Back when The House of Binding Thorns came out last year, Aliette de Bodard wrote a guest post for this blog about the treatment of pregnant people and the trope of dead mothers in science fiction. Now that In the Vanishers’ Palace, a brilliant queer retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in a science fictional universe and with mothers playing key roles in the plot, has come out, she’s back here with a follow up…
On motherhood and erasure: people-shaped holes, hollow characters and the illusion of impossible adventures
I’d expected motherhood to impact my life, because of course having young people in the household and being responsible for them will bring about huge changes.
I hadn’t expected it to make me so keenly aware of erasure in media and stories.
To put it bluntly, mothers are just not there . While pregnancy is either monstrous or sacred, either body horror or the delivery of the chosen child, motherhood is defined by its absence. We aren’t characters: we are people-shaped holes. We are empty spaces or hollowed-out characters, whose sole purpose–when the story bothers to give us one–is to erase ourselves for the sake of our children.
By far the most obvious hole is that left by death: our books and media are littered with the death of mothers of main characters. Star-Lord’s mother in Guardians of the Galaxy, Elizabeth Swann’s mother in Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones’s mother in The Last Crusade–the list is endless. The death can be at birth, can be off-stage, can be in the story, but it’s always either a minor inconvenience, something so far ago that it’s never even mentioned, or mined for a main character’s pain (and said character is almost always a cis man). We talk a lot about the fridging of women characters (and rightfully so): whenever a mother walks on stage I brace myself for the slamming of the refrigerator door, for it seems that we belong there permanently, our corpses there to serve, at best, as pleasant memories or motivations for our children. Nothing quite becomes us in life as our leaving it.
But there are other deaths. There are the mothers not mentioned and not named, as if they were utterly trivial (Belle’s mother is never mentioned in the original Beauty and the Beast; Arwen’s mother is similarly not mentioned in the Lord of the Rings movies , Killmonger’s father in the otherwise excellent Black Panther gets plenty of screen time, his mother doesn’t even rate one explanation). And then there are mothers who fail to have a story other than caring for their children, whose entire personality and motivations are subsumed in the act of motherhood (Lady Jessica in Dune, Frigga in the Thor franchise, who actually manages to both fail to have a plotline unrelated to her two kids and to be fridged in the second Thor movie).
One of the ways in which is this utterly toxic, in addition to killing off the actual characters, is that this devalues the work done by mothers by making it seem invisible and unnecessary: we seldom see the tremendous amount of work that goes into raising children (because dead mothers are usually replaced with indifferent, absent or abusive authority figures rather than warm adoptive parents ). And when works that centre complex, thoughtfully depicted motherhood are written, they are dismissed as of no importance, over-centred on boring relationships and over-concerned with trivial matters.
Whenever I bring dead mothers up, I generally get two explanations: the first is the natural occurrence of death in childbirth, and the second one is that this is a convenience, for how could a hero (especially but not only teenagers) go off on adventures with their mothers alive?
Let’s get the first one out of the way first: yes, death in childbirth was a major cause of death… in the past. But so were the deaths of children (a quick reminder that in 1800 more than 40% of children would die before seeing their fifth year), and popular media has way more dead mothers than dead infants (or people dying from typhus or cholera or a myriad ways lives were cut short, historically speaking). To say it otherwise: we are being awfully selective, as a culture, about which historical truths we’re choosing to perpetuate. Not to mention the fact that in we’re in SFF and that historical accuracy isn’t the best justification when we’re dealing with stories that have dragons and fairies and spaceships in them.
The second one… the second one is part of an underlying fallacy that I’m sympathetic to: the idea that mothers can protect their children against everything. I understand the desire and where it stems from, but the truth is that this is an impossibility. There are things far too large for parents to protect their children from (failure to protect a child against the consequences of war isn’t a parental failure, and it’s victim-blaming of the highest order to pretend that it is); and even if I could materially protect my children from events… the reality is that I cannot keep them forever safe, and nor should I. Part of parenting (and especially motherhood) is the art of gracefully letting go: of accepting that my children will have their own lives and their own challenges to face, and that such challenges, no matter how I may wish otherwise, will be dangerous. And yes, some of this will happen before they are ready, but our children cannot and will not always be ready for everything in spite of every one of our efforts.
The other underlying fallacy is that mothers and adventures are incompatible, which is a terrible thing to assume on two fronts: the first, that mothers themselves cannot have adventures (see above for my objections: obviously motherhood is an important thing in mothers’ lives, but mothers’ lives cannot and should not be reduced to the importance of their children). The second is the fallacy that it is impossible for families to have adventures together: that any children’s adventures (I use “children” here as the opposite of parents rather than as an age category) have to be exclusive of parental presence. It is a very particular perception, coming from a society with socialization greatly stratified by age as well as strong individualism, which makes us see adventures with parents or older people (or, for that matter, parental presence in our lives ) as undesirable rather than commonplace occurrences.
There are exceptions to these rules, and I treasure them all: Jackie and Rose Tyler in Doctor Who, the numerous mothers in Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince trilogy, Jess and her mother (and her four sisters) in Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives trilogy, Tralane Huntingore and her daughters in Justina Robson’s Glorious Angels, Essun and her daughter in NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, Consort Jing in Nirvana in Fire, Mme de Morcerf in Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, Queen Talyien in KS Villoso’s Wolf of Oren-Yaro, Anyanwu in Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Cordelia Naismith in Barrayar, Lillian in Victor LaValle’s The Changeling…
In my own fiction, I made a deliberate choice to have mothers as characters, and to have them with their own vastly different stories. My latest book, In the Vanishers’ Palace, is a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast where they are both women, and the Beast is a dragon… except that Yên, my impoverished scholar and Beauty analogue, has a mother who is the village healer, who is very much present and important in Yên’s life; and Vu Côn, the shapeshifting dragon who is Beast analogue, is herself a mother to two teenage children, who are both an important part but not the main thrust of Vu Côn’s own life or story. I wanted to make a not very subtle point that mothers are their own characters: Yên’s own mother is crucial to Yên’s view of the world, but she also very much has her own outlook and her own life: she is the village healer and aims to remain that way, unlike Yên who only dreams of escape. And meanwhile, Vu Côn is certainly struggling with two over-inquisitive dragon children on the cusp of adulthood, but the main thrust of her own story is her relationship with Yên (she takes Yên as payment for a debt, and finds herself attracted to her–knowing that she cannot act on that attraction because she’s Yên’s mistress and there is no consent between master and servant).
I think of this, and of the mothers in my other stories and books, as necessary work: as my own brick in the wall to make sure that mothers aren’t erased, that the holes we have become in the fabric of stories are instead filled with genuine, complex and rich characters instead of faceless, nameless and unimportant cyphers. Some days I worry that my stories are such small stones in a universe full of such holes, but then I remember that every wall is built brick by brick, and that not everything can go up as fast as I’d like. I remember that we have to try–that we all have to try, because how can we do otherwise?
 Throughout this blog post, I’ll be making a deliberate gendered distinction, because the set of expectations is vastly different between cis mothers and fathers. People who don’t fall in either of these categories (trans, non-binary people, and other marginalised genders and sexes) are even more at risk of erasure, othering, demonization, etc.
 I’m talking about the movies here: in the books Arwen’s mother is Cerebrían, who passes into the West prior to Arwen’s meeting with Aragorn following torture at the hands of Orcs (which is again erasure but of a different kind).
 The idea that adoptive parents and adoptive families in general are trumped by blood relations, no matter how much love they might have poured into raising children, is another hugely problematic one.
 Source: https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality
 Some parents are terrible, abusive and should be excluded from lives: I’m not saying parental presence should be the norm or that all parents are loving–simply that their absence cannot and should not be the only narration that exists.
Listen. A god is speaking.
My voice echoes through the stone of your master’s castle.
This castle where he finds his uncle on his father’s throne.
You want to help him. You cannot.
You are the only one who can hear me.
You will change the world.
As has been well established here before, I am a big fan of Ann Leckie’s fiction, and hugely enjoyed her science fiction trilogy. I’m also a fan of big, complex, political epic fantasy that uses the second person (or rather, of The Fifth Season, the only book I know of which fits that criteria). So Ann Leckie doing big, political epic fantasy in the second person? Sign me up!
The Raven Tower is a brilliant retelling of a classic story. Without giving too much about Leckie’s textual inspiration away, the contemporary plot follows the beats of that story almost exactly, while retooling them to give the women more agency and less unjust punishment, and with a focus not on the central character of the original but on one of the side-characters as a lens through which to follow the action. The resolution is simultaneously inevitable and expected but also completely new as what has, up until that point, looked like a solely historical, secondary plot, is brought fully into the present.
That secondary plot in The Raven Tower is one of the brilliant aspects of the novel; the narrator tells, interspersed into the main action of the plot, their own story, a story that goes into the deep past of the world. The early parts of the secondary plot involve the appearance and evolution of life on the planet around the character, to give some impression of quite how deep that past is. With a very self-absorbed narrator and very little action, Leckie’s writing is beautiful and moving, and still manages to move the reader and action along; the solipsism of the character falling away as they start to interact more and more with others, and we see those ties changing and strengthening and forcing actions in fascinating ways.
The Raven Tower‘s narrator is not, of course, the protagonist; rather, the reader steps into the role of protagonist, as a trans man named Eolo, addressed in the second person. Eolo is the person whose eyes we follow the main plot, although in reality he is the aide to the focus of the action; a curious and intelligent young man, he’s a brilliant character, unfailingly loyal but also with an independence of thought and action that I really appreciated. His transition isn’t made a big deal of, though it is mentioned at a couple of points; the novel is totally accepting of his gender, although certain characters are at times potentially less so.
The rest of the cast of The Raven Tower are a bit of a mixed bag. Some of them fail to rise above their bases in the story that Leckie has reworked, especially Hibal as the usurping king and Oskel and Okim as his pawns who are given a much more full backstory but still escape largely without character. Even Mawat is a little flat, although in a very human way; he is essentially a character defined by his temper and his belief in a set way of the world. When the latter is shaken, the former comes out; there is very little emotionality other than anger to him, although that anger is well written and Leckie does convey how much it defines him.
It’s with the women that Leckie really builds on the source text to do a lot more. Zezume, Mawat’s mother-figure, is a complex and conflicted character with a lot of agency in the plot, although she also proves flawed in who and what she places her faith in; The Raven Tower has a strong theme around misplaced faith and the consequences of it. Tikaz is the strongest case of this; a woman whose father has pushed her at Mawat, and who Mawat was in the past infatuated with, but who rejected him, and is absolute in her independence. She’s a fantastic character, smart and willing to fight for her place and her status, and Leckie really makes her shine.
This might sound like a decent book but not an outstanding one. All the elements are there; the genius is in the way Leckie takes them all, and uses them to create something so fresh, new, and brilliant. There’s a lot more to be said about The Raven Tower, but a lot of it is spoilery, or small; the way Leckie writes indigenous peoples and imperialism into her story, the way global trade links play a key role in the world, the way there is no good or bad side in the ultimate view only different kinds of bad side… there is an awful lot to percolate, to the point where a full accounting would be many thousands of words. Or the length of the book itself.
In the end, The Raven Tower takes its source material, highlights some of the problems of it while solving or evading them, and marries it to a fantastic narrative that takes in deep time and divine conflict, to become probably the best fantasy novel of 2019. And 2018 isn’t even over yet…
DISCLAIMER: Ann Leckie is a friend. Review based on an ARC provided by the author.
So, after years of commenting on other people’s books, other people’s writing decisions, other people’s publishing decisions; and after two years of selling books… I’ve decided to extend my tentacles into yet another arm of this industry.
I’m incredibly pleased and proud to be able to announce the foundation of GALLI BOOKS, a small press with inclusion and intersectionality core to its mission and themed anthologies of short speculative fiction as its (initial) output. Right now, we’ve got a website – galli-books.co.uk – and, indeed, we’re already opening our first anthology up for your work!
There is currently a Call for Submissions open for writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and a Call for Portfolios for artists – with the intention in mind of hopefully finding an artist who can grow alongside and with the press, doing the covers for all our future anthologies, dependent on how working together on this one goes!
Unfortunately, because I’m now a publisher (and that’s still a weird thought!), I’m having to reconsider the future of my reviewing; is it appropriate to review the work other publishers put out? I’m not deleting this site but there may not be any reviews this week while I think about the question. If you’ve got thoughts on the topic, please do comment so I’m not just thinking into the void of self!
A childless woman resorts to forbidden magic in her quest for a baby. A widow boils with rage at the grudging welcome her daughters receive in her sister’s home. In a devastated, not too distant future, a ‘grief worker’ discovers a miraculous ability to remove emotional pain – at a price.
The characters in What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky are men and women who want things that remain impossible or out of reach. What unites them is the toughness of lives where opportunities are scant, and fortunes can change faster than the flick of a switch.
Conjuring worlds at once familiar and unsettlingly different, What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky showcases the work of a writer of startling promise at the beginning of an exciting literary career.
I’m not much of a literary fiction reader, as regular followers of this blog will have noticed; however, sometimes, an author crosses my path with enough force and weight behind them from both genre and literary communities that I have to pick them up. Lesley Nneka Arimah is one such author, and her debut collection, What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky, seemed like the place to start…
The collection opens with a real firecracker of a story, ‘The Future Looks Good’. The title is a definite misdirect; the story looks at the history of lives that have led to the moment that Bibi is in, the expectations and relationships of her predecessors that went into producing her and the moment she occupies. Arimah beautifully builds misdirects into these histories, and writes with a fascinating grace; which lends the unexpected punch of the last line an incredible power, which makes ‘The Future Looks Good’ take on a very different shape.
‘War Stories’ is more typical of the collection, a slightly longer story, and again a story that is as much about stories as anything else. The focus on parental and familial relationships, and the way the past shapes the present, are again powerfully brought to the fore. This story suffers a bit from not knowing quite where it is going, however; Arimah doesn’t really end it, but instead just stops the narrative, either just before or just after its natural conclusion, leading to a kind of dissatisfaction with what had gone before.
‘Wild’ is a story of immigrant experiences and parallel lives; the lies people tell each other and believe of each other form a key part of this third story. The way Arimah builds up and knocks down expectations is very effective, and her deployment of female friendship and rivalry incredibly powerful. The way that mothers treat their daughters is the central theme, and it is very well conveyed. However, this is another story that drifts to a close; while the last line is powerful, it isn’t an ending, and it feels rather as if Arimah wrote towards that line but didn’t quite know how to use it to wrap up the story.
‘Light’ is less a story than a character study; Arimah looks forward and backwards through the life of a girl and her father, who is parenting her alone while his wife studies in the United States of America. It’s a powerful, moving story about the risks of parenting, about the difficulties of relationships at a distance, and about the struggles to bring up a child in a world that is hostile to them. The circular structure of the story works incredibly well, and the slight unhinging from time is very effective in really giving us a fantastic look across a life.
‘Second Chances’ is less effective, although the central conceit is arguably more so; a mother returned from the dead. This is a plot we’ve read before – it’s almost Orphic in its resonance, and Arimah’s treatment of the conceit definitely has a strong scent of that about it. The way Arimah draws the discontented relationship of one daughter with her mother against the rest of the family feels a little strained; it’s almost excessively differentiated, and the story as a whole feels a little drawn out, although the punch of the end is very powerful.
‘Windfalls’ is one of the least effective stories. Arimah’s use of the second person feels strained, and the lack of focus is a little wearying. It is once again the story of a difficult relationship between mother and daughter, but the way Arimah tells it, we really don’t care about the mother, who comes across incredibly two dimensionally; unusually, the characterisation here is incredibly weak, and the end of the story is spectacularly predictable almost from its start.
‘Who Will Greet You At Home’, one the other hand, is a very effective use of a twist on the common metaphors around making babies from various materials. Arimah’s mingling of a number of fantastical elements is very effective, none of them themselves the focus of the story but rather lens through which to approach human relationships. The way she treats the metaphor she’s using for childbearing is at once very unsubtle and very effective, with a glorious commitment to some of the darkest extensions of the idea. The end of the story is a brilliant close, with a call back right to the beginning that is a clear hallmark of Arimah’s best stories.
‘Buchi’s Girls’ is the exception to that rule. This story is the only one of those about mothers and daughters which centres the mother over the children; her concern for her offspring, and her attempts to give them a good life, are the focus of the story. Arimah never loses sight of the central relationships and the possibility of betrayal in the story, and the layered accidental woundings characters give others never fail to have consequences and all feel horribly real, right up to the open ending.
The titular story of the collection, ‘What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky’, is perhaps the most fantastical, combining sin eaters, a post-climate apocalypse future, and an equation that allows for magical abilities into one narrative. It is also one of the weaker stories; Arimah has gotten a lot of concepts in, but a number of them feel underdeveloped and underexplored, leading to a world which doesn’t quite make sense. The whole narrative is drawn out, and while the foreshadowing of the end is very effective, Arimah has failed to really make the story connect to the reader enough for the ending itself to work.
‘Glory’ is one of the most frustrating stories in the collection, because it just doesn’t work very well. Arimah’s story of Glorybetogod, a woman who always makes the wrong choices, feels somehow off; it doesn’t really have a heart, it feels like a story written because its author had the concept but didn’t really have any characters. Everyone in the story is an archetype, and feels very thin, as do all the relationships; there isn’t really anything to get emotionally hooked into.
‘What Is A Volcano?’ is, from a different angle, almost equally frustrating. A just-so story of the origins of vulcanism, it is also a mythic story of warring gods; but it never really feels like it takes its concepts seriously, and every time a critique of some of the key parts of the tale start to appear, Arimah skips over them and moves on, never engaging. There are hooks to a much more interesting story which problematises its assumptions scattered throughout, but they’re never picked up on, which makes this just another mythic story that doesn’t really do anything.
Finally, ‘Redemption’ closes out the collection with a return to realism. This is a powerful an effective story in many ways, with its themes of rape culture, classism, and the shared reality and oppression of women, but the lack of emotional connection between any of the characters is frustratingly distancing. Arimah emphasises repeatedly the way the narrator creates fictional emotional connections, but meanwhile, the narrator is too flat for us to even connect with her; thus, we fail to have any connection to the story, although the ending retains a lot of power despite that.
What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky is a strong collection in terms of ideas, and Arimah clearly has the ability to write beginnings and middles; but a lot of the stories simply drift off, rather than ending, and there are too many missed emotional connections to call this the masterwork it is being described as. The best stories are brilliant, but there simply aren’t enough of that quality in here.
In her provocative debut, Carmen Maria Machado demolishes the borders between magical realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. Startling narratives map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited on their bodies, both in myth and in practice.
A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the mysterious green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague spreads across the earth. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery about a store’s dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted house guest.
Bodies become inconsequential, humans become monstrous, and anger becomes erotic. A dark, shimmering slice into womanhood, Her Body and Other Parties is wicked and exquisite.
Carmen Maria Machado has been publishing stories since 2012, to great acclaim in both literary and genre circles, and in both literary and genre markets, including Granta and Strange Horizons; finally, she has brought out a debut collection of a precise collection of her tales.
Her Body and Other Parties is a collection with a definite theme; it is about the liminal horror, the strangeness that exists around the edges of the world as it is, and it is about women. Every story in this collection also centres on a woman, and in most cases a queer woman; some are unsubtly autobiographically inspired, while others are much less so. Given the constraints of choosing stories to fit a theme, many collections can become rather samey and uniform; Machado’s collection avoids that by taking very different approaches to the same issues.
The collection opens with ‘The Husband Stitch’; this is Machado’s retelling of the traditional story of the girl with the ribbon around her neck. Here, Machado follows the traditional structure, in some regards; every woman has a ribbon somewhere, which cannot be untied. Men are very curious about these ribbons; indeed, the taboo around them is one of the gender differences in this world. Machado subverts the normal story, though, by having the husband push his wife’s wishes, but never actually break them; the analogy for sexual relations and power relations isn’t subtle, but it is powerful. The way Machado invests her characters with personality and a full life is beautiful, making the end of the story all the more tragic, whilst also feeling intensely right.
‘Inventory’ is a shorter story, and a strange one; it’s an episodic story, chronicling a series of encounters of a woman as an apocalypse happens around her. Machado builds up the sense of impending doom to an absolutely fantastic climax, while also investing her central character with life; we see her through meetings with people, which tend to include sexual encounters. These are powerfully and erotically conveyed, whilst not being voyeuristic or pornographic; and the variety of sexual relationship models shown is brilliant, in the different ways people relate to each other.
‘Mothers’ is a weaker story, however. Whilst still emotionally resonant, the story of imagined futures blending into the real world feels a little messy; there are too many things going on, and while Machado portrays the lesbian relationship and the abuse in it powerfully, as well as portraying the single-minded devotion of a single mother beautifully, the way she matches these two together, and then adds a magical element, simply does not connect. The story feels like it’s trying to simply do too much at once.
‘Especially Heinous’ is similarly a little bit messy; told episodically, it’s inspired by Law & Order: SVU. Machado digs into the gendered horror of crime procedurals, and of the treatment of sex and sex workers in particular, through a kind of spectral lens; there are a couple of plot strands which just seem to fizzle out, and the story falls apart slightly as it progresses, but there are some incredibly striking and powerful moments and images in there.
‘Real Women Have Bodies’ moves back to the territory of absolutely heartwrenching stories. Machado’s simple, unexplained premise of women simply fading away from the physical realm is explored beautifully and powerfully, in the context of male attitudes to women but also in the context of women’s ability to take up space. The story is powerful and painful to read, and the love affair that emotionally anchors the climax of the story is truly moving and wrenching.
‘Eight Bites’ takes on similar territory, but more explicitly; it is very much about fatness and one’s attitude to one’s body. There’s some absolutely beautiful imagery in here around food and eating, as well as some fantastic metaphorical work around embracing one’s own body; Machado writes powerfully about familial relationships between women as well as their relationships with their own bodies, and that gives a certain weight and heft to the story that otherwise might have been a little Doctor Who.
‘The Resident’ is the most obviously autobiographically inspired story; Machado has done a number of residences herself, so a story about a writer at a residence feels like it must draw on her own experience. The sense of strangeness and unease that permeates this story is powerful, and the disjointed nature of the experiences of the protagonist are a very effective device in emphasising the weird state of being withdrawn from the world into oneself to Do Art.
Her Body and Other Parties closes on perhaps its darkest story, ‘Difficult at Parties’, which is about a survivor of an unspecified crime. It’s a dark, strange story, with trauma at its centre, and the reaction to that trauma. Machado doesn’t try to make her protagonist especially likable; instead she makes the reader empathise directly with her, get in her head, and experience part of the trauma recovery process. It’s a strange tale, and the way Machado weaves a supernatural element in is both particularly effective and strangely voyeuristic.
Her Body and Other Parties meanders a little in the middle, with a couple of stories that feel like they could be tighter; but on the whole, Machado’s selection of her work is absolutely stunning, and incredibly strong. The themes shine through clearly, and Machado’s facility for language and turn of phrase is absolutely unmissable. The emotional and intellectual impact of the vast majority of stories in this collection is such that I had to stop and pause between each one, an unusual practice for me, to simply let it sit with me for a bit, to let it impact me and to let me think about it. Machado’s debut is a fantastic, and important, collection.
Disclaimer: Her Body and Other Parties is published by Serpent’s Tail in the UK. Serpent’s Tail is owned by Profile Books, whose managing editor is my uncle.
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Andrew Waggoner has always hung around with his fellow losers at school, desperately hoping each day that the school bullies — led by Drake — will pass him by in search of other prey. But one day they force him into the woods, and the bullying escalates into something more; something unforgivable; something unthinkable.
Broken, both physically and emotionally, something dies in Waggoner, and something else is born in its place.
In the hills of the West Country a chalk horse stands vigil over a site of ancient power, and there Waggoner finds in himself a reflection of rage and vengeance, a power and persona to topple those who would bring him low.
Paul Cornell is perhaps best known for his work on Doctor Who, both as a novellist on the New Adventures years and as a TV writer for New Who; although his brand of urban fantasy, showcased in the Shadow Police and Lychford series, is also gaining popularity. Last year also brought us Chalk, out from Tor.com, a very different beast…
Chalk is a straight up rural horror novella of a very particular era in British history. Cornell conjures Wiltshire in the 1980s very powerfully, with the grip of Thatcher on a fraying, impoverished nation, with the failing old order and aristocracy, with the rising punk youth. He also conjures a sense of the ancient in conflict with the modern; the old order rising in new forms in conflict with the new, although he very much does not map these onto political or pop cultural movements neatly. Instead, the zeitgeist is a powerful force wrestled over by modernity and the ancient, as the old seeks to influence the new in dark and bloody ways.
This is a dark and brutal little story; Chalk starts with a violent sexual mutilation of a teenage boy by a group of others, and only gets more graphically violent from there. Cornell continually blurs the lines between the real and the metaphorical throughout, so that the brutality is at once incredibly close, and slightly distanced by the possibility of Waggoner lying; the reader is invited repeatedly to question the truth of the narrator’s account by the narrator himself, in a curious approach to the story that is incredibly effective. Everything is a set of different narratives seen differently by different people; is this just the self-justifying story Waggoner tells himself later, or is Andrew telling the truth about what happened throughout? The subtlety of that question and the openness of its answer, because Andrew Waggoner is our sole narrator and viewpoint, is central.
That ambivalence also extends to the characters of Chalk. This is a viciously honest book: no character is innocent and in the right; everyone is, in their own way, stained. Andrew commits violent, vile acts, including sexual harassment (which he, reflecting on his past, describes as such); but he is also the victim of vile and violent acts, which do not justify his own acts. His tormentors are in similar positions. The whole novella is an exercise in awful people doing awful things for awful reasons; Cornell makes it somehow compelling despite there not really being a single character to root for. A couple of the women of Chalk, namely Angie and Elaine, come closest to being sympathetic characters; but Elaine is too much a cipher acted on by others but barely herself acting, and Angie is too objectified by Andrew to really grow into her own character.
I’m not sure, in the end, how to feel about Chalk. What it is, is masterfully executed; but I’m not sure that the masterfully executed thing is worthwhile, especially given some of what it includes. This definitely shows the breadth of Cornell’s writing ability, though…
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In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.
These are the facts.
Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.
Brooke Bolander’s work has garnished any number of nominations, including multiple Locus, Hugo, and Nebula awards, among others. The Only Harmless Great Thing is her first solo volume; a slim novella out of Tor.com, it’s already picked up a lot of interesting buzz and an excellent marketing campaign… but does the novella bear out the speculation?
The Only Harmless Great Thing is a very odd book; it marries together alternate history with a science fictional future, in two parallel narratives, with a third, folkloric deep-history narrative running alongside those two. Bolander’s choices of narratives are not pleasant ones. The Only Harmless Great Thing is the story of an elephant, Topsy, brought with a little alternate history into the story of Regan, a Radium Girl. In Bolander’s world, elephants are discovered to have language and a degree of sentience in the 1880s, and so when the effects of radium were discovered, US Radium brought elephants in to paint the watches – one of whom is Topsy. In a parallel narrative, much later, Kat is trying to persuade elephants to allow humans to make them glow near nuclear waste dumps as a lasting warning about the presence of radiation, as a ten-thousand-year warning sign.
Bolander slips between the different narratives, registers, and narrators of The Only Harmless Great Thing with a skillful grace and ease that ties the whole thing together; the voices are very distinct, and that helps to distinguish between the stories as we slip between them. At times, it can be a little confusing for a few lines, but on the whole which narrative Bolander has the reader in rapidly becomes clear. The alternate and future histories are intertwined seamlessly with reality, and on the whole their revelation is well done; there are moments Bolander relies on knowledge that she hasn’t given the audience yet, but they’re few and far between.
This is a sparsely characterised novella; The Only Harmless Great Thing has a grand total of nine characters, which includes two pachyderms, one character who only speaks once and that through a post-mortem letter, an interpreter, a supervisor, an academic, a corporate executive, and a bitter Radium Girl. Of these, three are at various times viewpoint characters, and the rest appear only briefly; Bolander doesn’t make their characters much more than the flat necessities for the advancement of the plot, but her three core characters, those whose viewpoints we follow, are far better realised.
Each has a very unique voice and thought process, from the slangy dialect of Regan through to the mythopoetic style of thought of Topsy and the straightforwardly modern Kat. The Only Harmless Great Thing does a fantastic job of showing how Topsy’s and Regan’s lives parallel each other and how their struggles with forces outside and larger than themselves change them. There is a strong streak of radical politics on display in the work, and a class anger, that Bolander infuses with a kind of bleak despair at the state of the treatment of the working classes and of nature; and the way she uses that and filters it through her characters is incredibly powerful. The problem is Kat; Bolander’s treatment of her is uneven, and her character veers sharply between profoundly empathetic and profoundly disconnected, growing from one to the other and back again, and without any real sense of who she is as a person outside the project she proposed.
Finally, and almost without characters, is the deep-history myth-narrative that runs alongside these two core narratives. Bolander tells this in something akin to the style of a Just So story; and her style for these sections is absolutely beautiful and perfect, and the story itself is dark, moving, and painful. The Only Harmless Great Thing takes this extra piece of the jigsaw and moves, suddenly, from a two dimensional to a three dimensional puzzle, a complex narrative of interlocking parts with multiple messages; it’s only at the end that the relevance of this story becomes obvious to the others, in a very neat bit of writing.
The Only Harmless Great Thing isn’t a perfect novella, but it is a fantastic one; Bolander’s continues to go from strange, dark strength to dark, strange strength, and this continues that trend.
Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC provided on request by the publisher, Tor.com.
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