Category Archives: Rule Britannia

The Duke’s Tattoo by Miranda Davis

Well, that was completely adorable. I don’t even mean that in the bitchy way I often mean adorable either. 

The Duke of Ainsworth wakes up one morning after getting rolled by persons unknown with an embarrassing tattoo on his naughty bits. Maybe I don’t even need to write the rest of this review, because that set up is the most hilariously awesome thing to happen to the oft-boring, half-assedly historical genre of the Regency romance since…I don’t know what since. It is a great set up though, and it is not squandered, having set a tone of rank silliness cut with a winking genre sensibility that totally worked for me. 

The Larch:running gag since October 1969

I imagine that if you go in looking for some super historical jibber-jabber about Regency mores and the like, you will be disappointed. Really, though, very few are reading Regency romance for the articles, if you catch my drift, and Davis justifies the far-fetched stuff in a cromulent manner. Prudence, the young woman responsible for the rolling of our titular Duke, is a sensible, modern sort of girl, working as an apothecary in Bath after being shut out of polite society due to the Duke of Ainsworth and her dick of a brother. But, whoops, it was not this Duke of Ainsworth, but his brother. Sorry about the confusion, and about your colorful peen. 

I really enjoyed the interactions between the duke and Prudence, especially in the beginning when it was all grudge match and everyone not knowing that what everyone else knew. Davis manages a prose tone that cuts a middle distance between sounding too modern and sounding too mothballed, and, frankly, I’m jealous of her working vocabulary. I don’t think I’m a slouch on the vocab quiz, and she sent me to the dictionary a couple times. (And not in a shitty, I’m-using-a-thesaurus way either.) A lot of the situations were – how do I put this – pretty stock things that happen in ur Regency romance novel (like the sleeping in the same bed non-sexually trope, which is such an oddment to me) but I thought she pulled them off with grace. The subtle invocation of the duke’s PTSD – he was an infantryman in the Napoleonic wars – made the whole insomnia thing more sensible. 

The third act goes on way too damn long, in a way that made me want to give everyone a wedgie, but especially Prudence. That’s not really unusual though, and the third act avoids much of the descent into sentiment or treacle one finds in many (if not most) romantic comedies. I can’t say I’m surprised by it, given how often it happens, but the way raunch comedies often end in these just weltering affirmations of crushing domesticity still puzzle me (e.g. just about every movie by Adam Sandler, not including Punch-Drunk Love.) Not that The Duke’s Tattoo does this, except in the most expected of ways. I mean, a comedy, a romance, by definition ends with an HEA (or, at the very least, a HFN: happy for now) so I don’t even know what I’m complaining about, or if I’m even complaining.

Maybe it’s just this: like many romance novels, I can imagine profoundly different, and slightly to wholly tragic conclusions to the action – Prudence knocked up in Italy, raising her daughter as a “ward”, or worse; the worse is easy – which may be the point of the whole romance/comedy thing. The old saw goes that comedy happens to other people, while tragedy is personal. The romantic comedy cuts these two things together in a way that rarely works, but it mostly worked here. W00t. 

Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances

I went up to the cabin with the best of intentions: a backpack full of books and the will to read them. But, what ended up happening was playing Munchkin, chatting about the local land scandal, and making and eating a lot of food. A very wonderful week, all told, despite the godamn half foot of snow that fell quite prettily down on all and sundry in freaking April, but not a week in which I clapped eyes on much reading. When I did eventually sit down to read, I did hack a bit on my assigned reading, but mostly I slunk off to Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances.

Short stories do much better as distracted reading, and Corsets & Clockwork was the only short story collection in the backpack. I had grabbed it in a mad library rush, but also because I’ve been arguing with the hubby about the state of steampunk these days. I don’t think I’d care much about the genre in a vacuum, but my man has a huge chubby for the entire concept. He doesn’t read so much these days, but I do, so I keep reading and reporting back. I see a decided shift in steampunk towards more romantic sensibilities, which is an interesting shift from the early days of very dudey stuff like Alan Moore and William Gibson. Some of this I think is sartorial: steampunk is very much about how things look, and about ornamenting fetish objects. (Done well, I think it’s also about punk-history, but not everything is done well.) Which is not to say that the sartorial is always feminine, just that romance, as a genre, deals with the body in a way that many genres do not. The clothes make the genre.

Given that Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances has the romance thing right in its title, it’s not a huge surprise that this collection felt sub-par to me. I’m not trashing romance here, but short form romances can be extremely weak: setting up and knocking down lovers and their cheesy impediments without a lot of thought towards form or function. There’s a reason it’s usually a romance novel, and that reason is that short stories (I think) by their very natures require a concision of characterization and/or a third act snap that romances either a) don’t require or b) actively eschew on a genre level. Sing it with me: not that there is anything wrong with this. After scanning over some reviews, I see that my feelings are out of step with people who are reading these stories as romances. Fair warning, I guess, and if you’re a romance reader primarily, just take everything I say and reverse it. See how even cranks can be helpful? I live to serve.

“Rude Mechanicals” by Lesley Livingston. Despite some goofy names that made me wince – Agamemnon, Quint, Kingfisher for crying out loud - the story of a mechanical girl who acts as Juliet in a shabby Shakespearean troupe to both comic and tragic ends made me smile. Romeo and Juliet is often disastrously misinterpreted, as far as I can tell, run in such a way that those teenaged idiots are somehow noble, when what they are is irrational in a completely different way from their irrational parents. Nobody gets to win, even posthumously, because there is no posthumous win. Anyway, my cranking aside, this was funny and clever and hit who can separate the dancer from the dance in a way I appreciated.

“The Cannibal Fiend of Rotherhithe” by Frewin Jones. This story is where I’m most out of step with other readers, because I hit several reviews that called this one bad, and I would absolutely, without a doubt call it the stand-out of the collection. Frankly, if I hadn’t hit something this bloody weird this early in my reading, I may not have even finished the collection. Beautifully sly narrative voice, fairy tale echoes which are Grimm not Disney, and a half-footed nearly incomplete ending that says more with a gesture than a statement. A rough, horrible fisherman on the Scottish coast captures a mermaid in his nets. The narrator demures as to logistics – one of the many times when the narrator points out something awful and then lets you try to sort it out, horribly – but the fisherman gets the mermaid with child. She dies in childbirth and is discarded, leaving the fisherman to raise a girl with sticky skin and shark’s teeth. She’s a monster with a monstrous upbringing, and her brutal reactions to the brutal world out there – the one that pretends not to smile with shark’s teeth – are raw and ugly and perfect. Even monsters deserve love, even while both the monster and the love are terrifying. I would absolutely seek out more of this writer’s work, in a heartbeat.

“Wild Magic” by Ann Aguirre. Fine, I guess, but somewhat perfunctory, ending in and some day I shall be the queen of all I survey! in a way that makes me tired. A young girl who is the daughter of the ruling class, but, like, gifted with magical powers which are frowned upon – yawn – falls in love with Oliver Twist, even though he might, like, have an agenda. Felt like a preface to a larger work, ending just as the actual conflicts might begin, and in that way, is something of a failure as a short fiction. Not bad, but not interesting.

“Deadwood” by Michael Scott. I liked this up until the ending, which has one of those last minute reveals where the main characters turn out to be actual, historical figures. I’m not even kidding when I say I rolled my eyes and humphed when the main characters introduced themselves with their real names – oh my god, that was the worst. All I’m saying is that you have a short story named the same as this show:

then you should try a little fucking harder, cocksucker. I get that Deadwood is an actual historical place, and that David Milch did not invent it, but this Deadwood is nowhere near as interesting as either the historical Deadwood or the HBO series. That said, before the humphing and eye-rolling – seriously, why the fuck would [redacted] and [redacted] ever be hanging out together? let alone smooching? – the whole post-Civil War company town thing was workable, and the characterizations fun. There are many a fiction I wish ended earlier than they did, and this gets to be one. Ta da!

“Code of Blood” by Dru Pagliassotti. I skipped this one after a couple of pages. I know my track record with stories of the ingenue daughters of the ruling class and their tired rebellions via fucking the staff. (See, for example, “Wild Magic”, above.)

“The Clockwork Corset” by Adrienne Kress. Yet another daughter of the ruling class fucking the staff, but I was charmed by said aristocratic daughter joining the army and trying to pass as a boy for much of the proceedings. The passing-as-a-boy trope is an odd thing in fiction, usually requiring the girl to be both more and less dumb than she is. The ending here is…maybe not unsatisfying, but it doesn’t make work of all the potentials.

“The Airship Gemini” by Jaclyn Dolamore. Fascinating premise in a locked room environment which needs to be a longer fiction. “The Airship Gemini” doesn’t exactly work – there are too many lacunae – but I so seriously want it to, and the ways it doesn’t work are still compelling. A set of conjoined twins, just regular physical freaks – work as a show on a dirigible for magical folk – vampires, werewolves, etc – because freak is freak, but not all freak is the same. A self-serving doctor seeks to separate the girls, throwing the girls into crisis. I loved that the girls have no interest in separation – their connection is fact not deformity – and I loved their relationship with The Lizard Man. I thought the crisis and denouement was confused, but there’s a lot of here here.

“Under Amber Skies” by Maria V. Snyder. I actively hated this story. Set in a steampunky Poland just after the Nazi occupation, it managed to get high and mighty about resisting the Nazis because resisting Nazis might interfere with the romantic bullshit of some teenage girl. Zosia’s father is a mad scientist who has been building farm equipment & kitchen implements when the Nazis take over. Everyone assumes he’s begun making war machines for Poland to be used in the war effort, but he’s been missing for a couple months. Then Nazis try to take Zosia in for questioning. She escapes, and then the story turns into how Zosia’s Polish nationalist mother is evil, and Zosia’s dad would never make war machines despite the fact that we’re dealing with actual Nazis here, and apparently resisting Nazis is evil because war is bad and everyone should be a lover and not a fighter and war is wrong double plus times.

What the actual fuck? I am of the opinion that most writers should avoid Nazis in their fiction unless they are willing and able to take on the most Godwin of all genocides, but here it’s an actual disaster. I get how love is dreamy and wonderful and all, but this kind of judgmental bullshit about how resisting Nazis is wrong because of love, man makes me want to die. This story is stupid and childish and takes the easy way out in situations which are forever and decidedly less than easy. Uuuurrrgh.

“King of the Greenlight City” by Tessa Gratton. Starts out in a very traditional romance vein, where the principles meet cute and discover their magical powers and whatnot, and then builds to a third act OMIGOD which is pretty freaking hilariously subversive. We two are as one…ahahahaha. Sad. :(

“The Emperor’s Man” by Tiffany Trent. Yet another daughter of the ruling class banging the help – someone who actually has an academic placement should write a paper about this phenomenon – but better than my dismissive opening would imply. This is one of those coded histories, with a transported London in a magical setting. I feel like with a lot of these stories there is way too much going on in the weird department. Mixing werewolves, manticores, hard science, alternate history, and clockwork is way, way too much in a story 60 pages long or less, but this was cute and it functioned as a story. The only thing that made me itch was the way science was equated with mysticism. Just because something is an epistemology, does not mean all epistemologies are equivalent.

“Chickie Hill’s Badass Ride” by Dia Reeves. Snappy dialogue and narrative voice in a setting not usually seen in steampunkery. No one writes in the segregated American South, and if they do, they sure as shit don’t write almost light-hearted romps about black children being stolen by tentacled monsters who are easily mistaken for the Klan. I’m not entirely sure this story works, but full freaking points for a story where the casual fun belies a sharper message.

“The Vast Machinery of Dreams” by Caitlin Kittredge. Omg, another good one. I couldn’t even say what happened here, exactly, but the way the total freaking weirdness is held with a hard hard and doled out to the reader in snippets is masterful. A young boy with dreams both nightmarish and juvenile meets a girl who might be a monster, and Lovecraftian hijinks ensue. This is what happened; this isn’t what happened. ZOMG.

“Tick, Tick, Boom” by Kiersten White. Yet another daughter of the ruler class banging the help. Seriously, what is up with this? There is so much of this in this collection, and I am beginning seriously to wonder why it is that our romance lady avatars are all these high-born chickies who are discomforted by their status, and alleviate that discomfort by kissing the low-born? Why am I even talking in terms like this? Low-born? The fuck? I don’t even mean to be attacking this specific story, because it’s fine or whatever, despite the fact I saw the twist coming in the first page, and I don’t think it actually said anything at all. And it deals with political violence in a way I think is deeply lame. Har har, I blew up some people because I don’t like my daddy!

Woo boy, I must be cranky tonight, given how bitchy I’m being. Still though, what is going on here? Maybe it’s just the steampunk genre, and its hazy Victoriana written by (mostly) Americans who have zero clue about how the British class system works, and romanticize it. It’s yet another godamn Lady Diana plate. Yerch. Maybe I’ll come back with a coda some day, but for now I’m just feeling itchy and irritated that the one excellent story about a girl with shark’s teeth tricked me into the rest of this mess. Fine enough reading for the cabin, but back in the everyday I’m feeling much less charitable. Sorry.

Gothic Short Fiction: Top 5

We arrived at the cabin yesterday, and have been doing the slow, unloosening unwind of food and fire-ful conversation. Time out from one’s life is a strange, interstitial moment, sitting in a kitchen with my mother and my husband and arguing about literature and the state of the weather and the price of beans. Mum and I started in about Gothic fiction, because we have that in common. She taught a class in Gothic fiction way back when, using primary The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales. I read it along with her  at the time because I’m easy and I like books and I like short fiction. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales ended up being one of the very best multi-author short story collections I’ve ever encountered. From the editorial choices to the brilliant fucking introduction, Chris Baldick knows whassup. (But, sadly, we made fun of his name a little because baldick.)

So we started arguing the top five Gothic short fictions, and Mum ended up with the following list:

“Jordan’s End” by Ellen Glasgow

A doctor goes to a remote, decaying Virginia farmhouse to treat the head of the family who is suffering from a hereditary disease. The doctor quickly realizes that not only the man, but his wife, aunts, and sons are all caught in a web woven of madness and death. Doom everywhere.

“The Gospel According to Mark” by Jorges Luis Borges

A student from Buenos Aires goes to visit his bumpkin cousin on a remote estancia during Lent, which is fall in the Southern hemisphere. To pass the time, he starts reading the Gospel of Mark to the degenerate, illiterate servants–which turns out to be a huge mistake.

“The Vampire of Kaldenstein” by Frederick Cowles

In the late 1930s, a clueless Brit takes a bicycle tour to a remote part of Germany, fails to heed the locals’ warning–to comic results. Don’t go to the castle, you idjit!

The Lady of the House of Love” by Angela Carter

A sad, young vampire waits in darkness in her ancestral castle for her true love to come to her. Many men and boys do, but wind up as blood donors. Another British bicyclist, this time a soldier o leave during WWI, shows up and spends the night with her. Will his blood be shed there or on the battlefields of France?

The Horla” by Guy DeMaupassant

Oh my god! Hysterical first person narrator wigs out when he thinks an invisible Brazilian chupachbra is haunting him. He grows crazier with every passing day until he finally decides to do something about his unseen tormentor.

Like the joke about lawyers at the bottom of the ocean, this is a good start. But my list would look a little different. I would add “The Bloody Countess” by Alejandra Pizarnik, which is so completely dirty and perverse and freaks me out with its semi-academic tone married to some seriously fucked up content. Elizabeth Bathory, man. The husband brought up Poe, because obvs, and we decided that “The Fall of the House of Usher” was the best of his Gothics. A young man comes to visit his friend and the friend’s tragic twin sister in their remote, crumbling estate.

In “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates self-absorbed teenager Connie has all these fantasies about boyfriends, and when Arnold Friend pulls his red convertible into the driveway of her family home when her family is away at a barbeque, she gets a boyFriend from hell.

And then, of course, the patron saint of Southern Gothic, Flannery O’Connor with “A Good Man Is Hard to Find“. A Georgia couple, their bratty children and a grandma who fancies herself a Southern aristocrat, embark on a road trip. The grandmother’s insistence on seeing a plantation (that she later realizes is “gone with the wind”) ends with their rolling the family car on a dusty rural road.  Enter the Misfit, an escaped convict, and his sidekicks.

So, given this collection of freaking excellent stories, I think you could probably say something about the shape of the Gothic. An outsider comes into an often rural location. He (or occasionally she) might be a painful doofus. The rot of the inbred rural location might spread, or it might be a counterpoint to the mechanized horror of the industrial center. Monsters have faces; machine guns do not. Gothic more than other longstanding genres has a lot of female writers, and that makes sense to me: the creeping dread, the lack of agency, the limited locales. Women haven’t have the most control over our lives, historically speaking.
List:
Autumn setting
Remote, isolated location
Night, darkness
Enclosed spaces
Decaying houses, castles
Hereditary insanity, illness
Twins (doppelganger)
Madness
Grotesque body shapes
Inbreeding
Storms, floods, extreme cold or heat

So it was fun to talk lists, and the weird convergences – bicycles, apparently? – and I look forward to more food and talk and half-napping here on the North Shore.

Reluctant Boy Readers: Peregrine Harker and the Black Death

I requested Peregrine Harker the Black Death from NetGalley because I have a shine for the Black Plague, and young adult novels about ridiculously awful social and bacteriological devastation appeal to me in the abstract. Unfortunately for this reader, it wasn’t really about bubonic plague. This book also skews younger than the young adult label implies, really more for the 10-14 demographic than late high school or slumming adults. There’s been a lot of fracture in the age distinctions for novels in the past however long – apparently there is a category called New Adult these days? – but I think that sometimes those distinctions can be fruitful. Or if not fruitful, than useful for readers to determine interest level. 

Peregrine Harker the Black Death by Luke Hollands absolutely screams to me reluctant boy reader, with its parentless boy detective type first-person narrator who is a cross between the pre-radioactive-spider-bitten Peter Parker and Tin Tin. He is hauled in by a superior at the newspaper and ordered to stop going off on wild tangents, and then immediately goes off on a wild tangent that gets him knocked on the head and embroiled in a Scooby Doo style mystery. There’s some mild family angst, but everybody is too busy running around and avoiding being buried alive and the like to really delve into melodrama. 

Everything is extremely action-driven, and moves fairly breathlessly around an almost overdone Victorian England. The prose is very pip pip cheerio old bean bloke lorry loo, and it took me a while to determine that this wasn’t meant to be funning on British prose style, but straight up. Or maybe it is funning after all, but it is very over the top in its Britishiosity. I didn’t exactly like this, but I think for the demographic who should be reading this, it would be fun and novel. 

I’m going to admit here I didn’t finish Peregrine Harker the Black Death. A book aimed at boys who don’t like to read and therefore gives them scads and scads of action to the detriment of anything else a novel might provide isn’t really my bag. I think I’m sounding a little bitter here, but I don’t mean to go that way. Stylized action vehicles are completely valid, especially if you’re trying to sucker some snot-nosed brat into reading instead of Minecraft. I think my 9 year old, who is an unreluctant boy reader, would probably enjoy this as action fluff. Young people who are afraid that books might have girl cooties all over them will likely enjoy this too. This is mostly cootie-free. 

But I don’t think somewhat mindless action vehicles are ultimately going to turn the reluctant reader into an avid one, because there’s not a lot of here here. I don’t believe that reading is ennobling, and I don’t think it has to be didactic or educational to be worthwhile. The things that make reading rewarding, or differently rewarding than building Legos or Mariocart – finely drawn (or even exaggerated) emotional states, engaging or challenging prose, thoughtful plotting, any kind of character study – are not in evidence here. And not that this one novel has to adhere to my cranky old standards or solve all the issues I have with how reading fits into other media, gendered divisions in marketing, and whatnot. A perfectly slap-happy read for someone other than me.

Walking Dead: Prey: or Syke! Let’s talk about In the Flesh instead!

Heya. Looks like I dropped the ball on writing about Prey in anything resembling a timely manner. So here’s the quick and dirty about that episode: it’s totally fine, and managed to get me to stop hating Andrea every minute of my life. Like Clear  two weeks before it, the focus of the episode is on a smaller group of people and actually has a coherent beginning, middle, and end. This focus had been lacking in episodes previous, and the wheeling around all over Georgia checking in with everyone dissipated the stakes. Good on them for tightening up.

Andrea also shows some competence, which we knew she must possess to survive as long as she did, but shore wasn’t in evidence recently. (Although, how come she doesn’t steal the Governor’s car when she pulls the trick with the stairway zombies? I don’t get it.) The small character work between Georgia Gandalf and Milton last week paid off in a better understood Milton – he’s the one who torched the pit zombies, yeah? And altogether people seemed to have coherent actions. Neat.

But the biggest shift may be the Governor, who is *finally* acting like a really big psycho. My husband observed that he’s been like this all along: telling people what they want to hear about what he’s planning, and then tossing people in the “screaming pits”. (Have we seen those again? Since they were first mentioned? Or is that the pit zombies?) Morrissey has a lot of presence when you get him moving – he’s so damn tall, and there’s this sense of inevitability when he strides around – and it was great to see that in action, especially coupled with the slightly corny but still creepy whistling.

But I come here not to talk about Walking Dead, which I apparently did anyway, but to freak out about BBC’s In the Flesh, which is so amazingly good and doing just the weirdest things with zombies.

Kieren is a Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferer – god, I love these mordant acronyms I find in zombie fiction, like Colson Whitehead’s PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder) – who has been rehabilitated from his flesh-eating state, and is preparing to be sent home to the community where he hunted and killed. His grim Northern English town is the center for the band of activist zombie hunters who helped stem the tides against the undead, and probably not that great of a place to return. Some of the townspeople came off as clumsy caricatures – and the sister rankled a bit – but lordy was that final scene with the old woman taking out her contacts and looking up at the mob come to kill her effective and brutal.

Obviously, the narrative goals of In the Flesh and Walking Dead are dissimilar, but I’m completely impressed with the way the zombie metaphor could stretch to be about rehabilitation and social conformity, disability and possibly even immigration politics. Many monster narratives end up boiling down to but the humans are the monsters OH DO YOU SEE. This is a perfectly fine stock message for justifying some bloodbath and great set-pieces, and one third season Walking Dead is relying on pretty heavily. But man is it cool when pretty much everyone is the monster, and the flinching, grainy remorse of In the Flesh really got me.

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…

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. 

Jane Eyre

This is a slipknot review to hold place until I can read this again. I’ve had to read Jane Eyretwice, both times for school. The first was the obligatory high school read, and then the second was the obligatory English major read. I liked it better the second time, because the class I took it in rocked like crazy, and I do remember fun things about it, like how Rochester outlines his various romances, and how each romance is with a woman of non-English background, and how each of those women are totally wrong because they are not English. I remember wanting Rochester to die in a fire a bit, because he’s such an arrogant fucking asshole, and then bang! he totally gets burnt in a fire! That’s some good writing. 

Weirdly, the thing I remember best about Jane Eyreis going to see a production at the Children’s Theatre here in Minneapolis when I was in the 5th grade. This was back in the Children’s Theatre’s heyday, before the sexual abuse scandal almost completely destroyed that institution. I had completely forgotten about this production until I recently got free tickets to go there again, and being in the building shook the memory loose. The play was based only on the parts of Jane Eyrethat detail her childhood – her unhappy time with the Reeds, her even more unhappy time at the Lowood School, her friendship with Helen Burns, Helen’s death by typhus. 

The production was really moving to me, and I remember seething with irritation when my classmates sent up a chorus of Oooohs when Jane climbs into bed with Helen to warm her as she dies of mistreatment and disease. Motherfucking homophobia starts young, and is stupid and unsympathetic at any age. Anyway, I guess I just wanted to say that I really loved Jane for her portrait of a mistreated and abused child who develops this incredible moral compass out of her experience. She makes incredibly hard choices, like the one to leave the man she loves because he’s an amoral would-be bigamist. 

Think about it. This is not some minor impediment to marriage, the kind of thing thrown up in dimestore romances to cause more sexual tension. This is not a misunderstanding or a mistake. This is a serious moral failing in the man she loves, and, you know, a legal failing too. For the lack of love, Jane’s childhood is cruelty and abuse. It’s wonderful for her to find love with someone who can appreciate her strange gifts. But love is not an ethical elixir that will magic away the difference between right and wrong. The most famous line to come out of this novel is “Reader, I married him.” I think sometimes this overshadows the fact that, Reader, for a very long time, and based on moral choices that materially damage her life, Jane does not marry him. Marrying him would be wrong, and all the love in the world will not make it right. That’s why I love Jane Eyre. 

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.

Riveted: A Song of Ice and Fire

Without question, Riveted by Meljean Brook is the most accomplished of the Iron Seas novels so far, with a smooth and well-paced exposition, likable characters who do not behave like children or (worse) teenagers, and a trotting, road-trippy plot that doesn’t drop threads or wander off. Even the cover is better, without the greasy torsos of the first two novels. Greasy torsos really gross me out. Observe:

Admittedly, the Iron Duke looks pretty dry, but someone has oiled the second dude. Yuck. And it doesn’t make any sense, because that character was supposed to be a clothes horse and a dandy. I hate to say this, lest I sound like a hipster douchebag, but the UK covers are better across the board. Apparently, I’m out of step in my torso aesthetics with my country. Rule Brittania. 

David Kentewess is a vulcanologist traveling to survey Iceland for the alt-history version of the Royal Society; Annika is the daughter of an insular all-female society on Iceland. David also has personal reasons to locate and possibly expose Annika’s community. You can see how this might be a problem, despite a meet cute and the fact that they generally enjoy each other. There are other points of connection and fracture between the two of them, and Rivetedtakes time and care to build their relationship with an almost Regency-level restraint. (And I have noted before that this is more an alt-Regency steampunk world, less an alt-Victorian one, dirigibles notwithstanding. Though the first manned balloon flight was in 1783, which is kind of a trip if you think about it. Anyhoo.) 

So, it seems to me that romance novels – especially those that fall in to the broad rubric of paranormal – often deal with various kinds of body trauma. The paranormal, with it’s extreme and changing bodies – the animistic werewolf rippling with fur, the cold blood of the vampire, the insubstantiality of the ghost -almost externalizes that trauma (which doesn’t have to be sexual trauma, but because we’re dealing with body trauma here, almost always affects the sexual) and dramatizes it. Omg, I don’t want to drink blood; change into a monster; succumb to my biology. Et cetera. Certainly, this can be just badly done, and you can hit a bunch of anorexic ideation, slut-shaming, or just straight up rape fantasy, but trauma’s not actually ennobling, and pain and fear bite. But body trauma is often the heart of paranormal romance. 

Steampunk is on the far edge of paranormal – there are often scient-ish explanations for whatever megalodon/dirigible/automata – but a pulp sense of goofy hand-waving to explanation is happily part of the genre. And the Iron Seas books certainly have been taking on body trauma in their romantic pairings. I was not at all comfortable with Rhys and Mina’s deal in The Iron Duke - even while I really loved Mina’s character & the world in general. The whole Alpha male sub/dom thing was just too much for me, though I do appreciate that it’s addressed pretty head on. 

But here with David, we don’t have a big rippling alpha asshole who just has to pin down his lady love and fuck make love the trauma right out of her, but an almost virginal scientist who has been very seriously scarred in a volcanic eruption – one that also killed his mother. His monocle is not foppery, but a prosthetic replacing a lost eye. Three of his limbs have been replaced with prostheses as well. So he’s got some body issues: limited mobility, lingering survival guilt, still adjusting self-image and self-loathing, etc. I haven’t been much of a fan of virgins-lose-it tales, because, ahem, they almost never match up to the awkward reality, and they make me feel weird for how perfect everything is. But here it was sweet and awkward and occasionally painful – not just whatever hymen stuff, but painful in the sense that you can make some serious missteps while learning a lover’s body. Add in the fact that, if you think about, Annika more or less has to come out as hetero. We breeders almost never have to consider our sexual preferences as adolescents, least not the way gay people do anyway, so it is very interesting to see a straight person have to consciously make the choice of straightness, knowing that choice will lead to certain fractures with her community. 

This isn’t obnoxiously done or anything – there’s no Star Trek style arm wheeling about her single-gender community is just as wrong as the rest of them! or whatever, but that does bring me to why I couldn’t cough up that last star. This book is incredibly message-y, from gay rights to ableism to racism to fossil fuels to maybe some other other stuff I’m forgetting. It feels like a bitch-move from me to complain about this, but sheer number and occurrences of the messages got to be distracting, and I’m really sorry to say this, a little bossy. It’s not that I disagree – yes! don’t be dicks to people because of their sexual orientations! – but I felt a little choir-bound. Putting aside the bigots who won’t like this anyway – because fuck them – my main criticism is that so much was taken on – race! gender! the planet! disability! – that the take-homes felt dissipated and topically treated, except for the body trauma stuff. 

Anyway, another perfectly fun and intelligent alt-history/romance from Ms. Brook, one that balances the needs of the relationship against the needs of the plot in a near perfect manner. I certainly have my preferences for the thickly urban steampunk alt-history – and I did miss the London of the Iron Seas world – but the substitution of desolate, volcanic Iceland was pretty great. And there’s a character with my daughter’s name! I can see my house from here!

Oh, and by the way? Scientists are hot. 


From Bangable Dudes in History