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The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper

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Since the flames died three centuries ago, human civilization has evolved into a dual sociey: Women’s Country, where walled towns enclose what’s left of past civilisation, nurtured by women and a few nonviolent men; and the adjacent garrisons where warrior men live – the lost brothers, sons, and lovers of those in Women’s Country.

Two societies. Two competing dreams. Two ways of life, kept apart by walls stronger than stone. And yet there is a gate between them…
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The Gate To Women’s Country was recommended to me for inclusion in the Queering the Genre project. For reasons I shall make abundantly clear later, I suspect this was not a serious suggestion. That doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth discussing, albeit with spoilers and TRIGGER WARNINGS for rape, assault, transphobia, homophobia

That said, Tepper is introducing some fascinating ideas for discussion in the book. Despite a stunningly binarist view of gender (women are, apparently, inherently and automatically nurturing [p290]) and an amazingly monogamist view of the world (in a society where for over two centuries various polyamories have been the norm, apparently possessiveness and jealousy are still standard [p293]), Tepper does do some things to her world. The key one is the idea of tthe importance of choice; The Gate To Women’s Country centres on the motif of the gate that male children can choose to walk through, if they feel unsuited to warrior life and would prefer to live with the women. What lies on each side of this gate, the mistrust across it and the problems this divided society creates are all themes across the novel that Tepper does explore interestingly, especially in the context of layered mystery and secrets.

She also does some interesting things with story; here, we have multiple different plots simultaneously on display, from the present, one from fifteen years prior that starts out as flashbacks but is increasingly broader and more fleshed out as we get a wider variety of perspectives, and a play within the novel, Iphigenia at Ilium (Tepper’s response, it seems, to both Trojan Women and Iphigenia at Tauris). The Gate To Women’s Country uses these multiple time periods to reinforce and discuss each other, to lay out and emphasise its themes, and to ensure that its message is strongly conveyed.

Unfortunately, that message is rather problematic. Not only is The Gate To Women’s Country (written in 1988) predicated on the idea that women are inherently peaceful and conciliatory – an unsustainable proposition in the era of Thatcher, with her actions in the Falklands and on domestic soil against the miners – but it also displays very binarist views of gender, and essentialist ones at that; while men may have a variety of characteristics, including the gentler ones who return through the gate, women are all portrayed as nurturing, caring, and loving. Furthermore, I mentioned earlier that this was recommended for the Queering the Genre project; Tepper’s homophobia exists not only in an exclusion of homosexual characters, but in a full on attack on homosexuality itself included in the novel:

Even in preconvulsion times it had been known that the so-called “gay syndrome” was caused by aberrant hormone levels during pregnancy. The women doctors now identified the condition as “hormonal reproductive maladaptation” and corrected it before birth. There were very few actual HNRMs – called HenRams – either male or female, born in Women’s Country, though there was still the occasional unsexed person or the omnisexed who would, so the instructors said, mate with a grasshopper if it would hold still long enough.

That paragraph, from page 76, is the only mention of people outside the basic gender binary in the whole novel. The Gate To Women’s Country has one person who may be attracted to the same sex, and he is a rapist who probably only did it for power, rather than actually out of homosexuality – a mixed blessing at best. This is also a book that blurs the line of consent:

He took hold of her as she approached the camp, pulling her away from the donkey, dragging her towards his spread sheets, covering her mouth with his own so she had no time to speak. He gave her no time, no word, nothing but a frenzied and almost forcible ravishment […] If it had not precisely been rape, it had been close to it.

And yet, on the pages following this passage (p237), Tepper does her best to imply that the offence was not the clearly nonconsensual sex but not talking sweetly beforehand; forget the idea of enthusiastic consent, in this case, a lack of active objection prevents it being rape. Tepper’s nod towards this being problematic is at most minimal, and The Gate To Women’s Country manages to undermine an awful lot of arguments that follow about domestic violence with this scene between two sort-of-lovers.

On a narrative level, the plot is a little convoluted and relies on a major deus ex machina for its resolution, one that makes essentially no sense within the world Tepper has created. However, the society-building Tepper does with this future utopia(?) is fantastic; and she pulls some great twists off as the novel progresses, changing our understanding of the world and society, and the characters are actually surprisingly human, especially Chernon, whose loyalties to his family and the women and his loyalty to the garrison and an (inexplicable extant – where does it come from in this postapocalypse?) patriarchal ideal are in interesting tension. Similarly, Stavia’s increasing understanding of the whys behind the ordering of society bring her into tension with her own feelings and previous actions; The Gate To Women’s Country doesn’t shy away from the fact that mistakes have consequences and that a lack of knowledge can lead to dangerous repercussions rippling out.

That isn’t to say the writing is fantastic, mind you. Tepper has passages like this, from page 193:

…parts of her went all wet-crotched at his words. She could feel some inner part of her breaking loose, panting against the thick wall between them, ready to dig through it to him, some frantic bitch part with hard little tits and with all four feet flailing.

If this isn’t the workmanlike prose of the Golden Age, it’s gone in the opposite direction; meaninglessly bland in its attempt to capture a feeling, laughably badly written (which parts of her went wet-crotched other than her crotch, one has to wonder?). The Gate To Women’s Country is peppered with infelicities like this, in the Iphigenia in Ilium sections and in the main plot; and each and every one of them is a slip that Tepper or her editor ought to have caught.

The Gate To Women’s Country is often called a feminist SF classic, and Gollancz have recently brought out an SFMasterworks edition. Sheri S. Tepper’s politics rule out the idea of it as a feminist novel, and her writing itself rules out any meaningful classification of it as a masterwork. This is a book to avoid; if you want great feminist SF, go for the Masterworks of Nicola Griffith, Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, Pat Cadigan (and more!) instead.

Deadly Curiosities by Gail Z. Martin

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Welcome to Trifles and Folly, a store with a dark secret. Proprietor Cassidy Kincaid continues a family tradition begun in 1670 – acquiring and neutralizing dangerous supernatural items. It’s the perfect job for Cassidy, whose psychic gift lets her touch an object and know its history. Together with her business partner Sorren, a 500-year-old vapire and former jewel thief, Cassidy makes it her business to get infernal objects off the market.

When a trip to a haunted hotel unearths a statue steeped in malevolent power, and a string of murders draws a trail to the abandoned old Navy yard, Cassidy and Sorren discover a diabolical plot to unleash a supernatural onslaught on their city.

It’s time for Kincaide and her team to get rid of these Deadly Curiosities before the bodies start piling up.
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The blurb for Deadly Curiosities captures the plot pretty well, despite its apparent Paranormal Romance intimations (there’s none of that here); unfortunately what it doesn’t tell the reader is how uneven this book is, or even that it’s set in Charlseton…

That uneveness isn’t in the characters, to give Martin her credit. Deadly Curiosities has an amazing and vibrant cast; from Cassidy herself and Sorren, the immortal whose history with the Kincaides and more broadly weighs on him as a long history of losses and of fighting the supernatural, through Teag and Anthony, Cassidy’s employee and his high-powered corporate lawyer partner, and in more minor characters, Martin ensures these are rounded believable figures. Actually, this romance is a beautifully written one; Anthony’s concern but willingness to help his partner, Teag’s concern for Anthony himself, and the simplicity of the presentation of them as a gay couple (and indeed the only couple in the novel) is really well done.

Maggie, who appears only briefly, is rendered vividly and powerfully both by her description in her appearance and by her absence; Drea is a friendly gossip whose garrolousness is brilliantly shown; Mrs. Morrissey, the woman who curates the town archives and has a taste for the scandalous; and the rest of the cast. If one thing jars, it’s that Deadly Curiosities is packed with people who Martin keeps dropping hints are sensitive to magic, but never follows through on that; just one of many trails laid down by the book and never followed up on.

It’s here that the book begins to fall apart. While the core plot is an interesting one that would sustain a well-paced book of this length, Deadly Curiosities buries it under other things. The overuse of Cassidy’s abilities slows the pace and ties the story in knots, Martin both wanting to showcase it and also scrabbling to avoid it leading to the conclusion of the novel; and the role a series of dei ex machinae play in the story make it stumble and stutter rather. Similarly, Cassidy’s repeated “I’ll remember to do this later” are almost all followed by not doing them, while other things just seem to drift off into the aether, never actually paying off, especially a repeated use of foreshadowing lines that never pay off, taking away all the power of foreshadowing in the novel.

The writing drains power from more than just the overuse of non-foreshadowing; Deadly Curiosities has its moments, but on the whole is a messy, repetitious and confused novel to read. Facts come up and vanish before being repeated as if for the first time; the story keeps grinding to a halt for another strangely impersonal and unemotional vision from Cassidy; coincidence is relied on far too often. Even scenes that really shouldn’t cause the novel to slow make the reader pause, as Martin writes fight scenes that from a number of standpoints are inconsistent or nonsensical; indeed, this inability to write fights becomes more absurd as the novel continues with Martin dropping them in randomly and for no good effect.

Sadly, Deadly Curiosities had a great potential to be an excellent novel which in reality let itself down; Gail Z. Martin had a great kernel and buried it under dross.

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DoI: Review based on a pre-publication ARC solicited from the publisher, Solaris. Deadly Curiosities is out third of July.

Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

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Lester Ferris, sergeant of the British Army, is a good man in need of a rest. He’s spent a lot of his life being shot at, and Afghanistan was the last stop on his road to exhaustion. He has no family, he’s nearly forty, burned out, and about to be retired.

The island of Mancreu is the ideal place for Lester to serve out his time. A former British colony in legal limbo, it is soon to be destroyed because of its very special version of toxic pollution. Of course, that also makes Mancreu perfect for shady business, hence the Black Fleet of illicit ships lurking in the bay: listening stations, offshore hospitals, money laundering operations, drug factories and deniable torture centres. None of which should be a problem, because Lester’s brief is to sit tight and turn a blind eye.

But Lester Ferris has made a friend: as brilliant, internet-addled street kid with a comic-book fixation who will need a home when the island dies – who might, Lester hopes, become an adopted son. In the name of paternal love, Lester Ferris will do almost anything. Now, as Mancreu’s small society tumbles into violence, the boy needs Lester to be more than just an observer. He needs him to be a hero.
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Tigerman is the first Harkaway book I’ve read, and given the fascinating, fantastic blend of literary themes with genraic stylings (this is essentially a meditation on fatherhood and the difficulties of the father-son relationship, but also a superhero novel making reference to Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis and more), it’s going to prove far from the last. That’s not to say it is without faults, but we’ll get to those!

The central figure of Tigerman is Lester Ferris, washed-up sergeant, stereotypically British abroad in some ways (the duffer making friends with the locals by a genial attitude) and in others still very much the military man (his attitude to orders, and the emphasis laid on the ways his actions fit into the role of “sergeant”). He’s a fascinating character of many layers; Harkaway doesn’t let any one layer come to the surface at the expense of all others, rather letting them mingle beautifully, but with the loneliness and its consequences (his desire to be father to the boy, his dawning realisation of his affection for Kaiko Inoue) a theme running throughout. The boy is a similarly multilayered character, and a mystery to be solved by Ferris; his seeming self-sufficiency, the mystery of whether he is actually in need of a father at all, and his strange anonymity (the only name he gives in the book is “Robin”). Unfortunately he is also a native of Macreu; this, alongside the rather two-dimensional characterisation of the rest of the indigenes, gives the impression that the people of Mancreu are mysteries to be solved by Ferris.

Tigerman compounds that with its dreadful representation of women; Kaiko Inoue is sexually interested in Ferris, highly intelligent, highly capable, and displays very little actual character; “the Witch”, the only doctor on the island, is characterised as a witch, an enigma and strange; and the only other named woman is, in fact, unable to speak and has no awareness of the world. Harkaway’s beautiful characterisation of Ferris just seems to vanish with the rest of the cast; even told from Ferris’ point of view (limited third-person), we should see more character in the Mancreux or less in the other immigrants.

The plot is part of the reason for this patchy characterisation; Tigerman relies on its mysteries to work, and while that would be fine if some of the Mancreux were strange and slightly apart from the world, that they’re all portrayed as basically impossible to understand is a real blow to the novel. Harkaway builds the superhero elements of the novel fantastically, with the development of both Tigerman’s actions and the legends they unintentionally create brilliantly portrayed, and the Black Fleet stays an invisible-but-known menacing and silent presence for most of the novel, but the elements of the plot centring on the boy or on Kaiko are simply poorly anchored.

That isn’t to deny the book readability. This is a nearly 400 page novel that has a breakneck pace and some amazingly vivid writing; the sections focused on Ferris’ actions as Tigerman, his going beyond his limits and doing almost superhuman feats, are a real joy as the prose speeds up, delving into Ferris’ mind, and his response to his own actions while also really laying down the nature of those actions as something that plugs into the same place in the mind as great comics can. Similarly, the depiction of a culture lazily existing under a threat of (induced) apocalypse so old as to have lost its terror would be fantastic if it didn’t rely on and prop up stereotypes of the global South; Harkaway writes the stereotype beautifully, but I wish he’d been willing to avert it. The twist at the close of the novel is, in hindsight, obvious but was completely unexpected to this reader, making it the best kind of twist; Harkaway laid clues down throughout Tigerman, gently and brilliantly, often without the reader realising he is even doing it, before making a fantastic reveal.

In the end, Tigerman lets itself down; slightly more depth to the characters who aren’t Ferris, and slightly less stereotypical a portrayal of the society of Mancreu, would have made Harkaway’s novel a true work of genius. As it is, it’s a very solipsistic meditation on fatherhood and a very readable, fantastic superhero thriller well-combined.

Black Helicopters by Caitlín R. Kiernan

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Black Helicopters is Caitlín R. Kiernan’s first SF novella since 2004’s The Dry Salvages. Certainly one of her most ambitious tales to date, a narrative spanning one hundred and eighty-six years exposes a labyrinthine underworld of global conspiracy, secret societies, synchronicity, chaos theory, and interdimensional apocalypse. As a horrific plague unfolds on the shores of New England, two shadowy agencies are pitted against one another in a race to understand the consequences of a psychiatrist’s bizarre experiment involving a pair of albino twins. In this “game of chess,” even the most minute act sends infinite ripples through eternity, the struggle shaping the history of the future.
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Kiernan is best known for novels like The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl – very queer, very strange psychological novels that focus on queer characters and encounters with the supernatural at the edges of sanity. The companion volume to The Ape’s Wife, Black Helicopters certainly deals with the edges of sanity, but it’s less markedly queer than those brilliant works.

This is a complex, slightly confusing novella; Kiernan jumps around in her timeline, revealing things and how they interconnect only slowly, allowing the logic of the story to unfold at its own pace and bending the mind of the reader while she does. Black Helicopters uses a chess motif an awful lot, and each chapter can be seen as another move in the game, drawing it towards a conclusion but at the same time in dialogue with the rest; that the focus alternates between the two different sides of the game heightens this impression.

The characters are surprisingly clearly drawn; Black Helicopters has a small but excellent cast of characters from Ptolema to Sixty Six, all very different, all somehow outside the cognitive mainstream, and some very far outside it. There’s a certain autobiographical element here, as Kiernan notes in the Acknowledgements; one of our viewpoint characters is a paleontologist, as Kiernan is by training. These are surprisingly extensively drawn characters for the short space Kiernan has available to tell us about them.

Black Helicopters may be confusing and strange, may verge on conspiracy theorism and Lovecraftiana, but is essentially a fun and strange novella with some brilliant ideas well worth your time.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

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The Hamilton sisters weren’t supposed to exist. Joseph Hamilton wanted a male heir, and his wife did her best. But in the end, he was disappointed, left with no son, no wife, and twelve girls, whom he kept secluded in the upper rooms of his Fifth Avenue town house and raised with only the scantiest knowledge of the outside world.

Jo, the firstborn, “The General” to her eleven sisters, is the nearest thing they have to a mother. She is the one who taught them how to dance, the one who gives the signal each night, as they slip out of the confines of their home and escape to Manhattan’s underground speakeasies. Together they elude their distant and controlling father, until he announces his plans to marry them off.

As their father handpicks the suitors he deems eligible, the girls continue to do what they have always done: dance. From the Salon Renaud to the Swan and, finally, the Kingfisher, the club they would call home. They dance until the night it is raided, and Jo finds herself confronted by a bootlegger from her past. As old mistakes and the demands of her father and eleven sisters bear down on her, Jo must determine who she can trust, and how much she is willing to risk on her own.
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After the weird, postapocalyptic, dark world that Genevieve Valentine gave us in Mechanique, it is perhaps fitting that she has turned her gave to the altogether different world of Prohibition-era New York; to both she has brought a sense of magic, a fairytale quality, especially appropriate in this retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princess .

That is not, of course, to say that her worldbuilding is bad; no, quite the opposite. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a beautiful recreation of late-1920s New York; the underground libertinism (one particularly underground club has mixed-race and homosexual couples!), the casual corruption, the sense of freedom and escape, the repression of women and their rebellion against it, and the seamy underbelly. Valentine’s New York lives and breathes, just as its inhabitants do; this isn’t gleaming skyscrapers, it’s the speakeasies, the clubs, dodging cops and catching cabs.

The characters are equally vivid. With a novel featuring at a minimum thirteen major characters, and in reality probably closer to the region of twenty, all of whom have to be believable if not sympathetic, Valentine has taken the decision to largely focus on Jo; it is through the General’s eyes that The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is mostly scene, although key moments jump to show us the actions of all twelve in a brilliant piece of writing. Every single character, likable or otherwise, clearly has an interior life, has motivations, is in fact human; even Jo’s detested father is humanised by the end of the novel. Switching perspectives also has the advantage of showing us Jo from other perspectives; in her own mind, she’s apart from the other girls but helping them, keeping them safe, while they see things rather differently. Valentine manages to balance these competing realities throughout the book, never tipping one way or the other; Jo isn’t a flawless hero, she’s just another person doing the best she can.

That “best” is what The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is all about. The first half sets the scene for the second, achronologically introducing us to the girls, showing how the sisters’ rebellion grew while also showing us the effect of the twelve as a unit; both domestically and in the clubs, the interactions between the girls and their audiences set the stage for later events beautifully. Indeed, Valentine’s narrative control is on full display here; despite multiple characters, multiple timelines and the need to set all her cards up, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club feels smooth throughout, the pacing and style always appropriate to the moment and blending seamlessly with what preceded and what follows it. That’s one of its great strengths; Valentine has a beautiful, gentle style that really pulls the reader in and hypnotises one, so that one can spend a whole day reading the book and not even realise it until the last page is turned.

Oh, and as intimated above, it’s a queer book; this is made beautifully little of, as Valentine drops in the homosexual couples dancing as just a fact of an underground club, and Rose’s lesbianism as no different to any of the preferences in men of the other characters; The Girls at the Kingfisher Club shows so little interest in treating queerness differently that is just blends into the background of the novel in a truly beautiful way.

If Mechanique was an amazing debut novel for Valentine to burst onto the scene with, then Girls at the Kingfisher Club shows that it was no fresher fluke; this sophomore novel gets right everything Mechanique did, and then does it better. Read it. Read it now.
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Living With Ghosts by Kari Sperring

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Gracielis, the failed assassin priest turned courtesan and spy, wants to deny his strange abilities, yet he cannot ignore the ghostly presence that shadows him or the sorceress that who rules him. Thiercelin wants his wife’s love but all her time and energy are devoted to the preservation of Merafi and its ruler. Valdarrien, slain in a duel, wants to find his lost love and to live again. And the loyal soldier Joyain just wants a quiet life.

But in the ancient city of Merafi, you don’t always get what you want.

For centuries, Merafi’s safety and prosperity have relied on a pact sealed in blood between its first king and the land’s elemental forces. The city should be immune to the powers inherited by Gracielis and his race, and opaque to ghosts and mystical creatures. But now a sorceress and a prince have broken the pact. The city’s river is raging, its floodwaters bearing plague, supernatural violence, and destruction. Fantastical creatures walk the night. The dead – some of them – are trying to return. The rational, irreligious Merafiens no longer believe in elemental powers and are blind to their sudden danger.

Trapped by the vows binding him to the sorceress, Gracielis fears for those he has come to love…

Desperate to prove himself to his wife, Thiercelin takes ever greater risks…

In the nighttime streets, Joyain fights deadly mist wraiths…

And as death and disaster spread, the magic protecting Merafi weakens – and Valdarrien’s ghost grows ever stronger…
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Sometimes, blurbs are perfect. Sometimes, blurbs are utterly misleading. And sometimes, they describe only half the book in front of you. Living With Ghosts falls into that last category. Kari Sperring’s novel is a creeping horror, it is a supernatural frightfest, but it’s also a tale of manners, of romance, and of politics. Oh, and queerness.

Living With Ghosts is far from the queerest novel I have ever read, but it is certainly a queer one; the growing romance between Gracielis and Thiercelin is beautifully drawn and never is it shown to be problematic because it is queer, only because Thiercelin feels conflicted about it. Mind you, it is the only queer relationship we see, and whilst it is one of the central relationships, Sperring does rather stand by monogamy, polyamory never appearing to occur to any of these characters as an option; and however androgyne Gracielis’ self-presentation may be, in the end the novel confirms firmly to the gender binary.

Looking at it in such harsh terms may be doing it a disservice, however. Sperring’s real strength here is her characterwork; Living With Ghosts is full of beautifully human, interesting, flawed people, from the smarter-than-she-seems Miraude to hardworking and dedicated Yvellaine; from sweet, seductive, conflicted Gracielis to ghostly Valdarrien; and from seductress Quenfrida to Amalie, merchant and beloved gentle client of Gracieux. Not only does each character have a very different perspective that bleeds into the narrative beautifully, but they’re also very different in terms of approach; these aren’t all characters who seem to differ but act in the same kind of way, but characters who really are individuals, who clearly have lives in the margins beyond the page, who we can imagine acting on their own when Living With Ghosts is turning its attention elsewhere. That’s without Sperring’s beautifully drawn relationships; all kinds are on display here, from unhealthy possessiveness to a beautiful but failing marriage. The way these romances grow, interact, dissolve or die is Sperring’s real magic; they feel vivid and real, and play on our heartstrings with stunning grace.

The style of the novel is beautiful; Sperring’s hand with language and for turns of phrase is very much on display in Living With Ghosts, as she makes the language fit both character and situation. Hence we can go from formality at court or elegance with Gracielis to almost pulpy stylings as we switch viewpoints; this really heightens the scene and feel of the novel, bringing everything home and making it hit harder. The words carry their weight, and bring along with them a whole emotional frieghting, but even they can’t carry the plot.

That, sadly, is where Living With Ghosts falters. The novel definitely has an interesting plot in skeleton form, with the interaction of politics, relationships and magic, as Merafi comes under attack and Thiercelin is drawn in to both the twilight world of magic and of Gracielis. The ideas on display are fantastic and there are some really crunchy, interesting things going on in this plot, not least the look at ideas of racial purity and colonialism. However, Living With Ghosts feels both flabby and messy. What begins as a comedy of manners with added ghosts descends, by the close of the novel, into grimdark splattergore; what begins as a set of interesting plots and characters become so tangled, confused and messy that they really lose the reader. This is a book which could have done with a lot of cleaning; the grimdark feels slightly forced after the beginning, which while making an interesting contrast, seems to get rather lost under what follows.

Realistically, Living With Ghosts is trying to be more than one story; and Sperring couldn’t decide which to make it, so she made it both. Sadly, that means beautiful characters and wonderful romances get lost under an awful lot of messy plotlines. This is a good book, but it’s certainly not great.

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Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

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Change or die. These are the only options on the planet Jeep. Centuries ago, a deadly virus shattered the colony, killing the men and forever altering the surviving women. Now anthropologist Marghe Taishan arrives to test a new vaccine. As she risks death to uncover the women’s biological secret, she finds that she, too, is changing – and that not only has she found a home on Jeep, but that she alone carries the seeds of its destruction…
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As readers will be used to, the blurb for Ammonite is almost entirely misleading; Nicola Griffith’s female-only world is a much more interesting, slow, complex and concept-driven novel than the blurb makes it sound. It’s not without some problems, but this book does definitely deserve its Masterwork status.

As far as it being queer goes, I’m not sure a novel could be more gay; Ammonite is a book which has one male character, who himself only appears in recollections, and has a number of relationships, all shown as completely normal, and while Marghe is reluctant to enter a relationship with another woman, it isn’t a hangup over homosexuality (the colonial forces on the planet include a completely open homosexual couple) but over involvement with a native. In another sense, however, it’s stunningly unqueer; Ammonite is a novel whose very premise exists on an equation of gender and sexuality: we have no idea if there is such a thing as transgenderism in this universe, because it never comes up. The plague kills off all men and some women, but Griffith doesn’t even begin to address how that would affect non-binary individuals, a missed opportunity.

Mind you, she does have some excellent binary characters. Ammonite hinges on Marghe for the most part, and the anthropologist is a fascinating character; in the middle of the book the reason for its title becomes clear, and on either side of that Marghe goes through reverse processes, spiralling inwards and then outwards, a fantastic piece of writing that makes the character of the anthropologist who goes native more than just a trope but a process. Danner, the commander of Port Central, and hence head of the colonial forces, similarly undergoes a process of change across the course of the novel; that is, as a character, Danner changes how she conceives of herself, her role and responsibility, and the people around her, as Ammonite goes on and as events force her to act or present her with choices. Every character clearly has agency and makes choices, and Griffith doesn’t write a single character who doesn’t have an essential fascinating humanity.

The plot is less tightly focused than some novels; Ammonite ratchets its tension up and down, and changes the plot part of the way through, although it does also work to tie all the different strands together by its conclusion. There’s a kind of pressurising tightness bearing down on the novel’s first half that increases until pretty much the midway point and then the whole thing changes, becoming less about Marghe’s personal voyage and a wider scope appears; it’s an amazing piece of structural construction, but does leave some bits of story feeling a little like they’re flailing around or meandering at times. These are of course partially first novel problems, as Ammonite attempts the structural complexity and beauty that Griffith finetunes in later novels into a fantastic tool; but the ways in which she flounders with them are at least interesting.

Ammonite came out over two decades ago, but has largely avoided aging; Griffith really has written a fascinating, beautiful, intelligent, queer science fiction novel. Ammonite more than earns its place among Gollancz’s Masterworks.

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