Intellectus Speculativus

Home » 2014 » May

Monthly Archives: May 2014

Huntress by Malinda Lo

image

Nature is out of balance in the human world. The sun hasn’t shone in years, and crops are failing. Worse yet, strange and hostile creatures have begun to appear. The people’s survival hangs in the balance.

To solve the crisis, Kaede and Taisin are picked to go on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to the city of the Fairy Queen. Taisin is a sage, thrumming with magin, and Kaede is of the earth, without a speck of the otherwordly.

But the Kingdom needs only one huntress to save it, and what it takes could tear Kaede and Taisin apart for ever…
~~~~~
Malinda Lo has, consistently, proven herself one of the most outspoken, forthright and interesting commentators on LGBT YA fiction; she’s also the author of some of the most well-regarded examples of it herself, Ash and Huntress especially. So when looking for LGBT genre fiction, her name kept coming up, and after being disappointed by Ash, I decided to try Huntress

For the most part, Huntress doesn’t disappoint on this front. Taisin and Kaede’s growing romance is well-portrayed, especially Taisin’s resistance to falling prey to destiny being overcome by her attraction to Kaede. Lo captures the embarrassment, tentative shyness and awkwardness of young love excellently, and portrays a lesbian relationship between teens as meaningful and not just exploratory, but also as something acceptable within her world, not seen as odd or disapproved of. Her decisions at the end of the novel disappointed me slightly, as a result, since they fall into one of the most frustrating tropes I have come across in LGBT romances, and that lets the rest of Hutress down a bit, although it is set up that way from the start.

Lo’s greatest strength here is the character work. We see a number of viewpoints, with fluid switching between them from a limited third-person perspective; the kind of observations made by each character differ, as do their voices, each marking a distinct individual powerfully and effectively. As such, switching from the timid, mystic point of view of Taisin to the more down-to-earth but colour-focused viewpoint of Kaeda or the grounded but youthful perspective of Prince Con lets us see the world of Huntress in very different ways, an approach which reaps huge rewards in terms of characterisation as well, as emotions creep through the viewpoints as well as their explicit discussion.

The plot is less innovative; Huntress is in many ways a standard quest narrative, with some added mystic destiny elements. The party has to follow a series of instructions, losing members along the way, in order to arrive at their final quest goal and complete their mission; it’s not the best or deepest of plots, but Lo’s telling of it adds layers of emotional depth and complexity, especially as she goes on to deal with the ramifications of the end of the quest. Huntress refuses to emotionally pull its punches, which at times leads to some off moments but on the whole means the plot is almost secondary to the effects of the plot on the characters, and yet Lo will still pull you on through the book.

Huntress is almost the ideal YA novel: emotionally complex, relentlessly moral but not black-and-white, accepting of LGB sexualities & broadly sex-positive, and brilliant at getting into the minds of late-teens. Lo really has produced a masterwork of YA here.

image

The Scarlet Plague by Jack London

image

Outside the ruins of San Francisco, a former UC Berkeley professor recounts the chilling sequence of events – a gruesome pandemic which killed nearly every living soul on the planet, in a matter of days – which led to his current lowly state. Modern civilisation has fallen, and a new race of barbarians, descended from the world’s brutalised workers, has assumed power. Over the space of a few decades, all learning has been lost.

The catastrophe happens in 2013; 2012 marks the cetennial of the novel’s first publication.
~~~~~
The Scarlet Plague is, in many ways, the precursor of post-apocalyptic novels like The Road, with a greater concern with the impact of apocalypse than its cause; and also of the modern terror of the pandemic, be it swine flu, bird flu, MRSA or any number of other diseases. I fear they could have wished for a better precursor.

The majority of the book is a first-person recounting by “Granser”, the former UC Berkeley professor, of the rapid, total collapse of civilisation as the scarlet plague struck and wiped out the population. Unfortunately, Granser’s narrative voice is indistinguishable except by its use of the first person from the narrative voice of the framing elements; London’s writing style, except in the clipped dialect of Granser’s audience of children, is plain and rather flat, even though Granser should be bringing an awful lot of emotion to this story.

Similarly, the only characterisation of Scarlet Plague is class-based; the savage working classes who are, essentially, brutes held in check only by civilisation versus the enlightened middle and upper classes, who band together and act in a totally civilised manner throughout. Every character in the book is white, and there are mentions but little more of female characters, who show no agency; even for a depiction of the class-ridden society that London is trying to show this seems… unrealistic.

In the end, Scarlet Plague may be one of the first apocalypse-by-plague novels, but it’s also one of the worst.

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

image

On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past. As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her Empress.

Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.

One world will rise – and many will perish.
~~~~~
Kameron Hurley is well established, at this stage, as a writer who pushes boundaries, who innovates, who embraces and applies new ideas and ways of doing things. The Mirror Empire, her first new book since finishing the Bel Dame Apocrypha in 2012, in some ways is less radical than that science fiction series; in other ways, however, it bears some of the hallmarks of Hurley’s mould-breaking brilliance.

If the blurb makes The Mirror Empire sound like a complicated novel, that’s because it is one. Despite the farmhand-to-powerhouse trope (subverted in that this time, it’s a girl; and again in that the other farmhand who becomes powerful knows he is the son of the ruler), and the slave-race (the daijin under the Saiduan and Dorinah powers are Dhai who, Hurley makes it very clear, have been broken to slavery as a people; the independent Dhai, once an imperial power, are now isolationist and pacifist vegetarians), The Mirror Empire introduces some fantastic new concepts into the realm of epic fantasy, not least the multiple-worlds interpretation of quantum physics.

As one character after another realises and exclaims, “We’re fighting ourselves.” The Mirror Empire is in a mirror-universe where the Dhai retained power; I didn’t pick up on this until a fifth of the way through the novel, myself. The central conflict of the novel, then, is between the mirror-Dhai trying to leave their world for the “prime” – and needing to wipe out all the Dhai in the “prime”, because they can’t cross between worlds if their double lives; and the various powers in the “prime” world (who, unlike the mirror-Dhai, are all morally complex powers, none of whom can be called outright evil), trying to defend their homes. However, the status of the Dhai as a once-empire, the Saiduan as those who overthrew them, and the Dorinah as a province of Saiduan that successfully won independence, means that those in the “prime” world are as prone to stabbing each other in the back as they are to defeating the mirror-Dhai. The plot weaves a complex knot that, at the end of The Mirror Empire, is made more complex by an unnecessary epilogue that, I think, would have made a better prologue to the next volume; as it is, Hurley leaves us with such a full, complicated plot that it’s clear she can take us through at least a trilogy in this world-breaking conflict.

The characters of The Mirror Empire are all surprisingly winning. From Akhio, the farmhand (well, ethics teacher at a farm) who becomes Kai after the death of his sister, whose unwillingness to rule doesn’t stop him trying to, through Roh’s affable enthusiastic teenage blundering about, to Zezili, raised in a matriarchy where men who are allowed to live are property and to be treated as such, who is half-Dhai but most famous for defeating that people, and Anavha, Zezili’s husband-slave, who has one of the most disturbing points of view in the book, as a victim of essentially domestic abuse; Hurley does an impressive job of writing rounded, interesting full characters, who have understandable and believable motivations for all their actions. Perhaps Lillia is the epitome of this; thrown from one world to another by her mother as a child to save her life, she is driven and motivated in an entirely believable way and incredibly well written.

This is also, it’s worth noting, a book as queer as the Bel Dame Apocrypha, if not queerer. The Mirror Empire‘s cultures all have multiple genders – three or five; and bisexuality is completely normalised and expected. The Dhai are a polyamorous society, where multiple-person marriages with all sorts of configurations of gender are shown without comment, and the men of Saiduan seem to be shared at their owner’s whims. Hurley has also included the Orlandoesque character of Taigan, who changes gender with the seasons; we see Taigan as both male and as an intersex individual in the novel, but presumably in future installments we’ll see her become female too. The one criticism I have is that Hurley only ever uses binary pronouns, which can be startling; someone who thinks of themselves as neither male or female will still be referred to as “he” or “she”, and I think The Mirror Empire might have benefited from greater use of Spivak or even invented pronouns.

There is so much more to this book than will fit in any reasonable length of review; but hopefully I’ve captured some of the glorious essence of The Mirror Empire, even without discussing the moon-based magic system, the “Winter is Coming”-style prophecies of doom, the various characters I’ve not even mentioned who are wonderfully rounded humans, the nuances of the different cultures, the different strands of plot and internecine infighting; Hurley has really come into her full strength with the start of the Worldbreaker Saga, which reads like an angry, feminist George R. R. Martin dropping acid and using steroids.

This novel has more substance to it than most entire series of fantasy with a pagecount less than many single volumes from those series, and I heartily recommend that you pick up a copy of The Mirror Empire when it is released in September.

DoI: This review was written based on an ARC sent by Angry Robot Books in response to a request for one. The novel will be released in early September, around which time I will reblog this review and post a guest-blog from Kameron Hurley.

image

Rider by Joyce Chng

riderbyjoycechng

Li-Fang has a way with nature. So she is sent against her will to train as an Agri-Seer, though she dreams one day of joining the Rider Corps like her sister Lixi. Partnered with an arrogant Rider, Daniel Kelso, Lifang must forget the wild Hunter Quetz she met by a hidden waterfall near her home, and accept who she is.

Until, that is, a wild Quetz is captured. Lifang discovers she can communicate with a creature, a skill no Rider has ever demonstrated, and must now confront her destiny all over again. Will going against convention be worth the cost?
~~~~~
Chng’s novel is the first in a series, and whilst Rider does have more to it than the blurb above, it honestly doesn’t have that much more; it’s a slim volume with a serious inclusivity policy that is on the whole carried out well, but sadly, that doesn’t make for a perfect novel…

The novel’s strongest point, I think, is its inclusivity. Chng uses shared eating practices and throw-away mentions of food, alongside a variety of naming traditions, to demonstrate that she has written a world that at the same time features Singaporean, Indian and Western cultural traditions and ethnicities; and Rider stars an apparently-asexual, disabled woman as its protagonist, while having homosexuality firmly situated in the world by a number of mentions. It even avoids the Pern problem, dealt with so brutally by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, by simply saying breeding Quetzs have no reflection on their companions. So we have a planet colonised by people from across the world who have, to varying degrees, retained their cultures (one character remarks “I don’t [care about my roots]. My family started afresh on Jin. We are Jinians.”), and a variety of sexual identities, although so far only the gender binary has appeared.

That’s, perhaps, where Rider ends its praise. The fact is, the blurb sums up over half the novel, and the other half is predictable from the word go. Chng’s plot is almost as simplistic as it gets; Lifang gets sent off in one direction, part of her past giving the opportunity to go in the other returns, tragedy occurs but she still gets to try the other out, and… actually that’s pretty much where the book stops and starts setting up its sequel, Speaker. We see two sets of training – one as Agri-Seer, basically a botanist-cum-terraformer, and the other as a Rider, working with the Hunter Quetz (flying beasts that are telepathic and bond with humans, not unlike McCaffrey’s Pern). We therefore learn an awful lot about the world of Rider, but very little actual plot takes place; even for a novel that’s barely 150 pages, this book drags a surprising amount.

The writing style is breezy and the use of the first person, a standard YA trick, effective in conveying this as a sort of coming-of-age account, but Rider, even here, never seems to go anywhere; apart from Lifang, all the characters are incredibly shallow, especially Daniel Kelso, who is portrayed as stereotypically as you can imagine a teenage boy being portrayed. Lifang herself doesn’t have a terribly consistent character, as if Chng wasn’t quite sure whether the confident, angry Lifang or the self-doubting homesick one was the star of Rider; worse, she undergoes no character development throughout the novel, instead remaining stuck in the same kind of mode at the end as the beginning.

In the end, I perhaps went into Rider with my expectations set too high, but it’s especially disappointing to have to damn a book that is, indeed, so inclusive.

Her Last Breath Before Waking by A. C. Wise

image

A. C. Wise’s story was recommended to me as being both queer and about architecture; as a bit of a fan of architecture, I immediately had to seek it out, and found a story far stranger and, in fact, more interesting than I was expecting initially. The architect and her lover are both expressions of different immigrant experiences, different histories; and both express their pasts in different ways. The magic of the story is absolutely brilliant, and the tying together of psychological and physical realities is amazing.

Her Last Breath Before Waking is a beautiful little love story, small and personal in scale and yet with huge consequences; the dreams of the architect change the city around her, tearing down the old, familiar city and building a modern City in its place, while the architect’s lover increasingly feels alienated and displaced, trying to hold back the change in favour of love of the old, rather than the need to replace it. The tensions between the two characters are portrayed lovingly and beautifully, cutting back and forth between them and showing the ways each has affected the other; the architect increasingly unworldly and withdrawn, her lover increasingly withdrawn from the architect but outspoken in trying to stop the change. Wise very clearly has sympathy for both characters, and the end of Her Last Breath… demonstrates where the end point of both journeys is.

The tale of immigrant experiences is also well pulled off; Wise tells us off two very different reasons for emigrating, one for better opportunities, the other to flee horrors at home, and Her Last Breath… proves sympathetic and open to both, showing the different things they bring to a place, and the reasons they’re both necessary; Wise also shows the reader that the balance of different experiences is vital to a culture, allowing it to change and evolve whilst also remembering what is good about itself, rather than stagnating into insularity or innovating away from the people it serves.

Her Last Breath Before Waking is, then, a beautiful love story with a point; Wise’s imagery and writing combine to brilliant effect in this short story that’s well worth your attention.

image

Super Bass by Kai Ashante Wilson

image

Gian returns to Sea-john from the Kingdom’s wars certain that he has skills beyond killing, death and destruction. He needs to prove to himself that love is just as strong, if nor stronger, than his hate. The Summer King gives him this opportunity.
~~~~~
Tor.com has fast become one of the best publishers of short fiction on the internet, and its openness to a wide variety of works within the realm of “genre fiction” is admirable. Kai Ashante Wilson’s story, published last May, is especially relevant in the context of the Abyss & Apex anti-dialect piece, using as it does dialect (albeit an amalgamation of various dialects, per here) to give a sense of setting and place, and to emphasise certain elements of the story.

To tackle that first, Super Bass tends to not use dialect heavily in the narratorial voice, but almost all the dialogue is in dialect. This is slightly problematic given that the narratorial voice appears to be embracing Gian’s point of view, and perhaps the whole would have been stronger had it all been in dialect. As it is, the use of dialect reinforces that the story has a cast almost entirely of people of colour; Gian is mixed race and the only speaking character who isn’t black, as the other white characters haven’t learned the language and are spoken for by their black husband. Indeed, the application to whites who are immigrants to a black locale of images of immigrants to Western nations is rather brilliantly carried off.

The romance that the story is structured around is also well done. Super Bass doesn’t make it a Twilight-esque “romance” of abuse, nor an Eddings-like romance without any feelings, but rather Wilson very effectively draws on a number of strands – insecurity, acceptance, love, fear, the whole gamut of emotions that appear in a relationship – in order to create a love that is convincing and beautiful. He also portrays a society organised into triads as the basic unit of marriage very effectively; that the triads can be of any gender – we see two-male-one-female, three-female and various other configurations in the story – is simply accepted, and Super Bass normalises that stunningly well.

As far as plot goes, Super Bass leaves perhaps a little too much to the imagination at its close; whilst hinting around Gian being abused by the Marshal in the wars, it never really makes it clear what form that abuse was, and Wilson never quite clears up a lot of the background to the story. However, the internal plot hangs together well, as the relationship between Gian and Cianco developes and we learn more about each of them and their role in the society; it’s a very well carried off piece of writing.

Super Bass is almost exactly what I was looking for when I started looking for Queering the Genre pieces; queer, normalising that queerness, and also challenging other heirarchies of power, in this case race. An excellent story, and, wonderfully, free to read here!

image

A Man Not of Canaan by Alex Jeffers

image

Alex Jeffers’ A Man Not of Canaan is an interesting story for me on a number of levels. It is a queer, kinky Lovecraftian story set in the Bronze Age Aegean, among the community of Thira at the time of the eruption; as such, it ought to be something I really enjoy. Instead, it has layers and layers of problems, rather than good execution; some are problems of research, some of presentation of alternative sexuality.

The story is the discovery by our nameless narrator that the man whom he has treated as his lover and who has introduced him to what we would call BDSM is also a Lovecraftian mage going by the name Nuh. Jeffers draws directly on the traditional Lovecraft mythos with the cry of the alien monsters Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” and introduces an almost Ickeian race of humanoid crocodiles (worshipped by proto-Arabs, naturally) to build his horrific universe of uncaring beings; and he zooms out on the world to show us that the effects of human habitation are “scabs on the earth’s flesh… that would heal and slough off and leave no mark” (despite, even then, the clear effects of human habitation on the environment).

So, the problems – perhaps unsurprisingly – start with the degree to which Jeffers’ story hangs on a Gravesian model of the Aegean Bronze Age. Mother worship is likely true, and the trading cultures almost certain, but the lack of wars claimed in the story is unattested and based on an absence of evidence, not actual evidence of absence. Furthermore, the bull-dancing and the nature of social structures are drawn from equally early attempts to understand the Minoan civilisation, and feel more like the writing of treasure-hunters than of serious scholars. We’re even treated to our nameless narrator’s horror at the idea that the world is a gloe, despite attestations of that going back millenia, and despite it being a necessary part of the knowledge of a seafarer – indeed, Jeffers’ explanation of why the narrator finds it uncomfortable is exactly why seafarers knew the world was a globe: the horizon.

That’s without getting in to the ritual by which young men are kidnapped and married to older men as a rite of passage – notably, with no apparent choice in how those men are selected; A Man Not of Canaan completely refuses to problematise this and embraces it as a full-blown societal good, rather than rape; the narrator relates being
carried away at midnight from my mother’s house… made drunk on unwatered wine… made [to] swear awful oaths, and wed… to my father’s youngest, handsomest, merriest friend. And then… my first beloved carried me into the croft and on soft sheepskins fucked me very soundly, made me a man. As has always been done among my people.

That leads onto the problem with the portrayal of BDSM in the story. A central tenet of modern kink culture is Safe, Sane and Consensual – SSC. That means all parties must be in their right minds (so not drunk, drugged, etc), informed about what’s happening, must agree to the boundaries of what will happen in a scene, and it must be safe (the limits of safety are pretty flexible, though). Instead, A Man Not of Canaan presents a scene in which the narrator seems to this reader not in his right mind:
It was not clear in my mind… Frequently I was overwhelmed by dizzy blackness
This is part of a passage in which the narrator doesn’t really understand what’s happening, is going beyond what he’s done before without any discussion, and doesn’t actually appear to consent; but again, none of this is problematised, even if it is also not heavily portrayed in an erotic light. Indeed, this scene is part of a magical ritual to allow Nuh to assume another form and travel; thus BDSM becomes not sex, but a dark magical rite. The subsequent part of the story, which describes our narrator’s lovers (including prostitutes) “horrified by the practices of love that would soothe me”, only cements this imperssion of BDSM as Other, dark and strange.

Having said that, A Man Not of Canaan does have its good points. The writing style is a smoother Lovecraft, with the personality and immediacy of his works but without the stilted prose; and the level of description, especially of the horrors encountered, is brilliant, as they’re conveyed in their horrific amorphousness and mutability. The descriptions throughout are beautiful and evocative of the far-off past, even where they strike even a half-serious scholar as outdated or outright inaccurate.

A Man Not of Canaan is one of those stories where the technical achievements are so at odds with the contents it is hard to assess; but in this case, the content is so poorly researched, and so offensive, that it wins out, and this story just ends up bad, sadly.

image