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Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz by Garth Nix

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Sir Hereward. Knight, artillerist, swordsman. Mercenary for hire. Ill-starred lover.

Mister Fitz. Puppet, sorcerer, loremaster. Practitioner of arcane arts now mostly and thankfully forgotten. Former nursemaid to Hereward.

Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz. Agents of the Council of the Treaty for the Safety of the World, charged with the location and removal of listed extra-dimensional entities, more commonly known as gods or godlets.

Travellers. Adventurers. Godslayers . . .
~~~~~
Garth Nix is best known for a number of successful young adult or children’s series, including the Abhorsen trilogy (soon to be a quad-logy). The three adventures promised by the subtitle here are at the upper end of that age range at the youngest, and Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz has what is often described as an “adult” sense to it…

That primarily comes across in the female characters. Across the three works, we meet four women; three are almost immediately objectified by Hereward, described in terms of arousal, sexuality, how attractive he finds them. The other is described in those terms too, but only in the negative. For a writer who did such a good job of representing a variety of women when writing to young adults, Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz is a bit of a disappointment in that argument; is it possible to argue Nix presents himself as seeing women as losing their humanity when they reach adolescence, or is this to argue too much from too few texts? Either way, it’s a serious issue in this slim volume.

Mind you, it’s pretty much the only serious issue. Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz is mostly about fun, albeit often of a quite dark kind; these are swashbuckling tales taking joy in their fantasticalness, in their invention, in their fast-paced simplicity. Lying somewhere between epic and sword and sorcery in their scope, we never really see Nix lay out consequences for the actions taken by the two protagonists, except perhaps for other people; that approach to writing, especially when the stakes could be huge or tiny, actually works rather well, and makes the fast fun of the stories more effective. Of course, they’re also full of darker moments, and Nix takes an almost Martinesque approach to death, the only two characters who are protected being his protagonist; but with slim characterisation for the rest of his cast, that lacks the pathos granted to it by Martin’s skill.

In the end, if you’re looking for serious, deep or meaningful stories, look elsewhere; for good portrayals of female characters, again, look elsewhere; but for simple, fast fun? Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz will, with a certain glorious simplicity, fill that gap quite nicely.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

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Breq is a soldier who used to be a warship. Once a weapon of conquest controlling thousands of minds, now she only has a single body and serves the emperor she swore to destroy.

Given a new ship and a troublesome crew, Breq is ordered to the only place in the galaxy she will agree to go: Athoek station, to protect the family of a lieutenant she once knew – a lieutenant she murdered in cold blood.
~~~~~
Ancillary Sword, as the cover says, is the sequel to the Nebula Award winning, BSFA Award winning, Clarke Award winning, Hugo Award winning Locus Award winning, Kitschie winnning debut novel (yes, really) Ancillary Justice. Leckie’s sophomore outing, therefore, has a lot to live up to.

And boy, does Leckie deliver. In serious, glorious style. I went into Ancillary Sword nervous; having championed Ancillary Justice, having represented Ann Leckie at one of the many awards ceremonies she has triumphed at, having been so blown away by the first book, my fear that the follow-up would fall short was less about it not being good, and more about it not reaching the heights of its predecessor. Reader, I am happy to reiterate: it doesn’t. The linguistic idea of using female pronouns and nouns for everyone – mother and daughter, never parent or father or son – is not a trick that gets less interesting as we see it more; Ancillary Sword is more concerned with civilians and with interpersonal relationships among a broader spectrum of individuals, and therefore it has a different impact. The primary force is that gender, and hence sexuality, are irrelevant; it doesn’t matter what gender two characters who feel attraction are, they just feel attraction. That’s a really powerful and important thing to see, and Ancillary Sword showcases it excellently.

Of course, Ancillary Sword is far more than just that one element. Leckie, in this novel, has Breq captaining a Ship, AI and all; that Ship, Mercy of Kalr, hasn’t got ancillaries, but its previous captain ordered the crew to behave as if they were ancillaries. Leckie paints beautifully the various results of this for Breq, herself an ex-ancillary, ex-Ship; not only the relationship between a Ship-in-human-body and a Ship-as-Ship, but also the strange combination of discomfort and reassurance Breq takes from her false ancillaries, and the damage the loss of the hive-self has done. Ancillary Sword is a beautiful first-person portrait of Breq’s recovery, but isn’t just concerned with her; Lieutenant Tisarwat, a character introduced in this novel, has a not wholly dissimilar experience, and seeing the different ways each incorporates and deals with that experience is fascinating.

This isn’t a book focused wholly on relationships, though. Ancillary Sword feels like a response to On Basilisk Station; in each case a new commander is sent to take control of the defences of a station and the planets surrounding it. While David Weber’s Honor Harrington is concerned only with the military and logistical sides of this, Leckie has Breq take a far wider view of “defence”: and that gives Leckie a chance to delve into some of the socal fabric underlying the Radch empire. Socio-economic injustices and the way conveniently-invisible-but-vital groups come in for a serious critique and the idea of how to deal with the fallout of that, in the long term, is discussed as a problem, rather than being solved. The long-term impact of serfdom or slavery is discussed directly and seems to be an entry into discussions of how to deal with the US’s problematic history of oppression in the South; Ancillary Sword doesn’t just not seek to give answers, it actively demands we don’t look for easy answers or to simple saviours. Leckie goes so far as to include a power-imbalance rape, although it is never called that; but it is made abundantly clear that consent is impossible between two people with a major power imbalance (p282). The extent to which this book takes on social issues and the construction of, and underpinning of, society, is really glorious.

So far I’ve not actually really talked about the plot of the novel, but I don’t think that’s really necessary. Suffice to say that where Ancillary Justice was a brilliant, crunchy science fiction yarn with some hints of Iain M. Banks, Ancillary Sword completely strikes its own path; Leckie, here, is like no other author, and amazing with it. I don’t expect lightning to strike twice, but Ancillary Sword deserves – no, demands! –  the same level of recognition as that received by Ancillary Justice.

DoI: ARC received from Orbit, the publisher of Ancillary Justice & Ancillary Sword, on request. I accepted the BSFA Award for Best Novel, won by Ancillary Justice, on Ann Leckie’s behalf at EasterCon. Ancillary Sword will be released on October 7th.

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The Bone Palace by Amanda Downum (Part 2)

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Yesterday, I reviewed The Bone Palace, discussing some of the queer representation in the novel but only briefly touching on the trans matters covered; today, I want to engage specifically with that topic, in the context of Cheryl Morgan’s discussion of the book.

Her piece focuses on the character of Savedra, the transgendered consort of the prince. Throughout the book, Savedra is gendered and presents as female, and the narrator, like the cast, uses the pronoun “she” of her; she is presented as a mistress of the prince who can never marry him because they could not have children. So far, one would think, so good; Morgan’s objections to the book start here, though. In a world of magic, there appears to be no surgery to make Savedra’s “treacherous” (a word she uses) body match her self-image; while problematic on one level, a magical cure for transsexuality is also problematic, erasing the huge, every-day struggles of people in the real world. Compassion might argue for erasing those in the novel but making transsexuality look “easy” is as much a lie as making it look impossible; Savedra is a woman, and she is seen putting effort into her appearance on a regular basis.

Savedra is also a femme woman. This isn’t the only image of women presented in the novel; Isyllt is relatively unfeminine, although she does have a taste for dresses and jewelry, while Ashlin, the queen and a friend of Savedra from the start of the book, is a soldier through and through, and indeed the most competent fighter in the novel. The Bone Palace does see Savedra suffer for her femininity at times; during the Ball, she struggles with her dress during an assassination attempt; but then earlier in the novel, she kills an assassin attempting to kill the royal couple, demonstrating clear physical capabilities. This isn’t the awful stereotype of a femme trans woman unable to fight for fear of breaking her nails, but rather an image of a trans woman who is still very capable.

Morgan’s biggest problems with Downum’s book fall largely out of two specific events. In each case, I think The Bone Palace is doing something very different to what she believes it is. The first is a piece of dialogue described by Morgan as follows:

Both women make a point of stating that they don’t normally go for girls. From Savedra’s point of view this has some legitimacy because Ashlin is a very macho woman. But from Ashlin’s point of view the statement can only be seen as implying that she sees Savedra as male.

The dialogue is as follows:

[Savedra and Ashlin kiss]

“I don’t like girls,” Savedra whispered when she could breathe again […description of her arousal…]

Ashlin’s laugh caught in her throat. “Nor do I. But I like you.” (p230)

That Savedra introduces that phrase, and that Ashlin is replying to it and making the point that despite not normally liking “girls” each likes the other, to me has a completely different implication from that drawn by Morgan; Ashlin is here reinforcing the idea of Savedra as female, saying that she is the exception to a general heterosexuality, just as Ashlin is Savedra’s exception. This is a problematic model of sexuality for other reasons, but as far as gender presentation goes, this dialogue seems to me to be actively reinforcing that Savedra is a woman; that she still has, and is able to enjoy using, her penis (“traitourous flesh”) absolutely does not undermine her trans identity, since there are trans women out there who are in that situation.

The second passage quoted by Morgan is this, with Morgan’s discussion:

She offers Savedra the same deal: switch sides, and she can have a real female body to inhabit. Isn’t that what she has always wanted? Ginevra would have to die, but that’s a small price, right? It is an horrific suggestion, and one that Savedra declines, but not quite for the obvious reason.

Madness, Savedra would call it. Abomination. Temptation.

Nikos had always said he loved her, not the flesh she wore. Did he really mean that?

“No,” she said at last. “I can’t”(p425)

So yes, there are moral considerations, but the main reason Savedra says no is that being given the choice has forced her to confront the “reality” of her relationship with Nikos. For all her fine fantasies, she is forced to admit that when it comes down to it Nikos wants her as she is, not as she imagines herself. If she had a female body, Nikos would not love her anymore.

Again, I think Morgan is interpreting the passage in a counterintuitive way. The first, gut reaction Savedra has to the suggestion is indeed that it is horrific; that she then also thinks about it in the context of her relationship doesn’t undermine or remove that first reaction. Furthermore, her statement that Nikos loves her, not the flesh she is in, seems to me to be the exact opposite of the statement Morgan believes it to be; Savedra is Savedra, and it is her soul (The Bone Palace is very openly dualistic) Nikos loves, her female soul, no matter what her body appears to be. She does not reject the offer because Nikos only loves her for her male body, but because Nikos loves her whatever body she is in, so accepting the horrific offer wouldn’t actually have any benefit for her.

In the end, Morgan’s analysis of the gender politics of The Bone Palace strike me as incredibly wrongheaded; whereas she believes Downum to have written an anti-trans text on the level of Russ’ Female Man, it reads to me as a very trans-positive novel with an excellent, honest, empathetic and thoughtful depiction of trans life.
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The Bone Palace by Amanda Downum

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Death is no stranger in the city of Erisín– but some deaths attract more attention than others.

When a prostitute dies carrying a royal signet, Isyllt Iskaldur, necromancer and agent of the Crown, is called to investigate. Her search leads to desecrated tombs below the palace, and the lightless vaults of the vampiric vrykoloi deep beneath the city. But worse things than vampires are plotting in Erisín…

As a sorcerous plague sweeps the city and demons stalk the streets, Isyllt must decide who she’s prepared to betray, before the city built on bones falls into blood and fire.
~~~~~
The Bone Palace, follow-up to The Drowning City, sees Isyllt back in her home city of Erisín after the debacle of her last assignment; it also takes place three years after the first novel, meaning a whole new and different web of contacts has been built up.

It also means that we’re dropped into a completely different kind of plot. While The Drowning City was a sort of James Bond-style espionage thriller, The Bone Palace is rather closer to a whodunnit threaded through with a palace intrigue to put A Song of Ice and Fire to shame, although both of Downum’s novels are also shot through with some of the same themes and ideas. In this case the various plot threads, of murders, tomb robbings, and assassination plots all converge as the novel moves on, picking up pace as it goes; at times this can feel a little disjointed and choppy as different characters pursue different lines of enquiry at different paces, but it also has a sense of building to a grand climax which really is game-changing in a way many novels fail to achieve. The murder of a prostitute, robbing of the tomb of the queen, and standard palace politics all combine very well in Downum’s hands in that climax, brought together in a reasonable, believable way, different strands of the same plot; The Bone Palace achieves that complexity excellently.

It does this, at times, at the expense of an excellent cast, however. Downum has a large number of characters to maneuveur into place in The Bone Palace, and on the whole rises to the challenge; Isyllt remains brilliantly world-weary and distressed by the way she is buffetted around, dejected by Kiril’s rejection of her. The way that this clouds her judgement as a character and affects her across the novel is subtle and very well done, working very well; and Downum doesn’t show her as joyless, avoiding falling into the all-too-easy trap of a one-note character. Savedra is similarly well-written, although I’ll have more to say about her tomorrow; for now let’s just say that her transsexuality plays no more of a defining role in The Bone Palace than her family connections or her love of Nikos. Once we step outside this core pairing, though, characterisations falls off something of a cliff; Ashlin especially suffers from this, as we’re told on more than one occasion how complex she is without ever really seeing any of it, instead seeing someone who is basically purely impulsive, an underwhelming piece of writing. Nikos is similarly poorly written; with virtually only one characteristic, Downum has written the ultimate “sensitive male”, a dull, insipid character whose survival we care about only because of those it would impact upon, not on himself.

This is, to its credit, a very queer book, though. Again, the treatment of Savedra’s transsexuality will be discussed tomorrow, but The Bone Palace also includes an intersex woman, Dahlia, who resists the cultural imperative to become some kind of sacred prostitute (anyone who doesn’t fit into the binary in Erisin appears to be directed down this route, but the only ones who fit that refuse to). She’s well-drawn and the intersexuality is not emphasised, just simply a part of her motivation along with her low birth; Downum handles that very sensitively. Similarly, Downum includes a queer polyamorous relationship in the novel; The Bone Palace‘s central romantic relationship is such, in fact. It’s very well drawn, avoiding the usual pitfalls of expected-jealousy and similar, and is to be much applauded.

The Bone Palace gets a lot of things very right; it’s just unfortunate that some of the things more central to it as a novel fall by the wayside along the road…

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Dust by Elizabeth Bear

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On a broken ship orbiting a doomed sun, dwellers have grown complacent with their aging metal world. But when a serving girl frees a captive noblewoman, the old order is about to change….

Ariane, Princess of the House of Rule, was known to be fiercely cold-blooded. But severing an angel’s wings on the battlefield even after she had surrendered proved her completely without honor. Captive, the angel Perceval waits for Ariane not only to finish her off but to devour her very memories and mind. Surely her gruesome death will cause war between the houses exactly as Ariane desires. But Ariane’s plan may yet be opposed, for Perceval at once recognizes the young servant charged with her care.

Rien is the lost child: her sister. Soon they will escape, hoping to stop the impending war and save both their houses. But it is a perilous journey through the crumbling hulk of a dying ship, and they do not pass unnoticed. Because at the hub of their turning world waits Jacob Dust, all that remains of God, following the vapor wisp of the angel. And he knows they will meet very soon.
~~~~~
Dust is the start of one of Bear’s ventures into far-future space opera; the multi-award winning, genre-hopping auhor started the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy back in 2008 with this by-modern-standards-short 300-page novel. So let’s dive into it…

…or rather, be dropped. Dust opens at full throttle, and within the first two pages we’re introduced to the feudalism of Jacob’s Ladder, to the level of technology (writhing nanotech chains!), to the distinction between Exalt and Mean (albeit not in detail), to the agendered Head (zie/hir); Bear doesn’t believe in As You Know, Bob passages, but nor does she always believe in easing you into a world, and Dust demonstrates the brilliant power of that approach. The opening sets the stage for the rest of the novel where one has to puzzle out the various aspects; Bear won’t explain what she’s doing for her readers, instead assuming intelligence on their part, and that pays off really well, especially around the Angels and the geno-politics of the Conns.

The plot is driven by a number of those factors; Dust is (reportedly – I wouldn’t know!) hard science fiction that takes on a number of the tropes of epic or high fantasy adventures; Bear has the servant who suddenly discovers she is nobility, the quest to get a Maguffin to solve the problems of the world (that’s a reductive description, mind you!), the picking up of a ragtag band of companions along the way, and the travels throughout all sorts of places and overcoming various different perils. Dust does all that but in science fictional trappings and with the brilliant skill Bear is known for; there is no clear morally superior force involved here, there is no clear side for which we should be cheering despite the protagonists’ sympathies. It’s an interestingly achieved tightrope walk with more sides than a die, especially as the different agendas of the protagonists become increasingly clear, and the complexities are admirably handled, including a number of unexpected twists towards the climax.

The characters are a real strong point of the novel. From the naive servant Rien, unexperienced in politics and yet still a key figure in them, through the upright Knight Errant Sir Perceval, to the Angels Dust and Samael, this is a novel of personalities; mixed, varied, strong personalities. Dust has a huge cast and yet every single character is distinct and has a unique voice. This is especially important in noting that Bear distinguishes very well between the Angels, which are essentially AIs which are bounded by all sorts of things and with their own agendas, and the nanotech-enhanced humans, who still think in a somewhat nonhuman way; that ability to evoke nonhuman and posthuman thought-processes is absolutely brilliant.

This is also a book that demonstrates the extent to which Bear’s frequent comments about queerness being the norm for her are true. Dust has a lesbian character, who has a relationship with an intersexed woman; it has an asexual woman; it has polyamory; it has an agendered character – and none of these are presented as being an issue, they’re all just people, having their relationships and existences affirmed rather than questioned or attacked by the narratorial voice and the other characters. It’s a beautiful thing to see in a wonderfully diverse, female-led cast, although some aspects of it – the gendering of the AIs – are odd.

All in all, Dust really demonstrates the potential of space opera; an absolutely brilliant generation ship story from Bear.

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Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

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Miriam Black knows when you will die.

Still in her early twenties, she’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, suicides, and slow deaths by cancer. But when Miriam hitches a ride with truck driver Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days he will be gruesomely murdered while he calls her name.

Miriam has given up trying to save people – that only makes their deaths happen. No matter what she does, she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.
~~~~~
Wendig’s ‘Terrible Minds’ blog and his writing advice are both hugely popular, and this has helped drive the huge popularity of Blackbirds. It’s a popularity I can’t understand…

Blackbirds is written in a sort of sub-thriller style, meandering around without the laser-focus of a thriller but also without the depth of the average Dan Brown novel. Wendig’s plot darts backwards and forwards between interludes revealing backstory, and the present plot, which deviates and diverges, darts around simply to hurt Miriam more without any meaningful function. The damage seems not to actually affect Miriam or any other characters, and the events of the book seem to essentially have no consequence; although we are told that they have, without being shown it at all. This study in cruelty and nihilism would work if it was willing to show us that was what it was; but instead Blackbirds continually attempts to have more depth, import, weight, heft, impact to it.

The characters are similarly lightweight. Miriam is a character created by her nihilism and pain; Blackbirds is centred around her and that attitude seeps into the rest of the novel. The problem is that this is pure teenage angst and teenage nihilism; Miriam is defined by her swearing (ooo, edgy!) and her essential adolescence. Although it has to be said that that’s one characteristic more than any other member of the cast; Blackbirds is defined by simple, flat, dull characters with no depth to them whatsoever; there’s not a single individual here who we ought to care about, or are given any reason to. The villain is villainous, his henches are henchey in the most trope-centred manner, and the decisions they make have literally no impact; they’re all stripped of agency.

The writing style is similarly flat. Blackbirds seems to think swear words are, basically, punctuation; they’re thrown around by all the characters without any real thought, trying to imply punch in the narrative. The pace of the novel is flat and dull, unmoving, and without any real interest; Wendig doesn’t vary it, and that leaves us with a novel whose prose doesn’t do anything to help the plot, or to engage the readers. The language is plain and without adornment except swear words, without any evocation of anything; Blackbirds trusts in its “twists” to adorn the plot and, to be blunt, fails.

The whole thing really is just simple, plain, and above all pedestrian; Blackbirds, for all its popularity, just isn’t worth reading.

Normal by Amy Bloom

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What does it mean to be male or female? Is who we are determined by sex or gender? Novelist and psychotherapist Amy Bloom takes us on an intimate and humourous journey into the world of transsexuals, crossdressers and hermaphrodites, a group larger and more “normal” than most of us would imagine, and meets people who defy society’s stereotypes, being both like and unlike everyone else.

Pulling apart the fibres of our assumptions, Bloom brilliantly stitches together a revised, contemporary view of happiness, human nature, identity, self, and above all – what’s normal.
~~~~~
The blurb above has a serious error that I feel is in dire need of correction, because it gives the impression Normal is less nuanced than it is. Bloom, in this volume, has stitched together three separate essays with her prologue and afterword, one each on the separate (overlapping) worlds of transsexual men, crossdressers and hermaphrodites. This review will cover the volume as a whole, though it will pick up on issues in the individual essays.

The first thing to note is that this was published in 2003, and the essays, although revised somewhat, were written over the decade preceding that for media publication in The Atlantic and The New Yorker; Bloom’s ideas about gender, especially in regard to issues which mess with the binary, are rather dated now; and that Normal assumes, for much of its content, a gender binary that can be somewhat flexible but is still, on the whole, intersex people aside, a binary. That is rather less clear in her work on male transsexuals, but in her other essays there’s a very strong tendency to assert the binary as the absolute and deviation from it as strange – and to be interpreted as a part of the binary.

However, that isn’t to say this book doesn’t have its merits. Normal has enormous empathy for those discussed, even if Bloom can’t really understand them (crossdressers excluded, actually); she puts across their cases well and demonstrates why their acceptance matters and how we ought to expand our ideas of gender to include them, but that expansion is still very fine. She is clearly, in fact, an outsider looking in, commenting on these communities for the enlightenment of others, doing something between speaking for them and letting them speak through her; in the case of the transsexual men, the degree to which she gets into arguments about medical treatment without actually discussing it at all with the patients themselves is rather distressing, especially given how long she spends on how disgusting, weird, distressing and essentially ineffective she (and indeed the surgeons doing it) think it is.

This is thankfully in stark contrast to the chapter on intersexuality, wherein the brutality and subjectiveness of the surgery is made very clear; here at least Bloom centres her subjects and this is the strongest section of Normal, since she spends much more time discussing the people and less talking about her prejudices about them. She also opens it fantastically with a passage designed absolutely to create empathy with intersexual people by highlighting the appalling way they are treated by the medical profession, and the degree to which this doesn’t reflect their reality even remotely; and there is some brilliant discussion of intersexual advocacy.

The worst section, though, is that on male crossdressers. Bloom appears to have met two specific, overlapping or linked communities of male transvestites, and drawn her broad conclusions from that; Normal has no sympathy for these men, despite suggesting we should accept them, and instead makes us sympathise with their long-suffering, unhappy wives. The whole treatment of transvestites is exoticising and Othering, refusing to even think about understanding rather than simply discussing and psychologising them. Furthermore, from this specific group – of married closet transvestites – Bloom is generalising out to all transvestites; thus that a Baptist minister may get sexual gratification from crossdressing because of the hypocrisy of it leads her to conclude that all transvestites are hypocrits, an insupportable conclusion.

In the end, the primary problem with Normal is an almost inevitable one; despite some great elements, largely in the chapter on intersexuality but also some in Bloom’s writing on transsexual men, the essays are largely dated and very much from the perspective of an outsider, thinking binarily, looking in.