Intellectus Speculativus

GUEST POST: Aliette de Bodard on Diversity and Gender Roles in House of Shattered Wings

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Aliette de Bodard is one of those fantastic writers whose short fiction has won huge plaudits, but whose first novels – the Obsidian and Blood trilogy – largely sank into obscurity due to publisher mishandling; she is also someone I hugely admire and am a friend of. Her new novel, The House of Shattered Wings, came out from Roc in the US yesterday and will come out from Gollancz in the UK tomorrow; I reviewed it last week, and absolutely loved it, especially the politics of the novel. Aliette is herself currently at Sasquan, but her publicity blog-tour continues apace – and I asked her to write about one of the things dear to this blog: gender and diversity…
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I’ve been trying to write several versions of this post and always found myself staring at the screen. Writing a blog post pointing out all the ways that my book is diverse feels very embarrassing to me: I’m a basic not-loving-the-limelight introvert, and the previous drafts of this all sounded far too smug and self-satisfied for my personal taste–as in “see how wonderfully diverse my cast is and how progressive I am?”

And hum. I just can’t.

So I’m just going to talk about process, and about diversity and me.

I was a voracious reader as a child, consuming books from the library at a rate that had my parents torn between pride and alarm; and devouring everything from historicals to mysteries to SFF, without making many distinctions of genre.

It took me a long, long while to realise that what they all had in common, and the narrative that they were engraving into my brain, was that people like me did not get to go off on adventures, or to feature much in stories. And when they did, it was often in stories that didn’t quite speak to me: I love Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, but as an allegory of the Vietnam War it falls flat, because my Vietnam War, the one in family memories, isn’t a grand rebellion against cruel colonists, but a confused and half-untold story of conflicting loyalties and difficult choices on the way to independence, of families torn apart and exile, and of a litany of heart-breaking losses. So, even if you do have nominal diversity, narratives and stories can widely vary depending on who is telling them.

When I started writing SFF, for the longest time I had to fight against myself. Against that narrative that white people, white males, white Westerners, were suitable heroes, and everyone else was not. And I wish I could say all I had to do was be aware of that to overcome it, but prejudice is like the air you’re breathing: it’s really really hard to set aside; and you can have the best of intentions and still perpetuate a harmful or thoughtless narrative.

I had to go about it piecemeal: to have women characters and protagonists, to have POC characters and protagonists, to have Vietnamese characters and protagonists (that was a big hurdle to clear: it’s hard to describe the sheer stomach-clenching terror of getting these wrong, of giving everyone a wrong impression of the culture, and of being taken to task by my family for making a mess out of it); and to tackle other axes of marginalisation I’m less intimately familiar with (queer characters, …).

I don’t write stories with checklists of “ooooh let’s have a woman here and let’s have a POC here etc.” I want to write stories that speak to me (especially to ten-year-old me, who sensed something was missing and couldn’t put her finger on what!). But equally, I’ve become aware that it’s very easy to fall back into prejudice. If I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing, my characters revert to my mental default.

When I was writing The House of Shattered Wings, my novel of a devastated Paris with Fallen angels, magicians, alchemists and witches, one of the things that I tried to pay particular attention to was gender roles. I know I have a tendency to revert to “type” (aka cliché) when not giving some thought to what’s happening. Due to years of schooling myself, I now tend to have all my primaries default to female: I saw nothing wrong with having Selene, a political leader and head of a major House of Fallen angels and magicians, be a woman who usually wore men’s clothes (and to have this situation be so usual), and nothing wrong either with Madeleine, my House alchemist and resident geek, being one. My third main character, a Vietnamese immigrant and ex-Immortal, was originally called Isabelle, until I realised this was a really skewed gender balance, and switched her with a male Fallen angel named Philippe. Other female notable characters included two further major political leaders, and a badass archivist with a key plot role (and long-time lover of Selene!).

So I had this slightly smug feeling that my cast was female-dominated; in fact, a quick head-count showed that it was about 70% male and 30% female, because whenever I needed a character who appeared only for a few scenes, I would reach for a male one! I had to hastily rewrite the entire secondary cast to switch genders here and there: the end result is about balanced (but note that I still had the feeling my cast was overwhelmingly female. It’s a known effect of prejudice: anything that strays from the default appears to loom larger than they really are).

One of the things I also wanted to do with the novel was to have a universe in which there was little sexism, because prejudices fell mainly on axes of race (white/non-white), magical nature (Fallen angels vs mortals; within Fallen angels, how powerful they were; within mortals, whether they were good at magic or not) and power/safety (who had safety in a devastated city, and who could offer it to others). So I had to check, once again, that I wasn’t perpetuating sexist ideas that came from our universe: Selene, the head of the major House, struggles in her leadership role and doubts herself, and I had to make very sure she wasn’t doing that because she was a woman, but rather simply because she was young, untrained, and trying to do justice to her powerful master Lucifer Morningstar. She’s in a tense relationship with many of the other heads of Houses, and again, this couldn’t be because she was less powerful than them (another cliché of women being weaker and less competent than men): she’s actually in a dominant (though increasingly unsteady) position, and she knows it.

All of this hopefully feels natural and unforced in the novel: a lot of it was forethought, and pulling out clichés by the root when they occurred (and relying on kindly beta-readers to take me to task for my prejudices!) . I won’t say I’m 100% happy with the way it turned out: already, I can see places where I would do things differently, and I’m of course not totally sure that my best intentions didn’t result in some horrible misstep.

But that’s as it should be: because diversity is a process and not a state, and because I’m always, always learning; and hopefully doing slightly better every time!
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House of Shattered Wings is out from Roc as of yesterday, and from Gollancz as of tomorrow; my review & the blurb:
Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.

House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen, an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a resentful young man wielding spells from the Far East. They may be Silverspires’ salvation. They may be the architects of its last, irreversible fall…

Regeneration by Stephanie Saulter

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The gillungs – waterbreathing, genetically modified humans – are thriving. They’ve colonised riverbanks and ports long since abandoned to the rising seas and the demand for their high-efficiency technologies is growing fast.

But as demand grows, so do fears about their impact on both norm businesses and the natural environment.

Then, a biohazard scare at Sinkat, their colony on the Thames, fuels the opposition and threatens to derail the gillungs’ progress. But was it an accident, or was it sabotage?

DCI Sharon Varsi has her suspicions, but her investigations are compromised by family ties. And now there is a new threat: Zavcka Klist is about to be released from prison – and she wants her company back.
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Regeneration is the final novel in Stephanie Saulter’s ®Evolution trilogy, preceded by Gemsign & Binary; it moves the Gems to the point where they are building infrastructure that is vitally important to the future of norm and gem society, where norm political parties are trying to integrate – or at any rate co-opt – gems and their movements, and where gems are deciding what to do with their political and economic voice. In short, the liberation struggle is legally won; the question is where one goes from winning…?

Regeneration isn’t particularly interested in answering the question, so much as in thinking about different possible answers; different characters have different ideas of how to deal with the changing society they live in and the changing status of gems in society, and none of these are clearly the right or wrong answer, although Saulter largely comes down from the start in favour of integration into existing sociopolitical structures. The questions the novel asks are intelligent ones, about marginalised communities and how they can deal with the society that marginalises them; but they’re also threaded through with questions about how one deals with continuing bigotry even when it’s not the societal norm so strongly, and with some discussion of how one deals with internet trolls. Regeneration doesn’t shy away from its questions, even when it can’t necessarily answer them – perhaps especially then.

The strongest part of Regeneration, though, is driven home forcefully by its last section, and is nearly impossible to talk about; Saulter’s extension of humanity to all her characters, her empathy for all of them and willingness to see the possibility of redemption – at least a limited redemption – for anyone has been a strong theme through the ®Evolution series, and Regeneration really capitalises on that, in ways we see coming throughout the novel but that are, when actually executed, pulled off so much more beautifully and brilliantly than the reader could possibly expect. The writing at the end of the book feels like it’s levelled up from even the rest of the book, in terms of humanity, empathy and skill; it couldn’t have been showcased throughout the novel for various reasons but the extent to which it’s put to excellent use in the close is truly amazing.

So far, we’ve not actually talked about the plot. That’s in part because it’s a plot we’ve seen before, and in part because it isn’t the best part of the book; indeed, in some respects, it’s actually quite weak. Regeneration repeated relies on characters not putting two and two together, failing to share information, or, most egregiously, outright being stupid; there are some key elements that would not make sense, that are integral to the tragedy of the ending, if the characters involved didn’t have a huge momentary lapse of common sense suddenly that they simply ignore for the sake of plot. A conspiracy thriller, which this very much is, only works if the conspiracy isn’t obvious; and while the reader knows almost exactly what the conspiracy will do at any given time (from information available to the characters), the characters of the novel, who over the series we’ve grown to like and respect, appear oblivious, in a truly frustrating way.

Regeneration, then, is a novel to be read for its excellent characters and its truly stunning close, rather than for the political-thriller plot that the rest of the series achieved so seemingly effortlessly; Saulter has given us an excellent end for her ®Evolution trilogy, which I highly commend to you, especially with the capstone this gives it.

Foreigner by C. J. Cherryh

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It had been nearly five centuries since the starship Phoenix, lost in space and desperately searching for the nearest G5 star, had encountered the planet of the atevi. On this alien world, law was kept by the use of registered assassination, alliances were defined by individual loyalties not geographical borders, and war became inevitable once humans and one faction of atevi established a working relationship. It was a war that humans had no chance of winning on this planet so many light-years from home.

Now, nearly two hundred years after that conflict, humanity has traded its advanced technology for peace and an island refuge that no atevi will ever visit. Then the sole human the treaty allows into atevi society is marked for an assassin’s bullet. The work of an isolated lunatic?…The interests of a particular faction?…Or the consequences of one human’s fondness for a species which has fourteen words for betrayal and not a single word for love?
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Ann Leckie, of Ancillary fame, has often cited C. J. Cherryh as the primary influence on her work; the Foreigner series in particular. Foreigner is also probably the most highly praised of all Cherryh’s science fiction work, and it seemed to me high time I actually read the book…

Foreigner opens with a series of sections that introduce us to the world the main body of the plot actually takes place in; humans, stranded on a colony ship impossibly far from home by some kind of navigational accident, make planetfall and contact with an alien species called the atevi, fundamentally humanoid but on a bigger scale and universally black. The real plot of the novel follows Bren, the human envoy to the atevi, the only one allowed contact with them, in the wake of an assassination attempt and the fallout from that; it’s a mixture of complex politics and interpersonal relationships that don’t work as a human would expect them to.

The core problem with this part of the book, which forms the bulk of the narrative, is that Cherryh doesn’t really give us a sense of the politics at play; for an apparently excellent diplomat (the paidhi is selected through vigorous competition amongst many humans), Bren is singularly bad at telling us what the politics in play are, and instead, Foreigner spends an awful lot of time telling us how uncomfortable Bren is with the atevi‘s different emotional life to his own, and how isolated this makes him feel. While this gives us a lot of insight into Bren’s emotional life – not, mind you, all of it very interesting – the lack of motivation for any of the other characters or factions in play feels very disconcerting. It’s almost as if Cherryh wanted to write about the atevi, and about how isolated a human would feel among them and how confused by their politics he would be, but completely forgot that for that to work they need some politics; we see moments when politics appear, but they’re specific issues, and there’s no apparent political models anywhere in play.

This is all the stranger because we know a surprising amount about human politics, for a novel where only one human really appears; Foreigner has Bren looking back on Mospheira, the human land on the alien world ceded to them by the atevi, and thinking about the different factions in his office, and the different factions among humanity on the ship before anyone landed on the world; we get a very clear picture of the human politics involved in giving technological information to the atevi, and the different attitudes to how humanity and the atevi should relate to each other, but this doesn’t even begin to be mirrored by a sense of the atevi factions. We’re also never really made familiar with how atevi society works; the key bond is a kind of loyalty, but what it means – how it is formed, what obligations (in all directions) it involves, and how it functions in a society – are utterly opaque and appear, seemingly, to be of no interest to the author.

As for Bren himself, as a character, he is a singularly frustrating one; an awful lot of Foreigner is spent going over the same ground, driving home time and again that Bren is projecting his emotions onto the atevi – that is, reading human motivations into their action. This almost feels like a bulking-out method, as scenes with extremely strong deja vu occur and reccur, telling us again about his emotions in identical scenarios to those we have seen previously. While this could have built up effectively, Cherryh instead just repeats them, almost without Bren seeming to remember prior incidents. Other characters are only ever seen through Bren’s eyes, and as such the atevi members of the cast, who as alien minds would have been fascinating to see and be made to empathise with, are only ever Other, inscrutable and unknowable; there’s not really any more effort made to understand individual atevi than there is to understand the culture of the atevi as a whole, unfortunately.

Foreigner is a novel about diplomacy, politics, and interacting with an alien culture, without ever really being interested in any of those things; instead it feels like a solipsistic journey into Bren’s anthropomorphic mistakes, with a few action scenes thrown in. Much as Ancillary Justice may have been inspired by this, the latter is a far better book; skip the inspiration, and go straight to what it inspired.

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

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Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.

House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen, an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a resentful young man wielding spells from the Far East. They may be Silverspires’ salvation. They may be the architects of its last, irreversible fall…
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This isn’t going to be what passes as a normal review on this blog. It’s impossible for me to be objective about this book. I first read House of Shattered Wings when it was three chapters and a proposal Aliette was planning on sending her agent, and then again when it was a draft for her agent to send out to publishers; I’ve been really looking forward to seeing how it has changed since then, so when Gollancz offered me an ARC, I jumped on the offer.

House of Shattered Wings is so good, y’all. So very incredibly good. This book takes in class systems, the immigrant experience, colonialism, theological discussion, friendship, personal obligation and debt, the way we are entrenched in and become ensnared by the societies we live in no matter how toxic they are, the limits of magic, the problems of power, and so much more, in the setting of a shattered 19th century Paris, crushed by magical war between fallen angels. And it’s more exciting than that makes it sound; this isn’t a thesis or a piece of fiction shaped around characters spouting off de Bodard’s political manifesto, it’s just that de Bodard has, as usual, the ambition to not back down from interrogating a(nother) Big Idea in the same novel, because it fits.

After all, in a novel populated by fallen angels but one of whose protagonists is an exiled Annamite (that is, Vietnamese) Immortal conscripted into a French war, in a novel where one of the protagonists is a drug-abusing mortal preserving magic for her House, in a novel one of whose protagonists is a Fallen trying to find her place in the world having already been told what her place in the House is, big, complex, crunchy ideas of race, identity, belonging, culture, power and society are inevitably going to come up; and in a world with much smaller political bodies, the cut-throat ruthlessness of those bodies and their leaders is going to be much closer to the surface. The House of Shattered Wings has an awful lot going on, from introducing us to this shattered Paris with its houses, magic, gangs, and more, through the complex and increasingly dark plot; but all really rests on the strength of the protagonists de Bodard gives her audience, and in this novel, that strength is immense.

We have two main protagonists and a third viewpoint character, each of whom has a different voice (my ARC had a flaw, in that sections weren’t clearly demarcated. The different voices of the protagonists actually meant they didn’t need to be); each of whom has different experiences and driving forces behind them; each of whom is wonderfully distinct. Two of them are women – Selene isn’t a protagonist but, as head of House Silverspires and heir of Morningstar, she’s a key figure to the book, and the tensions between the ruthlessness of a head of House and the loving woman who needs her ex-addict partner Emmanuelle are at times terrible to behold. Madeleine, meanwhile, is the alchemist of House Silverspires having formerly been a member of House Hawthorn, driven from there under terrible circumstances and seeking refuge in angel essense; de Bodard’s portrayal of both the trauma and the addiction are fantastic and darkly honest, including the self-justification for things Madeleine knows she shouldn’t do and the portrayal of a self-destructive character. Philippe has a different kind of past; an idealised, idyllic image of an Annam that no longer exists, which he was torn from by Fallen to fight in their wars. The hatred of the Houses that comes from that experience is a huge force in his character, but so is an idea of debt and honour; it’s a fantastic balance and watching de Bodard portray his internal struggles between them is amazing. The final key figure, who has no viewpoint, is at the same time most and least interesting; newly Fallen at the start of House of Shattered Wings, mutilated by Philippe for the magic that suffuses her body, Isabelle is the catalyst for an awful lot of the action, and the strange mix of naivete and cynicism that is commented on by other characters is fascinating, especially as the balance between them changes across the book.

House of Shattered Wings is a novel all about impossible choices, and the consequences of those choices; it’s about history not being dead, it’s about home as a memory as much as a physical location, it’s about ideals and their embodiments and how there is always a gap between those things, it’s about power. De Bodard manages to get all of those things into the plot, without having many subplots splitting off; there are smaller moments, but essentially, the whole narrative force of the book, every characters’ different trajectories and personal journeys and plots, are all impelling the book to its dark, heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching conclusion. That’s part of what makes House of Shattered Wings so effective: everything comes together for a finale that involves everyone having to make awful decisions, impossible decisions – and tragedy striking despite goodness, bad things happening despite the reader crying out for them not to, and those consequences not always (not often, not EVER) falling on those who most deserve them. It’s a plot that ought to be really hard to carry off; it doesn’t start until part way through the book but is already being built towards from page one, whose resolution and revelation come in drips before the explosive, soul-hurting climax which only comes after the plot has effectively been resolved.

As a first draft, The House of Shattered Wings did all of these things, but a couple of them – especially that impossible, awful, brilliant, perfect ending – messily. As a final product, with the help of Gillian Redfearn and Jessica Wade (of Gollancz and Roc respectively)? Aliette de Bodard has written an absolute masterpiece whose sequel cannot come soon enough.

House of Shattered Wings comes out from Gollancz in the UK & Roc in the US on August 20th.

DoI: …that whole first paragraph, okay?

Space Hostages by Sophia McDougall

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You can’t cry in space, but I was giving it a good go.

After all, I’d just been THROWN OUT OF AN AIRLOCK by a horde of ALIENS and had about three minutes left to live.

So you can’t blame me for trying.

But as it turned out, that was just the start of my adventures.

Because very soon it became clear that if I was ever going to get back home, not only would I have to NOT DIE, but me, my friends and our floating robot goldfish would have to SAVE THE WORLD. No, scrap that. THREE WORLDS. All at the same time.

Easy, right?
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Reviewing it eighteen-odd months ago, I had some serious issues with Mars Evacuees; but because Sophia McDougall is a lovely person, I decided to give Space Hostages, the sequel, a try regardless… and I’m glad I did!

Space Hostages picks up a little time after Mars Evacuees left off, including enough time having passed for Alice Dare to have published her memoirs of what happened to her last time out – titled, of course, Mars Evacuees; the conceit of both novels being that they have been written by Alice Dare as accurate records of what happened to her and her friends. Part of what that has led to is a development of Alice’s voice, alongside the rest of the cast; it’s a definite improvement from the first book, as McDougall appears to have gotten a better grasp on that voice, and on the characters she’s working with. Part of that, of course, is that they’re all tempered by their experiences; part of it is also that we have the full addition of Thsaaa to the cast, a Morror who we now know, rather than having to find out about, and who creates a different dynamic in the group.

There’s also a better grasp of the interpersonal dynamics of the core cast, in part because McDougall isn’t developing them from scratch, and in part because Space Hostages has some areas of interpersonal conflict that Mars Evacuees didn’t; it gets to examine longer-running tensions, such as between Josephine and Alice, and how those might be handled (McDougall doesn’t tie the tensions that she makes clear are there early, instead allowing them to slowly be healed and revealed across the course of the whole nove), as well as breaking the team apart into different configurations that allow for different pressures – such as splitting up Noel and Carl, which allows Noel to come into his own as an independent character rather than in the shadow of his brother. Unfortunately, the chapters from Noel’s (and Thsaaa’s) point of view are the weakest chapters of Space Hostages; Noel’s voice is weaker than Alice’s, and having the chapters being dialogues between Thsaaa and Noel is something of a problem because they don’t quite flow, especially the first one; there’s something slightly odd about having passages which are apparently recorded in the midst of the events they portray interspersed with retrospective chapters, especially when the former feel retrospective.

Space Hostages is, in some ways, a much more grown up book, full of greys rather than black and whites, with discussion of colonialism (outright statements of its place in British history, in fact), medical ethics, and the complexity of people, among other things; there’s mention, which one assumes children won’t catch (for that matter, how many adults have read Simone de Beauvoir?), of feminist theory. It’s a wonderfully complex novel that McDougall uses to ask all kinds of questions and raise all kinds of issues around real-world situations, without of course giving answers to those questions; the plot revolves around an alien empire that is emphatically evil, but doesn’t place humanity in the role of unmitigated good – and the aliens aren’t evil because alien, but because empire, which McDougall has (rightly) no interest in redeeming.

Many series become stronger as they go on; it’s clear McDougall’s Space Hostages falls into this category, although the ending implies there may not be another novel, and that would be a loss. Alice Dare has a fantastic voice, and one I’ll miss if this is the last time I’m too meet her.

Way Down Dark by J. P. Smythe

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There’s one truth on Australia: you fight or you die. Usually both.

Seventeen-year-old Chan’s ancestors left a dying Earth hundreds of years ago, in search of a new home. They never found one. The only life that Chan’s ever known is one of violence, of fighting. Of trying to survive.

Fiercely independent and self-sufficient, she keeps her head down and lives quietly, careful not to draw attention to herself amidst the violence and disorder. Until the day she makes an extraordinary discovery – a way to escape the living hell that is Australia, and to return Earth.

But first Chan must head way down into the darkness – a place of buried secrets, long-forgotten lies, and the abandoned bodies of the dead.
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Smythe has described Way Down Dark as “Mad Max on a generation ship”, and that’s a surprisingly useful shorthand description – it certainly explains the Australian motif of the series (although a reveal towards the end of the first book puts yet another spin on the naming of the ship Australia). But how close can a YA novel get to an 18-rated series…?

The answer is disturbingly close. Smythe recently said that he decided how far was too far by going right up to the line where he could imagine doing those things himself, and stopping there; given that Way Down Dark is a brutal, violent tale of survival, that line is pretty far. Mind you, Smythe does show some restraint – he chose to exclude sexual violence from a novel whose protagonist is a seventeen year old woman, which is a relief and an excellent choice. That still leaves a wide range of disturbing, horrific scenes available to him, and Way Down Dark uses that range freely; bloody violence is a frequent reality of the novel, not necessarily in form of combat but also in characters being beaten to death or murdered over minor infractions. Outside violence, Smythe has a number of viscerally awful descriptions of the Pit at the base of the cylinder that forms the bulk of the Australia; that Pit is where all waste – shit, piss, bodies, et cetera – has been dumped. For generations. Smythe lingers disturbingly, almost lovingly, on the Pit when it’s encountered; Way Down Dark builds it up into a hugely grim thing, and eventually puts Chan right into it.

Of course, this isn’t simply a horror story trying to gross the reader out; Way Down Dark has an awful lot more than simple grossness to it, notably (of course) character and plot.

Those two facets of Smythe’s novel are incredibly strongly intertwined; Way Down Dark is about a character deciding to do the right thing not because of a prophecy, or a sign, or even any indication that she should, but just because that’s the choice she makes. As Chan says, “I’m not special… I’m really not. Anybody could have done what I’m doing, but they didn’t. So I am going to. Maybe that’s enough.” (p202-3) That final sentence is the fundamental question of Way Down Dark: is it enough to simply stand up, as no one special, and interpose yourself between victims and attackers? Is it enough to try and do the right thing, while not knowing exactly what that is, what you’re up against, and even why you’re doing it? Smythe doesn’t want to answer the question, but Chan is a fascinating lens through which to ask it; we first meet her killing her already-dying mother, a combination mercy-killing and totemic protection for Chan with her mother’s ghost (or at least the perception thereof). Every moment after that ties into the moments before, building up a picture of who this girl who killed her mother is, why she did so – and what that means; while also developing her from that moment, changing her, rebuilding and refiguring her into a different person but with the same core, an admirable combination of strategies.

In following Chan’s in her battle against the Lows, a Reaver-like gang who are slowly taking over the ship, and her attempts to save the rest of the non-Low population of Australia, we see any number of chaotic events take place, as well as learning an awful lot about the society of a generation ship that has fallen into anarchy; barter and exchange of goods, the power of gangs, the diminishing resources (and what kind of resources people become willing to use) – Smythe has clearly thought about all of these, and behind Way Down Dark squats a whole huge universe of worldbuilding and thought that didn’t make the final cut. That creates a really lean novel; not a moment isn’t vital, simultaneously building Chan’s character (or someone else’s, or both), advancing the plot, and telling us about the world these characters live in; there’s an efficient economy here that science fiction and fantasy writers often lack, instead opting for sprawling grandiosity or extended passages that add little, things Smythe clearly has no interest in as form follows content.

Way Down Dark is one of those novels that simply stands head and shoulders above their competitors, in this case generation-ship novels and teenage dystopias; Smythe has brought the best from both genres and smashed it together, and then twisted, into a dark, grim future with a fantastic protagonist. If you don’t want to know what happens to Chan after the end of Way Down Dark, you’re on your own, because I’m really looking forward to Long Dark Dusk!

Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace

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Wasp’s job is simple. Hunt ghosts. And every year she has to fight to remain Archivist. Desperate and alone, she strikes a bargain with the ghost of a supersoldier. She will go with him on his underworld hunt for the long-lost ghost of his partner and in exchange she will find out more about his pre-apocalyptic world than any Archivist before her. And there is much to know. After all, Archivists are marked from birth to do the holy work of a goddess. They’re chosen. They’re special. Or so they’ve been told for four hundred years.

Archivist Wasp fears she is not the chosen one, that she won’t survive the trip to the underworld, that the brutal life she has escaped might be better than where she is going. There is only one way to find out.
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Nicole Kornher-Stace’s novel of post-apocalypse is receiving a huge buzz, with positive reviews from luminaries like Liz Bourke and Amal El-Mohtar; Archivist Wasp may be dark, dystopian and grim, but it’s getting the same kind of reception as a novel like Uprooted or Goblin Emperor. The question is, how does the novel hold up to the buzz…?

The biggest strength of Archivist Wasp comes from Wasp, its protagonist. Kornher-Stace appears to have taken notes from some of the heroes on this list – but with a certain kind of conscience; Wasp knows how monstrous her actions are, but still commits them, knowing they are necessary for her survival – and making her central rule survival. The novel opens in the middle of a duel for her role as Archivist, against an upstart aiming to take her place; as if to set the scene for the rest of the novel Kornher-Stace has Wasp debate simply letting the upstart kill her… before allowing her bloody-mindedness to instead dictate the alternate course. That bloody-mindedness also leads to Wasp sparing the upstart, against tradition; another example of the ways in which Wasp confounds the expectations placed upon her by her role and the society in which she lives. In tht regard, this has something of the feel of a young adult novel; Archivist Wasp is all about Wasp fighting back against expectations of others and against the easiest course for her life, instead fighting for her independence with a fierce stubborness which is not presented as a wonderful thing to be imitated but instead as a brutal harshness in her that can be used for positive or negative ends.

The only other significant character of Archivist Wasp is the nameless ghost whose quest she takes as her own, for a price; we meet this nameless character a little way into the book as we see Wasp engaging in her role as ghost-hunter, finding, capturing and interrogating ghosts to learn about the apocalypse and to keep her world safe. Ghost, unlike Wasp, is very much an enigma whose character is slowly revealed across the course of the novel; whereas the question of Wasp is about the balance between stubborn rebellion and will to survive at any cost, including her integrity, the ghost is only questions, slowly answered across the course of the novel and the quest. It’s a beautiful paradigm as Wasp and the ghost keep each other guessing, our only two things to grasp first in the physical world and then in the afterlife; Kornher-Stace doesn’t make it easy for the audience, as Wasp is often actively hostile to both ghost and reader (although the tale is told in third-person past), and at times the narrative becomes a little disjointed as it follows Wasp so closely, but it creates a fantastic sense of character.

The sense of setting is much harder to get a grasp on, in part because much of Archivist Wasp takes place in the underworld (a true Hero’s Journey), and in part because it is so geographically specific and imprecise when on the surface; the world Kornher-Stace creates bears a vague resemblance to ours but there’s no sense of how to get from one to the other, although from a couple of mentions it is clear that the novel is set on Earth, and the vagueness of setting can be at times frustrating, making it hard to get a grasp on the plot and what’s happening exactly, as the world doesn’t make sense and so the characters’ actions, motivated by their world, don’t seem to follow anything. This is especially true of Wasp, who Kornher-Stace has a slight problem with keeping on track; every time she has to make a decision she seems to have forgotten the last decision, and the world backs her up in this, itself appearing to have forgotten her prior actions, strangely.

The plot is deceptively simple; Archivist Wasp follows Wasp and the ghost on a quest for someone from the ghost’s life, now dead and in the underworld. Along the way, Wasp discovers more about the pre-apocalyptic world, about the ghost and the person they are searching for, and about her own past; at times these reveals are singularly contrived and seem to come from nowhere, as in the case of the biggest reveal about Wasp’s past which is necessary for the end of the novel but comes from nowhere, and at times they are a little disjointed, but what Kornher-Stace is excellent at is conveying the emotional toll of each revelation. The brutality of the world Wasp comes from and the strangeness and grey cruelty of the (very Homeric) underworld create different challenges – although the repetition of combat is perhaps a bit of a problem, especially when the only toll of much of it is physical, rather than emotional; and at times that repetition is used to excellent effect by Kornher-Stace for character development, but largely it has a feeling of sameness.

Archivist Wasp isn’t really about the simple plot, but about the character trajectories that plot allows; the archetypical hero’s journey to retrieve someone from the afterlife, a staple of stories right back to Hercules and Orpheus, has always told us more about the character making the trip than anything else, and this particular iteration of that journey is no different; Kornher-Stace does that excellently, if at times with a touch too little control of her narrative. I can recommend this, but perhaps a little more warily than many others have done.

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