No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, October 19, 2012

2012/51: Spares -- Michael Marshall Smith

So many objects and machines these days are stuffed full of intellect - and most of the time it's just turned off. We're surrounded by unused intelligence, and for once it's not our own. For every fridge which tells you what's fresh and what's not, there'll be fifty which have been told to shut the fuck up. ... We created things which are clever and then told them to be stupid instead. (p. 105)

Read for bookclub, Spares is a futuristic noir thriller that begins in the lowest levels of a crippled shopping mall, takes in a clone farm and the mysterious Gap ('all the places where no one is' (208)), and culminates in a chapel at the very top of the MegaMall. Protagonist Jack Randall (ex-cop, ex-bladerunner, ex-soldier) starts off thinking that he's carrying out a rescue: in the end, the only person he can rescue is himself. He needs to learn a lot about what's really going on before he can solve a series of crimes and bring to justice the man who wrecked his life.

I suspect this was a far better read when it came out in the late 1990s: now -- fatal for an SF novel -- its vision of the 22nd century feels dated. A street price of $800 for 128GB RAM? $800 enough to subsist on for quite a while? And, damningly, 'it must have been great when computers could only fuck you up at work, by pretending they couldn't find the printer' (p. 83). That's the author, not the character.

There are some excellent ideas in here -- smart appliances, the Gap, cloning as medical insurance, the MegaMall, the drug that intensifies reality, the reformed war droid who's the most likeable character in the novel -- but I didn't feel they really came together. Or maybe I was distracted [or repulsed, or outraged] by the protagonist's sexism, and the sexism of the whole society.

I have neither the time nor the desire to discuss sexism / misogyny in Spares at any length, but here are some examples:

  1. The most successful career woman in here is a professional shopper.
  2. Female clones as sex objects (okay, not just the clones)
  3. The feud between Vinaldi and Randall is based on what they did to each other's wives (no indication that the wives had any agency in those situations).
  4. One female character is pleasantly surprised not to be raped when she's captured. (Presumably this is usual in such circumstances.)
  5. There are lots of soldiers. None of them are female.
  6. Maxwork -- 'relief from tedium', something for men to do while women shop. So men don't shop? So women don't get bored by any male activity?
  7. 'suddenly furious in that force-of-nature way women have' (269)
I'd have liked this novel much better if I'd read it ten years ago. Friends who did read it back then don't recall the misogyny being anything out of the ordinary: but times have changed. I wonder how differently the author would write it now?

2012/50: The Left Hand of Darkness -- Ursula Le Guin

I stopped at a street-crossing and thought, Why should I not go east, across the mountains and the plains back to Kerm Land, a poor man afoot, and so come home to Estre where I was born, the stone house on a bitter mountainside: why not go home? Three times or four I stopped and looked back ... each time I thought of the folly of trying to go home. As well kill myself. I was born to live in exile, it appeared, and my one way home was by way of dying. [p. 59]

Reread for the Coursera Fantasy and SF course (a previous review is here). I couldn't believe I no longer had a copy: promptly fixed that problem, thanks to Amazon.

I'm still finding new aspects of this marvellous novel, and it was great to have another opportunity to discuss it, both online and in person, with fellow Coursera students. This time I found myself focussing on Estraven's story, and trying to connect the sparse facts of his life into a coherent whole. (I'm still puzzled as to why, even in critical journals, it's taken as read that Estraven's brother Arek committed suicide. But I think I understand why he writes to Sorve and not to his other sons.)

It's a beautiful tragedy, and Estraven is one of the most compelling politicians I've encountered in fiction. He is competent, pragmatic, capable. I wish he could have lived to travel out into the Ekumen.

My Coursera essay:

The Left Hand of Darkness can be read on a number of levels: an account of the events leading to Gethen's membership of the Ekumen; an exploration of gender issues; a story of betrayal and redemption. Less explicitly, it is the biography of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who goes from Prime Minister of Karhide to disgraced exile and, perhaps, suicide.

Estraven's personal life is sketched in sparse detail. At the time of the novel he* has been 'exiled' from his home for twenty years. He spent seven of those years with Ashe, with whom he had two children: they separated because Estraven's vow of kemmering was "a false vow, a second vow" [60]. Admitting this to Ashe, he thinks of his brother Arek, who has been dead for fourteen years. Only in the final pages of the novel does Genly Ai learn that Estraven and Arek had a child, Sorve.

Estraven would have known the hearth-tale 'The Place Inside the Blizzard', which forms chapter two of the novel. In that story, Getheren vows kemmering to his brother Hode. The brothers conceive a child, and are thus commanded to break their vow of kemmering. Hode, despairing, commits suicide, and Getheren is exiled for having caused his brother's death. Estraven also conceived a child with his brother, but his exile was self-imposed. By leaving home and family he sought to assuage his own guilt, avoid the fate of Getheren, and spare Arek the pain and shame of mandatory separation.

Political exile is less significant to Estraven than the solitude that results from his transgressive love for the brother he still mourns. His double exile forces his perspective and his loyalty outward towards humanity and the 'greater good', rather than inward towards his lover and child. 'Why can I never set my heart on a possible thing?' [128] he berates himself: but without the impossibility of a lasting relationship with Arek, he could not sacrifice career, reputation and life to help bring Gethen into the Ekumen.

* I use the pronouns in Le Guin's first edition: whilst problematic (because they limit gender roles), they are more readable than the pronouns she invented later.

Le Guin, Ursula The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) Page references refer to the Orbit edition, first printed 1992.

Jeanne Murray Walker 'Myth, Exchange and History in The Left Hand of Darkness', Science Fiction Studies #18: accessed online at http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/18/walker18art.htm, 21.09.12

2012/49: The Martian Chronicles -- Ray Bradbury

The rain.
Raw, gentle, and easy, it mizzled out of the high air, a special elixir, tasting of spells and stars and air, carrying a peppery dust in it, and moving like a rare light sherry on his tongue.
Rain.
He sat up. He let the blanket fall and his blue denim shirt spot, while the rain took on more solid drops. The fire looked as though an invisible animal were dancing on it, crushing it, until it was angry smoke. The rain fell. The great black lid of sky cracked in six powdery blue chips, like a marvelous crackled glaze, and rushed down. He saw ten billion rain crystals, hesitating long enough to be photographed by the electrical display. Then darkness and water. (p. 76)

Read for the Coursera Fantasy and SF Course. I'm not sure I'd ever read The Martian Chronicles cover to cover: certainly I had a sense of jamais vu, of reading something new. Bradbury's liberal, ecologically-aware humanism is powerful now: I like to think that it was even more exceptional when the stories first appeared. These stories are very much artefacts of their time: big business, male chauvinism, racism (my edition, from 1954, contains 'Way in the Middle of the Air' rather than 'The Fire Balloons'), a brash disregard for the world(s) around them.

Bradbury's pre-colonisation Mars makes me ache. He doesn't describe a Utopia -- indeed, Mars has many of the same problems as 1950s America -- but there's an emphasis on beauty, a sense of age-old civilisations, that is much more beguiling than the Mars of Burroughs, acknowledged by Bradbury as a major influence.

Who first described Earth as a green star? I think it might have been Burroughs; or was it H G Wells? I wonder if Earth ever was green, instead of blue, as seen from another planet ...

Here's my essay -- actually a transformative work -- for Coursera. (Achieved my lowest grade to date for this! One peer reviewer didn't seem to get it at all, despite my footnote; another told me it was 'disrespectful' to a fine writer; the third said that without the footnote they'd have thought I got drunk and tried to paraphrase SparkNotes ...You decide.)

Rae Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles is a visionary subversion of gender roles. In post-war American society, a woman's place was in the home, but Bradbury's Mars presents female characters with opportunities to take control.

In 'Ylla', the protagonist is increasingly perturbed by her husband's dreams, in which he hunts and kills black-haired, blue-eyed strangers. Ylla tricks Yll into remaining at home while she goes to welcome the strangers -- the First Expedition -- and warns them of the hostile reception they will face from more conservative Martians.

In 'The Martian', Anna and LaFarge encounter a shape-shifting Martian who assumes the appearance of their dead son. LaFarge is overjoyed, but Anna quickly realises that 'Tom' is an imposter. Rather than betraying the Martian's identity (or lack of it) she attempts to make him feel loved and welcomed, but LaFarge's possessiveness leads to the Martian's death.

Genevieve Selsor believes she is the last human on Mars, until she is telephoned by Walter Gripp. When they meet, however, Gen finds Gripp shallow and superficial. In a satirical inversion of romantic tropes, Gen realises that the best way to rid herself of Gripp is to demand commitment. The wedding-dress she finds in a deserted shop proves an effective deterrent, and Gripp flees, leaving Gen to live as she pleases.

Genevieve rejects the role of wife and mother: in 'The Million-Year Picnic' Alice Thomas considers the comparable dilemma faced by her friend Betty Edwards. Should Betty bring her daughters to Mars to become the wives of Alice's sons, thus preventing the human race from extinction? At the end of the story we are still unsure of Betty's decision, but it is clear that if the girls do arrive, Alice and Betty will be raising them with sound feminist ideals.

Bradbury's women are products of the patriarchal society in which the author was writing, yet they question and transcend the stereotypes of post-war America. The women in the Chronicles are empowered: they take action, and change the course of Martian history.

FOOTNOTE IN COURSERA ESSAY CITATIONS SECTION: (Just for clarification: this is a transformative work. I am aware that Ray Bradbury was not a woman and did not spell his first name 'Rae'; furthermore, the stories I mention by name do not have the plots and themes discussed above.)

2012/48: Among Others -- Jo Walton

Tolkien understood about the things that happen after the end. Because this is after the end, this is all the Scouring of the Shire, this is figuring out how to live in the time that wasn’t supposed to happen after the glorious last stand. I saved the world, or I think I did, and look, the world is still here, with sunsets and interlibrary loans. [loc. 920]

Mori, protagonist of Among Others, is more or less the same age as me: like me, books -- especially SF and fantasy books -- are her salvation. Unlike me, she has recently saved the world, and has the scars to prove it.

Mori's twin sister, Mor (one's short for Morganna, one for Morwenna) was hit by a car and died; the same accident left Mori in constant pain, unable to walk without a stick, and estranged from her mother, who is a witch.

Mori runs away and ends up with her father, who has never been a part of her life. He, and Mori's three aunts, send her off to boarding school. In a reversal of the Potter trope, school is a bastion of normality. Mori even, tentatively, makes friends, and she joins an SF reading group at the local library. But there is still magic in the world, and Mori has unfinished business -- quite aside from the ordinary pressures of growing up, interacting with non-relatives, and testing the interlibrary loan scheme to its limits.

There is so much here that is familiar, and so much that is strange. I laughed and I wept. I disagreed violently (Creatures of Light and Darkness is a marvellous book!) and had that lovely not-just-me sense of relief re The Magus. I too discovered Dragonsinger before I knew that Dragonsong existed. I ...

One criticism levelled against this novel is that it's nostalgic. Yes and no. Mori's reading, though it doesn't directly parallel her life outside books, shapes and influences her reactions to the mundane world. It's one thing to read Babel-17 at fifteen: quite another to read it just as you're having trouble communicating with others. Books save Mori's life; they show her alternative modes of behaviour; they give her the vocabulary to express (even if only to herself) what she wants. And they are an excellent source of metaphor, a filter through which she can interpret and relate to the beings she calls Fairies.

I was reminded of Pamela Dean's Tam Lin -- the mundanities of school / college life with a glimmer of magic here and there -- and also of Joanne Greenberg's beautiful and unsettling novel about mental illness, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden: in particular, the way the latter describes the landscapes and beings of Yr, the world that the heroine constructs as a defence against reality. I'm not suggesting that Mori is doing anything comparable, just that the eerie spikiness of the fairies resonates, for me, with Yr and its gods.

And now I'm gradually collating Mori's acerbic (and occasionally inaccurate) observations on the books she reads, and mapping them to my own ...

Weirdly, I wish I'd read this when I was 15. And I'd be fascinated to learn what it's like to read this if you haven't read the SF and fantasy classics that inform Mori's world.
We thought we were living in a fantasy landscape when actually we were living in a science fictional one. In ignorance, we played our way through what the elves and giants had left us, taking the fairies’' possession for ownership. I named the dramroads after places in The Lord of the Rings when I should have recognised that they were from The Chrysalids.[loc. 455]

Thursday, October 11, 2012

2012/47: The Sea -- John Banville

Yes, this is what I thought adulthood would be, a kind of long indian summer, a state of tranquility, of calm incuriousness, with nothing left of the barely bearable raw immediacy of childhood, all the things solved that had puzzled me when I was small, all mysteries settled, all questions answered, and the moments dripping away, unnoticed almost, drip by golden drip, toward the final, almost unnoticed, quietus. (p. 94)

Read on the beach, on the last day of summer (= last feasible sea-bathing day). I've owned this novel since it came out in paperback in 2006, the year after it won the Booker. No rush, eh?

Max, whose wife Anna has recently died of cancer, is staying at The Cedars, a guesthouse in an Irish seaside village. In his distant childhood, this house was the summer residence of the Grace family, who drew him into their circle, invited him on picnics, let him play their games. Max (though 'Max' wasn't his name then) was infatuated with Mrs Grace; intimidated by her husband's sense of humour; drawn into the orbit of the twins, Chloe and Myles (the latter of whom didn't speak). He imagined he knew the secret of Rose, the nanny. It takes him a long time to discover that he was wrong about her.

Max is not an especially likeable character: he's pedantic, discursive, rambling, and very sorry for himself. With some cause. His daughter has taken up with an unsuitable young man; his wife is dead. He's living at a seaside guest house, alone save for the mysterious Colonel (so caricatured that he must be an imposter?) and Miss Vavasour, the proprietress of The Cedars. Alone, he reflects on his childhood memories of Chloe and Myles and how they were lost to him; into that narrative is woven Anna's death and Max's sense of being 'no one', invisible. (People look at him but don't see him: this is an image that recurs throughout the novel.)

The Sea consists of a slow, simple tale glinting with gorgeous prose. Max's voice is sometimes irritating, but when he lets go of detail and focusses on a whole experience, the effect is breathtaking.

Monday, September 24, 2012

2012/46: Boneland -- Alan Garner

"...it’s not so much deep space that concerns me as deep place. Once place is lost, you fall into history."
"And there’s no way out?"
"There’s no way out." [location 1385]

Colin knows too much and understands too little. He can recite, verbatim, pages from ornithology texts, and tell you what he was doing, thinking, feeling at any point in the last thirty years or so: but he can't remember anything from before he was thirteen.

Colin is broken after the events of the earlier books, and the final climactic thing that happened when he was twelve. His story, here, is about discovering his own past, step by step, guided by his psychiatrist Meg. (Perhaps she knows more than is feasible. Perhaps there's a reason for that.) Piece by piece it falls together. Perhaps if Garner had returned to the world of those earlier books sooner, he'd have written a novel that ended with Colin's catastrophic loss of memory. Instead, he's written a novel where that event is in the past, colouring and scorching everything that remains.

My stream-of-consciousness scrawl includes comparisons to Robert Holdstock's deep myth; resonances with the strong sense of place in Red Shift; Garner's playfulness -- Colin's dwarfs are not the dwarfs we met in Weirdstone, but astronomical anomalies; holly everywhere, and crows; Bert in his High Castle; Meg as one of Three; Susan's fate, the Pleiades; motorways (Red Shift again: and again with 'blue, silver, blue silver') ... I want to read through the nameless shaman's narrative again, undistracted by Colin's epiphanies, and root myself in that story of isolation and duty: I suspect it ties in with some of my recent non-fiction reading.

Like many of Garner's readers, I first encountered Colin in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: I returned to that earlier book (and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath) in order to understand this one. It's still ... opaque. I believe I understand most of the actual events in the novel, but there are levels of allusion that I've missed. Maureen Kincaid Speller's preliminary notes helped me make the connection to Gawain and the Green Knight (I knew there was something about the phrase 'governor of this gang' that rang a bell). There are some exceptionally insightful comments (and some familiar names <g>) on the Guardian reading group page. I suspect I shall be reading and rereading and cogitating for a long time yet.

2012/45: Herland -- Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“But they look — why, this is a CIVILIZED country!” I protested. “There must be men.” (p.11)
Read for the Coursera fantasy and SF course.

I'd never read Herland before, though it's a classic of feminist SF, and was pleasantly surprised to find it less fervent than some later novels exploring the 'society of women' theme. The premise is simple, and strangely reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World: but instead of an isolated South American plateau inhabited by dinosaurs, our intrepid explorers discover an isolated South American plateau inhabited by, well, females.

Herland's populace has been exclusively female for the last two thousand years: the women, descendants of an isolated harem, reproduce parthogenetically and have a thriving society. They react to the Explorers Three -- Jeff who idealises women, Terry the 'ladies' man', and Van the sociologist -- with amusement, interest and curiosity. Yet every utopia has a dark side, and the women of Herland are not as delightful as idealistic Jeff, in particular, at first imagines. (It certainly makes sense, in a monosexual parthogenetic society, to discourage those with strong sexual urges from reproduction; but why cripple a cat's nature by preventing it from hunting birds?)

Herland is peppered with wit and satire, though some of the observations are too dark -- and too pertinent, even a century after the novel's publication -- for wholehearted amusement.

I wrote about rape culture in Herland and A Princess of Mars for my Coursera essay: you can read it here.

2012/44: A Princess of Mars -- Edgar Rice Burroughs

I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space.
Read for the Coursera fantasy and SF course.

I actually don't think I've ever read Burroughs' 'John Carter' books before, though I'm familiar with the basic premise and with some of the criticism. That strong sense of familiarity that I experienced must come from having read so many books influenced by Burroughs' Mars.

(I've also been trying to track down a short story I remember reading years ago, in which John Carter wakes up -- naked, of course -- in modern-day America, possibly hallucinating, yelling about 'the cry of a distant thoat' and so on. Narrated by an observer. Any answers? I have a vague feeling it was Sturgeon but Google cannot confirm.)

A Princess of Mars displays the common prejudices of its time. Dejah Thoris is beautiful and helpless; Mars is dry, with ancient canals criss-crossing the desert; John Carter is braver / stronger / more honourable than any Martian, etc. It's an enjoyable romp and a fascinating fragment of SF history -- though really it's more science fantasy, in that the mechanism of Carter's interplanetary trip is never explained. Swords and not-quite-sorcery-honest-just-telepathy!

I wrote about rape culture in A Princess of Mars and Charlotte Perkin Gilman's Herland for my Coursera essay:

Sexual desire is atavistic in both Herland and the Martian societies encountered by John Carter in A Princess of Mars. In Herland, 'sex-feeling' has been deliberately bred out of the descendants of an oppressed harem. "[t]hose who had at times manifested it as atavistic exceptions were often, by that very fact, denied motherhood". On Mars, the rationale for the weakened sexual urge is not explicitly discussed, though a connection with environmental factors is implied: "the waning demands for procreation upon their dying planet". Although these societies continue to produce progeny, reproduction is driven more by 'community interest' than the combination of physical desire and emotional attachment -- 'sex-love', as Herland's narrator puts it -- that the male protagonists of these novels have been socialised to regard as natural.

The responses of those protagonists demonstrate different aspects of masculinity. When John Carter is told that Dejah Thoris is likely to be raped by Tal Hajus, he breaks into a cold sweat of revulsion, comparing Dejah's predicament with "those brave frontier women of my lost land, who took their own lives rather than fall into the hands of the Indian braves." Carter's role is that of the 'white knight', rescuing the helpless princess from a traditional 'fate worse than death'.

In Herland, by contrast, Terry attempts to rape Alina, and is violently rejected. "Terry put in practice his pet conviction that a woman loves to be mastered, and by sheer brute force, in all the pride and passion of his intense masculinity, he tried to master this woman ... it did not work." In contrast with Dejah Thoris' passivity, Alina rescues herself.

Gilman's Alina repulses Terry, who believes he has the right to have sex with her: Burrough's Dejah is a helpless pawn who needs the protection of John Carter to save her from sexual violence at the hands of an enemy. In both instances, sexual desire is a 'brutish' masculine instinct that threatens the female characters, who are unmoved by any comparable urge.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

2012/43: The Island of Doctor Moreau -- H G Wells

Before, they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence, begun in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau — and for what?
Read for the Coursera fantasy and SF course. I first read this novel as a teenager and found it depressing and unpleasant. This response hasn't changed. I dislike the characters; am distressed by Moreau's experiments; and I read between the lines.

The Island of Doctor Moreau is a powerful novel: another condemnation of vivisection, and some vivid descriptions of what it's like to be hunted, and to hunt. It's much more of an adventure novel -- exotic location, heroic actions, violence etc -- than The Invisible Man, which I read immediately before it.

Here's the essay I wrote for Coursera, which achieved my highest score to date (thus demonstrating the randomness of the peer-review grading: it's far from my best).

The Island of Doctor Moreau can be read as an exploration of what it means to be human. When Prendrick discovers the nature of Moreau's work, the Doctor mocks his scruples, and tells him that 'So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick... you are an animal'. In this respect, Moreau and his assistant Montgomery are the only humans on the island.

Prendrick develops his own criteria of humanity. He notes that the beast-people cannot laugh; later, he writes bitterly that 'it takes a real man to tell a lie'. An abstainer himself, he berates a drunken Montgomery for making a beast of himself, and condemns him for offering brandy to the beast-people.

Prendrick asserts his humanity with every mention of his 'revulsion' at the 'grotesqueness' of Moreau's creations. Yet there are signs that he is gradually becoming more bestial. When the Leopard-man is hunted, Prendrick joins the chase, 'one of a tumultuous shouting crowd'. Only when the 'quarry' is cornered does Prendrick's humanity return: he administers a mercy killing.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Prendrick's gradual dehumanisation is his reaction to the females of the beast-people. '[G]lancing with a transitory daring into the eyes of some lithe, white-swathed female figure, I would suddenly see (with a spasmodic revulsion) that she had slit-like pupils'. His revulsion supersedes, but does not erase, the unvoiced desire implicit in 'lithe' and 'daring'.

Later, Prendrick mentions that the females, in particular, have begun to 'disregard the injunction of decency' and adds 'I cannot pursue this disagreeable subject.' Is there self-censorship at work here? Does Prendrick, in his ten months alone with the beast-people, overcome his revulsion sufficiently to copulate with one of the females? Perhaps even the urge to do so would suffice to convince him of his own inhumanity.

2012/42: The Invisible Man -- H G Wells

"...giving drugs to a cat is no joke, Kemp! And the process failed [...] These were the claws and the pigment stuff, what is it? — at the back of the eye in a cat. You know?"
"Tapetum."
"Yes, the tapetum. It didn’t go. [...]gave the beast opium, and put her and the pillow she was sleeping on, on the apparatus. And after all the rest had faded and vanished, there remained two little ghosts of her eyes." [chapter 20]
Read, like several other recent rereads, for the Coursera fantasy and SF course.

I'd forgotten how enjoyable Wells is as a writer, especially when he's focussed on the (Victorian) English and their habits. And I'd forgotten how very unpleasant Griffin, the Invisible Man, turns out to be. He's arrogant and elitist, both socially and intellectually; he steals from his aged father and doesn't mourn the old man's subsequent death; he is short-tempered and prone to violence; he displays a casual disregard for others, human or otherwise (on burning down a house, 'no doubt it was insured': on leaving a man tied up, 'I suppose he untied himself'); and he leaves an invisible cat wandering the streets of London. ("It’s very probably been killed".)

Wells writes excellent comic dialogue (his Sussex 'yokels' are individuated, realistic and an excellent contrast to the intellectual elite as represented by Griffin and Kemp). The Invisible Man is quietly humorous, from Griffin's initial experiments (catching a cold, sleeping in a department store) to Marvel's foiled ambitions: it also presents and explores some important themes, from vivisection to intellectual arrogance to the mechanics of invisibility. (I'm not quite sure at what point food becomes 'assimilated' but Marvel can see that Griffin dined on bread and cheese.)

I preferred Lewis Carroll's grin without a cat to Wells' eyes without a cat. And I was very tempted to write the story of Griffin's experimental subject: an invisible cat having adventures, taunting dogs who can smell but not see her, and finally finding comfort and affection with a blind human.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

2012/41.5: various short stories by Hawthorne and Poe

Week 5 reading for the Coursera fantasy and SF course consisted of various short stories by Hawthorne and Poe.
I read Hawthorne's short fiction in, more or less, one fell swoop a few years ago, and wasn't especially hooked: however, reading a small selection of his tales, and alternating with selected Poe (all familiar from long ago, though I'd forgotten how utterly insane some of his protagonists are), was a more rewarding and pleasant experience. For my essay, I ended up comparing two stories with similar motifs ...


The Birth-mark' and 'The Oval Portrait' concern gifted men who bring about the deaths of their wives through their own knowledge and skill. There are obvious similarities between the two stories. Both Aylmer and the painter are married to their vocations (science in Aylmer's case, art in the painter's) until they wed beautiful young women. Each man shuts his wife away from the sunlight in order to remove or immortalise the 'tint' of her cheek.

The impact of each story depends on its perspective, or point of view. At the core of 'The Oval Portrait' is a brief, anonymous account of an unnamed painter and his beautiful young bride. This account is framed by the first-person narrative of a wounded man who has taken shelter in a deserted chateau. The story takes place in the single moment of the narrator's comprehension, when he realises that the subject of the oval portrait died at the moment the picture was completed. He neither knows nor speculates about the story he has read. The focus of the story is upon the narrator's reaction, not the events that provoked it.

'The Birth-mark', in contrast, is told from an omniscient point of view. Over a period of several months, the growth of Aylmer's obsession—which Georgiana comes to share—is illustrated bydetails: Georgiana's growing hatred of her birthmark, the servant Aminadab's asides, Aylmer's failed experiments. The omniscient viewpoint allows Hawthorne to reveal his protagonists' thoughts and feelings. Thus, we see that (unlike Poe's 'humble and obedient' heroine) Georgiana chooses to be the subject of her husband's ambitious experiment. And, unlike Poe's passive, oblivious painter (who 'would not see' his wife's decline), Aylmer's devotion to his wife is evident. Hawthorne's choice of viewpoint makes 'The Birth-mark' a tragedy, contrasting with the Gothic melodrama of 'The Oval Portrait'.

2012/41: (Re)Cycler -- Lauren McLaughlin

...my girlfriend is cheating on me, my alter ego is playing tongue lacrosse with the dregs of Brooklyn, and her gay boyfriend is trying to be my pal ... [p.89]
Sequel to Cycler, this novel takes up the story some months after Jill's (and Jack's) less-than-perfect prom. Jill is determined to leave the small Massachussetts town where she's grown up, but she's on the horns of a dilemma. Option one is to move to New York with her best friend Ramie, who also happens to be Jack's girlfriend and who has a place at a prestigious fashion and design college. Option two is to head off with Tommy Knutsen, Jill's own more-or-less boyfriend, on a cross-country roadtrip.

It's not an easy decision because Jill (who turns into Jack for four days a month, making common-or-garden PMS seem tame) is basically making the choice for both herself and Jack: "I have to decide which one of us gets a sex life" (p. 5). As it happens, Jill hasn't got around to sex yet. Jack, on the other hand, is determined to make the very most of his four-twenty-eighths of a life ...

New York is enough of a culture shock for Jill, who's a small-town girl at heart: Jack, on the other hand, has only recently experienced anything beyond the confines of Jill's bedroom, where he was locked up with peanut-butter sandwiches and porn for all his phases. He doesn't exactly go wild, but he does meet some young men his own age, who proudly show him their Girl Chart, on which intimate details of various hook-ups are plotted. 'Glad I'm not like that,' thinks Jack blithely.

All isn't sweetness and light with Ramie, who seems to be turning against both Jill (who she thinks is selfish) and Jack (who keeps holding her back) in favour of her new fashion-mentor, Marguerite. Jill is heartbroken over Tommy's departure, and does her best to get over him by flirting with someone of whom Jack very strongly does not approve. And Jack? Jack starts to learn the difference between love and sex, and between ego and liking oneself.

I didn't find this novel as satisfactory as Cycler: there are a lot of interesting sub-plots (Jill's cycle becoming less regular, Jack's relationship with their parents, Ramie's withdrawal) but no real conclusion. Though Jack's starting to grow up -- as Jill points out, he never had to go through childhood, which explains quite a bit of his character -- he has a long way to go. I'd like to read more of their story.

2012/40: Frankenstein -- Mary Shelley

Were we among the tamer scenes of nature I might fear to encounter your unbelief, perhaps your ridicule; but many things will appear possible in these wild and mysterious regions which would provoke the laughter of those unacquainted with the ever-varied powers of nature...

Another novel read for the Coursera fantasy and SF course. I know I've read this cover to cover before (it was one of the novels I studied as an undergraduate) but I'd forgotten a great deal of it, and found it much more poignant and profound than I'd expected.

Also, Victor Frankenstein is an arrogant twit who lacks empathy.

Now I am finally ready to read The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, Peter Ackroyd's fanfic riff on Shelley's original.

My Coursera essay:

Frankenstein's three narrators -- Walton, Victor Frankenstein, and Frankenstein's nameless creation -- are lonely. Walton writes to his sister 'I bitterly feel the want of a friend' and believes he has found that friend in Frankenstein. Frankenstein is deeply affected by the death of his friend Henry Clerval, 'the most noble of human creatures'. The Creature yearns for 'compassion and friendship' -- at first from humans that he encounters, then from his creator, and finally from the companion that he entreats Frankenstein to create for him.

These friendships seldom have happy consequences. Frankenstein wishes to create a 'new species [who] would bless me as its creator and source': perhaps he also hopes that his creation will become his friend. Instead, at the moment of the Creature's awakening, Frankenstein turns from his 'dream' in disgust and horror. The Creature's subsequent jealousy and rage lead to the death of the two people most dear to Frankenstein: his bride Elizabeth, and his friend Clerval.

The Creature's overtures of friendship inspire only fear and violence in those he meets. The De Lacey family flee their home. Little William rejects the 'hideous monster', and is killed. Worst of all, the man who brought the Creature to life turns from him. Though Victor Frankenstein admits that his duty to his creation is 'to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being', he refuses the Creature his friendship and affection, and destroys the half-made companion that would have been the Creature's bride.

Walton alone is not destroyed by his brief friendship with Frankenstein. However, his friendship is not enough to save Frankenstein: 'I would reconcile him to life, but he repulses the idea'. He cannot even fulfil Frankenstein's dying wish: his 'curiosity and compassion' prevent him from destroying the Creature. He sails for England, consoled only by the prospect of reunion with his sister, mourning a friend he barely knew.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

2012/39: The Book of Lies -- Mary Horlock

...hate or anger is passed down from one person to another, and you never hit the right target because you always aim too late. [loc. 3231]
Set on Guernsey, The Book of Lies comprises two narrative threads: that of teenage Catherine in the 1980s, who begins her story by telling us she killed her friend Nicolette; and that of her Uncle Charles, who -- looking back from the 1960s -- records his perspective on the events of his own teenage years, during the German Occupation.

Catherine -- Cat -- and Charles are very different people, but as the novel progresses it becomes clear that they also share certain traits and circumstances. Both have lost their fathers (and perhaps blame themselves); both are desperate to escape the island. Both are liars, whose stories spiral out of their control with disastrous consequences. Both are bullied and tormented until they snap. And more concrete concordances gradually emerge: a house, a name, a particular spot on the cliffs ...

The mood is claustrophobic: Cat is trapped in the tangled web of small-town society, Charles is living under martial law. Of course things were at once simpler and more dangerous in wartime, but the urge to escape -- if not physically, then into the bottle or into imagination -- is a constant, whether the peril is mortal or simply monotonous.

I found Charles' account, with its evocation of wartime life and its frequent interpolations of patois (‘Si nous pale du guiabye nous est saure d’l’y’vais les caurnes’ … ‘Speak of the devil and you shall see horns’ [loc 320]) interesting and credible, but for me it lacked immediacy. Cat, though, was compelling: clever, precocious, unpopular, eaten up with rage and grief but lacking the tools to identify or temper them. (Her mother's emotionally distant: but then she, too, is grieving. And lying.)

The only note that didn't quite ring true is the lack of music. I can't imagine a teenager in the mid-Eighties being completely oblivious to music ...
... or perhaps I'm projecting.

Anyway: highly recommended, well-researched and taut with emotional conviction.

Monday, September 03, 2012

2012/38: A Room Full of Bones -- Elly Griffiths

"...a group calling themselves the Elginists. They demanded the return of the skulls. Said they should go back to Australia and be buried in their ancestral ground ... said they needed to enter Dreamtime, or some such rubbish. I gave them short shrift. Those heads belonged to my great-grandfather. They’re very rare. One’s been turned into a water carrier." (loc. 803)

The fourth in the Ruth Galloway series, and for me, I'm afraid, the least satisfactory.

Ruth has a one-year-old daughter, whose father refuses to see either of them; a new next-door neighbour, Aboriginal poet Bob Woonunga; and some doubts concerning the sudden deaths of a museum curator and then the museum's owner, wealthy racehorse owner Lord Smith. What she doesn't have, in this novel, is any involvement in the crime-solving process. She doesn't even do archaeology, unless you count visiting a museum, which I don't.

There are some intriguing ideas in A Room Full of Bones. Much of the interest, though, comes from the developing relationships -- positive and negative -- between the characters. Nelson isn't well; DC Judy Johnson is apparently having pre-wedding nerves; Cathbad has a new lover; Lord Smith's widow has an unexpected alter ego. Yet it all feels ... generic, without the sparkle or the intellectual background of the previous three novels. Perhaps Ruth's passion for archaeology was her defining feature: as a single mum, she's clearly frustrated -- but also frustrating.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

2012/37: Dracula -- Bram Stoker

... he is not free. Nay, he is even more prisoner than the slave of the galley, than the madman in his cell. He cannot go where he lists, he who is not of nature has yet to obey some of nature’s laws ... [Chapter 18]
Read for the Coursera Fantasy and SF course (week 3).

I'm not sure I'd ever read Dracula from start to finish: I was surprised that the pacing was so slow (except in the final chapter where it's frenetic), and the revelations so gradual.

There's a lot to think about in this novel: Van Helsing's attempts at the scientific method (he doesn't share his thought processes with his colleagues); the culture of bribery which prevails in Eastern Europe, and why this is different to the profligacy with which Harker et al distribute beer money to the British working class; railway timetables, and whether the trains in England were really so very much more reliable than those abroad; how Mina internalises the cultural consensus on the inferiority of women, even though she's clearly smarter than most (if not all) of the men in the novel; sources of income for the middle-class Harkers (primarily the legacy from Hawkins, one presumes, and the largesse of Lord Godalming); why Lucy is so very irresistible to men.

My Coursera essay (below) started life as a discussion of the Count's attraction to Lucy. (Perhaps she reminded him of Vampire Bride #1, who is also described as blonde and blue-eyed: on the other hand, apparently death alters the colour of Lucy's hair, as the figure they 'recognise' as Lucy in the Hampstead graveyard is dark-haired.) But then I came up with a hypothesis that seemed to answer a frequently-asked question on the course forum ("Why did Dracula go to Whitby in particular?"), and was surprised not to find any discussion of it online.



The plot of Dracula is driven by Count Dracula's decision to leave Transylvania and establish himself in England. "I long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London," he tells Jonathan Harker. Yet, although Dracula has purchased a house in Purfleet, east of London, his first landfall in England is hundreds of miles away at Whitby. The correspondence of Dracula's solicitors, the highlighting of Whitby in Dracula's atlas, and the log of the Demeter, all indicate that Whitby was always his intended port of arrival.

Dracula's presence in Whitby is essential to the novel's plot. It is there that he meets Lucy Westenra, and drinks her blood. Lucy's ensuing 'illness' causes Dr Seward to seek the help of Van Helsing, whose knowledge of vampires enables him to deduce Dracula's nature. Yet no reason for Dracula's arrival in Whitby is ever stated. It could be an attempt to draw attention away from his London estate. Another possibility is that Whitby, though not a major port, seems a good destination for the crates of earth that the Count ships from Transylvania.

However, it is probable that Dracula has read about Whitby churchyard, where "part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed". Of the remaining graves, "in nigh half of them there bean’t no bodies at all". Dracula's research materials include newspapers, so he may also have read an account of the suicide and burial of George Canon. Van Helsing's description of Dracula's "earth-home... the place unhallowed, as we saw when he went to the grave of the suicide at Whitby" clarifies the significance of the latter: a suicide's grave is not holy ground. Dracula chooses Whitby because he is confident of finding refuge near the port, whether in an empty or an unhallowed grave.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

2012/36: Sharps -- K J Parker

There was no defence. If you tried to block, you needed both hands; you'd mutilate yourself for life, and you could only do it once. So: no defence. Instead there was attacking and avoiding, ideally at the same time, so that in escaping your opponent's attack, you formed and forwarded your own. That, he realised was the difference, and the reason why he'd done so badly at Joiauz. You couldn't just endure. It was pure aggression. "Welcome to the messer," Suidas said, as they halted to catch their breath. "You can't protect yourself. Your only way out is to kill the other man." [location 2689]

Permia and Scheria have been at war, on and off, for years. At the opening of Sharps an uneasy peace prevails, not least because a Scherian general (codename: the Irrigator) drowned an entire Permian city. Now, forty years later, the two countries -- both plagued by economic recession, civil unrest, and religious extremism -- maintain a cold-war policy of mutual, begrudging tolerance.

Let the Games begin!

Four skilled individuals are chosen to make up a Scherian fencing team, which will tour Permia and pave the way for the resumption of diplomatic relations. Not that they actually have to do any diplomacy themselves, which is probably for the best... Phrantzes, the team's manager, is a ageing fencing champion; Suidas is a veteran of the wars, suffering from PTSD and self-medicating with alcohol; Giraut got caught with a senator's daughter, and ended up killing the senator; Iseutz, the sole woman on the team, has flatly refused to marry; and Addo, perhaps the most skilled fencer of them all, happens to be the son of the Irrigator. Oh, and there's Yvo Tzimisces, the political officer, who might've stepped straight out of a Le Carre novel. (Tzimisces is my favourite character. He has class.)

They're all very popular in Permia (Parker's depiction of fencer fandom is delicious): but they're expected to fight with messers, rather than rapiers. The messer is basically a large knife, designed to inflict maximum damage: a far cry from the buttoned foils and blunted longswords of competitive swordplay. ("It's like ten centuries of scientific fencing hadn't happened," says Suidas sadly. [loc. 2701]) The messer is also a metaphor, hence the novel's title (and the excerpt above). They're fighting with sharps, no holds barred: and the opponent isn't necessarily the other fencer, or a Permian, or an enemy.

And, as though there weren't already sufficient ingredients for disaster, it turns out that someone on the team has an extra page to their agenda. This agenda may include assassination, treachery or vengeance: or, of course, all of the above.

Parker's earlier novels / trilogies tended to focus on a single protagonist. The Engineer trilogy had several protagonists, whose stories wove together to further the broader plot. Sharps, by contrast, has an ensemble cast: five individuals who are constantly interacting, share an apparent goal and have similar cultural backgrounds. (Several of them are also connected by the 'folly pillar, complete with a lavishly paid pretend stylite to sit on top of it' [loc. 1915], purchased by one of Addo's ancestors.) The fact that none of them can be trusted as narrators, viewpoint characters or even sportsmen is beside the point: the relationships that form and fracture reveal motives and feelings that are otherwise unexplored.

As usual with Parker's novels, Sharps is darkly humorous, intricately plotted, and full of surprises. There's less of the obfuscation-by-pronoun; the women get a better deal (though there is still at least one nagging wife too many); nobody gets turned into a weapon, though to be fair most of them are weapons already, one way or another. And there's no magic: this is not so much a sword'n'sorcery novel as sword'n'spying.

Incidentally, Sharps is set in the same world as The Folding Knife and the Engineer trilogy: there are mentions of the Aram Chantat, the Invincible Sun and the Mezentine Empire. However, it's clearly later in the history of that world: Scheria and Permia have an eighteenth-century feel, though I might have been misled by the props.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

2012/35: Red Shift -- Alan Garner

Face was moving in a different time. He knew Macey, but talked to other people, things. He spoke, but in all the words of Rome and the tribes. He seemed to be happy, and for Macey it was the only shield.
"I am well I hope you are can fight now you I. Why come not on Mow Cop yet all please but every not worry. I want know now all see same sky now soon.
... Face's words closed without end. (p. 118)
When I first read Red Shift (I was probably about 14) I was far too young to understand most of it. There are certain sections I recall vividly -- Cross Tracks, the whisky, the fossil in the fireplace, Tom's a-cold -- and sections that I'd completely lost. I didn't remember the Civil War passages at all. I didn't recall that the Romans were the remnants of the Ninth. And I didn't make the connections between the three pairs of protagonists: Macey and the unnamed priestess/goddess, Thomas Rowley and Margery, Tom and Jan.

I did recognise, I think, that despite the different historical periods, the events of the book took place in the same place, and that certain perceptions were shared across time: Tom smashing the window, the blue-silver-red train. I think I knew that the link was connected with the votive axe -- a weapon of murder in Macey's hands, a protection against lightning for Thomas and Madge, a shared memory (and later a symbol of betrayal) for Tom and Jan. The axe is real in a way that few things are.

On rereading, I'm glad I didn't realise just how bleak and bitter a novel it is. Beautifully constructed, beautiful spare language, dialogue sharp enough to cut: but it's a grim tale of rape and murder, cruelty and betrayal, and the endings are more peaceful (as in the cessation of conflict) than actually happy. Each woman is pregnant; two of them (at least: I still can't parse the scene on the church roof) have been raped; all the protagonists find their sanctuaries violated. And yet they hold on.

Red Shift is more compelling than enjoyable: it's too deep and too layered for mere enjoyment. It's not all doom and gloom: I like the camaraderie of the Romans, holed up in enemy territory, and the way Garner writes Latin as American military-speak: "'He was a member of the Imperial Roman Army, engaged in putting down insurgents.' 'I don't care what he was doing in Latin...' (p. 86) I like the sense of the universe turning around a fixed point, and the priestess / goddess grinding her corn counter-clockwise. Tom's expositions on astronomical theory impressed me massively as a teenager, and now evoke a fondness for his brittle cleverness. And, at last, I think I understand Jan.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

2012/34: The Annotated Alice -- Lewis Carroll, ed. Martin Gardner

'This is a child!' Haigha replied eagerly, coming in front of Alice to introduce her, and spreading out both his hands towards her in an Anglo-Saxon attitude. 'We only found it to-day. It's as large as life, and twice as natural!'

'I always thought they were fabulous monsters!' said the Unicorn. 'Is it alive?'

'It can talk,' said Haigha, solemnly. [Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 7]

Read for the Coursera Fantasy and SF course (week 2).

I've read the Alice books many times, though not for a while: my copy is Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice, which I bought for a course in my first year at university, and thought tremendously clever. (I don't think I'd encountered this level of entertaining discussion, expansion and explanation in criticism before.)

As usual with rereads, I'm as intrigued by what I'd forgotten as by what I remembered. For instance, I'd forgotten how much antagonism and aggression there is: I don't just mean the Red Queen's decapitation-frenzies, but the general belligerence and mistrust of almost everybody who Alice encounters.

I'd also completely forgotten about the Anglo-Saxon attitudes of Hatta and Haigha. But I did remember a lot of the poetry, word for word. Oh, brain, why so picky?

My Coursera essay below.



Alice's parents are never mentioned in either Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass. Her sister (who isn't named) appears briefly in the beginning of Wonderland, but Alice -- despite being seven years old, and in a puzzling and sometimes frightening situation -- doesn't think about her mother or her father.

Indeed, there are very few parent-child relationships in the books, and these relationships are depicted as negative or distant. The Duchess's cruelly-treated baby ('speak roughly to your little boy / and beat him when he sneezes') turns out to be a pig. The King and Queen of Hearts have ten royal children, but they are indistinguishable from one another. The poem 'You are old, Father William', is about a young man and his father, both rude and impertinent. ('Be off, or I'll kick you downstairs!') The only positive parent-child relationship seems to be that of the nameless hero of 'Jabberwocky' and his proud parent who cries 'Come to my arms, my beamish boy!'.

The absence of parents may be a reflection of Victorian middle-class life. Alice and her sister may well have been left to the care of a nurse or governess -- both of whom are mentioned in the books -- seeing their parents only rarely. When Alice dreams of exploring Looking Glass House, she is alone in the drawing-room with only Dinah the cat for company. Nobody is supervising her, and there is no one to stop her playing or keep her from harm.

In the absence of her parents, Alice is an independent individual who can make choices and be the heroine of her own story. By the end of the second book she has become a Queen in her own right, capable of standing up to the Red and White Queens and asserting herself.

2012/33: Household Stories -- Brothers Grimm

"Shall we suffer death because of a girl! we swear to be revenged; wherever we find a girl we will shed her blood." ['The Twelve Brothers']

Read for the Coursera Fantasy and SF course (week 1).

I'm familiar with many of these stories -- often in bowdlerised or Disneyfied form -- but I don't believe I've ever read through all of them in a short time.

The Brothers Grimm have a lot to answer for. There are some truly nasty and nightmarish punishments here; also, some utterly surreal characters. (Three drops of blood, who are quite talkative; a pin and a needle, who are active enough to hitch a ride but passive enough to be put to use as instruments of punishment; and a sausage, which comes to regret its houseshare with a mouse and a bird.) There are pairs of stories with identical plot; there are stories which have the discursive, rambling feel of oral histories; there are plenty of feisty heroines and a plethora of bad parents (usually mothers).

I was struck by some of the resonances with myth and folklore, and by the universality of the tales. Hence my Coursera essay, below, in which the phrase 'serial numbers filed off' does not appear.



The characters in these tales seldom have names. There is Rapunzel, whose name is part of the chant "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair"; there is Rumpelstiltskin, who keeps his name a secret. In 'Sleeping Beauty', the princess suddenly acquires a name halfway through: "the beautiful sleeping Rosamond, for so was the princess called" (p. 206).

But most of the tales are populated by nameless, interchangeable figures: the wise woman or witch, the wicked stepmother, the ugly sister, the huntsman, the prince, the king. (One must read carefully, in tales such as 'The Six Swans', to understand that the king's daughter is not marrying her father but another king.) The tales are full of animals -- the fox, the wolf, the goat -- who, naturally, have no names. (A notable exception is the horse Falada in 'The Goose Girl'.)

Why are the characters nameless? One explanation is that these are ancient stories, told many times before they were ever written down: the details have been worn away. There are echoes of the Bible in 'The White Snake', where a servant samples the king's special dish and, like King Solomon, learns to hear the language of birds and animals. Some of the tales have an 'Arabian Nights' feel to them (for instance, 'The Fisherman and his Wife'); others are more European in flavour, such as 'The Six Swans'.

Or perhaps the people in these stories are not characters at all, but archetypes. They are like a series of masks that the audience can apply to themselves and to people they know. The wicked stepmother may become, in a child's mind, his own mother. The notion of the ugly sister may crystallise a young girl's feelings of sibling rivalry. And children want to be the brave prince, the beautiful princess, the cunning tailor. These tales are deeply symbolic, and naming the protagonists would detract from the universality of them.

Monday, August 06, 2012

2012/32: The Sea Road -- Margaret Elphinstone

The ghost looks down on the grave, which is covered by the stone with the cross scratched on it, and it knows that no living man will ever come there again in the knowledge of its presence ... Its people have left nothing behind them that anyone will ever find again. There is nothing left but a ghost, and it will be nothing too, when no one is left who is able to remember. (p. 216)
The Sea Road is based on the life of Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir, a third-generation Icelander who was among the first Viking colonists of North America and who is recorded as the first European woman to give birth there.

Ever since I read Hy Brasil, I've admired Margaret Elphinstone's gift of bringing immediacy to historical characters and remote locations. Her first novels, The Incomer and A Sparrow's Flight, are SF: more recent works have been historical, with settings from the Neolithic to the nineteenth century and the occasional glimmer of the fantastical.

The Sea Road is no exception. Gudrid's intelligence and dignity sustain her through famine and plague in Greenland, a year as the sole woman in a colony of warriors, and a strange encounter with a skraeling woman. She finds beauty in 'the silvery light of the north, and icebergs as white as froth on cream'; and she recalls the night in Greenland when she saw a woman's corpse rise up from its deathbed, to be felled by the dead woman's husband.

Gudrid's story is framed by the narrative of Agnar, an Icelandic priest in Rome who is recording the aged Gudrid's reminiscences. The two of them, old woman and young man, form a bond of respect and love that underpins Gudrid's dramatic, and in places distinctly unChristian, account of her life. Her world is a marginal one: the Icelandic settlers are 'still trying to find a way to live in [their] new country', and though most of them are at least nominally Christian ('Christianity makes women safe and dutiful') the old gods -- or at least their adherents -- are never far away. Gudrid regards herself as a Christian, but she speaks of Hel and Jormungand as commonplaces, and knows that the dead persist. Indeed, they are ever present in Gudrid's world -- until she reaches the 'empty land' of Vinland, which is not empty at all, but is not haunted by generations of Norse ghosts. ("If a person went to a land that was empty, where no people had ever been before, there wouldn't be any ghosts there, would there?"
"Only the ones you're bound to take with you." (p. 32))

Gudrid understands the lure of the unknown, the empty places, the land that has never been settled. She is accustomed to the harsh realities of life (exile, slavery and banishment; blood-feuds, arranged marriages and murder; the economics of ship-building and wine-making) but never blind to the beauties that surround her, whether the ice and freezing light of the north or the golden warmth of Rome. She's a remarkable character.

Monday, July 30, 2012

2012/31: The Hurricane Party -- Klas Östergren


Regardless of how you look at the world, and no matter what you choose to call the powers that be, you can never ignore what is called the ‘magic of events’. It’s part of the human equation, the rhythm of the heart, the pulse of the narrative, the way things take shape whenever a story begins; expectations are awakened and with them the sense that at some time the whole thing will have to come to an end. [location 51]

Another Canongate Myth volume based on Norse mythology, The Hurricane Party takes as its starting-point the Lokasenna, in which Loki slanders the gods. (But is it slander if it's true?)

The world has been ravaged by pandemics, climate change and perhaps war. Hanck Orn counts himself fortunate to live in the city, ruled though it is by a gangsterish mob known only as the Clan. The wastelands beyond the city, outside the border, harbour many dangers, not least the sick and / or lawless folk who live there. Hanck used to work as an insurance adjuster, before the Clan did away with the Administration -- law, order, bureaucracy, society -- in favour of its own protection racket. One of Hanck's investigations out there in the wider world, some twenty years before, brought him his son Toby.

Now Hanck leads a slow and solitary life, restoring antique typewriters and listening to the long, low, unpredictable tones of the Organ. He misses his son constantly. Toby, a chef who never saw a cut of meat during his training, is working at an exclusive restaurant in the archipelago, catering a gala evening for the Clan.

But then two men in lavender overalls come to the door with the news that Toby is dead.

Hanck refuses to accept their story of a heart attack. He travels to the island where the Clan have gathered, and meets a young woman, Bora, who tells him what really befell his son. Toby simply sneezed; but he sneezed at the wrong time, and Loki ... well, Loki took exception.

Bora tells Hanck how the gala evening went downhill from there: a 'hurricane party', with Loki finally showing his contempt for the Clan. She tells other stories about the Clan, tales of violence and deceit intended to warn Hanck that revenge isn't an option. That's their world. Blood in the brooks, blood in the dew, blood in the frost and blood in the snow. [location 2141]. And she tells Hanck to seek Loki at the Colonial Club.

But there's no sign of the incomprehensible, unpredictable Loki. Instead, Hanck's drawn into conversation with an ageing hooker who gives him a letter addressed to the head of the Clan, the Old Man himself ...

Östergren's riff on the Eddas is inventive, bleak and suffused with dark humour. (The Hurricane Party can be read as post-apocalyptic SF, as well as an exploration of myth.) The digressions into 'stories about the Clan' can feel irrelevant, but I like the way Östergren portrays mythic elements (Loki's shapechanging, Fenrir, Helheim) as a part of the mundane world: it's not quite magic realism, more an underlying current of weirdness.

It's hard to like any of the characters in this novel -- especially the gods, who are credibly petty, brutal and bloody as the worst of the sagas depict them. Hanck, the innocent caught up in the end times, when everything's falling apart, is sympathetic, if not exactly likeable: by the end of the novel he's striving towards redemption in his own way. And if love can save the world, it can also end it:

...the world would continue to exist until love was explained. The destroyer of the world would lie bound in his cave as long as love remained a mystery. Or at least until someone with an open heart felt capable of forgiving him, with sincere and genuine love. [location 4172]

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

2012/30: Ragnarok: The End of the Gods -- A S Byatt

In the beginning was the tree. The stone ball rushed through emptiness. Under the crust was fire. Rocks boiled, gases seethed. Blebs burst through the crust. Dense salt water clung to the rolling ball. Slime slid on it and in the slime shapes shifted. Any point on a ball is the centre and the tree was at the centre. It held the world together, in the air, in the earth, in the light, in the dark, in the mind. [location 120]
The thin child (never named, though clearly Byatt herself) is growing up during the Second World War. Her father is absent, fighting in the war: she doesn't believe he will ever return. More than anything she fears boredom. Then she acquires a copy of Asgard and the Gods (Wilhelm Wagner's massive 1880 compendium of Norse mythology 'for boys and girls'). Through the legends therein, and the equally implausible tales she hears at Sunday School and reads in Bunyan, the thin child learns to understand the world in terms of the wolves in the mind, the ineluctable surge of story, the way the gods hold the world together against chaos. ("The words men used to describe the gods were the words they used for fetters or bonds". [location 481])

The result is an inventive retelling of Ragnarok, the Norse cosmology of the end of the world (and the gods). Like several other modern authors -- Diana Wynne Jones and Joanne Harris, to name but two -- Byatt is fascinated by, and sympathetic to, the ambiguous Loki. There's joy in her descriptions of the Wolf-father and his child, in her depiction of Loki's interest in everything, the way he's captured while distracted by the form and topography of a net, the chaos (flames, waterfalls) in which he dwells.

Byatt's perspective on the myth isn't simple revisionism, though. She braids and contrasts the grim and bloody landscape of the myths with the thin child's explorations in the idyllic English countryside. The thin child's perceptions are coloured by the war that suffuses her world; trying to balance the 'good' Germans of the stories with the enemy her father is fighting, she reenvisions German bomber squadrons as the Wild Hunt ("if any hunter dismounted, he crumbled to dust" [381]). Byatt invents Rándrasill, an oceanic analogue of the world-tree Yggdrasil. And she regenders Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent, as female; not a monster but a victim, an innocent and exuberant creature driven to madness and destruction by Thor and Odin's cruelties.

I could quote whole pages of Ragnarok for the sheer beauty of Byatt's prose; I could cherrypick phrases that resonate, observations about the nature of myth, parallels between the world of the gods and the world in which the thin child reads their stories. Ragnarok works on a number of levels: a retelling of well-known stories; a questioning of the gods' morality; an exploration of the nature of myth; a reverie on a child's experience of the Norse sagas; a cautionary tale of ecological catastrophe and the human urge to destructiveness. Byatt's afterword (some of which also appears in a 2011 article for the Guardian, here) discusses these elements, but seems superfluous after the depth and passion of the novel itself.

All there was was a flat surface of black liquid glinting in the small pale points of light that still came through the starholes. A few gold chessmen floated and bobbed on the dark ripples... The black thing in her brain and the dark water on the page were the same thing, a form of knowledge. This is how myths work. They are things, creatures, stories, inhabiting the mind. They cannot be explained and do not explain; they are neither creeds nor allegories. The black was now in the thin child’s head and was part of the way she took in every new thing she encountered. [1210]
http://www.wordle.net/show/wrdl/5532956/Byatt_Ragnarok

Thursday, July 05, 2012

2012/29: Cradle Song -- Robert Edric

... nothing was ever wasted, however incidental or inconsequential it might at first appear. The important clues were never big or obvious: you were never going to be pointed towards them by people who didn't want you to see them. A thing you discovered for yourself, however small, and however quickly you might afterwards disregard it, was always something worth discovering. Something you were told or pointed towards was just another line in a maze. (p. 94)

Private detective Leo Rivers, whose old boss John Maxwell has recently retired, is employed by a wealthy businessman to re-investigate the murder of the man's teenaged daughter Nicola. (Several other girls were killed or went missing around the same time.) Two mysterious figures, Smart and Finch, are interested in Rivers too: they want him to stir the situation up in a way that Maxwell would never have done. Thing is, Nicola's murder isn't exactly an unsolved case. DCI Sullivan (retired) is still proud of having caught and imprisoned the man he believes responsible -- photographer Martin Roper, languishing in prison, who's indicated that he's prepared to finally tell the truth about what really happened to the teenage girls he photographed and filmed.

It's not a pleasant story: quite aside from that, I didn't find it an enjoyable read. I didn't engage with Rivers, had no sense of him as a person despite (because of) his first-person narration. He lives for his work, and doesn't seem to have anyone or anything that he cares about. We're told that two of the other characters are his friends, but one of them double-crosses him and the other seems to have quite a different agenda. Rivers doesn't seem to notice anything around him, unless it's pertinent to the case. There's no evidence that he's emotionally involved with the case or with his client: he's always playing games, explaining what he hopes an apparently-random remark will achieve, making guesses. And there's an undercurrent of misogyny that reminds me of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (original title 'The Men Who Hate Women'). The women in this novel (except three teenage girls in a scene-setting prologue) are victims, liars or sexual predators.

The whole novel feels like an exercise in restraint. There's some fine writing, and the bleakness matches the setting (north-east coast of England) very nicely. But I found little to like, and I doubt I'll read more of Edric's crime fiction.

Monday, July 02, 2012

2012/28: The Other Wind -- Ursula Le Guin

"I think ... that when I die, I can breathe back the breath that made me live. I can give back to the world all that I didn't do. All that I might have been and couldn't be. All the choices I didn't make. All the things I lost and spent and wasted. I can give them back to the world. To the lives that haven't been lived yet. That will be my gift back to the world that gave me the life I did live, the love I loved, the breath I breathed." (p. 231)

Alder is a sorcerer, recently widowed, whose dreams are haunted by the unquiet dead. When he applies to the School on Roke, they direct him to a small house on Gont. There he meets the former Archmage, Ged, tending his farm and missing his own wife Tenar, who is in Havnor -- the city at the centre of the world -- with their adopted daughter Tehanu. Tenar counsels both the king, Lebannen, and his bride-to be, Seserakh, on their forthcoming marriage: but her conversations with Seserakh are not limited to etiquette or the importance of learning the Hardic tongue. Tenar, after all, was once Arha: and in talking over the rituals and folklore of her lost homeland, she and Seserakh uncover traces of an ancient myth about dragons and men. Tehanu leads the king and his courtiers to a parlay with the dragons themselves, hoping to resolve whatever has caused dragons to attack farms and homesteads (though not humans) out in the Western Reach.

And on Gont, Alder dreams of leaning across the wall in the dry land to kiss his dead wife.

Everything comes together, draconian anger and the whispers of the dead; Alder's nightmares, Ged's past, the duty that chokes Lebannen.
The Other Wind brings together themes from Tehanu (dragons and humans, dragons as humans) and The Farthest Shore (the wall in the dry land that separates the living from the dead). It feels, though, like a modulation, a variation on the Earthsea of the first trilogy.

Tehanu, in some editions subtitled The Last Earthsea Novel, was a powerful and troubling book that I'm glad was only published in 1990: I'd have found some of the events and concepts very difficult to deal with as a child. The Other Wind is less turbulent, less painful, but I can't yet decide whether it makes a lie out of some aspects of the first three novels.

A beautiful, philosophical read, full of moments like raindrops: but behind the quiet glow and simple language, there's a lurking paradigm shift.
"Death is the bond-breaker."
"Then why do the dead not die?" (p. 188)

Friday, June 15, 2012

2012/27: Flora's Fury -- Ysabeau Wilce

A famous criminal, assisted by a protection egregore and a flying octopus, have a knock-down drag-out ruckus in my lobby over a girl hiding behind a false name, who has arrived at my hotel in the company of a Pacifica express agent. Most people would be very curious. But I am not nosy by nature. All I care about is who is going to pay for the damages.
Flora's Fury: How a Girl of Spirit and a Red Dog Confound Their Friends, Astound Their Enemies, and Learn the Importance of Packing is the third in the series that began with Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog, continued with Flora's Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room), and (thankfully) shows no signs of stopping, or even slowing down.

Hurrah!

Flora is no longer a schoolgirl. Now she is Lieutenant Fyrdraaca, seconded to the Commanding General's Office -- which means she's reporting to Buck Fyrdraaca, the woman who Flora has only recently discovered isn't her birth mother at all. Her true mother, Azota a.k.a. Tiny Doom, was allegedly executed by the Birdies -- Califa's Huitzil overlords -- shortly after Flora's birth. Flora's increasingly certain that Tiny Doom is alive and well, and she is not impressed by her mother's failure to make contact. Indeed, the novel opens with Flora preparing to locate Tiny Doom by arcane means. Circumstance, in the shape of unscheduled baby-sitting duties, intervene. But Flora doesn't see why one can't take one's five-month-old half-brother to a secluded Grotto to perform a magickal working ...

Flora is an excellent heroine: resourceful, witty, determined, romantic ... and bloody livid about all the ways in which she's been lied to. She isn't a Fyrdraaca at all, as she'd thought all her life; her erstwhile beau Udo has run off with the Warlord's granddaughter, Zu-Zu (who unwittingly (?) sticks the knife in by dressing as Azota for a masquerade); her military career consists not of glory, but of child-minding and running errands; she is a pawn in grand political schemes that she barely glimpses and certainly hasn't consented to be part of; and, though prone to travel sickness, she's travelling -- by land and by sea -- for almost the entire novel.

Like all good quest novels, Flora learns about herself as much as about her world and her circumstances. Part of that process is accepting that she's been wrong about a lot of things. And in the process of discovering (some of) what's really going on, she pays a price that's higher than she realises.

Still! In Flora's Fury, Wilce tantalises with further hints at the history and geography of this alternate world where the Aztecs (or their cognates) rule the southwest of the North American continent, and the United States never came into being. There are pirates, zombies and shapechangers (some better-dressed than others); there are dime novels (including the 'Red Top Rev, Vigilante Prince' series, based loosely on Flora's father, which I really want to read); there are supernatural entities from Springheeled Jack to the Lord of the Smoking Mirror; there are love spells, crossroad magicks and the Anima of Califa's greatest hero (who is fond of bathing). Flora faces it all indomitably, determined to make her own fate.

And now I have to wait for the next instalment ...

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

2012/26: Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project -- Spencer Wells

People constructing family trees are typically investigating events from the past few centuries, while population genetics starts there and pushes further into the past. Most of us have a sense of our family history, but eventually we all hit a brick wall. Our DNA breaks through that wall, providing a unifying path that leads from the present into the realm of deep ancestry. (p. 13)

This book is effectively The Genographic Project for Dummies: no scientific background required. Spencer Wells is the director of the Genographic Project, which was founded by National Geographic and IBM as a non-profit genetic anthropology study, attempting to map historical human migration. Proceeds from the sale of DNA-testing kits go to 'help indigenous peoples around the world' (174). Unlike its predecessor, the Human Genome Diversity Project, it does not concern itself with patenting genetic data or preserving cell lines.

The story so far, grossly oversimplified: about sixty thousand years ago (two thousand generations), the ancestors of the human race began to migrate from Africa. As they spread out over the world, their DNA mutated ('genetic drift'). These mutations, which persist in the DNA of an individual's descendants, are genetic markers which can be used to identify migration patterns. Small groups -- and they were all small groups: "Genetic data suggest that the human population size crashed to as few as 2,000 people around [the time of the last great ice age]" (p. 139) -- could be cut off from other groups by mountains, glaciers, rivers. If an individual in that group had a particular genetic marker, all his or her descendants would also have that marker. (Male progeny will carry it on the Y chromosome; female in mitochondrial DNA.) So everyone with the marker would have a single ancestor. By mapping the geographical distribution of a marker, and subsequent mutations, it's possible to identify roughly when and where that single ancestor lived.

Wells explores the science and culture of genetic genealogy in a number of case studies: 'Odine', a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings; 'Margaret', Wells' grandmother, whose DNA is a potted history of agriculture; 'Phil', whose Native American ancestry links him to Siberian populations; 'Virumandi', an Indian man who shares a rare genetic marker with some aborigines in Australia; and 'Julius', a Tanzanian hunter-gatherer whose DNA is used to illustrate the vast genetic diversity within Africa.

One thing I learnt as a result of reading this book is that there are actually only two types of people: those who think the Genographic Project is dead cool, and those who think it isn't. I am firmly in the former camp, not least because I know so little about my family history.

Well, I know a bit more now. I am (like 5-10% of the population of Great Britain) in haplogroup K, which means I have discovered a new cousin and that I share a common ancestor with a great many Ashkenazi Jews. Having opted for the basic, anonymous test, I was intrigued enough to sign up for Family Tree DNA, which might make it possible for me to trace my maternal grandmother's ancestry.

Deep Ancestry emphasises the is sometimes over-breezy, and sometimes poorly worded ("no two people look alike": er, you mean 'identical', don't you?) but it does what I've always loved in pop science books: it makes me want to know more, to learn, to understand.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

2012/25: Runelight -- Joanne Harris

There's an old Northlands saying that goes like this: When lies don’t help, try telling the truth. Loki knew it well, of course, but much preferred his own version, which was: When lies don’t help, tell better lies. [location 8600]

It's three years after the (second) End of the World(s) (as recorded in Runemarks, the first in what I profoundly hope is an ongoing series riffing on Norse myth), and the repercussions of that apocalypse -- or, as Old Nan's rhyme has it, 'pucker-lips' -- are still rippling out across the world.

In the idyllic village of Malbry, Maddy Smith is still living with her father -- except that now it's her true father, the god Thor, who (like the other reincarnated Æsir gods) is struggling to adapt to mundane life. Thor is not wholly happy with the discovery that his prophesied son 'Modi' has turned out to be a female, Maddy. Little does he realise that the second son of the prophecy is not going to turn out entirely as hoped either.

Family matters aren't exactly working out for Loki, either: the Trickster finds himself embroiled once more in a steamy family saga, with ex-lovers refusing to accept perfectly reasonable explanations for his absence ("Be fair. I was dead --" "Being dead is no excuse!" (loc. 1185)), and children who are all too happy to acknowledge their parentage. "Dude. We're the Devourers." (loc 1144).

It is (as usual) a time of omens and portents. Old Nan's nonsense lullaby features three apocalyptic riders (Carnage, Treachery and Lunacy) and a nursery-rhyme muddling of myth and legend. Odin, old One-Eye, is dead, but his ravens (who appear, at least in Hugin's case, to have acquired broad Glaswegian accents) are still bright-eyed, curious, and prone to interfering in the affairs of mortals. It's the End of the bloody Worlds again, and Æsir and Vanir are ready to fight shoulder to shoulder -- assisted, this time, by the forces of Chaos. It's up to Loki to come up with a way to get them all to the battleground: to World's End, six hundred miles from Marbry, where Maggie Rede is living hand-to-mouth in the catacombs beneath the Universal City, hoarding the Book that is her most precious discovery, about to meet the man she'll marry.

What could possibly go wrong?

Runelight wouldn't be half as entertaining without a working knowledge of Norse myth and some idea of what happened in Runemarks. Armed with these, I found myself charmed, amused and full of admiration. Loki's tricks ring true: or possibly -- given how loaded a concept 'truth' is -- it's more accurate to say that they're in character, and would fit as easily into mythic canon as into the road-trip adventures of a motley crew of incarnated deities. Odin's long game is as carefully constructed as anything in American Gods, let alone in the original sagas. Maddy's conflicting loyalties (remember, she's not just half-god; she's a teenager, with all the emotional turmoil that can involve) are painfully familiar and have far-reaching consequences.

There are some likeable new characters (not least the short guy, Jolly, who is most definitely not a dwarf) and some interesting viewpoints -- for instance, the use of the word 'grooming' to describe Odin's role in Maddy's childhood. Though the term's commonly used now to describe paedophilia, it does have overtones of manipulation and hidden agendas, which are entirely apt. Harris doesn't deal in black and white: none of her characters are wholly good or wholly evil, and most of them -- god or mortal -- grow, or at least change, over the course of the novel.

It is also immensely, joyously funny, despite the odd apocalypse and the usual betrayals, misunderstandings, family feuds and nasty scraps of myth. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

2012/24: Our Tragic Universe -- Scarlett Thomas

Problems with this novel (again). The items on it were: It is boring; it has no focus; it is self-indulgent; I hate the central character; it’s too depressing; no one wants anything; no one does anything; there are no questions to be resolved; there is too much narration. Then I thought this would make a nice opening to Notebook, so I pasted the whole list onto the first page. I smiled at my own audacity. Surely no one, not even the most metafictional and post-modern of writers, had ever begun a novel with a list of its own faults? (p. 170)
Meg, a blocked novelist, is trying to review a book for a national newspaper. The book is about postmortality, with the central premise that everyone is 'currently living, and re-living, in what I will term the Second World, which has been created by the Omega Point as a place where you prepare for the rest of eternity' (p. 40). Meg has plenty of time to spin notions from this theory (another excellent way of avoiding writing her Great Novel) while trying to avoid the rather more pressing issues of her dysfunctional relationship with Christopher ("if I could kiss someone else, then I could never kiss Christopher again. In the last five months he hadn’t really noticed this." (p.20)), her friend Libby's inability to choose between her lover and her partner, and Meg's own directionless life.

This is a storyless story, a rambling exploration of the esoteric and the eccentric (Chekhov's Letters, the Cottingley Fairies, a beast that may or may not be roaming Dartmoor, a prophecy made when Meg was younger ("'You will never finish what you start ... You will not overcome the monster. And in the end, you will come to nothing" (p.70)) and the mystery of the book she reviewed, which turns out not to have been sent by her editor at all.

It's a couple of weeks since I read Our Tragic Universe (mea culpa, am behind on my blog: hey ho) and more than any of the events that occur (more or less at random) in its pages, I recall a profound irritation with the ending, which felt too romantic to fit the rest of the novel.

But I do love the immediacy of Thomas' descriptions of the south Devon coast in winter, quiet and faded after the summer rush of the tourist season. I was charmed by Meg's dog Bess (possibly the most likeable character in the book). And I am amused by Meg's fascination with her own failure to write, which oozes verisimilitude:
I was always trying to make the novel catch up with my life, and then deleting the bits that got too close, wiping them out like videogame aliens in a space-station corridor. I still didn’t know what to do about it. I’d invented a writer character from New York who deletes a whole book until it’s a haiku and then deletes that, but then I deleted him too. (p. 35)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

2012/23: The Hammer -- K J Parker

Gignomai picked up his book, but he’d lost interest in it long ago. He’d stolen it for Furio last year, because Furio liked books with knights and tournaments and castles and dragons. But most of the characters in it were just like his family, though the author didn’t seem to have realised that, or he wouldn’t have made them out to be heroes. (p.88)

Gignomai met'Oc is the youngest son of a noble family, living in splendid (and squalid) isolation in a nameless colony. The met'Oc family home is on the Tabletop, an easily-defended upland: the family's power, though somewhat in decline since their exile from Home, is maintained by their possession of the only firearms in the whole of the colony. The rest of the colonists eke out a hand-to-mouth existence, trading with Home for the manufactured goods that can't be acquired in any other way.

(The colony, by the way, occupies a small corner of the land formerly inhabited by the so-called Savages: as becomes clear later in the novel, the Savages couldn't give a damn about the colonists, because they don't believe the colonists are real in any significant sense.)

The novel opens with young Gignomai using a sledgehammer to crack a nut -- or, rather, solving the problem of a chicken-thieving wolf by overly drastic means. "Next time, he decided, I'll make sure I think things through." (p.7) Next time ... but next time is fourteen years later, and the collateral damage is proportionately higher.

The Hammer is a novel of three parts: 'Seven Years Before', 'The Year When' and 'Seven Years After'. It should come as no surprise that we don't learn what happened in that pivotal year until quite late in the book. Whatever it was, though (and it's not quite as grim as the linchpin of The Belly of the Bow), it's the straw that breaks Gig's back, sends him sneaking out past his father's sentries into the colony, with a stolen heirloom and a massive grudge against his whole family.

Gignomai is a likeable character, with friends who seem fond of him (some of the narrative is from their viewpoints). He's hard-working and surprisingly humble, though apparently unable to let go of a certain sense of noblesse oblige. He's not a typical met'Oc, though: instead of wanting to rule the colony, he comes up with a plan to make it independent. "The colony gets rid of Home, everybody gets the stuff they need – even the savages, so they’re doing well out of it. Everybody gains, nobody gets hurt. What could be better than that?" (p.131) Unfortunately, he doesn't realise -- or perhaps doesn't care -- that he's in a K J Parker novel, that nothing is ever that simple, and that no good will come of it.

There's rather more tidying-up, fewer loose ends, at the end of this novel than in some of Parker's earlier works: one might almost say that the motivations and morals are hammered home. (ahahaha). I've remarked before on Parker's tendency to use pronouns instead of names, and the inevitable confusions and misreadings that ensure: this is much less noticeable in The Hammer than in, for instance, The Company. And though the action, the scheming, the grand plan are necessarily at a smaller scale in Parker's standalone novels than in the Fencer, Scavenger and Engineer trilogies, there are advantages to this: The Hammer is a well-structured book that brings us closer to its protagonist than we ever were to Bardas, Poldarn or Vaatzes.

2012/22: The Kingdom of Gods -- N K Jemisin

"...you liked to kill people, back when you lived here. You would do tricks on them, sometimes funny tricks ... but sometimes people would die."
Still funny, I thought, but perhaps this was not the time to say such things aloud. (p.25)

The Kingdom of Gods opens with the words "There will be no tricks in this tale. I tell you this so that you can relax." (p.5). Are you convinced by this? The narrator of this novel is Sieh, the eternal child, the Trickster, and he turns an irreverent eye on the Three: Bright Itempas, Nahadoth the Nightlord, and Yeine, the Grey Lady, whose role is to provide balance.

Sieh has had millennia to come to terms with wanting what he cannot have. The Three are his parents, and the parent-child relationship is especially rocky when the parents are deities with their own conflicts and concerns. Oh, Sieh's tried growing up, assuming a more adult role ("I had grown up before, hundreds of times; I knew the pattern that my body normally followed" (117)). But something is happening to him that he cannot control -- something that may be connected with Shahar and her brother Dekarta, two mortal children of royal blood whom Sieh has befriended (or, perhaps, corrupted).

Sieh's unique status -- a god, but not one of the Three; a child, but not one who will ever grow up in any real sense -- makes him an informed, albeit biased, observer of a world in flux. The Arameri are not as powerful as they were when Yeine came to Sky as her grandfather's heir, in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Bright Itempas is no longer the sole deity, but one of Three -- and an outcast, trying to redeem himself by righting all the wrongs committed in his name. Shahar (named after her ancestor, the Arameri ruler who helped Itempas overthrow Nahadoth and murder Enefa) is destined to rule, but wants to be more temperate and democratic than any Arameri before her. And on the streets of Shadow, the terrestrial city above which the Arameri palace Sky still hangs, there's a groundswell of atheism.

Atheism is a tricky concept when gods, godlings, demons and mortals interact on a daily basis. Not believing in the gods doesn't make them any less real; doesn't make sense. One character describes himself as a 'primortalist':
It means 'mortals first' — neither an accurate nor complete representation of our philosophy, but as I implied, there are worse terms. We believe in the gods, naturally ... But as the Bright has shown us, the gods function perfectly well whether we believe in them or not, so why devote all that energy to a pointless purpose? Why not believe most fervently in mortalkind and its potential? (p.111)

It's another thing for Sieh to take into account in his altered state. Worship is nice ("Even gods need encouragement sometimes") but not essential. Trust is more important, but can he truly trust anyone? Even his mother Enefa deceived him, though Sieh has forgotten (been made to forget) the details of that deception. Shahar (and, to a lesser extent, her brother Dekarta) love Sieh but have their own intrigues to play out. There are gods whom Sieh does not know: there is the Maelstrom, an inchoate swirl of chaos from which the Three were born, with which he somehow resonates.

There are aspects of this novel that didn't quite convince me: there's a thin, razor-sharp line separating the sublime from the ridiculous, and a couple of climactic scenes teetered precariously thereon. Sieh, though, is a delight: a cynical trickster who nevertheless is determined to remain true to his nature. ("You’re careful to act impulsively — even though you’re experienced and wise enough to know better." (p. 324)) Of course, the trickster can be tricked: but there's always another card up his sleeve. Remember that opening assurance? Yeah, right.

Friday, May 18, 2012

2012/21: The Broken Kingdoms -- N K Jemisin

I am, you see, a woman plagued by gods. It was worse once. Sometimes it felt as if they were everywhere: underfoot, overhead, peering around corners, and lurking under bushes. They left glowing footprints on the sidewalks. (I could see that they had their own favorite paths for sightseeing.) They urinated on the white walls. They didn’t have to do that, urinate I mean; they just found it amusing to imitate us. I found their names written in splattery light, usually in sacred places. I learned to read in this way. (p.15)

Oree Shoth lives in Shadow, the city that was once Sky but is now shaded by the impossibly huge World Tree that sprang into existence at the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It's ten years since the fall of the Arameri, and Shadow is swarming with godlings, the lesser children of the gods. Ten years ago, of course, there was only one god worth the name: Bright Itempas, the Skyfather. But Itempas, demoted to Dayfather, is now one-third of a trinity, the other gods being the Nightlord and the Grey Lady.

The Three don't much concern Oree. Blind (though always able to see magic) she makes a living selling statues and trinkets, and -- unlike Yeine, the protagonist of the previous book -- is firmly rooted in a network of close relationships. Her lover, Madding, is a godling; some of her best friends carry the blood of gods. And the mute, reckless house guest she rescued from a rubbish bin is definitely a god ...

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, despite its title, was claustrophobically focussed on the politics and power-plays in Sky, the city in the clouds. The Broken Kingdoms pans out to show the lives of ordinary folk in the terrestrial city -- though Oree is not exactly ordinary, and her house guest attracts attention from unexpected quarters. (It's interesting to see Oree's gradual recognition of characters who are already familiar to the reader: this second book does stand alone, but is greatly enriched by knowledge of the first.)

Oree is a delight. She's self-reliant and grounded (metaphorically, as well as literally!) in a way that wasn't an option for Yeine: she has a sense of humour, which was a luxury Yeine couldn't afford: she's a single woman who neither wants nor needs protection, and she's comfortable in her skin, her city, her difference.

Of course, gods and comfort go together like electricity and water.

Oree's heritage holds secrets, and she realises that she's a danger to those she cares for: worse, she is being used as a weapon. But she also learns that the gods are to be pitied as well as feared, and that she has the power to heal, as well as to harm. The focus of The Broken Kingdoms may be on Oree, and perhaps on the wider social transformations brought about by the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: but the arc of the Inheritance trilogy concerns the Three, and this middle book progresses their story as well as Oree's own. It works on multiple levels: likeable and / or intriguing characters, a fascinating world, a murder mystery and an exploration of Big Themes (race, class, colonialism, gender, slavery, oppression) that doesn't detract from a damn good read.