jane are your options, if you are a woman, and you win if you get to hang with the boys.) Glamour ends up being one of those dumb fucking magical systems which exists to cause impediments for the main characters and not much else. Of course Jane is going to have to perform glamour at some point, and the results are similarly ambiguous. Wtf are you saying? Sloppy, sloppy. 

So, like Shades of Milk and Honey, I ended up with Glamour in Glasswondering what the point was. And if the point is what I think it is, I’m going to be piiiissed. Unlike Milk and Honey, the action of the plot and prose read more like The Scarlet Pimpernel than any Austen, and I have very limited success with Orczy. I think Georgette Heyer gets mentioned in the same breath as the Glamourist Histories, but I think that’s a bad comparison. Heyer is a lot more fun, to put it baldly, and while her plots and characters are often understood to be frivolous, there isn’t this Jane in the middle judging everyone for having a good time. Hell, even Austen, who was often barbarous to the ridiculous, shot her mockery through with kindness and understanding. 

This afternoon I forced my husband to turn off some stupid comedy about two supposedly lovable assholes who were mocking an ex-girlfriend while she was absolutely correctly telling them off. This movie is going to be about these dicks winning, I yelled. I don’t want to see them win. I don’t want to see Jane win either, and that’s my problem with this book, and this series. I don’t dislike her because she’s plain, or kind of a dishrag, or talented – I’m not jealous of her competence; take notes here, heroine writers – I dislike her because she’s a boring snob. Sometimes a cigar is more than a cigar, Jane, and that you’ll slut-shame everyone to take one with the guys doesn’t endear you. I’ll be over here with all the other vapid whore spies, because they are way more interesting and way less judgmental.

Shades of Milk and Honey: Diversions

I haven’t had a lot of luck with Austen retellings, not that I’ve given them much energy. I’ve given half-heart to some zombie stitching, with ok to terrible results; I have avoided smut recastings; I have thrown within pages various contemporary takes, but loved a couple too. So, when I say I enjoyed this slender Austen-riff, I am actually saying something. However – and you knew this however was coming – I can’t say Shades of Milk and Honeyby Mary Robinette Kowal is more than a diversion: amiable enough, but mostly pointless.

My husband and I went out to lunch today and got into a big argument about fanfiction. He was disparaging something for being fanfic, and I countered: how many thousands of Shakespeare retellings have I both consumed and enjoyed? How many Greek tragedies, folktales and the like? There are absolutely more stories in the world than the 12 or so we get told exist in some freshman writing class by some credulous idiot, but the resonant cultural motifs are a specific bunch, even if they keep changing and morphing. 

Anyway, so, we made up over the idea that it’s not so much the concept of fanfic that he had a problem with, but the fact that the fanfic that was he subject of the argument corrected none of the problems of the source material, and, in fact, introduced more than a couple more. Fifty Shades of Grey is pretty much garbage, not because it’s Twilight fanfic, but because it’s garbage. I don’t love Twilight, while I respect its resonance, but I feel like a fanfic that misses all the inherent silliness of vegetarian vampire chastity porn is a freaking disaster. Twilight works because Bella gets to marry Jesus, not Mark Zuckerberg. 

And, quick aside: I’m not using the term fanfic with any rigor here, or as a knee-jerk indicator of poor quality. And, now that I think about it, the term seems to be used dismissively of women’s fiction more often than of stuff written by men, so it’s possible I’m wrong-footing this whole review by starting with a discussion of the term. Shades of Milk and Honeyis not fanfic in the strictest sense. Sure, the plot probably owes to Pride and Prejudicesome, but then so many plots do. It is set in Regency England, and Austen is probably the best known chronicler of that period, but it’s not like she invented Regency England. 

Jane and Melody Ellsworth are rivalrous sisters whose parents are roughly Mr & Mrs Bennet, but softer. Mrs Ellsworth still has the vapours, but Mr Ellsworth isn’t an entailed dick. Melody is pretty-but-dumb and Jane is talented-but-plain. While the world is decidedly Regency England, there is this tiny bit of magic in the mix – glamour – which is to be our shifting paranormal lens on the rigid gender divisions of that society. Glamour is understood to be a woman’s hobby – good for cosmetic reasons and not much else – but there’s a hot, grouchy male glamourist with whom Jane is secretly smitten. (Secret even from herself, but seriously dude.) 

The whole concept of glamour is a ripe metaphor that unfortunately goes nowhere. It solves some issues with the Regency novel – aha, performing glamour is why all the ladies are swooning – but it has close to zero impact on Regency England or any of the characters. Everyone dismisses the wartime applications – the Napoleonic wars are unfolding, the way they do – but glamour obviously has an impact on a confusingly written dueling sequence near the end. Glamour can record conversations for crying out loud! That absolutely could be a thing with spycraft, at the very least! 

I did appreciate the ways Jane and glamourist dude talked about the craft of art, and I even marked a passage in the now-lost book where glamourist dude growls at Jane for observing the ways he built a specific illusion. The ways Jane takes that to heart and tries simply to experience the illusion without a critical eye felt…felt like something about all this arguing I was doing about retellings with my husband. But, unfortunately, I admired the craft here much more than I enjoyed its heart. 

Shades of Milk and Honeydoes a very, very good job of aping the craft of a Regency novel – it is set beautifully, with attention to detail and character. But it is not actually a Regency novel, and it lacks the snap of Austen’s often cutting observations about the culture she lived in. As a reader, I can only access that snap in Austen’s works through historical research, which makes the cuts less immediate; a joke explained is less funny than a joke that punches known knowledge. Which might be the lack in Shades of Milk and Honey: Kowal doesn’t cut anything about Regency England, which would be a weird thing to do anyway, but then she also doesn’t say anything about the here-and-now.

I don’t actually appreciate the dichotomy between smart-but-plain and pretty-but-dumb all that much, because I think it’s a boring and unrealistic binary, so I think the expression here of that tension is unrewarding. And unrewarding in a way that Austen never hits. Elizabeth is not as beautiful as her sister Jane, but that’s not really a thing, and, in general, Austen avoids all but the tersest of physical descriptions. Elizabeth is said to have fine eyes and dark hair and not much else. So I’m in a place where novels written 200 years ago felt more harshly critical of their societies than ones written in the last decade, which is the weirdest. 

The Nebula nominee I read just previous to this, Ironskin, also recasts the woman-penned 19th Century novel Jane Eyre as to be about looks and not much else, and I wonder what is up with this contemporary attention to the superficial to the exclusion of, well, anything else.  Shades of Milk and Honeyis nowhere near as bad as Ironskinin this, not even by half, but it is still strange that these novels are being lauded as genre stand-outs. Admitting, of course, that I haven’t actually read the sequel here, which is the one up against Ironskin. Still, it is an oddment that glamour is more ornament than architecture, more diversion than statement. I enjoyed being diverted, but I can’t say much else about it. 

Crossed fingers for Glamour in Glass, but…