Intellectus Speculativus

The Brittle Star by Davina Langdale

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When his mother’s ranch is attacked, sixteen-year-old John Evert is wounded and left to die. But John Evert is no ordinary young man. He’s a frontiersman’s son, a rancher who’s lived his whole life in the untamed Southern California wilderness of 1860.

In a journey that will take him from the bustling young city of Los Angeles to Texas to Missouri and back, to the front lines of the American Civil War and home again, John Evert will learn the cost of vengeance and the price of forgiveness.
~~~~~
After reading Days Without End, something of a palate freshener was required; hence, Langdale’s The Brittle Star, another modern Western, although in this case without the queerness.

Brittle Star, like Days Without End, is an essentially American novel – about the Old West, about the Civil War, about being an outlaw, running from the law, and eventually having a reckoning with it, about belonging; and like Barry’s book, it’s by a non-American writer, in this case the British Davina Langford. However, unlike Barry, Langdale doesn’t write Brittle Star as ‘Murcan; instead, she peppers the book with a light dose of Americana, giving it the feel of a traditional Western, using the language of the Western (including Spanish loan words), and the third person prose has a style that really evokes its events and summons up a feel of the Old West and Western films.

Brittle Star is centred on relationships. Not sexual ones; instead, the familial – and pseudo-familial – relationships of John Evert Burn, first his mother, then his surrogate father, then his found family. Langdale writes with a deep sympathy and empathy about these relationships and makes them really believable; none come immediately and without work, but all are developed over time, and their full extent and nature slowly laid out across the course of the book. The various character relationships are beautifully laid out and developed, and only work because Langdale gets the reader to care about every character; however awful they may later be revealed to be, we care about them, and that cannot be changed by retrospective re-examination.

The plot is a relatively simple, linear one; Brittle Star isn’t doing anything particularly new or interesting there, and indeed, Langdale’s approach to the plot might even be a little flawed. While the novel does follow a linear progression of events that feel like a progression, they also feel, and in some cases are, rather episodic; we see an extended period of time, and then a jump, and another extended period, and what happens in those jumps, or what happens between moments, feels rather empty and undeveloped, as if Langdale simply had no interest in portraying it.

That takes a certain something away from what otherwise flows beautifully in the novel; Brittle Star is really well paced on a chapter and a sentence level, matching its style to its moment really powerfully, such that there are beautiful, long flowing sections describing nature and travel, but Langdale changes style completely when it comes to her more action-centred moments, with really punchy sentences blasting away, and the emotional beats timed well to hit in the middle of either of change up the pace, throw the reader into a new mood. It’s a stylistic quirk that feels rather cinematic: in the middle of the battle, the slow shot of the friend dying, rendered into prose, works to the same powerful effect, while somehow feeling a little less manipulative, in part because the connection to the characters is stronger than in most films.

One thing worth noting is that some descriptions of Brittle Star have suggested that it’s a book about racism. It’s not even really a book about a white person overcoming their racism; Langdale instead writes about John’s racism, which springs from a traumatic event, and how it casts a blight over many relationships in his life, and over his interactions with other people. She also focuses on how he can make exceptions for individuals as he gets to know them, and from them start to generalise out; I can’t speak for how well the narrative works from the perspective of a Native American, the focus of his racism, but Langdale certainly does not condone his bigotry, and indeed the characters around him do not either, and he challenges other bigotries of others (such as towards African Americans). The real problem with the discussion of racism is how simplistic it is; Langdale doesn’t cover societal attitudes, or subconscious prejudices, leading to a rather flat caricature of the complex realities of bigoty.

In the end, The Brittle Star is a rather good Western in the modern mode, evoking the wide open plains and the feel of the period, and with fantastic characters; but Langdale’s attempts to cover such a broad time period hurts the cohesiveness of the novel somewhat, and her discussion of racism is, at times, a little tin-eared.

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The Problematic Presentation of Gender in Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning

TRIGGER WARNINGS for discussion of ciscentricity, allocentricity, intersexism, and gender essentialism, and for quoted anti-trans and anti-intersex slurs apply to the following essay, as well as SPOILER WARNINGS.

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Too Like the Lightning has been feted and critically acclaimed, and now nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. I read it back when it first came out, after hearing about how well it supposedly handled queerness, and especially gender in the context of queerness, from a number of people whose opinions on the topic I usually respect; I did not agree with these assessments. I’ve been asked a number of times to discuss more fully my issues with the presentation of gender in the novel, so, with the Hugo Awards now open for voting, it seems like this might be the moment, to let voters see what this particular genderqueer person thought of the presentation of gender in the book. For context, I’m a bisexual nonbinary person and my pronoun is they.

It’s worth establishing some baseline elements. Supposedly, the world of Too Like The Lightning is a post-gender world; “gender, we were supposed to be past that too”1 the narrator says of the world. This is somewhat undermined by the way other characters occasionally make reference to biological sex2, and by the way sex is referred to as being “neutered egalitarian copulation” when done outside of the gender binary3. This is also evident in titles; the frontispiece of the book references “His Majesty Isabel Carlos II of Spain”4, and another character is given the title “Princess”5. We can therefore see that this supposed post-gender world is no such thing, but that gender is apparently not something normally discussed – Mycroft, the narrator, says to the reader that “you must forgive my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s, my ‘he’s and ‘she’s”6 on the very first page of actual prose we encounter, as opposed to what appears to be the societal norm of using the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’.

Mycroft is, then, instantly established as breaking the societal norms by their use of gendered pronouns; indeed, on multiple occasions, Mycroft directly addresses the reader on the matter of using them, and tends to justify it in the most distressingly binarist and allocentric of terms, very early in the text, for instance saying that gendered pronouns “remind you [that is, the putative future reader] of their sexes” and that “gendered language was every bit as sensual to our predecessors [that is, us, the reader] as it is to us”, despite the putative reader Mycroft addresses protesting that their “distress is at the strangeness of applying ‘he’ and ‘she’ to thy 2450s, where they have no place”7. Indeed, Mycroft states that the singular they is the product a “prudish” era, and a “neutered”7 (in this case, meaning unsexual, desexualised) pronoun. Another character states that “sex is in everything… If you don’t believe that, you need to get laid”8; thus we see binarism and allocentricity as apparently common beliefs.

The text, however, cannot support the weight of Mycroft’s reasoning in the way it uses gender; most egregiously, in the fact that the Mukta, the prototype of a fleet of vehicles that is now planetwide, is gendered as female9, and in the gendering of a hypothetical person used in a simile10. Beyond that, however, children are gendered; rather than referring to Bridger as a child, Mycroft refers to them as a boy11. There’s also the repeated turn of phrase, “a day on which men had honoured their Creator in ages past”12; none of these examples can be seen to be referencing sex, except that of Bridger, and if that’s meant to be sexual, that’s a strange comment on Mycroft and Palmer both.

The exceptional case in which Mycroft as narrator does, however, use ‘they’ is of characters whose gender they are unable to guess; particularly of Utopians, because of their manner of dress13. Mycroft also briefly uses they of Eureka, whose status as a set-set means they’ve never been exposed to the outside world, and whose nerves are all rewired as input modes; but very rapidly, Mycroft in narration switches to using she, for no clear reason14.

The most interesting, and problematic, case of how Mycroft refers to a character in this particular book is the case of Dominic Seneschal, who presents as aggressively male, although is explicitly described as having “breasts beneath that taut waistcoat, that the thighs and pelvis which the coat’s high cut displays are very much a woman’s”15; Mycroft refers to them as “the woman… is the boldest and most masculine of men”16, and uses the pronoun he for them throughout the text. So far, this would seem to simply be Mycroft following the gender preferences of the character; however, Mycroft puts the term “she-man”17 into the mouth of the putative reader about Dominic. If the term is unfamiliar to you, perhaps a close analogue, ‘shemale’, might not be; it is a slur against trans women, which has no place without serious critique of the term going on around it and the user being very explicitly called out for its use18.

The way Mycroft’s gendering works is consistently unclear; the narration suggests that Cousins should always be pronouned with she because of their caring role, “maternal heart[s]” and “flowing robes”19. Carlyle, however, because of genitalia, is referred to as he, something which you’ll note does not constrain the way Mycroft refers to characters such as Dominic; there’s a confusion of whether genitalia or role plays the centre of how Mycroft chooses pronouns, perhaps most pronounced when Mycroft genders Chagatai as female:

With Chagatai, however, your guess [that is, the guess of the putative future reader as to why Mycroft genders Chagatai female] is wrong. It is not her job which makes me give her the feminine pronoun, despite her testicles and chromosomes. I saw her once when someone threatened her little nephew, and the primal savagery with which those thick hands shattered the offender was unmistakably that legendary strength which lionesses, she-wolves, she-bats, she-doves, and all other ‘she’s obtain when motherhood berserks them. That strength wins her ‘she’.20

The way that passage assigns gender to Chagatai is based on the stereotypical image of the mother, something that follows for a lot of the way characters gendered as female are portrayed.

This is a consistent problem with the way Mycroft approaches femininity. The first time this appears is in a reference to “practiced femininity”21, something which ought to have no meaning in this supposedly post-gender world. However, this “practiced femininity” is apparently incredibly and inherently sexual, and makes others think of sex, something against which Mycroft states they have no defence. A later discussion of a different character talks about a “display of ‘wife'”22; this is part of a series of pages describing a conversation with Danaë, who is described as acting and appearing in incredibly gendered ways, and builds up to “the husband wrenching the kimono back to bare the honey-wet vagina”23. This section is apparently why Mycroft feels they have to gender all the characters in the narration; because of the way Danaë uses a particular idea of femininity as a weapon.

Now, so far, almost all discussion has been about how Palmer’s choice of narrator has gendered characters, albeit with one exception noted above2. But the problem extends beyond Mycroft. Two chapters are narrated by another character, Martin Guildbreaker, who uses they as the pronoun of choice in them24; however, in discussing the vital statistics of interviewees in their chapters, Martin marks gender in one case (a character Mycroft has not encountered), but not in the other (a character Mycroft has gendered as male)25. A later example is the way two characters gender Carlyle Foster, gendered by Mycroft as male, as female in a discussion, until Carlyle is mentioned as having a penis, at which point both characters switch to using the pronoun ‘they’26; if the point of the pronoun were the transgressive reference to sex and gender, surely it should be consistent or change to he?

Perhaps the strangest example is that of the animated toy soldiers brought to life. They are brought to life with “attitudes of hundreds of years ago when those ancient toy soldiers were made; one of those attitudes Mycroft explicitly mentions in this description is “They use ‘he’ and ‘she'”27. However, in the actual quoted dialogue of the toy soldiers, the only pronoun we ever hear them use is they28; however, they are gendered by other characters, as Thisbe refers to the Major as “he”29, strangely.

The single most problematic portrayal in this book is one that reveals issues with the whole society of Too Like The Lightning, and that spills over and becomes worse in the sequel, Seven Surrenders, revolving around Sniper. In the first book, Sniper is pronouned as he, but Sniper is “tantalisingly androgynous” and “Sniper’s publicity team has worked so hard to keep the public from learning the androgyne’s true sex”30. Indeed, the genital configuration of Sniper is such a mystery to the public that it is something to be discovered by the media31, and a sibling of Sniper’s refers to something being “a public mystery to rival what’s in Cardie’s [that is, Sniper’s] pants”32. Indeed, dolls are made of Sniper for people to play with, including as sex toys; these final category of dolls come as “fully anatomical Sniper-XX and Sniper-XY models”33, suggesting that either Palmer or the world, or both, believe that chromosomes only come in these configurations, and define an exclusively binary set of genitalia, neither assertion of which is true. All this revolves around a character who is, in book two, revealed to be intersex; at this point the narration ceases to use the pronoun he and switches to the pronoun it to refer to Sniper34. If you are unaware, it as a pronoun refers to objects and sometimes animals; but people, adults, are not generally referred to as it, and it is incredibly offensive to almost all intersex people to pronoun them as it, with the exception of those few who reclaim it as their own pronoun, knowing how controversial it is.

All of these choices reflect worldbuilding choices Ada Palmer made, and arguably, they could be justified as being part of the world Palmer chose to build. But there are no constraints on Palmer’s choice of worldbuilding; she could have, instead, built a truly genderless world. She could have built a world where Sniper’s being intersex, Carlyle’s penis and Dominic’s gender identity have no relevance whatsoever; where there truly is not gender or sex differentiation in society, only biologically. Instead she built one which claims to have this while significantly undercutting it; that’s an authorial choice, and one that led to her book punching me in the face35 repeatedly. Insofar as it is related to her choice of narrator in Mycroft, there are a number of other characters who could relate the story; but Palmer chose to give us Mycroft, who forces gendering on us because it’s part of an Enlightenment style they adopt. However, it is notable that the Oxford English Dictionary, in talking about the usage of “they”, makes reference to historical use of the singular they in the Sixteenth Century; and one of the most prominent writers in English of the period, Jane Austen, used the singular they across her body of writing36. The style Palmer is having Mycroft emulate has no constraint against the use of the singular they.

In sum, this book has severe issues with ciscentrism, allocentrism, intersexism, and gender binarism and essentialism. Palmer cannot justify this by saying her hand was forced; she chose this set-up for the book, she chose how to present gender, she chose to have other characters reinforce Mycroft’s assertions about sex and gender, and she chose the whole frame in which the discussion in the book takes place. Too Like The Lightning isn’t progressive or doing interesting things with gender: it is painful, regressive, and I’m going to be ranking it below No Award in the Hugo voting. You, of course, should do as your conscience dictates.

Edited to add links to some others’ interesting, differing opinions on the approach to gender in Too Like the Lightning:

Yoon Ha Lee

Cheryl Morgan

Please note all page numbers refer to the pagination of the 2016 first printing first edition hardback published by Tor Books. Many thanks to my paid sensitivity reader for this essay, who asked to remain anonymous.
1. Page 337
2. Eg Thisbe questioning Mycroft on Mycroft using male pronouns in conversation about a character with breasts, page 248
3. Page 322
4. Page 5, frontispiece in the style of an Enlightenment-period printed book
5. Page 48
6. Page 13
7. All references to page 27. Note also that “neutered” is a term many intersex and trans people regard as a slur, per this poll.
8. Page 331
9. Page 35
10. Page 43
11. Page 24
12. First encountered on page 14, but repeated multiple times through the book, always using ‘men’
13. Page 361, although note that earlier Mycroft has gendered Utopians based on an unknown and unclear metric, pp156-7
14. Page 57-8
15. Page 89
16. Page 90
17. Page 94
18. See Wiki for more on the term ‘Shemale’
19. Page 70; see also page 269, where Cousins’ wraps are referred to as “dresslike” and feminine – although this femininity seems to derive as much from them being worn by Cousins as anything else, with a certain circularity
20. Page 237
21. Page 30
22. Page 48
23. Page 50
24. Page 163-174, 339-349
25. Martin describes Tsuneo Sugiyama as female on page 165 in giving their vital statistics, whereas their recitation of the vital statistics of Cato Weeksbooth does not give a sex or gender
26. Page 368-9
27. Page 66
28. See for instance the dialogue of the soldiers on page 19, where they consistently use they
29. Page 26
30. Both page 138
31. Page 143
32. Page 299
33. Page 139
34. This happens on page 98-9 of Seven Surrenders, according to Marissa Lingen, who discussed the presentation a little more here
35. For an explanation of the term “punching in the face”, see this blog post by Ann Leckie
36. The Oxford Dictionary, and specific references to the singular they in Jane Austen’s corpus

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Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

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After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, go on to fight in the Indian wars and, ultimately, the Civil War.

Having fled terrible hardships they find these days to be vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Their lives are further enriched and imperilled when a young Indian girl crosses their path, and the possibility of lasting happiness emerges, if only they can survive.


Moving from the plains of the West to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. Both an intensely poignant story of two men and the lives they are dealt, and a fresh look at some of the most fateful years in America’s past, Days Without End is a novel never to be forgotten.
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This year’s Costa prize went to a relatively brief first-person queer historical fiction novel about the American Civil War by an Irish man, namely, Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. A novel that puts the queer back into history, and looks like it might deal interestingly with racial issues in the past? Sign me up!

There is an approach to writing fiction set in Ireland, historical or contemporary, that is often though far from exclusively practiced by Americans, that a number of my friends refer to rather derisively as Oirish. Days Without End, by an Irish author writing about America, might be seen as revenge for that approach; call it, perhaps, ‘Murcan. Barry’s approach to Days Without End is stream-of-consciousness recollections from the Irish immigrant protagonist Thomas, meaning that the entire book is written in this strange ‘Murcan; it feels not only cliched but also impenetrable, which makes the whole book feel like something of a slog, rather a frustrating read.

The plot, on the other hand, has great potential; Days Without End covers United States conflict with the Native American tribes in the West, the Civil War, and the assaults on Native Americans by the United States under President Andrew Jackson. Barry isn’t willing to let America off the hook about its past, being very explicit about how often it has broken treaties with the Native Americans, and how appallingly it treated them. He’s also not romanticising the colonisation of the West, talking very clearly about the deprivations of the life of the early colonists and the lack of everything they suffered through. The Civil War is portrayed in the way it’s seen in the start of the film Free State of Jones: poor people who didn’t know why they were fighting, slaughtering each other in brutal, painful ways, with terrible mistreatment and neglect from the governments on both sides. Days Without End also doesn’t flinch from the cruelty of the Confederacy, and its remnants, towards African-Americans, free or slave; although it does have a tendency to also suggest that this exact same cruelty was often applied to the Irish – Barry suggests that conditions on the ships bringing Irish migrants to Canada and the United States were identical to those on slave ships.

Barry has an interesting approach to writing his queer central relationship. Days Without End doesn’t pretend queerness was either socially unremarkable, nor socially unheard of; he talks about soldiers having sex with each other on campaign in the absence of women, and about Thomas and his partner John not hiding their relationship from friends. However, there’s a less clear approach to gender taken in the book; while Barry has fleeting mentions of two-spirit people amongst the Native Americans, he also writes Thomas, across the course of the novel, exploring his gender presentation. If Days Without End had other clear queer couples this wouldn’t be a problem; as it is, it seems to confuse homosexuality and transness, as if they’re inextricably linked. That Barry doesn’t have Thomas come to a simple, single conclusion about his gender identity, or have him use modern terms, makes sense; however, the way he presents the questioning is frustrating.

Days Without End is a book with huge promise, and the Costa Award suggests that it fulfills it. The reality, though, is that Barry has written something that has grains of excellence, some brilliant and interesting elements, but overwhelmingly, it’s a frustrating slog.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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Citadel of Weeping Pearls by Aliette de Bodard

Citadel of Weeping Pearls
The Citadel of Weeping Pearls was a great wonder; a perfect meld between cutting edge technology and esoteric sciences—its inhabitants capable of teleporting themselves anywhere, its weapons small and undetectable and deadly.

Thirty years ago, threatened by an invading fleet from the Dai Viet Empire, the Citadel disappeared and was never seen again.

But now the Dai Viet Empire itself is under siege, on the verge of a war against an enemy that turns their own mindships against them; and the Empress, who once gave the order to raze the Citadel, is in desperate needs of its weapons. Meanwhile, on a small isolated space station, an engineer obsessed with the past works on a machine that will send her thirty years back, to the height of the Citadel’s power.

But the Citadel’s disappearance still extends chains of grief and regrets all the way into the fraught atmosphere of the Imperial Court; and this casual summoning of the past might have world-shattering consequences…
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This week is Aliette de Bodard week on the blog; but that’s because de Bodard has multiple releases this week – not only House of Binding Thorns, but also the self-publication of the novella Citadel of Weeping Pearls, originally published in Asimov’s Magazine in 2015, reprinted in a number of Year’s Best anthologies, and a finalist for the Locus Awards. I bought a copy from her at Eastercon, and finally got to read the story…

Citadel of Weeping Pearls is another entry in de Bodard’s Xuya world, also known as South-East Asia In Space; the Xuya series of stories all take place in a Vietnamese space empire, and the culture, texture, taste and aesthetic of the world always reflect that. In the case of Citadel of Weeping Pearls, de Bodard really brings the flavours of her world to life; they can be smelled and tasted on the air, and things are described in terms of texture to be felt, as much as they’re seen, an approach which brings all five senses into this futuristic world and really immerses them there. The one sight that gets a little overlooked in all this is sight; for a primarily visual reader (reading culture?), there’s little to sieze hold of apart from certain ceremonial clothing and brief moments de Bodard chooses to highlight.

The plot of Citadel of Weeping Pearls is a complicated one, about the past, about familial relationships, and about regret; for something that at first glance is just a locked-room mystery, and that spins out into courtly intrigue, interstellar diplomacy, and time travel, de Bodard sets a lot of plates spinning in a very small space. There are two almost disconnected plots, one in the background – that of interstellar war – and one in the foreground, that of the mystery surrounding the Empress’ daughter’s disappearance with her space habitat, the titular Citadel of Weeping Pearls. de Bodard uses a very small cast and a very tight focus on a small number of characters, moving around through a number of different perspectives to see the events through different eyes, but it is well controlled, and the viewpoints are very distinct and each adds something different to the story and the plot.

The characters are, of course, the heart of the novella. Citadel of Weeping Pearls is almost a domestic drama writ onto a huge scale; most of the cast are members of (or adjuncts to) the close Imperial family, and include the Empress herself, her daughter, her daughter’s daughter, and a former lover of the Empress; the only other viewpoint character is the daughter of someone who disappeared on the Citadel. de Bodard makes a lot of use of these familial emotional connections; they’re the real core of the story, exploring how families work, how different people see the same decisions, and how family interactions can have huge repercussions and affect an entire life. Citadel of Weeping Pearls isn’t big and flashy, for the most part – it involves interstellar war and time travel, but it’s essentially a quite novel – which means we get to see characters not in full-on crisis mode, and de Bodard really does make solid use of that. The one problem of Citadel of Weeping Pearl‘s characters is that they all feel like they’re of the same class, despite some references otherwise; they all seem to essentially see the world in the same way, in that regard, and it would have been nice to see a take on the situation informed by a completely different class background.

In the end, though, every new window onto the Xuya universe is a treasured addition to this expansive story-world, and Citadel of Weeping Pearls is no exception; de Bodard has delivered a really good novella worth your time and money.

DISCLOSURE: Aliette is a good friend, who I’ve hosted here for guest spots in the past and will hopefully do so again.

If you found this review useful, or if you’d like to help choose what I review next month, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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GUEST POST (& GIVEAWAY): Aliette de Bodard

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As you should all be aware by now, from my review on Monday of The House of Binding Thorns among other intimations, I am incredibly fond of Aliette de Bodard, both as an amazing human being and as an incredibly good writer; before The House of Shattered Wings, she provided a blog post here on the topic of diversity and gender roles in her Fallen Paris setting and her writing more broadly, which I greatly enjoyed. So when she asked if anyone would like to host a post on the topic of motherhood in fiction, and further intimated that the stunningly excellent artist Likhain had provided an illustration for the piece, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. It’s a brilliant essay, and I am so glad to have the honour to share it with you:
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Horrific pregnancies and dead mothers: motherhood in fiction and how I learnt to love my pregnant character

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You know where you stand with mothers in fiction and media.

They’re dead.

They die in childbirth, they die of illnesses, they’re dead long before the story starts, allowing the main character perhaps a modicum of angst, perhaps a touching memory of safety–allowing for danger and conflict, for which it would seem that peculiar loss of safety is a prerequisite. And it’s mothers specifically–fathers tend to be a source of interrelational conflict, because they tend to have those fascinating jobs and lives–because they have an existence outside their children, whereas mothers’ jobs seem to stop somewhere between giving birth and raising their kids (a job that incidentally is devalued as being natural and easily accomplished when it’s anything but!)

Laura’s mother and mother-figure Gabriela both die in Logan, Peter Quill’s/Star-lord’s mother likewise in Guardians of the Galaxy. The mothers in Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are both dead before or shortly after the story starts. Queen Amidala dies in childbirth at the end of Star Wars III. And that’s just the first few examples I could think of, off the top of my head!

And, if mothers have a rough time, pregnant women have it even worse. Births in SFF tend to be monstrous or holy. Ripley in Alien incubates an alien that will erupt out of her body and kill her. Melisandre in Game of Thrones gives birth to a horrific demon. Pregnancy is body horror, a twisted, dreadful experience exploited for viewers kicks.

At the other end of the spectrum, pregnancies can be sacred: necessary for the accomplishment of prophecies, the only hope of devastated worlds and oppressed people: the vampire Darla gives birth to Connor in Angel, an impossibility fated to kill a powerful demon; Kee is the only pregnant woman in the world in the movie version of Children of Men, the symbol of hope for mankind. Someone, after all, has to carry the chosen one, but Heaven forbid they should actually matter. They’re a vessel whose own bodies don’t belong to them, a thing to be worshipped and protected; an abstraction on the way to some more important story (Darla in Angel literally kills herself to give birth).

When I started writing my novel, The House of Binding Thorns, I was onto my second pregnancy, and beyond annoyed.

The book is set in an alternate Gothic turn-of-the-century Paris, a city devastated by a war between magical factions and where the powerless struggle to survive amidst political and magical intrigue. I wanted one of the main characters (Françoise, a queer Vietnamese/Annamite who is the lover of Berith, a Fallen angel, and expecting her child) to be pregnant, because pregnancy is an important part of life for some of us–and because I wanted to tackle families and motherhood in this book.

It turned out to be a hard balancing act. I wanted the pregnancy to be dangerous, because it was disingenuous not to acknowledge childbirth as a major cause of trauma and death for women; and I wanted it to be magical because it was a dark fantasy book–and I had to do all this without turning it into body horror or chosen one narrations!

It turned out the trickiest one to avoid was the sacred pregnancy. I was simultaneously pregnant while writing the book (a very weird experience but one that allowed me to be reasonably confident I was describing symptoms and mindset of the character reasonably accurately), and it was my second pregnancy, so body horror was very far from my thoughts. Though I did wait until after I gave birth to research particular life threatening complications: it turns out that in a 19th Century setting without antibiotics or healing magic the main difficulty is finding pregnancy/birth complications that don’t actually kill the character!

The messiah aspect of the pregnancy was harder to avoid: because of the unusual family structure (not so much the queerness, which is par for the course in the universe, but the Fallen/mortal lover dynamic which is very unusual in-universe) it was rare and therefore precious, and it’s a short step from there to “awe-inspiring”, especially in a post-apocalyptic city of broken streets and destroyed monuments, where it takes on the heft of hope without any deliberation or effort on my part.

I tried to avoid that by making it matter to the characters, so that neither Françoise nor Berith were reduced to mothers of the special child, and by making them, not the child, be the target of political intrigue. In fact, at one point a character explicitly says that the child is not a problem, because “who would teach (them) vengeance?”

Berith and Françoise have to navigate the tricky waters of expectant parenthood and adjust to becoming parents while having their own lives and their own communities. And I’ll only mildly spoil the story by saying that they both survive–that they’re not fridged as some sort of sacrifice for their child’s survival (which is doubly significant as they’re queer in a stable relationship, and we all know how these ones have a tendency to end in media: badly). They can have all the time to discover that the trickiest thing may not be carrying the child to term or giving their life for them, but rather the long, long years of actually raising said child.

But that’s a story for another day!
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Art by the truly fantastic Likhain, aka Mia Sereno, whose work you really ought to check out either by clicking through earlier in this sentence or on the image itself. Seriously, support an amazing artist!

Now for the giveaway! I’ve got two copies of the beautiful Gollancz mass-market paperback edition of House of Shattered Wings to give away to two lucky winners, so enter here…

The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

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As the city rebuilds from the onslaught of sorcery that nearly destroyed it, the Great Houses of Paris, ruled by fallen angels, still contest one another for control over the capital.

House Silverspires was once the most powerful, but just as it sought to rise again, an ancient evil brought it low. Philippe, an immortal who escaped the carnage, has a singular goal—to resurrect someone he lost. But the cost of such magic may be more than he can bear.

In House Hawthorn, Madeleine the alchemist has had her addiction to angel essence savagely broken. Struggling to live on, she is forced on a perilous diplomatic mission to the underwater Dragon Kingdom—and finds herself in the midst of intrigues that have already caused one previous emissary to mysteriously disappear…

As the Houses seek a peace more devastating than war, those caught between new fears and old hatreds must find strength—or fall prey to a magic that seeks to bind all to its will.
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Back in 2015, I reviewed House of Shattered Wings, Aliette de Bodard’s introduction to the world of a Paris broken by magical warfare and the emergence of the Fallen. de Bodard has returned to that world two years later with The House of Binding Thorns; does it live up to the high bar of its predecessor?

Whereas House of Shattered Wings had a strong focus on Silverspires, House of Binding Thorns shifts focus to a dual one; on Silverspires’ rival, Hawthorn, who we only saw as dark antagonists in House of Shattered Wings, and on the dragon kingdom in the Seine, which was only a bit part before. This shift in focus means de Bodard does a lot of new of worldbuilding; each place she shows us has such a sense of rootedness and geographical specificity that it really feels inhabited, lived in, aged and fallen. The whole world’s decrepitude takes different forms; de Bodard isn’t content to just let Paris fall, but it has to fall in ways that make sense for the part of Paris it is – whether rusted, or faded grandeur, or the mold of the dragon kingdom, each one evokes a past golden age as well as showing us the gaps between the aspirations of characters and the realities of their situations. Places are as much characters as the people are.

That only works because House of Binding Thorns is full of very human people, from the returning Philippe and Madeleine to the expanded role of Asmodeus, and the new characters – the dragon prince spying on Hawthorn, Thuan; the Annamite Houseless Françoise and her Fallen lover Berith. de Bodard has four protagonists and three major viewpoints in the novel, an impressive number to handle (Asmodeus is a protagonist but never a viewpoint); but she does it deftly and with a clear demarcation of shifts in viewpoint, as much in writing style as in physical markers of line breaks. The narrative control here is much stronger than in House of Shattered Wings, and the occasional messiness that plagued the first book is definitely cleared up here for a more streamlined reading experience.

That applies to the plot too; The House of Binding Thorns is a deeply political novel with tangled intrigues moving into and through each other. The factions within Hawthorn, and within the dragon kingdoms, as well as outside groups, all of whom have different agendas and who can be at times unfortunately unwilling to recognise that there might be more factions at play than they initially assumed, each have their own plans that intersect in ways that de Bodard keeps a very tight control of. Everything that happens here has had its trail laid earlier, to a greater or lesser extent, and things refer backwards and forwards in interesting ways; de Bodard lays strands of plot to the side temporarily only to pick them up again later, but in a very deliberate way that really builds the novel.

Thematically, The House of Binding Thorns is an expansion on the ideas of House of Shattered Wings, and an interesting one; it looks at power, and different kinds of approaches to it; it looks at what being a part of something bigger than oneself can mean; it looks at conceptions of sacrifice, and what one might be willing to sacrifice; and in Madeleine’s sections, it looks at addiction and PTSD with an intelligent and sympathetic eye, without cliche. de Bodard never lets theme overtake story, so The House of Binding Thorns moves at a good pace; it isn’t a fast novel, but it’s not sprawling either, more a kind of stately procession that turns into a bit of a brawl at the close, but intentionally and in a very controlled and clear way.

House of Binding Thorns is a grand and striking expansion upon the world of the Dominion of the Fallen, and a powerful novel from de Bodard, who really brings her full talents to bear on every aspect of the book. A distinct level up from someone who was already a master.

DISCLOSURE: Aliette is a good friend, who I’ve hosted here for guest spots in the past and will again; and I purchased a Tuckerisation in the novel for my partner.

If you found this review useful, or if you’d like to help choose what I review next month, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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From author Lara Elena Donnelly, a debut spy thriller as a gay double-agent schemes to protect his smuggler lover during the rise of a fascist government coup

Trust no one with anything – especially in Amberlough City.

Covert agent Cyril DePaul thinks he’s good at keeping secrets, especially from Aristide Makricosta. They suit each other: Aristide turns a blind eye to Cyril’s clandestine affairs, and Cyril keeps his lover’s moonlighting job as a smuggler under wraps.

Cyril participates on a mission that leads to disastrous results, leaving smoke from various political fires smoldering throughout the city. Shielding Aristide from the expected fallout isn’t easy, though, for he refuses to let anything – not the crooked city police or the mounting rage from radical conservatives – dictate his life.

Enter streetwise Cordelia Lehane, a top dancer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret and Aristide’s runner, who could be the key to Cyril’s plans—if she can be trusted. As the twinkling lights of nightclub marquees yield to the rising flames of a fascist revolution, these three will struggle to survive using whatever means — and people — necessary. Including each other.

Combining the espionage thrills of le Carré with the allure of an alternate vintage era, Amberlough will thoroughly seduce and enthrall you.
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Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough takes as its very obvious touchstone the musical Cabaret: the (ultimately resistible, if one would only try) rise of fascism as backdrop to a hedonistic foreground refusing to engage with politics. She goes a different direction in some regards, but how well does it work…?

Amberlough, from the start, runs three parallel plotlines. The first concerns Cyril DePaul, intelligence agent for the regionalist government of Amberlough turned, in the wake of being blown, into a double-agent for the nationalist, fascist One State Party (Ospies); his personal libertine lifestyle and his political acumen, as well as his abilities as an agent, all become both useful tools and liabilities across the course of his plot. The one problem with Donnelly’s portrayal of Cyril is that much as she tells us he used to be an excellent agent in the past, we never see any evidence of this in the present; no part of Cyril’s conduct in the novel gives us any hint of this excellent espionage that we’re told is part of his backstory.

The second major plotline is that of Aristide Makricosta, smuggler, libertine, drag queen and Cyril’s lover, at the start of Amberlough. He’s got an interesting plotline of his own, mostly revolving around dealing with the fallout of Cyril’s espionage work and the rise of the Ospies; we see a certain amount of ruthless illegal trade and dealing, and some excellent intelligence work, from Ari, and Donnelly really gives him a dark edge. He shines most brightly, though, on the stage and in the sections where he is dressing up, whether in drag or in civvies but designed to shine; Ari is a performer, and Amberlough gives him ample stages, large and small, intimate and personal or broad and general, and Donnelly relishes giving us his performances.

The third character through whose eyes we see this resistible, even if relatively unresisted, rise of fascism, is Cordelia Lehane, stripper at the same cabaret as Ari; indeed, their joint act, involving both dragging up, is the star of the show. Cordelia is an interesting character in Donnelly’s hands; through the course of Amberlough, she is by turns unfaithful lover, drug dealer, cabaret dancer, resistance runner, willing beard, and ends up… well, that would be spoiling things. Her character development is fascinating, as we see her realise how attached to certain people and places she really is, and as that affects her interactions with the world; Cordelia is where Donnelly really shows us what she can do in terms of taking a relatively simply character and then drawing them out to be so much more than that, and so much more interesting, in part by simply making clear to the readers her greater attachments.

The politics of writing a novel are often fraught, but one can only presume that was especially the case with Amberlough. This is very much a novel about the rise of fascism; all three characters’ plotlines are centred on the rise of the Ospies, whose very name is reminiscent of those fascists who cast their long shadow over all who came after, the Nazis. It’s unfortunate that much of the political machinations happen off-stage; Donnelly has a tendency to jump-cut past what one might regard as some of the more fascinating elements of the plot, tangles which the reader might enjoy moving through, rather than just seeing the consequences of. As it is, most of the political events happen off-stage, and inexplicably, and we see their consequences, instead of the events themselves; that’s not an entirely satisfactory way to write the book and ends up leaving Amberlough plot feeling a little empty and underbaked.

The setting deserves at least as much attention as the plot, since Donnelly clearly gave it at least as much lavishment. Amberlough is mainly set in the titular city, although it ranges outside that briefly to various places and refers to more; the city of Amberlough is a gloriously louche, corrupt, decadent place that really springs to life off the page, a kind of mash-up of Weimar Berlin with all the cliches of Prohibition-era Chicago, with an almost dieselpunk approach to technology. Brought to life by a mix of beautiful descriptions of the art deco and art nouveau architecture, the 1920s costuming, and the generous use of slang, Amberlough joins the ranks of settings which almost outshine the characters living in them, places like Peake’s Gormenghast or Tolkein’s Middle Earth; but rather than gothic or epic, the word that best describes Amberlough might be louche.

Amberlough is a very queer book; despite a relatively compact cast, of whom an even smaller number are actually depicted as queer, those characters are disproportionately on stage, and centred by the narrative. There are hints of more queerness around the edges of this plot – multiple-marriages and polyamory are part of the “old religion”, which the fascists oppose, and given the prominence of drag, hopefully there is more gender nonconformity to come in the auspices of the old religion in future books, necessary to tie up the fact that all three protagonists end their plots on very much cliffhangers.

Amberlough is, inevitably, not the perfect novel, if such a thing even exists; but Donnelly has produced a well-written and at times beautiful take on the themes of the rise of fascism and life under an oppressive government. The cliffhanger endings, and unresolved plots, will draw me into the sequel, but I’m hoping for slightly stronger plotting there.

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