Loup Garron was born and raised in Santa Olivia, an isolated, disenfranchised town next to a US military base inside a DMZ buffer zone between Texas and Mexico. Loup’s father was one of a group of men genetically manipulated and used by the US government as a weapon, engineered to have superhuman strength, speed, sensory capability, stamina and a total lack of fear, and Loup, named for and sharing her father’s wolf-like qualities, is marked as an outsider.
After her mother dies, Loup goes to live among the misfit orphans at the parish church, where they seethe from the injustices visited upon the locals by the soldiers. Eventually, the orphans find an outlet for their frustrations: They form a vigilante group to support Loup Garron who, costumed as their patron saint, Santa Olivia, uses her special abilities to avenge the town.
Aware that she could lose her freedom, and possibly her life, Loup is determined to fight to redress the wrongs her community has suffered. And like the reincarnation of their patron saint, she will bring hope to all of Santa Olivia.
Jacqueline Carey’s Santa Olivia masquerades as a superhero novel, from the cover art down to the blurb, but that is a false cover for a very different novel, about growing up, about responsibility, about dedication, about love, and about difference. Albeit treated through a lens not altogether distant from that of a superhero novel.
Carey’s Santa Olivia takes place in a strange netherworld, a legally nonexistent town controlled by an uneasy truce between the army and Mexican gangs native to Santa Olivia. The people are disenfranchised and powerless, existing and surviving by clinging on, by serving the forces that control them; either the army, the gangs, or both. There is no resistance to this system, no ways to fight it, no way to escape it… except in a boxing match. These are organised by an American trainer living in Santa Olivia despite its strange status, and the general in command of the army base stationed near the town. Winning gets one two tickets out; staying the course and losing on points gets pay; losing gets nothing. One of Santa Olivia‘s key themes is this need to escape, and the terrifying prospect of it not being possible; Carey beautifully sympathetically portrays the feeling of helplessness that holds the town and everyone in it, the feeling that nothing can be done to save themselves from the twin forces they’re trapped between.
It’s a kind of dark stasis, nothing changing… inevitably, until. But that until isn’t Loup’s birth; Carey does an interesting bait-and-switch in Santa Olivia, building up Loup as a saviour with special powers, including acting as a vigilante version of the patron saint of the town, before switching to her half-brother, Tom, as having a chance to beat the system by winning the golden tickets through boxing. It’s a novel of dedication and training, as we see first Tom and then Loup each training for the match of their lives, and indeed the lives of those around them; they’re not fighting for themselves, but for their families, for the town around them. Santa Olivia is a study in the focus of these two, of their single-mindedness; what they have to give up to try and be successful, what they sacrifice. Indeed, Carey makes very clear that it is a sacrifice to be so dedicated; that it does require one to give up things, to lose things. It’s quite a painful novel in that regard, as we watch a romance bud, grow, and end, rather drastically and dramatically; that it is a relationship between two women which isn’t stigmatised is especially nice to see.
Actually, the level of sex-positivity in Santa Olivia is incredible. Not only does the book showcase a lesbian relationship as its central romance, one which we see develop and see the emotion behind, but there is also a background romance that is both queer and polyamorous; whilst criticised in some quarters it seems to simply be accepted by the townspeople. Similarly, Carey simply has characters having sex without making it a big deal; it’s just something people do, another activity not entirely different in kind from gaming or drinking, as recreation. This is a really lovely thing to see in a novel, because it is so rare; especially when paired with a cast largely made of people of colour. Carey is almost ticking off the diversity boxes here; not literally, of course, but Loup is non-neurotypical, as is Mack, another character who is not genetically enhanced; Santa Olivia treats them as human and interesting, and the focus on Loup’s interiority means we learn an awful lot about how to see the world from a non-neurotypical perspective.
So far, this review hasn’t really discussed the novel qua novel much. That’s because Santa Olivia lends itself to discussing issues, and discussing its content; rather than answering questions, it asks them, and leaves them open. It does this, however, in a very enjoyable framework; Carey is an excellent writer, and the suspense in this novel can be heartstopping, the romance beautiful and moving, the emotion piercing, and the pain really does get incredibly, powerfully dark. Santa Olivia doesn’t zip along, because the prose is rich, beautiful, powerful; it isn’t excessive, but it does tend towards the lush, the sensuous or sensual; whether sex or torture, a boxing match or running, the physicality is amazingly conveyed alongside the sensation of action, and Carey really carries that off.
Santa Olivia isn’t the best novel in the world, granted; but it is an excellent one, and Jacqueline Carey has combined some incredibly emotive writing with some fascinating questions. I recommend it to you.
Set against the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and then just before the outbreak of the Civil War, The Freedom Maze explores both political and personal liberation, and how the two intertwine.
In 1960, thirteen-year-old Sophie isn’t happy about spending summer at her grandmother’s old house in the Bayou. But the house has a maze Sophie can’t resist exploring once she finds it has a secretive and playful inhabitant.
When Sophie, bored and lonely, makes an impulsive wish inspired by her reading, hoping for a fantasy adventure of her own, she slips one hundred years into the past, to the year 1860. On her arrival she makes her way, bedraggled and tanned, to what will one day be her grandmother’s house, where she is at once mistaken for a slave.
As the blurb suggests, The Freedom Maze is a deeply political novel, and a not entirely comfortable one; Delia Sherman is dealing with the treatment of slaves and with the problems of racism in 1960s America through the eyes of a privileged white Southern girl from the 1960s, for whom now-unacceptable terms are seen as “polite”.
The Freedom Maze deals with issues of race and gender through a lens of speculative fiction, in the form of a time travel narrative; Sophie gets sucked into the past, into a hole created for her, where she is unexpectedly mistaken for a slave by her white ancestors – albeit, the slave offspring of the family – and treated as such. This allows Sherman to look at both modern (well, 1960s) white views of slavery – as having been an idyllic time where black people, by being enslaved, were “improved”; where there was somehow no abuse perpetrated – and compare Sophie’s preconceptions with the reality of her situation, which includes rape of slaves by whites, the intentional splitting up of families, the corporal punishment, and so on.
The Freedom Maze isn’t an unflinching exposé in the way Twelve Years A Slave is, or even as brutal as Django Unchained (the scene where a slave is ripped apart by dogs is an impressively understated one from Tarantino); it pulls its punches, somewhat, by having Sophie owned by “benevolent” masters. Sherman wrote this for a young adult audience, which perhaps explains why the book does pull those punches, especially in averting a rape scene and in avoiding the really ghastly elements of whipping, but at the same time it means The Freedom Maze ends up buying into some of the myths it is trying to attack.
The Freedom Maze also falls into a slight problem of ending up making slavery all about Sophie, the white privileged girl in the 1960s. This is a bildungsroman, but it is Sophie’s bildungsroman; Sherman is interested in the way that Sophie comes to understand her privilege and that means that we’re not following, say, a black slave, seeing their interiority, but a white girl with privilege who suddenly becomes a slave, a very different prospect. Sherman does avert this somewhat by having Sophie slowly forget her 20th century life and fall into believing that her 19th century past is the reality, but at the same time, this still isn’t total, and that she is used to save a black slave and get her to freedom is rather white-saviourish, even if she is at the time seen as black.
The novel isn’t just a tale about slavery, and about race and privilege, though; it’s also a story with characters in. The Freedom Maze does actually do really well on this front, and Sherman’s skill at writing believable, different, unique characters with their own individuality is really obvious; every character who appears has a different feeling to them, whether it be caustic or gentle, brutish or kind, selfish or generous. Characters are defined very much by their relationships to others, which creates an interesting situation for Sophie as she is thrust into the past; she has to develop new relationships in order to develop a new sense of selfhood, and Sherman is fascinating on how one’s associates influences one’s self-definition.
She also has an excellent prose style; The Freedom Maze draws the reader in and through the novel with the consistent simplicity of its prose, stripped down to what it needs to be rather than effusive, but also avoiding excessive technicality. The language isn’t so much simple as precise, or exact; the prose flows through the novel, moving the plot along as it does, carrying the feel of the novel in its waxing and waning, bringing us into the mind of Sophie. The way each character speaks reflects their specific time and place, their education and personality; but Sherman doesn’t fall into bad dialect or frustrating attempts to render accents phonetically, instead capturing the feel of speech rather than its literal letter-by-letter rendition onto the page, a difficult skill but a vital one in a novel like this.
In the end, while The Freedom Maze does have some problems, Sherman has written a story that does go some way to expose the evils of American slavery and to highlight the nature of white privilege; and she has created a readable and enjoyable one, at that.
Irene must be at the top of her game or she’ll be off the case – permanently…
Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities. And along with her enigmatic assistant Kai, she’s posted to an alternative London. Their mission – to retrieve a dangerous book. But when they arrive, it’s already been stolen. London’s underground factions seem prepared to fight to the very death to find her book.
Adding to the jeopardy, this world is chaos-infested – the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic. Irene’s new assistant is also hiding secrets of his own.
Soon, she’s up to her eyebrows in a heady mix of danger, clues and secret societies. Yet failure is not an option – the nature of reality itself is at stake.
The pulicity for The Invisible Library describes it as Doctor Who meets librarian spies; a better comparison might be Sherlock Holmes meets Multiversity, but even that doesn’t quite capture Genevieve Cogman’s debut.
This is an unusual novel, in that its protagonist is not a hero. That is, she is in some senses a hero – she does her job, she tries to save people while doing that job, and she is dedicated to her job – but the Library of the title is not interested in heroism, and nor is she; Irene is a character many of the readers of Cogman’s debut will recognise in themselves, someone driven primarily not by altruism but by curiosity and a desire for books. The Invisible Library doesn’t flinch from this, and Cogman even uses it as a point of conflict between our “heroic” team; the primary ally Irene finds in the alternate London questions her motives and those of the Library, and this leads to Irene having an ongoing internal conflict about her reasons for action, about what the right thing to do is. It’s fascinatingly played out across the novel, and Cogman resists the urge to easy conclusions; The Invisible Library neither rewards nor condemns Irene for her quandary, nor suggests her actions on either side are right or wrong, leaving it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.
There’s also an interesting thread of argument about power differentials and responsibilities running through the novel. The Invisible Library has discussions about the ethics of taking a book from a culture, even if it is only a copy, to add to a “universal library”; Cogman doesn’t explicitly draw the link but there is a clear continuity here between the actions of the Library in taking unique works away from worlds, and storing them where they can’t be accessed, and antiques collectors or even museums buying treasures from different cultures, and removing them from their cultural context for display and the edification of a completely different group of people. Again, The Invisible Library never gets preachy about this, but it does engage in the discussion quite strongly; and I suspect Cogman intends to do so, and she does so interestingly.
The Invisible Library is also praiseworthy for avoiding falling into one of the most significant traps of steampunk; it both acknowledges and averts the limits Victorian society put on women. Cogman has Irene discuss the problems of dresses versus trousers, especially for a woman of action; talk about how different roles in society – maid, society woman, et cetera – allow her different possibilities and accesses; and how she can use the expectations of a society against it. Throughout, Irene is a kickass heroine, who isn’t without weakness, nor is she invulnerable; but she is someone with her own agency, her own beliefs and opinions, and who acts in a way that is excellently human, frustrations and all.
This isn’t all high-concept intellectual discussion, though; The Invisible Library is primarily a steampunk romp, a heist-cum-Great Detective tale, with a primal conflict between Order and Chaos (not good and evil, though seen from Irene’s point of view it becomes so somewhat) thrown in for good measure. Cogman balances these elements rather well, and throws in a good bit of suspense and even some body-horror for good measure; we have people being skinned and their skin being worn at one point, whereas at another mind-controlled crocodiles attack a party. These disparate elements, which sound like they should have a completely different feel, are managed excellently by Cogman to create a unified whole that fairly zips along, with a sense of fun underlying the whole thing, the sense of a swashbuckling romp that, even in the darkest moments of the novel (and The Invisible Library does have its darkness), pervades everything.
The place where The Invisible Library falls down a bit is in some of its plotting. Cogman has thrown a whole lot of elements together and, while stylistically they work, it makes for a plot that is incredibly busy, with all sorts of false trails laid and red herrings thrown in for little benefit; there are any number of unresolved plot strands at the end of the novel that feel as if they have just been rather abandoned, such as the role of the Fae Lord Silver in affairs or the hatred between the British and the Fae of Liechtenstein. The Invisible Library does end with a sort of conclusion, in tying up its main plotline and indeed feeling as if it has finished, but so much remains unresolved, despite the promise of resolution earlier in the novel, that the conclusion is a little unsatisfying, as if things have been simply forgotten by Cogman.
In the end, though, I strongly come down in favour of The Invisible Library; Cogman asks some interesting questions, and discusses them well, through the lens of an enjoyable, readable, fun and fast-paced steampunk romp.
DoI: Review based on an ARC solicited from the publisher, Tor Books. The Invisible Library is currently out in ebook form, and will be released in paperback on 15th January.
Told with deadpan humour and bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut’s cult tale of global destruction preys on our deepest fears of witnessing Armageddon and, worse still, surviving it…
Dr Felix Hoenikker, one of the founding ‘fathers’ of the atomic bomb, has left a deadly legacy to the world. For he is the inventor of ‘ice-nine’, a lethal chemical capable of freezing the entire planet. The search for its whereabouts leads to Hoenikker’s three ecentric children, to a crazed dictator in the Caribbean, to madness. Felix Hoenikker’s Death Wish comes true when his last, fatal gift to mankind brings about the end, that for all of us, is nigh…
Vonnegut’s 1963 novel of the Cold War has become a classic novel for disaffected teenagers, with its nihilism and pessimism feeding into such disaffection with society; but Cat’s Cradle is also much more than that.
The novel focuses on Judah, our mononymous narrator, journalist and would-be biographer of Felix Hoenikker, referred to throughout the novel as the father of the bomb; we follow Judah as he meets and learns about the children and colleagues of Hoenikker, and through that lens about Hoenikker himself. Cat’s Cradle is not sympathetic to the men who created the bomb; instead it sees them, and indeed scientists generally, as risking the fate of the world for the purpose of satisfying curiosity. Indeed, Vonnegut seems to see scientists as completely detached from concerns about consequences, and non-scientists as unable to challenge that no matter how hard they try; this is an interesting position given the deep concern the actual creators of the bomb had with the consequences of their creation, of course.
Mostly, though, Cat’s Cradle is a satire of anything Vonnegut could lay his hands on, from the banana-free banana republic of San Lorenzo, a rock without value to those not living on it run by the heirs of a pair of stranded First World War soldiers, with an entirely artificial – and knowingly so – conflict between Bokononism, the self-statedly false religion founded by one, and the professedly Christian state run by the other. Through this, Vonnegut creates an excellent critique of the way the state creates its own enemies and then requires them to continue to survive, an especially telling point in the context of the modern Western panic over “Islamism” and “jihadism”. Of course, Cat’s Cradle also critiques a number of other issues, especially around American interactions with the world; an American couple are shown to be clueless, offensive, and racist, without any redeeming features, almost caricatures of the American abroad. Indeed, that they are racist by the standards of the book is itself arguably rather impressive; Vonnegut, writing during the civil rights movement, wrote a novel which has white saviours (albeit not the most successful saviours) and black islanders who fit all the stereotypes one might expect.
The central point of the novel, though, is its apocalyptic vision. Cat’s Cradle is really about the way science is bringing about the end of the world; hence Hoenikker inventing the apocalyptic ice-nine with the power to freeze all the water in the world. But it’s also about how that world-ending thing could actually end the world – by farcical accident, by horrible, random chance; Vonnegut doesn’t believe in intentionality controlling fate, but rather in the ultimate purposelessness of whatever we do, the in-the-end uncontrollable nature of fate.
Cat’s Cradle is a meditation on the world ending with a whimper, not a bang, and on the bleak, black humour that inheres to such an ending; it’s about the stupidity of humanity, and our failure to understand the idea of our actions having consequences. It’s not “great literature” in the sense of concern with interiority or emotion, but it speaks to us all the same, and wonderfully so.
‘Tis the season for listing upcoming books for 2015 that one is excited by the prospect of reading, and I see no reason to not get in on this game! I’m going to try to keep it to only a couple of books each month, otherwise this post will truly be monstrous, though… This is almost entirely drawn from Locus’ December 2015 list of forthcoming books, and hence is light on anything from the back end of 2015.
Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell (Tor)
Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older (Roc)
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear (Tor)
Rapture by Kameron Hurley (Del Rey)
Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Solaris)*
Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology eds. Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (PM)
Company Town by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot Books)
Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan (Tor)
Glorious Angels by Justina Robson (Gollancz)
The Boy Who Lost Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente (Corsair)
Persona by Genevieve Valentine (Saga)
Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley (HarperCollins)
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu (Saga)
Dreams of Shreds and Tatters by Amanda Downum (Solaris)*
The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor (DAW)
Cold Iron by Stina Leicht (Saga)
The Year’s Illustrious Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy, Vol. 1 ed Nisi Shawl (Aqueduct)
The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin (Tor)
Last First Snow by Max Gladstone (Tor)
Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville (Macmillan)
Savages by K. J. Parker (Subterranean)
Regeneration by Stephanie Saulter (Jo Fletcher)^
The Price of Valour by Django Wexler (Del Rey)
House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard (Gollancz)^
Court of Fives by Kate Elliott (Little, Brown)
Prodigies by Angelica Gorodischer (Small Beer)*
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit)
Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente (Tor)
The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (Tor)*
Making Wolf by Tade Thompson (Rosarium)
Updraft by Fran Wilde (Tor)*
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (Tor)
The Black Wolves by Kate Elliott (Orbit)
Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley (Angry Robot)
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
Planetfall by Emma Newman (Ace/Roc)*
Young Woman in a Garden by Delia Sherman (Small Beer)
What am I missing? What should I be looking forward to, but haven’t included here? What have I included but shouldn’t have – actually, don’t answer that one… The comments section is open; please chip in!
*=Added on later recommendation
^=Release date corrected
For years, Rafi Delarua saw his family suffer under his father’s unethical use of psionic power. Now the government has Rafi under close watch but, hating their crude attempts to analyse his brain, he escapes to the planet Punartam, where his abilities are the norm, not the exception. Punartam is also the centre for his favourite sport, wallrunning – and thanks to his best friend, he has found a way to train with the elite.
But Rafi soon realises he’s playing quite a different game, for the galaxy is changing; unrest is spreading and the Zhinuvian cartels are plotting, making the stars a far more dangerous place to aim. There may yet be one solution – involving interstellar travel, galactic power and the love of a beautiful game.
The Galaxy Game is Karen Lord’s follow up to her 2013 science fiction novel The Best Of All Possible Worlds, a xenoanthropological tale in the mode of 1960s Star Trek. The Galaxy Game is like more modern Star Trek such as Deep Space Nine or Voyager, though; less interested in ethical problems and social construction than in its political plotting and intrigues.
This is something of a problem, because the book is still very interested in social discussion; hence, The Galaxy Game spends a lot of time slowly demonstrating and unravelling the dual strands of capital that exist in the world: financial and social credit, which interact and interplay based on a variety of factors largely related to one’s personal networks of friends, family and associates. It’s a fascinating and complex system, which we learn largely alongside Rafi, but which also is never made entirely clear; social credit interacts to change the value of financial credit, and seems to provide for life rather than survival, although again, this is never really straightened out. Lord clearly knows how the system works and its intricacies, and indeed relies on them for her plot without really explaining them, creating a slightly strange situation, with a very interesting mix of the clear and the vague.
That doesn’t extend to most of the rest of Lord’s universe-building; The Galaxy Game has a complex, interesting and well-realised universe that Lord explores various parts of in the novel, largely around the ways psychics work in her universe and the game of Wallrunning, a complex sport whose mechanics are never made quite clear but that seems to perhaps be a kind of roller derby played on variable-gravity walls. It’s an interesting set of concepts that draw the reader in and are explored well throughout the novel, especially in conjunction with the economy and the way these things interact with the credit system. Lord’s worldbuilding is believable and meticulous, including the consequences of things like the uneven distribution of psychic powers and the fear that engenders in others, as well as the different approaches to life of different cultures.
The story of The Galaxy Game, then, is perhaps its weakest point; Lord’s novel ties itself up in knots trying to bring a number of different plots together without revealing the underlying mysteries, until the end when it feels as if the novel is rushing ahead to try to get to the conclusion point Lord wishes to reach. Indeed, much of the novel revolves around a story that is trivial in comparison to the later events, and barely connected to them; it’s actually something that could have worked very well, demonstrating the difference between the scale of personal events versus the galaxy-changing events of the larger plot, but Lord misses this as The Galaxy Game instead moves towards simply having these two scales and failing to connect them, or draw any meaningful discussion out of the links between them. The characters of the novel are largely those peripheral to the central events of the main story, and unfortunately their sudden introduction to its centre doesn’t feel natural, and instead forced; while good and interesting characters, reading their more mundane lives would have been a more satisfying experience had they not been entirely wildly torn from them.
In the end, The Galaxy Game is a less well-written novel than The Best Of All Possible Worlds, but still a very enjoyable sociological exploration of Karen Lord’s universe.
It does, however, have one hugely significant issue, and that is transphobia. One character, Syanrimwenil, is described as impersonating a woman in order to enter the female-only profession of being a “nexus”, a psychic co-ordinator of others. The problem is that both the novel and Ntenman refuse to gender Syanrimwenil as female, repeatedly referring to the character as a man pretending to be a woman; however, Syanrimwenil identifies as something between, not clearly either a cisgender male crossdressing nor a transgender woman. The Galaxy Game therefore feeds, in a very significant way, into a long-standing pattern of depictions of non-cis characters as part of a charade – as enacting a deception on others; while Lord presumably did not intend this, it is the consequence of how Syanrimwenil is presented while being the only character who isn’t cis.