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Arriving at his fourth school in six years, diplomat’s son Osei Kokote knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day – so he’s lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can’t stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players – teachers and pupils alike – will never be the same again.
The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970s’ suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practise a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Watching over the shoulders of four 11-year-olds – Osei, Dee, Ian and his reluctant girlfriend Mimi – Tracy Chevalier’s powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.
Hogarth have been, since 2015, putting out retellings of some of Shakespeare’s plays by notable modern authors; they started with Jeanette Winterson’s Gap of Time, a retelling of The Winter’s Tale; and have also published the magnificent Hagseed by Margaret Atwood, a truly great Tempest reworking; Vinegar Girl, Ann Tyler’s terrible Taming of the Shrew that doubles down on the misogyny of the original; and Howard Jacobson’s Merchant of Venice retelling, Shylock Is My Name, which I’ve not read. Their latest is Tracy Chevalier’s reworking of Othello into a 1970s grade school…
Othello is a hard play to rework in a modern setting. It relies so much on what is not very obviously racist stereotyping, and also on racist attitudes towards its titular character; Chevalier, unlike Atwood, has therefore chosen a period setting, in this case 1970s affluent Washington, D.C., that makes the racism easy to portray – and a little more distant from the present. Osei is a new student in the school, son of a Ghanaian diplomat, and Chevalier uses the intensity of grade school – where relationships are made and broken in an hour, where feelings are raw and immature – to restage her Othello in the course of a single day.
There are drawbacks to this approach. Primarily, New Boy seems perpetually unsure how mature its sixth graders are; their claims to have had sex are obviously intended as overstatement, and yet the way Ian, in particular, is presented as sexually predatory, and the way the girls are presented as fully pubescent, seems to belong to somewhat older children. This tangles the plot, and drags the reader out repeatedly; setting the book with even slightly older children, by a few years, would have worked rather better. There is also an unexpected homophobic sideswipe; Chevalier isn’t wrong that these were the attitudes of the period but, since this is literally the only time queerness appears in New Boy, a half page of reported homophobia feels, to say the least, excessive.
The hardest part of New Boy to discuss is the plot. After all, it’s the plot of Othello. We know the plot; Chevalier didn’t invent the plot; she only translated it. So the question is, I suppose, is that translation good? And the answer is, it’s mixed. The sense of drama is incredibly strong, despite knowing how the story ends; the stakes feel high, even on a grade school playground, where duels to the death are reduced to fist fights. But incongruities – like Mimi’s silent compliance – feel more strained, and the credulity of Osei to Ian feels stranger and much less in character.
There’s also one significant flaw common to most approaches to Othello, and nothing to do with New Boy‘s setting: the characterisation of Ian, Chevalier’s Iago stand-in. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Ian is simply a bully; Chevalier doesn’t really go into it more than that, and even the sections from Ian’s perspective make one feel like he’s simply doing harm for the sake of doing harm, rather than for any more explicable or understandable reason, something that originates in the play but is painfully obvious when we get multiple pages of his point of view of events at a time here.
This is in marked contrast with Chevalier’s treatment with the rest of the cast of New Boy. Each of her other characters is treated sympathetically, from Osei and Dee, through Ian’s unwilling accomplice Mimi, to Casper, the golden boy who Ian uses to enact his plan to ruin Osei; they’re interesting, with compactly told but very full back stories and rich inner lives, that animate the story and plot such that we’re actually affected, anew, by a story we all know. Osei’s story is especially interesting, and serves as a hook for all sorts of other stories – his radical Black Panther-sympathising sister Sisi I would especially like to learn more about, but also what his father actually does as a diplomat moving around so much.
In the end, New Boy is a rather good retelling of Othello, suffering some of the flaws of the original and adding in more beside, while enhancing the characterisation of a number of backgrounded characters in Shakespeare’s work and with Chevalier much more sympathetic to the titular character. This isn’t at the Hagseed end of Hogarth’s set, but it’s much nearer it than the Vinegar Girl end.
Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received on request from the publisher, Hogarth, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
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Rather than reviewing these books, I’m just going to talk about some of the things they do; specifically, some of the wonderfully queer things they do. Since I am covering both An Accident of Stars and A Tyranny of Queens, there will be SPOILERS in this post, as well as TRIGGER WARNINGS for discussion of rape and sexual assault. The blurb of An Accident of Stars can be found here.
These books are the portal fantasy of my heart. In a way that something like Every Heart A Doorway appears to have been for others, the Manifold Worlds tapped into everything I loved about portal fantasy, everything books like Narnia ever set up for me, and also into everything I never saw in portal fantasy: real consequences, real people, real lives. This is a series that engages with issues of mental health, consent, different manifestations of queerness, power, perceptions and how they can be clouded, and even the very idea of narrative; that is a backbone of the whole duology, in fact. The Manifold Worlds are meaty, meaty books to get your teeth into.
Let’s start by talking about queerness. This is a series which not only has multiple trans characters, but it also depicts multiple ways of being trans, and ways of relating to one’s body. Yena, who we meet in An Accident of Stars, is a trans woman, who used a magical ritual to bring her body in line with her self-image as a woman. This is, per the worldbuilding Meadows does in her primary secondary world, a fairly standard thing; not exactly common, but no stigma attaches to it, and it’s just something you can do. However, another character, Naruet, a trans man we meet in A Tyranny of Queens, does not wish to change his body; mention is made early on of his binder, and later in the book he talks explicitly about not wanting to change his body, for various reasons. Again, this isn’t judged; it’s simply his choice, and that’s all that matters: he’s a man with this body, and that’s fine too. Meadows has built a world so incredibly powerfully accepting for trans people in a way reality isn’t, yet, and reading it feels like coming home.
This is also a world where sexuality is seen as much more fluid, and polyamorous bisexuality the assumed norm. In both An Accident of Stars and A Tyranny of Queens, Meadows gives us multiple models of relationships in various forms, whether couples or larger groups, of various gender combinations, and none are valued or devalued; the central theme is trust and mutual respect and openness. Meadows makes it a point to build every good relationship on those foundations, and reveals, in A Tyranny of Queens, that a key relationship was built on manipulation and lies and shows how much damage that can do to everyone around the manipulator, but especially their primary victim.
Indeed, The Manifold Worlds deals with sexual assault and other kinds of trauma on multiple occasions; sexual assault is most explicitly a theme in A Tyranny of Queens, but trauma of all kinds runs through both books, including of physical injury, complete culture shock, and the result of abuse. Saffron, one of the viewpoint characters and protagonists, has PTSD which becomes gradually more pronounced in An Accident of Stars, climaxing in her treatment by a counsellor in A Tyranny of Queens and the complete failure of those around her to understand her PTSD, except for a character who was victim of a rape, but not believed by anyone; Meadows doesn’t expicitly make statements, but does expect the reader to draw a particular conclusion. Further, Leoden, the primary antagonist of An Accident of Stars, is revealed to have been literally brainwashed and mindwiped by his consort Kadeja, who takes over the role of primary antagonist for A Tyranny of Queens; the reactions of different characters to this revelation – including disbelief, blaming him, and blaming themselves for not protecting him or seeing it – are portrayed with an incredible complexity, and an emotional empathy which doesn’t stop Meadows from coming down on one side of the issue. Trauma isn’t the only engagement with neurodiversity in The Manifold Worlds; the aforementioned trans man, Naruet, is portrayed as being autistic, and characters in A Tyranny of Queens adapt to his needs and requirements virtually without comment or without pressuring him to neurotypicality.
On a more purely narrative level, The Manifold Worlds is interesting for how it deals with the idea of narrative. In both books, there is the order of the Shavaktiin, “mystics and storytellers who believe that history is shaped by human stories” (to quote the glossary), who both observe and involve themselves in events as recorders and as influencers. Meadows plays with the way the Shavaktiin abrogate agency to the Great Story whilst also having to exercise it all the time in their choice of interventions in service to it; An Accident of Stars, in fact, turns on the idea of how much agency Shavaktiin are allowed to display, and A Tyranny of Queens takes up that thread, with interesting consequences for what we might call genre-savviness, only rather less genre-specific and more related to the shape of human narrative.
On the whole, portal fantasy doesn’t have major traumatic psychological consequences for the characters, and the portals they step through are usually into worlds far more familiarly normative. Foz Meadows, in The Manifold Worlds, throws those norms completely out of the window, and does so with gusto and relish; reading these books was like coming home to me, to a place I was welcome and known in, and where the friends I know exist and have a home too. For all the marginalised people out there, I cannot recommend these books highly enough.
By day, Rupert Wong – former triad soldier and sorcerer turned chef – prepares delicious meals from human meat for a dynasty of powerful ghouls in Kuala Lumpur; by night, he’s a seneschal and arbitrator for the Ten Chinese Hells. It’s a living, if not much of one.
When Ao Qin – Dragon of the South, god of the seas – smashes in Rupert’s window and demands he investigate his daughter and her mortal husband’s murders, his peaceful (if not particularly comfortable) life comes to an end.
Caught up in a war between pantheons, shipped around the world, going toe-to-toe with Elder Gods From Outside Space And Time, and always taking the time to read the fine print, Rupert’s going to need all his wits and a lot of luck to survive.
Abaddon Books has a number of shared universes with multiple writers dabbling in their continuities, much like the Marvel and DC stables; one of their more recent worlds is Gods and Monsters, pioneered by horror writer Chuck Wendig. It’s therefore appropriate that Cassandra Khaw has also joined this universe, with Food of the Gods. Food of the Gods was originally e-published as two novellas, one the sequel of the other; this collected edition brings the two together.
Each follows the adventures of Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef; although Khaw may be misusing this moniker, since while Rupert butchers, prepares, and cooks human flesh for various entities, he himself does not seem to partake, with possible exceptions of tasting what he is himself cooking. Food of the Gods has a broad palate, taking in Malaysian cuisine, British staples, Western failures to cook South-East Asian food, Greek delicacies and more; one of Khaw’s great strengths is in her ability to write these foods with a deft touch that really makes the mouth water and nostrils twitch, even when the chief ingredient is homo sapiens. That’s of a piece with Khaw’s generally sense-centred writing; things have scents, sounds, feels, even tastes, as much as they’re seen, really invoking a kind of vividness through the writing that wholly engages the reader.
The voice of the book is also engaging; we’re told the story by Rupert Wong himself in the first person, and Food of the Gods does not stint on asides to the reader, on Malay and slang (the reader is addressed as ang moh throughout – or “white person”), and on the humour; Khaw often undercuts the most tense moments with Rupert’s ill-timed jokes. This combination can take a little while to get into, but rapidly it becomes a very individual narrative voice that demands the reader’s sympathy for Rupert and one’s concern for his future. Khaw also manages to make each of her secondary characters sound individual, a risky business with such a strong narrative voice; but each is distinct and unique, and strange in their own, divine ways, without falling back into cliche or simple cultural stereotypes or expectations.
The mixture of places, pantheons and gods on display in the book makes that even more impressive; Food of the Gods utilises Malaysiana folklore and traditional religion, Greek and Slavic gods, invented beings from the fiction of the 20th century, and even gods conjured less from specific beliefs than generalised prayers. This melange of different ideas of and approaches to divinity is fascinating and reminiscent of Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods and Hogfather (the Oh God of Hangovers, for instance), but Khaw takes it in a different, stranger, and altogether darker direction than simply a discussion of faith and reality; there’s more of an interest in what faith is, and she engages with that quite fascinatingly.
The plot of Food of the Gods is, then, perhaps the weakest link. The first half of the book feels a little contrived and not sure what it wants to be; originally published as Rupert Wong: Cannibal Chef, it does an excellent job of introducing us to the character and the world he inhabits, but the combination of murder mystery and high stakes politics doesn’t really hang together, and the plot doesn’t seem quite sure of its scale. The second half, Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth, hangs together more by virtue of being told it does than anything else; an awful lot of it feels like filler, fleshing out the world or the pantheon but not actually advancing the plot or events. That they’re also very obviously two novellas perhaps suggests Abaddon should have published this as two slimmer volumes, rather than one seemingly-single story.
In the end, though, Food of the Gods isn’t there for its plot, it’s there for its voice, and Rupert Wong is an incredible invention with a very distinctive and fascinating voice; I want to know where Khaw plans to take him next!
Disclaimer: This review was based on a final copy sent by the publisher, Rebellion Books.
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Magic is real, and hungry. It’s trapped in ancient texts and artifacts, and only a few who discover it survive to fight back. Detective Sal Brooks is a survivor. She joins a Vatican-backed black-ops anti-magic squad — Team Three of the Societas Librorum Occultorum — and together they stand between humanity and the magical apocalypse. Some call them the Bookburners. They don’t like the label.
Supernatural meets The Da Vinci Code in a fast-paced, kickass character driven novel chock-full of magic, mystery, and mayhem, written collaboratively by a team of some of the best writers working in fantasy.
I’ve been looking forward to this since Serial Box first announced the Bookburners project; as someone who struggles to read fiction in a non-paper form, it’s been a long wait for it to come out in a paper form, even though that is a 780-page monster hardback from Saga Press. The whole thing is both a fascinating experiment – serialised storytelling using the form of television, with a writers’ room, rather than more traditional ways of serialising? – and a brilliant concept, albeit one that is at first glance unoriginal (see, Warehouse 13, The Librarians, et al.)
Bookburners is, as with all Serial Box’s output, structured in the same way as a television series, and written with a televisual approach to plot: each novella has a “monster of the week” as well as tying into the overall arc of the season, and Gladstone even went so far as to include a mid-season finale in the structure. I’m going to review the season as a whole and pull out elements of specific episodes to comment on, rather than reviewing each episode individually, because that seems like the better approach given how I consumed the season (binging! It’s the culture-consumption mode of the modern world!)
As a season, then, Bookburners mostly works very well; it doesn’t up the stakes too much in any one episode, but makes clear the mounting challenges that the team are facing, and builds from an introduction to the world in the pilot episode to a really full and complete picture of it by mid-season, including looking at other countries’ approaches to the problem the Bookburners face. It feels like the relationships between the team members are explored and built quite naturally and effectively, and revelations about the strictures they work under and their pasts aren’t given freely – Sal, our doorway into the world, has to earn trust and thus gain this kind of access. Gladstone’s team deftly build in a lot of teasers for later events, suggesting that much of the season was storyboarded before the series began, but there’s a midseason pivot that seems to come out of left-field and rather fails to connect to events in the first half.
The structure of each episode feels very familiar from television series; Bookburners is not breaking any new structural ground. It opens with a pilot where Sal discovers magic is real and is sucked into the world of the Bookburners, followed by an episode where she goes on her first formal mission with the team and learns about them more; these episodes are well-written, and they work very well, drawing us into the world. Bookburners isn’t subtle about this approach; but it carries it off well, with the feeling of the fast-paced TV drama which Serial Box are trying to emulate in literary form.
The characters of Bookburners are a bit of a stereotypical lot. There’s Father Menchu, the liberation-theology minded priest who leads the team, driven by faith; Liam, the formerly-possessed tech geek, whose feelings about magic are complicated and very negative; there’s Asanti, the archivist and nominal team leader, who is essentially a research nerd who thinks researching magic would be better than just confining it; there’s Grace, a Chinese fighter who is supernaturally good at dealing with the supernatural threats the team faces; and there’s Sal, investigator and former cop. Each falls into the obvious role, which can be a rather dull and expected thing come the end; some moments are cliche, but well-written, which lets the writers broadly get away with it, and character development is eked out over the season, with the few sudden shifts precipitated by triggers, rather than coming out of the blue.
Finally, a word of warning. Although much of the volume is inoffensive (and unproblematic), there is a moment in Mur Lafferty’s second episode, ‘Under My Skin’, where a secondary character (not the monster of the week) is revealed as trans. The reactions of the cast are at best problematic, and the villain’s motivation is very much founded on the transness of the character; this reader, at least, found that rather a problem.
On the whole, though, Bookburners is a fun, fast-paced series; it’s structured well and does some interesting things with oft-trodden ground, and Gladstone and his team do an excellent job. A very enjoyable tome!
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A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. Together, they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family.
Fever Dream is a nightmare come to life, a ghost story for the real world, a love story and a cautionary tale. One of the freshest new voices to come out of the Spanish language and translated into English for the first time, Samanta Schweblin creates an aura of strange psychological menace and otherworldly reality in this absorbing, unsettling, taut novel.
Fever Dream crossed my radar thanks to being longlisted for the Man Booker International and for the intriguing start of its blurb; that first sentence really grabbed me, the way a good blurb ought to, and made me wonder what followed.
What follows is aptly titled, something of a fever dream of a narrative. Schweblin’s novella is a punctuated stream of consciousness, somewhere between monologue and conversation, as Amanda talks to David, occasionally being focused or redirected by the child; Fever Dream is entirely dialogue, but with nested dialogue as well, as Amanda recalls what brought her to this hospital bed speaking to David. It’s a style that has its problems – there are no good stopping points, so these 150 pages are best read in a single sitting – but the pacing really drives the reader on through the story.
The story of Fever Dream is like much of the best supernatural fiction: unclear whether it is in fact supernatural at all. Schweblin slowly adds further elements of the supernatural, the strange, the weird to the narrative, inserting them one at a time, rather than building a world in which these things are normal; and all those possibly supernatural elements could be purely natural, depending on our interpretation of them, and of events – Schweblin’s narrator(s) don’t allow us to really find that out, especially as both are, in their own ways, unreliable. What starts as a simple holiday that ended in tragedy (we know, after all, that Amanda is deathly ill from the start) becomes increasingly strange and off-kilter, and even small details that seem perfectly normal have inflated significance – the reader’s role in Fever Dream is partly to decide which of those inflations are because of the unreliability of the narrators, and which are actually the world; but also to try to read between the lines and see what is unsaid.
Fever Dream‘s prose is dreamlike and strange; the interjections from David, and exchanges about the present, change how we react to what we just read about the past, and what we’re about to read. Credit here must also go to McDowell, who translates the prose in a way that feels naturalistic; I don’t know the Spanish version, but the English version has a fantastic flow to it, a really pull. Individual phrases recur and are used to increasing poignancy in the novella, as they take on extra layers of significance as they’re referred to in the past or come up time and again in the present; this deploying of repetition as a motif really makes the whole thing feel, again, rather disconnected from reality, in a positive and powerful way.
The setting of Fever Dream furthers this sense of disconnection; Schweblin separates out what’s happening from the rest of the world by very rarely referencing it, rarely referencing what’s happening or even what happened outside the tight geography of the immediate, nonspecific area of the novel. It’s an interesting technique; a little more specificity and detail might have been nice, but on the other hand, the everyplace setting also feeds into the unreal and dreamlike atmosphere of the story in its own way.
Fever Dream is a strong novella; it could perhaps do with being a little shorter or more easily paused, but that’s a small criticism of this strange, creepy experience that Schweblin has created and McDowell has excellently translated.
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One a month, those sponsoring my Patreon at $5/post or more get to nominate, and then collectively choose, a work for me to review that month. Last month, they chose…
Habibi by Craig Thompson
Sprawling across an epic landscape of deserts, harems, and modern industrial clutter, Habibi tells the tale of Dodola and Zam, refugee child slaves bound to each other by chance, by circumstance, and by the love that grows between them. We follow them as their lives unfold together and apart; as they struggle to make a place for themselves in a world (not unlike our own) fueled by fear, lust, and greed; and as they discover the extraordinary depth—and frailty—of their connection.
At once contemporary and timeless, Habibi gives us a love story of astounding resonance: a parable about our relationship to the natural world, the cultural divide between the first and third worlds, the common heritage of Christianity and Islam, and, most potently, the magic of storytelling.
It’s well known that alongside science fiction and fantasy novels, I have a serious passion for graphic novels and comics; not just the superheroes that are the most recognised and public face of the genre, but a whole variety of the form of marriage of word and art. I suspect it is with this, as much as the content, in mind that my Patreon patrons asked me to review Craig Thompson’s giant magical-realist science fiction comic Habibi!
Before we go any further, for reasons that will become clear, I think it’s worth reminding you that I’m a white British Christian raised in a white, secular household with Jewish family and influences, so what I say should be read bearing that in mind.
The art, it is undeniable, is beautiful. Thompson has integrated Arabic calligraphy into Habibi stunningly, using it to transition, as panel borders, and as part of the story; the pseudo-abstract patterns he creates using the sentences, poems and words in Arabic throughout the book are stunning, and provide a beautiful backdrop for detailed, rich art throughout, that is more than a little reminiscent of Hergé’s Tintin work. Unfortunately, that extends to the approach to drawing ethnicity; Thompson has a tendency towards racial caricature, notably with his black and Arab characters, who really do embody the worst visual stereotypes he could possibly have come across.
That extends into the writing of Habibi. This is a story centred around a Muslim woman who is sold into marriage as a girl, enslaved, flees and becomes a sex worker (clearly marked in the story as shameful by Thompson), and then a courtesan of the Sultan; and her companion, a black fellow slave who she cares for as a son, who becomes a water trader, and then a eunuch, before being reunited with her. With the Middle Eastern setting of the story, then, we hit all kinds of negative and problematic tropes about Muslim and Arabic culture, actively reinforced by the author and narrative alike; Thompson isn’t interested in deconstructing these tropes, only reinforcing them. This isn’t a clever deconstruction of the idea of the sex worker as inevitably-raped, objectified, and somehow damaged, nor of the eunuch or other nonbinary presentation as damaged and distorted by childhood events; instead, it straightforwardly replicated both of these, in painful ways to read. Habibi also of course suggests that all (Arab) men fetishise and sexualise peripubescent girls and want to sleep with them; this is of course tabloid-fodder in the UK, and no more true of any ethnic or religious group than it is of any other.
The real disappointment is that wrapped in this shell is some fantastic writing. Habibi borrows the tale-within-a-tale approach of texts such as the 1,001 Nights; Dodola tells stories to Zam and to herself as a kind of survival mechanism and teaching tool. These include stories from the Quran, myths about Solomon, cautionary tales, and more; they play with the differences between the different Abrahamic texts and traditions; and they do some fascinating things with religious syncreticism. The setting is also, were it less steeped in racism, worthy of thought; in a post-abundance world, there’s a blend of magical realist and post-apocalyptic elements, which creates a strange kind of familiarity and distance with the work that has some interesting ideas wrapped into it.
In the end, Habibi is almost like two things put together; some beautiful art and narrative approaches with some fantastic worldbuilding, married to an awful lot of really racist, sexist, transphobic ideas.
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A government special agent known only as the Signalman gets off a train on a stunningly hot morning in Winslow, Arizona. Later that day he meets a woman in a diner to exchange information about an event that happened a week earlier for which neither has an explanation, but which haunts the Signalman.
In a ranch house near the shore of the Salton Sea a cult leader gathers up the weak and susceptible — the Children of the Next Level — and offers them something to believe in and a chance for transcendence. The future is coming and they will help to usher it in.
A day after the events at the ranch house which disturbed the Signalman so deeply that he and his government sought out help from ‘other’ sources, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory abruptly loses contact with NASA’s interplanetary probe New Horizons. Something out beyond the orbit of Pluto has made contact.
And a woman floating outside of time looks to the future and the past for answers to what can save humanity.
Tor.com, with books like Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone, Victor LaValle’s Ballad of Black Tom, and Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide, have made something of a name for themselves as a home of good modern-day Lovecraftiana. Caitlín R. Kiernan, acknowledged master of horror writing, should be a great fit, then, and Agents of Dreamland is her turn to approach the formula.
Agents of Dreamland is something of an odd beast. It is perhaps the most true to Lovecraft of any modern-day Lovecraftiana: there’s a sense of horror at the strange, at the unknown; a sense of utterly inevitable, inescapable doom; a sense of total pointlessness in human attempts to stave off the end. At the same time, it’s much more of an espionage story than you might expect from Lovecraftiana; it’s very much in the mode of actual spy story, rather than just utilising government agents, with covert operations, covers, and interlocking international departments (think Charlie Stross’ Laundry series, but not pastiche). That gives it a strange sensibility that Kiernan executes really well, an odd atmospheric element that really does have impressive power to it.
Kiernan’s characters are part of that. There are three main characters in the novella; the Signalman, who is brilliantly hardworn, too-old-for-this not in the way of Top Gun but in the way of a man utterly worn down and beaten; there is Immacolata Sexton, a strange, unsettling presence in Agents of Dreamland, something other than human but working alongside and appearing to be human; and there is Chloe Stringfellow, naive devotee of a Lovecraftian cult with more than a hint of Manson to it. Each character is given a bit of a backstory, although not much, but they’re very distinct in their feel; the eternal age of Immacolata, the weariness of the Signalman, and the youthful enthusiasm and cultish devotion of Chloe are drawn very strongly, and suffuse their chapters powerfully.
The problem with the plot is one revealed about halfway through; Immacolata isn’t anchored in time, and goes to future events, that are inevitable. Agents of Dreamland doesn’t suffer from knowing that death, failure, and the coming of the Old Ones are inevitable; instead it suffers from demystifying that, making it far less strange and far more War of the Worlds than the rest of the book had it. Kiernan takes away from the creeping, creepy horror of the book to make it almost a straightforward alien invasion, that really doesn’t carry quite the punch it could do, because it’s so… understandable.
The other problem with this book is that it doesn’t really engage with the problems of Lovecraft. While the works mentioned in the opening paragraph challenge Lovecraft on one, or multiple, grounds of his bigotries, Agents of Dreamland just ignores them; arguably, indeed, by making a drug addict the only cultist we really meet, reinforces his absolute fear of the poor. Kiernan could have taken on Lovecraft’s prejudices by giving us characters of colour, or queer characters, or immigrant characters, or any number of other alternatives; instead, while not replicating the messages his stories sent, she doesn’t even think to challenge them either.
In the end, though, Agents of Dreamland does what it sets out to do: it is fanastically creepy and strange, and Kiernan has written a really unsettling novella.