Intellectus Speculativus

Home » 2017 » March

Monthly Archives: March 2017

Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař


Set in the near-distant future, Spaceman follows a Czech astronaut as he launches into space to investigate a mysterious dust cloud covering Venus, a suicide mission sponsored by a proud nation. Suddenly a world celebrity, Jakub’s marriage starts to fail as the weeks go by, and his sanity comes into question. After his mission is derailed he must make a violent decision that will force him to come to terms with his family’s dark political past.

An extraordinary vision of the endless human capacity to persist-and risk everything-in the name of love and home, by a startlingly talented young debut novelist.
Jaroslav Kalfař is this year’s big literary-science fiction debut, it seems; in a Guardian interview, he described the novel as “literary historical science fiction with a philosophical bent in a romantic tradition”, which is a rather intriguing description blending various interesting elements!

Spaceman of Bohemia is centred on Jakub Procházka, and follows him, nonchronologically, from his childhood in the dying days of the Soviet Union and the rising days of democracy to the imminent future of 2018, and his Czech Republic Space Program mission to examine a newly emerged cloud of purple space dust. It’s not a solipsistic novel though; it’s very much centred on Jakub’s relationships with other people, whether in the past, with his parents, grandparents, and those around him, or in the present, with his wife Lenka, with Petr, his ground control contact in Prague, or with Hanuš, the strange alien who appears partway through his journey (and who may or may not have any external, objective existence). At first it seems we will only see each of these characters through Jakub’s eyes, but Kalfař is a more careful, and more interesting, author than that; Jakub is, across the course of the novel, forced to understand the subjectivity of other people, and how their lives do not in fact revolve around the Spaceman of Bohemia, who is merely one lens through which to see the world.

What is perhaps most striking about Spaceman of Bohemia, in some ways, is its engagement with, and challenge of, the one-sidedness of many novels. For much of the book, we only see Jakub’s wife Lenka through his eyes; and then suddenly, we see her from her own perspective, see her unstanding of their memories and life together, see how different perspectives of the same events can be so at odds despite the events being objectively the same. Kalfař’s way of doing this is really effective, and forces empathy on Jakub; there’s a kind of statement being made about masculinity and the way men treat women, as well as everything else going on.

The plot takes a couple of twists and turns as Jakub reaches his realisations; Spaceman of Bohemia starts with a very simple plot, then introduces a series of complicating factors – starting, of course, with the alien Hanuš, but also including the pasts of Jakub’s parents, and what happens when Jakub gets to the cloud of cosmic dust he is supposed to be collecting. Kalfař runs his two timelines forward pretty much in parallel, so that we advance through Jakub’s mission in roughly the same direction as we advance through his life leading up to that mission; it builds things up to a natural conclusion… which is about two thirds of the way through the book, and when things take something of a brilliant sideways turn.

The actually science fictional elements of Spaceman of Bohemia are both huge and utterly irrelevant. The spacecraft, the alien, the cosmic dust – all are central to the events of the novel, but could easily have been swapped out by Kalfař for something more Earthly and mundane without fundamentally changing anything in the emotional arc of the book; it’s a fascinating insight into that quote above, in which he refuses to be pinned down to a genre: there’s no reason for this to be science fiction, except that Kalfař really wanted it to be.

Spaceman of Bohemia is probably the best “literary historical science fiction with a philosophical bent in a romantic tradition” I’ll read this year; even if it isn’t, Kalfař has written a great book with an intensely human core.

DISCLOSURE: This review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher, Sceptre, at work.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.


Hunger Makes The Wolf by Alex Wells

The strange planet known as Tanegawa’s World is owned by TransRifts Inc, the company with the absolute monopoly on interstellar travel. Hob landed there ten years ago, a penniless orphan left behind by a rift ship. She was taken in by Nick Ravani and quickly became a member of his mercenary biker troop, the Ghost Wolves.

Ten years later, she discovers that the body of Nick’s brother out in the dunes. Worse, his daughter is missing, taken by shady beings called the Weathermen. But there are greater mysteries to be discovered – both about Hob and the strange planet she calls home.
I was sold this novel as being Mad Max: Fury Road-reminiscent biker gangs in space with added union politics, written by an enby author. That’s so very far, obviously, up my street, both politically and aesthetically, so I have been waiting for this book for some time.

Turns out, Wells does not disappoint. Hunger Makes The Wolf is a combination of elements that should not work: parallel plotlines of a kind of quasi-mystical Gaia-esque planetary symbiosis, a mercenary biker gang rebelling against uncaring, profit-driven corporate overlords of the most awful capitalist kind, union organising activities, and international-corporate espionage shouldn’t all come together with the force and potency that they are achieved with. Each one is inextricably tied to the other two by emotional, political and human connections, so that the three run together, developing different aspects of the same storyline out, rather than separating out into disparate tales that don’t connect, giving the book a serious drive and punch (I stayed up until 5 in the morning to finish it, I couldn’t put it down). Wells writes action scenes with a fast paced breathlessness and mess that really puts the reader in the middle, and their control of the quieter, emotional or tense scenes is absolute: they really move the reader.

None of that would be possible without the characters of Hunger Makes The Wolf, though. This is a novel centred on two women, Hob and Mag, who each take charge of their own destinies in different ways; the former by embracing her mercenary biker life, the latter by becoming a passionate union organiser. The way Wells draws out the contrasts between the two, it’s clear they are very carefully showing two different, equally valid, equally fascinating models of resistance; within the law, technically, and nonviolent but disruptive, and totally outside it. The two characters are strong and fascinating and well-written, and Mag’s quiet queerness is absolutely wonderful: not something made a huge deal out of, just a subtly done little line or two threaded through the novel.

That’s not to say they’re the only two characters Wells gives any flesh to; Hunger Makes The Wolf practically overflows with characters, a true ensemble cast, and well used, to boot. From Nick, boss of the Ghost Wolves biker gang, to the Bone Collector, the strange, alien being who seems to know a lot more about what’s going on than he lets on, through the rest of the gang, the miners, and even the company employees who we meet and see as interesting humans in their own right, warped by capitalism and wilful ignorance of the deprivations of those around them, Well doesn’t let anyone they give a name to get away without a character, even if they only appear once or twice; those appearances are impressively characterising, the way cameos in a film can be.

If Hunger Makes The Wolf has a flaw, it’s in worldbuilding. We keep being teased with glimpses of a much broader universe, especially once Meetchim and Rollins enter the picture, and of something strange going on on Tanegawa’s World; but these are glimpses, frustrating hints that there’s a bigger picture that some of the characters know and won’t let us in on. Tanegawa’s World is itself fantastically portrayed and built, with the economics and ecology actually paid attention to, and the way the whole world is distorted by TransRift is eloquently displayed; it just would have been better to have either a clearer picture of the wider world we’re given glimpses of.

Hunger Makes The Wolf can perhaps best be described in musical terms: imagine the powerful, punchy, awesome death’n’roll of latter-day Satyricon married to the lyrical sensibilities of Billy Bragg in his most pro-trade union and leftist moments. Alex Wells managed to write a 400 page book with that kind of power and political urgency and heart, and I am so very much hoping for a sequel.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon. (As an added incentive, last week, patrons got this review with a bonus: a small selection of tracks to contextualise the musical comparisons in the closing paragraph)


The Dragon With A Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Dragon Chocolate Heart.jpg
Aventurine is the fiercest dragon in the mountains. But what happens when such a fierce dragon is tricked into drinking enchanted hot chocolate and becomes… a HUMAN?
With a blurb and cover like that, who could resist a children’s book about dragons and hot chocolate? Inevitably, not this reader, so I picked up Stephanie Burgis’ latest book at work, intrigued. Children’s books aren’t my normal thing, but this one?

The Dragon With A Chocolate Heart is what our American cousins call a middle-grade novel, what we classify at work as a 9-12 book; it’s a slim volume, at 240 pages, but packed full of content and plot. Burgis starts the book with a perfectly ordinary opening, a young girl feeling stifled by her parents’ strictures; of course, this girl is a dragon, the brother she scuffles with a dragon reading philosophy, and her overbearing elder sister a brilliant poet… and dragon. So, rather than escaping from court, or from a hovel, she escapes from a mountain lair, to try and catch prey… but her human prey tricks her into drinking a hot chocolate, that renders her human. Burgis manages to showcase everything great that permeates this novel in these first few chapters…

The Dragon With A Chocolate Heart is absolutely brilliant in its psychology; it really gets into things like the feeling of being stifled as a child, and the terrifying realisation of what one is being protected from; Burgis shows us panic attacks and anxiety and depression in their grim reality, but without making them magical or extraordinary, showing them powerfully and beautifully and horribly as they are; shows us the joy of finding one’s calling; and the wonders of friendship, all vividly portrayed.

The Dragon With A Chocolate Heart is also a very physical novel; that is, it’s deeply invested in physicality, most of all in a sense often neglected, that of smell. Burgis talks about the changing shape of Aventurine’s body in terms of how she interacts with the world, how things seem different sizes and shapes, how balancing and movement are different; she describes a world centred not on sight alone but also heavily on smell, with Aventurine making extensive use of a preternaturally good sense of it; and uses taste beautifully, to the point that reading the book required a hot chocolate just because the descriptions of the taste were so evocative.

The actual plot of The Dragon With A Chocolate Heart isn’t nearly so innovative; it follows a quite traditional structure of children’s books, although it does it very well, with few if any surprises on the way. The beats are played well, and the pace is good, with the whole thing moving at a good clip, lingering a little on some of the more homely scenes but keeping action fast-paced and drudgery slight when present; this isn’t a book to get caught on and stuck in a rut with, it’s a book to keep going through and just read. The characters are similarly expected, from Aventurine herself, via her family, to her found human family; they’re all well-written, but all are somewhat slight, without much depth, with the exception of Marina, who has depths that are only revealed when important to Aventurine.

Of course, that’s arguably to be expected of a children’s book; they’re not intended to be deep character studies, for the most part! The Dragon With A Chocolate Heart is fun, fast-paced, and an exercise in impressively physical writing from Burgis. Recommended for the child of all ages!

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.


All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry

The first book in an exciting YA trilogy, this is the story of two best friends on the verge of a terrifying divide when they begin to encounter a cast of strange and mythical characters.

Set against the lush, magical backdrop of the Pacific Northwest, two inseparable best friends who have grown up like sisters—the charismatic, mercurial, and beautiful Aurora and the devoted, soulful, watchful narrator—find their bond challenged for the first time ever when a mysterious and gifted musician named Jack comes between them. Suddenly, each girl must decide what matters most: friendship, or love. What both girls don’t know is that the stakes are even higher than either of them could have imagined. They’re not the only ones who have noticed Jack’s gift; his music has awakened an ancient evil—and a world both above and below which may not be mythical at all. The real and the mystical; the romantic and the heartbreaking all begin to swirl together, carrying the two on journey that is both enthralling and terrifying.

And it’s up to the narrator to protect the people she loves—if she can.
As a former student of the Classics and someone fascinated by the genre of academia known as Reception Studies, a book that is at least Orpheus-adjacent is always going to fascinate me; as part of a series whose title is explicitly Ovidian, McCarry was always going to get my attention. But what does All Our Pretty Songs do with that attention…?

All Our Pretty Songs is beautifully written, that’s definitely true. The language is on its face very plain, simple, and blunt; McCarry doesn’t use the lyrical approach much fantasy applies to create its beauty, and isn’t a poetic writer. However, she is a fantastic prose artist; using a simpler language and a plainer prose style to realise some really fantastic visuals and settings, and to set a mood of euphoria, despair, drunkenness etc. There’s a very well controlled approach to voice on display, and some of the best passages of the book are where McCarry in using run-on sentences and chaotic grammar to create a psychedelic sense of the world.

However, this is where my appreciation for All Our Pretty Songs starts to break down a bit. The characters are a little flat, in part because our protagonist never really cares about anyone else’s wants or desires much; instead, she imprints her belief about what they want onto them, assumes their motives and minds. That would work better if we were shown at any time other than the twist that she was wrong; and might work better if the protagonist was a little more interesting herself, rather than so bent on defining herself against the people around her, and by comparison to them, so we never really get a good sense of anyone, and no emotional relationship feels particularly impactful. It also doesn’t help that McCarry flirts a lot with queerness without ever coming out and making it explicit; Aurora and our narrator share a lot of kisses for people who are apparently completely straight, and there’s a lot of queer-coding without ever once having queer desire among the protagonists a reality.

The plot is pretty simple; romance followed by katabasis, as one might expect from an Orphic retelling. All Our Pretty Songs leans pretty hard on the romance aspect, and the impending tragedy of the (double-)katabasis, for its emotional impact; everything is built up with a sense of inevitable tragedy built very explicitly into the story and writing, so that everything is tinged with doom, but that doesn’t make it powerful and portentous, only far too drawn out. It might work better if the romance felt a little more real, but it all feels a little too storybook; McCarry’s failure to create characters, through the narrative lens, who feel like people really shows here.

In the end, this is about 150 pages of set up for a 60 page pay off; intending to be a meditation on love, on ambition, on competing desires and drives, it ends up without the heft to make that work, and without the audience connection to really successfully drive it, at least for this audience. All Our Pretty Songs has great potential; it’s intensely frustrating that it doesn’t live up to it.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.


Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

All her life, Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, dangerous Goblin King. They’ve enraptured her mind, her spirit, and inspired her musical compositions. Now eighteen and helping to run her family’s inn, Liesl can’t help but feel that her musical dreams and childhood fantasies are slipping away.

But when her own sister is taken by the Goblin King, Liesl has no choice but to journey to the Underground to save her. Drawn to the strange, captivating world she finds―and the mysterious man who rules it―she soon faces an impossible decision. And with time and the old laws working against her, Liesl must discover who she truly is before her fate is sealed.

Dark, romantic, and powerful, S. Jae-Jones’s Wintersong will sweep you away into a world you won’t soon forget.
Wintersong is one of those books that is getting hype all over the place, in part I suspect because of the way its plot (and indeed aesthetic) recalls the cult classic film Labyrinth, starring David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King. So, does it stand up to the comparison…?

In some ways, Wintersong is very much in the shadow of its inspirational predecessor. S. Jae-Jones has drawn strongly on the aesthetics of Jim Henson’s puppets and Ellis Flyte and Brian Froud’s costuming of both Jareth and Sarah, such that the Goblin King of the novel very strongly resembles the striking portrayal by David Bowie, including hair and slight androgyny. Similarly, the goblins strike the reader as rather Hensonesque, with the way they are described not recalling specific puppets from the film, but the whole aesthetic of the film. The big difference is in the setting; the late 18th century Bavarian setting of the real world and the very much more subterranean, earthy and claustrophobic setting of the Underground world are new to Wintersong, and Jae-Jones recalls them very clearly to the reader’s eye, not necessarily with precise strokes but with broad, evocative ones.

The other key aesthetic difference is the way Jae-Jones uses music in Wintersong. Music is the driving force of the novel, from Liesl’s music with her brother to the strange interest in her music of the Goblin King; music, its playing, its composition, its style and its quality run as themes throughout the novel, in a very explicit way. The problem here is that evoking something so auditory as music on the page is virtually impossible; different media manage different approaches, from only showing its effects, to putting in the notation in a comic, but describing it with a mix of specific (such as key and tempo) and general really doesn’t work. Instead, what the reader is left with is the sense of missing out on something, instead of Jae-Jones having achieved something.

The plot is a neat little thing of twists and turns, in five sections, each with its own way of turning what came before on its head; Wintersong diverges increasingly far from the Labyrinth template as you get deeper into the book, with an interesting approach to developing romance and love, and what those things can mean, explored by Jae-Jones. The different permutations of relationships in each movement are really well explored, and the relationship between Liesl and the Goblin King isn’t a simple, one-dimensional one, it’s a complex, changing thing, that develops alongside their characters across the course of the novel.

That character development is the core of Wintersong; it’s Liesl’s bildungsroman, and also to some extent Josef’s (happily queer!) bildungsroman in the background and enabled by Liesl. The way Jae-Jones handles that character development is subtle and never made explicit, very carefully; the whole book, being told in third person from Liesl’s point of view, shows the development in everything from the narrative voice to what it focuses on, but no one ever talks about growing up. We also see different ways of growing up and accepting oneself, dealt with very neatly.

In the end, Wintersong is let down by itself; if S. Jae-Jones had stuck to the emotional and visual-aesthetic story, this would be a brilliant fairy tale. As it is, she tried to deal with turning the purely auditory into text, and there, she failed, and in doing so, let the whole book down.

DISCLOSURE: This review is based on a copy of the final novel provided by the publisher, Titan Books.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.


The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist by S. L. Huang

Little Homo Sapiens Scientist.jpg
Dr. Cadence Mbella is the world’s most celebrated scholar of the atargati: sentient, intelligent deep-water beings who are most definitely not mermaids. When Cadence decides to release a captive atargati from scientific experimentation and interrogation, she knows her career and her life is forfeit. But she yearns for the atargati–there is still so much to know about their physiology, their society, their culture. And Cadence would do anything to more fully understand the atargati… no matter what the cost.
S. L. Huang’s The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist is a novelette put out by one of my favourite blogger-fanzine-publishers (they keep expanding! Where do they find the time?), the Book Smugglers. I bought one of their limited run of print copies, of which I believe a small number of the run are still available, because it’s rather a pretty little edition.

Huang’s novelette is a strange little piece, narrated in first person, some present, some past tense. The narrator is The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist of the title, and has the voice to match; precise, at times frustrated with popular thinking and approach to her field and discipline, but with a combination of cold logical admiration and loving feelings towards her subjects. This book really is about the scientific process from her point of view; what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in the pursuit of knowledge, how we go about fundamentally anthropological pursuits, how we attempt to communicate with and understand other cultures. It’s a brilliant approach to an inverted Little Mermaid retelling, because it stops it being a Little Mermaid retelling – that is, one doesn’t realise until the end that that is what is happening (especially given the resistance of the narrator to the terms “mermaid” and “siren”).

The plot, as the end of that paragraph gives away, is conventional; or rather, a twist on convention, and then another twist. The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist plays with the Little Mermaid story, changes and alters it in interesting ways to provoke more thoughtful, interesting ethical questions, twists it on its head; Huang neatly uses the viewpoint of an increasingly undisinterested scientist struggling to come to terms with the loss of her objectivity to ask the reader questions about love, about sexuality, about humanity, about what one would and should give up. It’s a neatly done trick, and the use of the varying tenses gives a real sense of immediacy to the present tense, since it so readily distinguishes “real-time” narration from retrospective thoughts.

This is also a deliciously queer novelette. The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist has a lesbian protagonist and one of the main secondary characters is nonbinary in some sense, using the pronoun ze/hir; while the homosexuality of the protagonist provided a faultline with her family in the past, the enby scientist is presented as having a happy home life, being a competent scientist, and hir gender has no bearing on hir approach to science, except for a rejection of simplistic presentations of sex and gender when communicating how human society works. The way Huang works in the queerness is subtle and beautifully affirming and brings warmth to the heart of this enby.

All in all, The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist is an excellent example of what a novelette can do that a novel perhaps might not so well; S. L. Huang has here produced a brilliant science fictional reworking of The Little Mermaid that is the perfect length for what she wished to convey.

DISCLOSURE: I am friends with the Book Smugglers, and have met them in person and drunk with them on multiple occasions. This book was purchased at full price.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.


The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Bear Nightingale.png

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.

But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods…
As you’ll likely have gathered, I’m a sucker for fairytales, for non-Anglosphere stories, and for hype, and The Bear and the Nightingale is a much-hyped retelling of a Russian folk tale, grabbing my attention thricefold. Beautifully packaged and widely anticipated, when I saw it on the shelves at work I didn’t really bother trying to resist.

The writing is undeniably beautiful; Arden is fantastic at calling up the windswept snow, the chilly winter, the expectation of frostbite, the fear of famine, the darkness of a long night, the beauty of an icon, the crowded musk of a family packed together in the long months. The Bear and the Nightingale is a visually stunning book in that sense, with evocative writing that makes the best use of the landscapes and settings of the tale; there really are shadows in the woods, and those aren’t just your mind creating faces where none really are… It’s got a kind of creepiness to it, at times, that matches Algernon Blackwood at his creepy animistic best.

Sadly, the beauty of the writing isn’t really matched by the rest of the book. The Bear and the Nightingale falls into a number of tropes typical of fairytales, including passive women (it almost avoids this and then, at the crucial moment… men to the rescue), the wicked and hateful stepmother who sees her new stepdaughter as a rival, and a seriously weird objectification of women (from everyone; so many of the male characters’ motivations are based around the sexuality of the women, without concern for the thought of the women). Arden is uncritically retelling, rather than reworking, rewriting, or otherwise playing with, a folk story, and a rather misogynistic form of that folk story. This is no subversion, unlike the work of Kirsty Logan, or critical retelling, like Angela Carter, or complete rebuilding, a la T. Kingfisher; Arden has left all the elements of such stories that cry out to be rewritten for a modern age wholly intact.

The plot is also just messy. Plot lines are picked up (a son goes to a monastery; a daughter marries upwards; the father marries upwards) but then fundamentally abandoned – there appears to be no change in the family or in social stature from any of the events of the book except in the immediate village. Hooks are dangled throughout that are seized upon for a moment but then passed over as if the reader out to expect no further consequences from events, actions, or feelings; every character, one feels, is left totally unfulfilled because the thing that would fulfill them vanished from the book.

The other major problem is a thematic one. Arden takes as a key theme the conflict between traditional beliefs and Christianity, and ends up in something of an incoherent muddle; The Bear and the Nightingale casts as evil those who fanatically take religion as the only truth, in opposition to superstition, and makes those superstitions true without the slightest hint Christianity is… but also attempts to have Christianity correct, not just a positive force but a true one as well, a needle it never really threads well. It’s a poorly thought through argument that is just left to lie, like so many of the plotlines in the novel.

That is all compounded by an unnecessary afterword that her editors should have told her to leave on the cutting room floor. Arden, in The Bear and the Nightingale, uses inconsistent transliterations – which no reader would know unless they knew the Russian; the problem is her reasoning for why, namely “to retain a bit of their [the Russian words] exotic flavour”, and to make them “aesthetically pleasing” to Anglophone readers. Both lines of reasoning recast the whole book in an unpleasantly Othering light, right down to the approach to the setting; everything must be looked at with more critical eyes, and as a result some less pleasant and happy conclusions reached.

In the end, I came out of The Bear and the Nightingale disappointed. I was hoping for something more like Catherynne Valente’s Deathless, a reworking of a myth, but instead came out of a book with the prose of a Valente but no real craft to back it up.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.