Intellectus Speculativus

Home » Review

Category Archives: Review

Octavia Butler’s Kindred, adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings

kindred-gn
More than 35 years after its release, Kindred continues to draw in new readers with its deep exploration of the violence and loss of humanity caused by slavery in the United States, and its complex and lasting impact on the present day. Adapted by celebrated academics and comics artists Damian Duffy and John Jennings, this graphic novel powerfully renders Butler’s mysterious and moving story, which spans racial and gender divides in the antebellum South through the 20th century.

Butler’s most celebrated, critically acclaimed work tells the story of Dana, a young black woman who is suddenly and inexplicably transported from her home in 1970s California to the pre–Civil War South. As she time-travels between worlds, one in which she is a free woman and one where she is part of her own complicated familial history on a southern plantation, she becomes frighteningly entangled in the lives of Rufus, a conflicted white slaveholder and one of Dana’s own ancestors, and the many people who are enslaved by him.

Held up as an essential work in feminist, science-fiction, and fantasy genres, and a cornerstone of the Afrofuturism movement, there are over 500,000 copies of Kindred in print. The intersectionality of race, history, and the treatment of women addressed within the original work remain critical topics in contemporary dialogue, both in the classroom and in the public sphere.

Frightening, compelling, and richly imagined, Kindred offers an unflinching look at our complicated social history, transformed by the graphic novel format into a visually stunning work for a new generation of readers.
~~~~~
Earlier this week, I posted my review of Octavia Butler’s seminal 1979 novel Kindred; this is a slightly odd review because rather than talking about the work itself, I’m going to be talking about it in relation to the work of which it is an adaptation, and therefore that earlier review is a necessary read before going further.

Adapting a novel into a more visual format can be achieved in a number of ways – we’ve all seen films adapting novels: dropping subplots, complexities, changing how characters looked, or simply taking a core simple idea and mangling everything else beyond recognition (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, anyone?). Graphic novel adaptations of novels seem to fare on average better, perhaps because they have a similar length in many cases, and because they can handle non-dialogue language better; from the Manga Shakespeare series to this volume, there are a variety of approaches. Kindred takes a very direct, literal approach: almost all the words (with one clear exception) are taken directly and exactly from the novel as quotes, with occasional reordering – both narration in caption boxes, and dialogue, directly as speech. Because of the way Butler wrote, this can at times be a little odd – there’s a particular moment when Dana talks about being at a whipping being impossible to imagine just from seeing images of one, and these thoughts are captions to pictures of one, for instance. There are also occasions on which events are slightly reordered – there doesn’t seem to ever be a clear reason for the slight changes, apart from cutting a few panels out here and there by combining things, so presumably it was a space consideration, a reasonable concern given that nothing was lost.

The aforementioned clear exception is an odd one, though; it concerns one of the moments when Butler may, or may not, have been being rather subtly pointed in Kindred. A (presumably black) friend of Dana’s gives her and Kevin a blender as a wedding present in the novel; this is, perhaps, a commentary on the mixed race marriage, on the idea of “blending” races. In the adaptation, though, Duffy and Jones replace the blender with steak knives – arguably a possible foreshadowing/hindshadowing of other events, given when it’s revealed, but it seems a very strange choice of alteration when so much of the rest of the text is unchanged at all from Butler’s own words.

A graphic novel is more than just words, though, of course; it is also the art. Kindred has an art style that is often seen in the more artsy of the independent comics out there, reminiscent of Jeff Stokely’s art on The Spire. It’s not quite naturalistic without being either symbolic rather than literal or the shiny-happy people of Marvel’s house style; it’s a little rough looking, a little off normal, and I found that a little frustrating, because it never quite fitted the approach the text takes, which is totally matter of fact. There were some fantastic grace notes (near the start of the book, Dana is shelving her books after moving house, and drops some – one of which is Patternmaster, Butler’s debut novel), but overall, the art is more distancing, and reductive, than helpful.

In the end, Kindred is an amazingly powerful novel; this adaptation doesn’t quite manage to capture that power, and occasionally seems to have failed to understand how Butler accomplished it. Nnedi Okorafor’s brilliant introduction is a must, though!

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

patreon.png

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

kindred
On her 26th birthday, Dana and her husband are moving into their apartment when she starts to feel dizzy. She falls to her knees, nauseous. Then the world falls away.

She finds herself at the edge of a green wood by a vast river. A child is screaming. Wading into the water, she pulls him to safety, only to find herself face to face with a very old looking rifle, in the hands of the boy’s father. She’s terrified. The next thing she knows she’s back in her apartment, soaking wet. It’s the most terrifying experience of her life … until it happens again.

The longer Dana spends in 19th century Maryland – a very dangerous place for a black woman – the more aware she is that her life might be over before it’s even begun.
~~~~~
I’ve had this classic of African American genre fiction on my shelves for a long time, and was finally prompted to read it by the release of a graphic novel which spins off the work – asking Nnedi Okorafor if I should read the book or the comic first, the definitive answer was the book, so I have! (Thursday’s review will be of the comic).

Kindred is one of those books that I, arguably, should not be reviewing, and should just be describing. It’s about experiences essentially foreign to me, not because of fictionality, but because of reality; I am spared much of what happens in the novel not because it is fictional, but because I have privilege – white privilege, often perceived male privilege, and the luck to be born in 1989, not 1789. On the other hand, Butler’s intent in the novel seems to be as much about making immediate and personal the impact of slavery for the modern white reader as anything else, so I might be the perfect reviewer.

On that score, Kindred is brutally brilliant. It drops us, with our 20th century understanding of how the world works (1976, so things have changed even since then), repeatedly back into the world of the antebellum Southern States; Dana, our narrator, has to adjust to the survival strategies of a black slave in 1819, instead of the survival strategies a middle-class black woman married to a white man needs. Butler doesn’t let the brutality go unmarked, talking about the difference between seeing it on film (as, perhaps, in the earlier seminal TV series Roots) and witnessing it in person – the way more senses are drawn in and it becomes more viscerally appalling; she also then goes on to demonstrate the brutality of it directly on the body of Dana herself. Kindred doesn’t shy away from the parts of slavery that are often covered up, either; rape by the master, whether violent or otherwise, is an everpresent threat in the novel, and it isn’t sexy, it’s appropriately horrifying, shocking, and damaging. Nor are the consequences of rape pretended away; that is, the children that resulted from rape are, in fact, an instrumental plot point in the novel, and also something Butler grapples with powerfully in terms of their modern legacy in the United States of America.

Linked to this is Kindred‘s empathetic approach to the psychology of slavery. Slavery colours every interaction in Kindred, both past and present, changing and altering the power dynamics, the human dynamics, the boundaries of behaviour, the approach of one person to another; it changes people’s motivations in ways small and large, and what they have to consider in terms of consequences to their actions. Butler really lays out the way white slave owners dehumanised and stripped the agency from all black people, slave or free, while slaves had to consider the cost of every action weighed against the punishment and consequences for themselves and everyone around them. It’s conveyed subtly and more strongly as Dana spends more time in the past, and as the mentality of a slave increasingly changes her thinking about the world she is in; Butler builds it up subtly, only at the end having Dana really explicitly talk about it but making it an undercurrent running throughout Kindred.

The other thing Kindred powerfully grapples with is modern gulfs in understanding; this is a time travel novel with a black protagonist, after all. Kindred delves into what that means with Dana and Kevin, her white husband, having fundamentally different experiences of and understandings of the past; their present experiences are similar, but their experiences in the 19th century underline just how much racism still persists in the modern day, by drawing out the point. Butler never hammers the point home in a blunt conversation, but just throughout the novel allows the theme to emerge of how different the experiences in history of black and white people were; it’s a powerfully effective approach.

Kindred isn’t the only book about slavery out there; but it’s one of the most effective I have ever read at getting across the psychology of both slave and master in a slaver society, and Butler’s novel should keep being read, if not be made required reading.

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

patreon.png

Roller Girl by Vanessa North

RollerGirl_500x750.jpg

Recently divorced Tina Durham is trying to be self-sufficient, but her personal-training career is floundering, her closest friends are swept up in new relationships, and her washing machine has just flooded her kitchen. It’s enough to make a girl cry.

Instead, she calls a plumbing service, and Joanne “Joe Mama” Delario comes to the rescue. Joe is sweet, funny, and good at fixing things. She also sees something special in Tina and invites her to try out for the roller derby team she coaches.

Derby offers Tina an outlet for her frustrations, a chance to excel, and the female friendships she’s never had before. And as Tina starts to thrive at derby, the tension between her and Joe cranks up. Despite their player/coach relationship, they give in to their mutual attraction. Sex in secret is hot, but Tina can’t help but want more.

With work still on the rocks and her relationship in the closet, Tina is forced to reevaluate her life. Can she be content with a secret lover? Or with being dependent on someone else again? It’s time for Tina to tackle her fears, both on and off the track.
~~~~~
Sports novels (or, indeed, sports generally) and romance novels aren’t things I’m usually interested in – indeed, sports usually gets me to tune out completely, I care that little about it. So a romance novel centred on a sport, even one I find interesting, like roller derby? That’s going to be a tough sell; but I was recommended Roller Girl for its queerness and, well, took a punt…

It turns out what my life might have been missing was queer sports romance books, because this was something of a balm to my soul. Centred on trans woman Tina, who is relatively recently divorced in the wake of her transition, Roller Girl shows a supportive queer community in the traditionally queerphobic space of sports; it talks about transness and queerness frankly, but also kindly; it shows spaces of female friendship and solidarity that are open and welcoming to queer and trans women. Indeed, by the novel’s end, North has built on that to show enby openness too; this is queer-positive, sex-positive, kink-friendly, and simply achieves all that, without trying (too much; occasionally it can be a little Queer 101, although textually justified as being 101 for a straight character).

Tina is an absolutely brilliant character, who will resonate with a lot of people; she’s unsure of herself, constantly self-questioning, and never realising her own positive worth and impact on people around her. Indeed, Roller Girl can be read as a novel about (dysphoria-linked) depression as much as anything else, and how Tina comes into herself through both supporting and being supported by others; and it’s a book about coming out of the closets, as a process rather than a single moment, and the impact an ordinary person coming out of the closet can have on people. As a character study it’s small-scale but every individual really jumps off the page, from romantic partner Joe, to teammate Stella, from old friend and wakeboard rival Ben to Jeffrey, a personal training client; Vanessa North uses very economical methods to give them characters, but none are simple and two-dimensional, they’re complex and interesting characters with obvious stories in their own rights (some literally).

The place where it perhaps falls down is on plot. Roller Girl forgets certain things, like time – there appear to be giant emotional jumps and time jumps not signalled on the page at times, and everything either takes place in the space of two months or a week or some undetermined time, there are far too few markers – and there isn’t really time to build up some of the things North needs to earn her moments of emotional catharsis, so it can feel a little forced at times; the conclusion especially feels wholly unearned, as if we’re missing a good chunk of story that North just wasn’t interested in writing. The character development somehow avoids feeling rushed by this, but the development of relationships at times can very much feel forced by narrative necessity.

One final note about Roller Girl, and that is that it is hot. There are only a couple of sex scenes, but each one is written with an intensity and force, and an understanding of personal kinks and drives, of individual needs and desires, and of mutual consent, that steams off the page; North acknowledges the awkward fumbling, the passionate drive, and the ridiculous joyousness of (good) sex and writes it into her book, avoiding cliche and passionless description alike in some really brilliant scenes that jump out from the page.

Roller Girl might not be perfect, but it’s the book I needed the day I read it, and Vanessa North has written something that works as a balm for this troubled queer soul.

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

patreon.png

Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? by C. J. Atkinson, illus. Olly Pike

Untitled-1.jpg
Meet Kit – a 12 year old undergoing medical transition – as he talks about gender and the different ways it can be explored. He explains what it is like to transition and how his friends, family and teachers can help through talking, listening and being proactive.

With illustrations throughout, this is an ideal way to start conversations about gender diversity in the classroom or at home and suitable for those working in professional services and settings. The book also includes a useful list of recommended reading, organisations and websites for further information and support.
~~~~~
Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? first came to my attention thanks to its media coverage in the wake of condemnation by such luminaries as Norman Tebbit, former Thatcherite Cabinet member and rabid queerphobe, and Sarah Vine, columnist for the vile rag the Daily Mail. It is a resource for (young) children and for adults who work with them to better understand gender diversity, and part of a series of such volumes on different issues from the same publisher.

The book is divided into two parts: first, forty-odd pages, with illustrations, about Kit, a fictional trans boy who tells us about growing up so far, accessing the Gender Identity Clinic, accessing school facilities, resources and support, going onto hormone blockers, and his trans friends, who include nonbinary people and a trans girl. This section of Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? is clearly aimed at children, both those who are trans and those who are cis, as a broad explanation of trans issues; it uses simpler language, although it introduces things like neopronouns and legal issues around the Equality Act (2010). It also presents, very clearly, things like the difference between gender identity, gendered stereotypes, sex, and sexuality, and explains how those are unrelated, a key thing for children.

The second section of Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? is about half the length and focuses heavily on explaining to adults how they can support trans children, at home, at school and in other settings. This section gets more technical and specific, but also brushes lightly over a number of issues; one of the major problems is its UK-centric nature (GICs, GIRES, and the Equality Act (2010) are all UK institutions), given that it is for distribution internationally, and another is its occasional inaccuracies. Atkinson’s guidance about the law, for instance, suggests that the Equality Act (2010), in protecting gender reassignment, protects people whether or not they medically transition; in reality, however, the position is that only those who intend to, are, or have undergone medical transition are protected (therefore, for instance, I am not), an important mistake. However, the clarity of explanation of the duties of confidentiality and support are welcome.

The one other area Atkinson glosses over rapidly in Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? is that of intersex people. There is one brief mention of intersex people, and there is an entry in the glossary, but some more information, especially for parents and professionals, might have been helpful; after all, intersex children are more likely than most to have medical procedures forced upon them by adults who do not understand intersex conditions, and to be raised in ways that very strictly enforce gender conformity. A little more attention paid to these issues would have been welcome.

In the end, though, I wish something like Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity? had been in circulation when I was at school; something that might have put a name to some of the unease I felt about myself, and helped me understand it. C. J. Atkinson has produced a vitally important resource I hope schools across the UK capitalise on.

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

patreon.png

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

LHoD.jpg

A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary’s mission to Winter, an unknown alien world whose inhabitants can choose—and change—their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters. Exploring questions of psychology, society, and human emotion in an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of science fiction.
~~~~~
Some books age well, relatively timeless in their concerns, approach, and writing. Some age poorly, speaking only to a very specific time and place. Most books age somewhere in between, aspects dating badly but others still having a resonance. The Left Hand of Darkness is often considered to be one of the first kind; but on this reread, I wanted to see if that really was the case.

The fact is plainly that it is not. In the introduction, Le Guin explicitly describes The Left Hand of Darkness not as a prediction of where humanity will in future go, but as a reflection of gender and society at the time it was written; given that it was written in 1969, and both our understanding of gender and of society have changed a lot in the intervening four and a half decades, that it has dated isn’t a surprise. But some of the ways in which it has dated are significant, given that (unlike, say, Joanna Russ’ The Female Man) it is still very widely praised for its portrayal of a nonbinary approach to genders. Part of the problem is that the narrator of most of the book is trapped in a very 1960s approach to gender; a very binarist model, with masculine/male superior and feminine/female inferior; public/domestic, forceful/submissive, strong/weak, violent/peaceful, straightforward/dissembling are all read through a male/female binary that reads as singularly outdated to the modern reader. Even those parts of the book narrated by a Gethen native, an “hermaphroditic neuter” as Le Guin describes them, is affected by these things.

A further problem is that these “hermaphroditic neuters” (who enter kemmer, or heat, about four days in twenty-six and only have a dominant binary sex then) are referred to, consistently, as “he”, “him”, “man”, etc; they are gendered, both by Genly Ai and by Estraven, our native narrator, who surely ought to have to hand a gender-neutral pronoun, whether neo or otherwise. As it is, the times they enter kemmer as female become slightly strange, as if there is far more change; this is inconsistent with the actual words on the page, but the implication of the defaulting all characters to male by all the narratorial voices.

The biggest problem from a queer point of view, though, is that queerness is completely erased from The Left Hand of Darkness. Homosexuality is implied as a strange minority act in the Ekumen, and nonexistent on Gethen, the setting of The Left Hand of Darkness, as if given the choice everyone would have heterosexual pairings; sex arises from oppositional sex to the person one is pairing with in kemmer, hence all sexual pairings are heterosexual, even though people are clearly referred to as having preferred sexual characteristics in kemmer. Furthermore, Genly Ai has no experience with anything but an incredibly simple from-birth binary; the only breach of that binary is on Gethen, meaning trans people, nonbinary people, third gender people, agender people, intersex people, etc? None of these people exist in the world of the Ekumen; Le Guin addresses the questions of sex and gender as utterly inseparable except by a subspecies of humanity, and The Left Hand of Darkness makes, of anyone outside the simple binary, an Othered alien. We are not, in the world of The Left Hand of Darkness, people; we are Other, fundamentally alien, fundamentally estranged from humanity, and indeed fundamentally lesser because of it. This is, from that point of view, an incredibly uncomfortable book to read.

As far as a broader review goes, the book has suffered less from the ravages of time. The Left Hand of Darkness includes a look at a something-like-Soviet Communist state and a semi-feudal, semi-anarchist collective state, noting the shortcoming and drawbacks of each; it features a fantastic amount of both politicking and what might be referred to as fantasy-mountaineering, brilliantly balanced with a consistency of characterisation that really works well; and a philosophical strain, drawing on various non-Western philosophies, that requires real engagement with. Indeed, it’s the balance of these elements that works best, but is fundamentally a minority of the book; the mountaineering section is fantastically evocative and by turns claustrophobic and agoraphobic, but still essentially concerned with the questions of gender noted above, which the book is ill-prepared to deal with. The best writing in the book is environmental, evoking the cold, stark beauty of an ice sheet or the strange mixture of slush and ash around a frozen volcano; Le Guin excels at these descriptions, undoubtedly.

The Left Hand of Darkness, then, is a book that challenged views of gender in 1970, undoubtedly, although even then not so radically as one might imagine; in 2016, it is hopelessly dated, and even, for those of us for whom the binary is a poor, uncomfortable, damaging fit, actively destructive.

This review is dedicated to Corey Alexander, who was asking for more reviews of The Left Hand of Darkness by trans and enby reviewers!

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

patreon.png

The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadiya Hussein with Ayisha Malik

Secretlivesoftheamirsisters.jpgThe four Amir sisters Fatima, Farah, Bubblee and Mae are the only young Muslims in the quaint English village of Wyvernage.

On the outside, despite not quite fitting in with their neighbours, the Amirs are happy. But on the inside, each sister is secretly struggling.

Fatima is trying to find out who she really is and after fifteen attempts, finally pass her driving test. Farah is happy being a wife but longs to be a mother. Bubblee is determined to be an artist in London, away from family tradition, and Mae is coping with burgeoning Youtube stardom.

Yet when family tragedy strikes, it brings the Amir sisters closer together and forces them to learn more about life, love, faith and each other than they ever thought possible.
~~~~~
Let’s be bluntly honest about this; I didn’t pick this book up on its own merits. The genre it is part of is of no real interest to me, and while I admire Nadiya and her baking and indeed personality, that wouldn’t normally be enough to make me pick up a family saga. But then, Jenny Colgan wrote a review of the book for the Guardian. A review that manages to be sneering, superior, racist, misogynistic, snobbish, and damaging to the project of getting more people reading. And so enters my motivation for reading this: spite. Straightforward, simple spite to Jenny Colgan and the Guardian. So, what did spite get me…?

In essence, it got me a perfectly cromulent novel. The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters, written by Nadiya Hussein (with, as the title page states quite openly, Ayisha Malik – no hidden-as-if-shameful cowriter here!), is a domestic family saga, a story of one family unravelling in the face of tragedy and revelations that come out of tragedy, before coming back together again; threads in the tapestry being pulled unto unravelling, before being woven into a new, fresh, but still the same form as before. It’s not a new story, although it is a new permutation, bringing together several elements that we’ve seen before to create, not something novel, but something familiar yet subtly different by the combination of the elements. The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters inevitably follows four interlocking stories, which at times intersect in ways that feel far more forced than natural, bringing together a number of different elements under a single theme: discovering your family and your place in the world; it is essentially a coming of age story, which is quite the feat to pull off well (as it does) with protagonists who are largely adults.

This is really a character study, or set thereof; primarily of the titular Amir sisters, but also of the rest of the family, and some of the friends adjacent to it – the focus is tightly on the four characters who are our narrators and guides, but wide enough to never be claustrophobic, and the way those four and their different, peculiar insights appear allow us a far greater insight into the other characters of the book, other sisters included, than any single narrator likely would. That each chapter is headed with the name of the sister who narrates it is stunningly unnecessary; they’re each wholly distinctive characters, with not only different interests, but different voices, different takes on the family, different observations, etc. The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters does rely a little too heavily on them all coming together at the end and being of one mind, and of their differences being complementary at the crucial moment, but it’s well written enough to carry that off, even through the slight strain of credulity.

There are some niggles, though; the first is a truly minor one, but an easy fix: if you’re going to include a Tweet in your book, the simplest thing in the world is to count how many characters it is. Instead, there is a tweet that is around 200 characters – a minor niggle but enough to throw me out, and egregious enough an extension that it actually caught my eye. A rather larger problem in The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is that it queer-baits, intentionally or otherwise. One of the sisters, Bubblee, is living an independent life in London, with her “close friend” Sasha, who she models naked, who will drop everything and rush to Bubblee if she needs it when she has to return to family… but they’re just friends. While seeing female friendship in a novel is powerful, this is a novel full of it, and every expression of this particular relationship reads as queer-coded without being made explicitly so.

However, I’m going to engage directly with Colgan’s criticism of the book, now (not of its existence; Joanne Harris did that fantastically). Apparently, The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters‘s “main thrust, overall, is that big noisy religious families are all more or less the same”, and that this “didn’t add much for this Irish/Italian Catholic [that is, Jenny Colgan].” Not only is this a misreading of the book, it’s a misapprehension of what the book is about; this isn’t a book about “big noisy religious families”, it’s about a specific big noisy religious family, and its internal dynamics. If it feels familiar to one because of one’s own family dynamics, that’s not a failure, that’s a success in the writing; this isn’t about writing The Other for a white gaze, which is why we don’t get long spiels about (for instance) exactly how curry is made, it’s about life as it is lived, which is a whole other thing. I really enjoyed the portrayal of a family different from my own (small, nonreligious) one; it was engagingly written but not didactic, not seeking to educate me about The (Muslim, Brown) Other, just seeking to be a novel, to engage with the reader on that level.

In the end, The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is a perfectly cromulent novel. Nadiya Hussein isn’t going to set the literary world aflame with this book, but might give something to that girl sitting in the library and the kitchen, especially (but by no means only) if she’s wearing a headscarf.

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

patreon.png

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

curse-of-chalion

Lord Cazaril has been in turn courier, courtier, castle-warder, and captain; now he is but a crippled ex-galley slave seeking nothing more than a menial job in the kitchens of the Dowager Provincara, the noble patroness of his youth. But Fortune’s wheel continues to turn for Cazaril, and he finds himself promoted immediately to the exalted and dangerous position of secretary-tutor to the Iselle, the beautiful, fiery sister of the heir to Chalion’s throne.

Amidst the decaying splendour and poisonous intrigue of Chalion’s ancient capital, Cardegoss, Cazaril is forced to encounter both old enemies and surprising allies, as he seeks to lift the curse of misfortune that clings to the royal family of Chalion, and to all who come too close to them…
~~~~~
Lois McMaster Bujold is probably best known for her sprawling space epic the Vorkosigan Saga, which she has been writing for the past three decades; in amongst this, critically feted and barely less well known, she’s also written a few fantasy novels, set in the world of Chalion. This isn’t the first of the Chalion novels I’ve read – I started with Penric’s Demon, a beautiful novella out from Subterranean – but it was the first written, so I’ve come to it by a slightly circuitous route.

There are a couple of big themes I want to pick out, but Curse of Chalion is fundamentally a novel, and so must be assessed on plot and character. And on those scores, Bujold is unsurprisingly solid. The plot relies on coincidence heavily for its conclusion but arguably earns that, by invoking the gods and destiny; throughout, it’s a driven, fast-paced thing, that hangs not on a succession of violences but far more heavily on communication, diplomacy, politics, and maneuvering and mutual respect, in a heartening, if sadly uncommon, turn. The plot is driven largely by men and women trying to do their best; there is a consistent message of humans trying to do their flawed best in face of a confusing world where that isn’t always clear. For a five hundred page novel there’s surprisingly little dead space; Bujold has a tendency to repetition to drive a philosophical point home, or to linger on a character’s struggles to make sure we know what’s going on, and there’s an extent to which the first hundred-odd pages are prologue to a story we could be dropped a little nearer the start of. Once it gets going, though, Bujold makes sure each obstacles leads neatly to the next, bigger, linked obstacle, drawing the reader through the rest of Curse of Chalion with a powerful confidence.

The characters are where Bujold’s strength as a writer really shines through, though; almost every one feels like an individual, with their own motives which, looked at through their lens, are positive. Cazaril, especially, has a brilliant sense of humour, which had me laughing out loud at some particularly droll moments; but Curse of Chalion is peppered with astute people whose intelligence isn’t all directed the same way, and who aren’t geniuses, but who notice the world around them. The antagonists of the novel are in some cases painted in very broad brush-strokes – Dondo is a bit of a cliche, and his followers similarly so, with their “bad characters we’re meant to dislike debauching in every way”; indeed, the novel is singularly unsubtle in who we’re meant to sympathise with, weakening the general message a bit.

Written in 2001, Curse of Chalion feels like a humanist and religious response to the grim movement led by George R. R. Martin, R. Scott Bakker, and others. It opens following Cazaril as a beggar, who has been whipped nearly to death while a galley slave; unflinchingly, Bujold tackles PTSD, male sexual assault, mutilation and violence, but without the pornographising of the grimdark movement, and without pretending it is only ever directed at women (rape is never portrayed, but it is implied, of both men and women). However, this isn’t in the name of showing how awful everyone is, and that there’s no hope; Curse of Chalion isn’t that kind of book. Instead, it’s about showing how bad people can be; about how society (and, admittedly, magic) can enable people to be vile or force them into vileness, as much as freedom of choice can lead them to be noble, good people (and that the latter can win, though they won’t necessarily do so).

That’s the humanism; but the religiousness of the novel is perhaps more interesting. Curse of Chalion isn’t a straightforward parable, by any stretch of the imagination, although the differences between the Quintarian and Quadrene believers have parallels within Christianity and within the family of the Abrahamic religions. Instead, it’s a meditation on faith itself, and on what faith is; it’s a generous novel, in that regard, in a way that much of fantastic fiction isn’t. The gods work, as in most practiced theologies, through humans opening their hearts and their wills to them; and the gods do actually work through that, in ways both subtle and large. Religion is assumed, but doesn’t make one good – one can be a practitioner and vile, or one who just makes gestures to faithfulness and on the side of good. Bujold’s exploration of faith has a subtlety and deftness to its touch that is belied by the apparent bluntness of its message; after all, some of the greatest good deeds of the novel have nothing to do with faith, and some of the darkest deeds have everything to do with it – Bujold’s idea of faith is essentially, after all, humanitarian.

One notable flaw of Curse of Chalion is its approach to queerness. It is, in some ways, novelly bad at its presentation of homosexuality, which almost becomes a strength, but still falls down. While the backstory includes multiple queer characters, including a poly triad, either every instance of queerness in the world is tragic (involving the death of one partner, often because of the other) or sadistic (because societal repression); homosexual rape in all-male environments in Curse of Chalion isn’t about power, as we sociologically know to be the case, but about expression of desires society demands be repressed, and so a matter of queerness. If we saw a happy queer couple in the book, this would be defused; but instead we see single queers happy, and queer couples consistently doomed to failure.

This leaves us with a novel that is at once disappointed in its approach to issues of queerness, but essentially uplifting; a painful contradiction for this queer but, in the end, the humanism wins out over the homophobic tropes, to make Curse of Chalion a pleasant, thought-provoking read.

If you liked this review, please support my ability to maintain this blog by contributing to my Patreon.

patreon.png