Intellectus Speculativus

Women’s March: Where Next?

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The Women’s March(es) on Saturday, assembled around the world in protest at a racist, misogynistic, transphobic, queerphobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, hateful bigot’s inauguration as President of the United States of America, were a moment in time when huge numbers of people mobilised for shared progressive, or at least not regressive, goals, coalescing around a specific US event as a pearl around a piece of grit. That movement is already starting to dissolve, inevitably, but I just wanted to take this opportunity to talk a bit about where I’m going to be investing my political energies…

Because I’m in Scotland, this is going to have a distinctly Scottish flavour, but there are likely to be equivalent issues to work on in your locality; I’m going to lay out, in reasonable detail, what I’m going to be campaigning on with specifics related to Scotland, but sadly, misogyny, transphobia, queerphobia, and racism, aren’t uniquely Scottish. This is less prescription than description and inspiration!

First, and closest to my heart, the Scottish National Party, in their 2016 Scottish Parliamentary Election manifesto, pledged to reform gender recognition laws in Scotland so that they are “in line with international best practice for people who are Transgender or Intersex”, and to “build on and improve the standalone protocol that’s been developed in Scotland for people seeking gender reassignment” (SNP Manifesto, Diverse but Equal section). As a trans person myself – I’m enby, thanks for asking – this matters to me; under current circumstances, there is no way to get legal recognition outside the gender binary, and even within the gender binary, it requires a complicated process involving various others agreeing that one is sane, correct about one’s actual gender, et cetera. This is ridiculous. The Irish system follows something far closer to international best practice: an adult can declare to the government that they are of a certain (binary, at present) gender. The government recognises their decision. The end. The SNP have the power, with the support of either the Greens or Liberal Democrats (or Labour, if they’re so inclined) to pass a measure through the Scottish Parliament to make this law; they have the power to recognise nonbinary people in law; they have the power to smooth the road to transition, and to improve the funding of Gender Identity Clinics (the Sandyford Centre in Glasgow has a 12-18 month waiting list. I’ve been on that list since May). So far, no bills to do this have been brought forward; I intend to keep pressuring my MSPs, including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, to change that by developing proposals to put forward either in this or the next Parliamentary session, ie by the end of 2018.

Secondly, the Scottish Government, like the Westminster Government, has proven reluctant to require comprehensive, inclusive sex & relationships education (SRE) be taught in all schools. A number of Scottish schools are religious institutions; these have a very patchy record on the teaching of SRE, which isn’t to set aside the supposedly secular institutions which, either through bigotry in the community or the hangover of Section 28, fail their LGBTQI pupils. The TIE Campaign, which has the support of a number of SNP MSPs including the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, is pushing the Scottish Government to pass legislation requiring compulsory, comprehensive, inclusive SRE in all schools; so far, the SNP, despite committing to the idea (see that section of their manifesto mentioned above again), have not yet brought forward any concrete proposals, despite a number of possibilities having been advanced. I intend to push my MSPs to bring something forward for a vote in the Scottish Parliament within this Parliamentary session.

Moving to something with less direct personal impact on me, in the wake of a xenophobic, race-baiting EU referendum last year and the elevation of neo-Nazi (no, I won’t call them alt-right) voices by the election and inauguration of Trump, the humanitarian crisis that is the way we in the West treat refugees is continuing, and worsening thanks to hard-hearted political leaders. While the Scottish government does not have the power to set refugee policy for the UK, it has made it clear that it stands with refugees and would welcome many more to Scotland’s shores; under both David Cameron and Theresa May, however, Westminster has charted a very different, much less compassionate course. I am going to get more involved in Refugees Welcome, an organisation aimed at both lobbying politicians and supporting those refugees who do actually manage to enter the UK, to try to push a more compassionate vision of British society.

I’m also going to be talking about a lot of other causes in littler ways, because I’ve only got so much energy and these are the three I want to invest it in most; Scottish Independence has a great, strong team working for it, I’ll lend my shoulder occasionally but the heavy lifting is being done already. Black Lives Matter is a vitally important cause, but not one it’s easy for me, as a white person in Glasgow, to directly involve myself in, except at protests; I’ll try to turn out for those when I can; similarly, #NoDAPL. Environmentalism is also an incredibly important concern for the whole world, but it has a whole political party dedicated to it, whereas trans rights are at the front of no one’s minds at present.

These are the issues I am choosing to prioritise. I hope you are all choosing different ones; I’m focusing on these because others are focused elsewhere; but like I’ll lend you a helping hand, I’d be grateful if you lent us one too. There are too many important issues for one person to be involved in all of them; I’d really like to hear what the issues closest to your hearts are.

And remember. Be the fascist-punching gif you want to see in the world.

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ETA a shout out to tireless activist and fast, solid friend Erin Lynn Jeffreys Hodges!

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

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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…
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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.

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Sponsorship and Blogging

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m asking for money on Patreon. This post is about explaining why I’m asking for money, and justifying asking for money. You don’t have to give me money. You don’t have to do anything with your money you don’t want to! I won’t be offended! But I thought I should lay out my reasoning a little. And to start with, I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine, Gollancz publicist and vlogger Stevie Finegan, aka SableCaught, who recently made this video:

(Transcript on her tumblr)

What I do here is labour. That is’s labour I do out of love makes it no less labour than my paid work as a bookseller, which I also do out of love; no less than the events I organise at work for authors I adore, for which organising I am paid; no less than writing a novel, which we all (I hope) agree authors should be paid for. It is effort, and time, and not always pleasant, especially when writing negative things about a book by someone one knows and likes. It is, in fact, work, and work is not necessarily its own reward.

I’m looking at a slightly different aspect of paid-for blogging than Stevie, though; while her subsequent video was directly paid for by one sponsor, in advance, I am asking you for money. Neither of these is intrinsically more honest or better a method than the other, I hasten to add – one is simply more open to me! I am doing this because I’ve blogged before, more than once, in more than one space, and fallen off the bandwagon. There is no positive reinforcement, no feedback, for blogging the way there is for, say, tweeting; at least not on the same scale; and writing a post takes more time than even a long tweetstream does. So not only is this labour that is expected to be its own reward, it can be lonely labour, too.

So, why put out my cap? As mentioned earlier, I work as a bookseller. The book industry is, as we all know, going through interesting times, and has been for a while; being a part-time employee in a bookshop keeps body and soul together and (thanks to a generous staff discount) in books, but at times rather tightly so. A little breathing room afforded me by your patronage would be a relief in those tighter times, and as someone with depression, that extra anxiety taken away would be a boon to my productivity here.

However, the greater reason, prompted by Stevie’s video, was that it’s positive reinforcement. Every time I post a review, or an essay, I’ll get a direct reward; every time I get a reward, I’ll know it was for doing the work, and that’s an incentive to do the work, even when it’s hard (and writing reviews, as any reviewer will tell you, often is hard), even when I don’t want to do it (no one wants to criticise their friends!), even when it seems pointless to do it (see also, depression). The Patreon sponsorship will reward me for doing the work, and thus, I’ll do more work, with reasons to do that work – especially once people build up an expectation of posts; extrinsic pressure to do the work, plus a reward for doing it? Yes, that’ll do.

So, in sum? Please put some money in the cap, and help me blog!

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Finally, a disclaimer about sponsorship and bias. As Stevie says, sponsorship means you’re paying for my time, not my endorsement; I’m not going to pretend a work by someone who sponsors me is better or less problematic than it is (or conversely, a work by someone who doesn’t worse or more problematic!).

GUEST POST: Aliette de Bodard on Diversity and Gender Roles in House of Shattered Wings

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Aliette de Bodard is one of those fantastic writers whose short fiction has won huge plaudits, but whose first novels – the Obsidian and Blood trilogy – largely sank into obscurity due to publisher mishandling; she is also someone I hugely admire and am a friend of. Her new novel, The House of Shattered Wings, came out from Roc in the US yesterday and will come out from Gollancz in the UK tomorrow; I reviewed it last week, and absolutely loved it, especially the politics of the novel. Aliette is herself currently at Sasquan, but her publicity blog-tour continues apace – and I asked her to write about one of the things dear to this blog: gender and diversity…
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I’ve been trying to write several versions of this post and always found myself staring at the screen. Writing a blog post pointing out all the ways that my book is diverse feels very embarrassing to me: I’m a basic not-loving-the-limelight introvert, and the previous drafts of this all sounded far too smug and self-satisfied for my personal taste–as in “see how wonderfully diverse my cast is and how progressive I am?”

And hum. I just can’t.

So I’m just going to talk about process, and about diversity and me.

I was a voracious reader as a child, consuming books from the library at a rate that had my parents torn between pride and alarm; and devouring everything from historicals to mysteries to SFF, without making many distinctions of genre.

It took me a long, long while to realise that what they all had in common, and the narrative that they were engraving into my brain, was that people like me did not get to go off on adventures, or to feature much in stories. And when they did, it was often in stories that didn’t quite speak to me: I love Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, but as an allegory of the Vietnam War it falls flat, because my Vietnam War, the one in family memories, isn’t a grand rebellion against cruel colonists, but a confused and half-untold story of conflicting loyalties and difficult choices on the way to independence, of families torn apart and exile, and of a litany of heart-breaking losses. So, even if you do have nominal diversity, narratives and stories can widely vary depending on who is telling them.

When I started writing SFF, for the longest time I had to fight against myself. Against that narrative that white people, white males, white Westerners, were suitable heroes, and everyone else was not. And I wish I could say all I had to do was be aware of that to overcome it, but prejudice is like the air you’re breathing: it’s really really hard to set aside; and you can have the best of intentions and still perpetuate a harmful or thoughtless narrative.

I had to go about it piecemeal: to have women characters and protagonists, to have POC characters and protagonists, to have Vietnamese characters and protagonists (that was a big hurdle to clear: it’s hard to describe the sheer stomach-clenching terror of getting these wrong, of giving everyone a wrong impression of the culture, and of being taken to task by my family for making a mess out of it); and to tackle other axes of marginalisation I’m less intimately familiar with (queer characters, …).

I don’t write stories with checklists of “ooooh let’s have a woman here and let’s have a POC here etc.” I want to write stories that speak to me (especially to ten-year-old me, who sensed something was missing and couldn’t put her finger on what!). But equally, I’ve become aware that it’s very easy to fall back into prejudice. If I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing, my characters revert to my mental default.

When I was writing The House of Shattered Wings, my novel of a devastated Paris with Fallen angels, magicians, alchemists and witches, one of the things that I tried to pay particular attention to was gender roles. I know I have a tendency to revert to “type” (aka cliché) when not giving some thought to what’s happening. Due to years of schooling myself, I now tend to have all my primaries default to female: I saw nothing wrong with having Selene, a political leader and head of a major House of Fallen angels and magicians, be a woman who usually wore men’s clothes (and to have this situation be so usual), and nothing wrong either with Madeleine, my House alchemist and resident geek, being one. My third main character, a Vietnamese immigrant and ex-Immortal, was originally called Isabelle, until I realised this was a really skewed gender balance, and switched her with a male Fallen angel named Philippe. Other female notable characters included two further major political leaders, and a badass archivist with a key plot role (and long-time lover of Selene!).

So I had this slightly smug feeling that my cast was female-dominated; in fact, a quick head-count showed that it was about 70% male and 30% female, because whenever I needed a character who appeared only for a few scenes, I would reach for a male one! I had to hastily rewrite the entire secondary cast to switch genders here and there: the end result is about balanced (but note that I still had the feeling my cast was overwhelmingly female. It’s a known effect of prejudice: anything that strays from the default appears to loom larger than they really are).

One of the things I also wanted to do with the novel was to have a universe in which there was little sexism, because prejudices fell mainly on axes of race (white/non-white), magical nature (Fallen angels vs mortals; within Fallen angels, how powerful they were; within mortals, whether they were good at magic or not) and power/safety (who had safety in a devastated city, and who could offer it to others). So I had to check, once again, that I wasn’t perpetuating sexist ideas that came from our universe: Selene, the head of the major House, struggles in her leadership role and doubts herself, and I had to make very sure she wasn’t doing that because she was a woman, but rather simply because she was young, untrained, and trying to do justice to her powerful master Lucifer Morningstar. She’s in a tense relationship with many of the other heads of Houses, and again, this couldn’t be because she was less powerful than them (another cliché of women being weaker and less competent than men): she’s actually in a dominant (though increasingly unsteady) position, and she knows it.

All of this hopefully feels natural and unforced in the novel: a lot of it was forethought, and pulling out clichés by the root when they occurred (and relying on kindly beta-readers to take me to task for my prejudices!) . I won’t say I’m 100% happy with the way it turned out: already, I can see places where I would do things differently, and I’m of course not totally sure that my best intentions didn’t result in some horrible misstep.

But that’s as it should be: because diversity is a process and not a state, and because I’m always, always learning; and hopefully doing slightly better every time!
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House of Shattered Wings is out from Roc as of yesterday, and from Gollancz as of tomorrow; my review & the blurb:
Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.

House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen, an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a resentful young man wielding spells from the Far East. They may be Silverspires’ salvation. They may be the architects of its last, irreversible fall…

Regeneration by Stephanie Saulter

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The gillungs – waterbreathing, genetically modified humans – are thriving. They’ve colonised riverbanks and ports long since abandoned to the rising seas and the demand for their high-efficiency technologies is growing fast.

But as demand grows, so do fears about their impact on both norm businesses and the natural environment.

Then, a biohazard scare at Sinkat, their colony on the Thames, fuels the opposition and threatens to derail the gillungs’ progress. But was it an accident, or was it sabotage?

DCI Sharon Varsi has her suspicions, but her investigations are compromised by family ties. And now there is a new threat: Zavcka Klist is about to be released from prison – and she wants her company back.
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Regeneration is the final novel in Stephanie Saulter’s ®Evolution trilogy, preceded by Gemsign & Binary; it moves the Gems to the point where they are building infrastructure that is vitally important to the future of norm and gem society, where norm political parties are trying to integrate – or at any rate co-opt – gems and their movements, and where gems are deciding what to do with their political and economic voice. In short, the liberation struggle is legally won; the question is where one goes from winning…?

Regeneration isn’t particularly interested in answering the question, so much as in thinking about different possible answers; different characters have different ideas of how to deal with the changing society they live in and the changing status of gems in society, and none of these are clearly the right or wrong answer, although Saulter largely comes down from the start in favour of integration into existing sociopolitical structures. The questions the novel asks are intelligent ones, about marginalised communities and how they can deal with the society that marginalises them; but they’re also threaded through with questions about how one deals with continuing bigotry even when it’s not the societal norm so strongly, and with some discussion of how one deals with internet trolls. Regeneration doesn’t shy away from its questions, even when it can’t necessarily answer them – perhaps especially then.

The strongest part of Regeneration, though, is driven home forcefully by its last section, and is nearly impossible to talk about; Saulter’s extension of humanity to all her characters, her empathy for all of them and willingness to see the possibility of redemption – at least a limited redemption – for anyone has been a strong theme through the ®Evolution series, and Regeneration really capitalises on that, in ways we see coming throughout the novel but that are, when actually executed, pulled off so much more beautifully and brilliantly than the reader could possibly expect. The writing at the end of the book feels like it’s levelled up from even the rest of the book, in terms of humanity, empathy and skill; it couldn’t have been showcased throughout the novel for various reasons but the extent to which it’s put to excellent use in the close is truly amazing.

So far, we’ve not actually talked about the plot. That’s in part because it’s a plot we’ve seen before, and in part because it isn’t the best part of the book; indeed, in some respects, it’s actually quite weak. Regeneration repeated relies on characters not putting two and two together, failing to share information, or, most egregiously, outright being stupid; there are some key elements that would not make sense, that are integral to the tragedy of the ending, if the characters involved didn’t have a huge momentary lapse of common sense suddenly that they simply ignore for the sake of plot. A conspiracy thriller, which this very much is, only works if the conspiracy isn’t obvious; and while the reader knows almost exactly what the conspiracy will do at any given time (from information available to the characters), the characters of the novel, who over the series we’ve grown to like and respect, appear oblivious, in a truly frustrating way.

Regeneration, then, is a novel to be read for its excellent characters and its truly stunning close, rather than for the political-thriller plot that the rest of the series achieved so seemingly effortlessly; Saulter has given us an excellent end for her ®Evolution trilogy, which I highly commend to you, especially with the capstone this gives it.

Foreigner by C. J. Cherryh

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It had been nearly five centuries since the starship Phoenix, lost in space and desperately searching for the nearest G5 star, had encountered the planet of the atevi. On this alien world, law was kept by the use of registered assassination, alliances were defined by individual loyalties not geographical borders, and war became inevitable once humans and one faction of atevi established a working relationship. It was a war that humans had no chance of winning on this planet so many light-years from home.

Now, nearly two hundred years after that conflict, humanity has traded its advanced technology for peace and an island refuge that no atevi will ever visit. Then the sole human the treaty allows into atevi society is marked for an assassin’s bullet. The work of an isolated lunatic?…The interests of a particular faction?…Or the consequences of one human’s fondness for a species which has fourteen words for betrayal and not a single word for love?
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Ann Leckie, of Ancillary fame, has often cited C. J. Cherryh as the primary influence on her work; the Foreigner series in particular. Foreigner is also probably the most highly praised of all Cherryh’s science fiction work, and it seemed to me high time I actually read the book…

Foreigner opens with a series of sections that introduce us to the world the main body of the plot actually takes place in; humans, stranded on a colony ship impossibly far from home by some kind of navigational accident, make planetfall and contact with an alien species called the atevi, fundamentally humanoid but on a bigger scale and universally black. The real plot of the novel follows Bren, the human envoy to the atevi, the only one allowed contact with them, in the wake of an assassination attempt and the fallout from that; it’s a mixture of complex politics and interpersonal relationships that don’t work as a human would expect them to.

The core problem with this part of the book, which forms the bulk of the narrative, is that Cherryh doesn’t really give us a sense of the politics at play; for an apparently excellent diplomat (the paidhi is selected through vigorous competition amongst many humans), Bren is singularly bad at telling us what the politics in play are, and instead, Foreigner spends an awful lot of time telling us how uncomfortable Bren is with the atevi‘s different emotional life to his own, and how isolated this makes him feel. While this gives us a lot of insight into Bren’s emotional life – not, mind you, all of it very interesting – the lack of motivation for any of the other characters or factions in play feels very disconcerting. It’s almost as if Cherryh wanted to write about the atevi, and about how isolated a human would feel among them and how confused by their politics he would be, but completely forgot that for that to work they need some politics; we see moments when politics appear, but they’re specific issues, and there’s no apparent political models anywhere in play.

This is all the stranger because we know a surprising amount about human politics, for a novel where only one human really appears; Foreigner has Bren looking back on Mospheira, the human land on the alien world ceded to them by the atevi, and thinking about the different factions in his office, and the different factions among humanity on the ship before anyone landed on the world; we get a very clear picture of the human politics involved in giving technological information to the atevi, and the different attitudes to how humanity and the atevi should relate to each other, but this doesn’t even begin to be mirrored by a sense of the atevi factions. We’re also never really made familiar with how atevi society works; the key bond is a kind of loyalty, but what it means – how it is formed, what obligations (in all directions) it involves, and how it functions in a society – are utterly opaque and appear, seemingly, to be of no interest to the author.

As for Bren himself, as a character, he is a singularly frustrating one; an awful lot of Foreigner is spent going over the same ground, driving home time and again that Bren is projecting his emotions onto the atevi – that is, reading human motivations into their action. This almost feels like a bulking-out method, as scenes with extremely strong deja vu occur and reccur, telling us again about his emotions in identical scenarios to those we have seen previously. While this could have built up effectively, Cherryh instead just repeats them, almost without Bren seeming to remember prior incidents. Other characters are only ever seen through Bren’s eyes, and as such the atevi members of the cast, who as alien minds would have been fascinating to see and be made to empathise with, are only ever Other, inscrutable and unknowable; there’s not really any more effort made to understand individual atevi than there is to understand the culture of the atevi as a whole, unfortunately.

Foreigner is a novel about diplomacy, politics, and interacting with an alien culture, without ever really being interested in any of those things; instead it feels like a solipsistic journey into Bren’s anthropomorphic mistakes, with a few action scenes thrown in. Much as Ancillary Justice may have been inspired by this, the latter is a far better book; skip the inspiration, and go straight to what it inspired.

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

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Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.

House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen, an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a resentful young man wielding spells from the Far East. They may be Silverspires’ salvation. They may be the architects of its last, irreversible fall…
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This isn’t going to be what passes as a normal review on this blog. It’s impossible for me to be objective about this book. I first read House of Shattered Wings when it was three chapters and a proposal Aliette was planning on sending her agent, and then again when it was a draft for her agent to send out to publishers; I’ve been really looking forward to seeing how it has changed since then, so when Gollancz offered me an ARC, I jumped on the offer.

House of Shattered Wings is so good, y’all. So very incredibly good. This book takes in class systems, the immigrant experience, colonialism, theological discussion, friendship, personal obligation and debt, the way we are entrenched in and become ensnared by the societies we live in no matter how toxic they are, the limits of magic, the problems of power, and so much more, in the setting of a shattered 19th century Paris, crushed by magical war between fallen angels. And it’s more exciting than that makes it sound; this isn’t a thesis or a piece of fiction shaped around characters spouting off de Bodard’s political manifesto, it’s just that de Bodard has, as usual, the ambition to not back down from interrogating a(nother) Big Idea in the same novel, because it fits.

After all, in a novel populated by fallen angels but one of whose protagonists is an exiled Annamite (that is, Vietnamese) Immortal conscripted into a French war, in a novel where one of the protagonists is a drug-abusing mortal preserving magic for her House, in a novel one of whose protagonists is a Fallen trying to find her place in the world having already been told what her place in the House is, big, complex, crunchy ideas of race, identity, belonging, culture, power and society are inevitably going to come up; and in a world with much smaller political bodies, the cut-throat ruthlessness of those bodies and their leaders is going to be much closer to the surface. The House of Shattered Wings has an awful lot going on, from introducing us to this shattered Paris with its houses, magic, gangs, and more, through the complex and increasingly dark plot; but all really rests on the strength of the protagonists de Bodard gives her audience, and in this novel, that strength is immense.

We have two main protagonists and a third viewpoint character, each of whom has a different voice (my ARC had a flaw, in that sections weren’t clearly demarcated. The different voices of the protagonists actually meant they didn’t need to be); each of whom has different experiences and driving forces behind them; each of whom is wonderfully distinct. Two of them are women – Selene isn’t a protagonist but, as head of House Silverspires and heir of Morningstar, she’s a key figure to the book, and the tensions between the ruthlessness of a head of House and the loving woman who needs her ex-addict partner Emmanuelle are at times terrible to behold. Madeleine, meanwhile, is the alchemist of House Silverspires having formerly been a member of House Hawthorn, driven from there under terrible circumstances and seeking refuge in angel essense; de Bodard’s portrayal of both the trauma and the addiction are fantastic and darkly honest, including the self-justification for things Madeleine knows she shouldn’t do and the portrayal of a self-destructive character. Philippe has a different kind of past; an idealised, idyllic image of an Annam that no longer exists, which he was torn from by Fallen to fight in their wars. The hatred of the Houses that comes from that experience is a huge force in his character, but so is an idea of debt and honour; it’s a fantastic balance and watching de Bodard portray his internal struggles between them is amazing. The final key figure, who has no viewpoint, is at the same time most and least interesting; newly Fallen at the start of House of Shattered Wings, mutilated by Philippe for the magic that suffuses her body, Isabelle is the catalyst for an awful lot of the action, and the strange mix of naivete and cynicism that is commented on by other characters is fascinating, especially as the balance between them changes across the book.

House of Shattered Wings is a novel all about impossible choices, and the consequences of those choices; it’s about history not being dead, it’s about home as a memory as much as a physical location, it’s about ideals and their embodiments and how there is always a gap between those things, it’s about power. De Bodard manages to get all of those things into the plot, without having many subplots splitting off; there are smaller moments, but essentially, the whole narrative force of the book, every characters’ different trajectories and personal journeys and plots, are all impelling the book to its dark, heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching conclusion. That’s part of what makes House of Shattered Wings so effective: everything comes together for a finale that involves everyone having to make awful decisions, impossible decisions – and tragedy striking despite goodness, bad things happening despite the reader crying out for them not to, and those consequences not always (not often, not EVER) falling on those who most deserve them. It’s a plot that ought to be really hard to carry off; it doesn’t start until part way through the book but is already being built towards from page one, whose resolution and revelation come in drips before the explosive, soul-hurting climax which only comes after the plot has effectively been resolved.

As a first draft, The House of Shattered Wings did all of these things, but a couple of them – especially that impossible, awful, brilliant, perfect ending – messily. As a final product, with the help of Gillian Redfearn and Jessica Wade (of Gollancz and Roc respectively)? Aliette de Bodard has written an absolute masterpiece whose sequel cannot come soon enough.

House of Shattered Wings comes out from Gollancz in the UK & Roc in the US on August 20th.

DoI: …that whole first paragraph, okay?