Intellectus Speculativus

Queering The Genre: Laura Lam (With Giveaway!)

Laura Lam first crossed my radar when her debut novel, Pantomime, came out in 2013; notable for being a YA novel with an intersex bisexual protagonist, I was not a fan. Since then, the publisher, Strange Chemistry, has gone under, leaving a number of horror-stories in their wake about author treatment and editorial standards; but Pan MacMillan picked up the Micah Grey trilogy and republished the first two books last year, with Masquerade, the last book, out for the first time ever this week!

SPOILERS follow for the Micah Grey trilogy

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The first two books of the trilogy (I have my copy of Masquerade, of course, but haven’t read it yet!) follow Micah Grey as he tries to escape from his noble family, first by joining a circus (in Pantomime, which also recaps his life to the point of running away, and why he did so) and then as part of a magic show (in Shadowplay, which draws on some of the themes of Pantomime and fleshes out Micah’s past). Micah is an intersex person who usually identifies as a man and uses “he/him” profiles; due to the prejudices of his society, he is in the closet, and when he comes out to some of the other key characters, there are a variety of reactions. Some are, of course, painful queerphobic rejections, which are rather distressing to read but are portrayed without much sympathy for the person rejecting Micah; but there are also reactions which are completely accepting of Micah, and those are portrayed well and beautifully. Similarly, bisexuality seems to be largely a fact of life in the circles Micah moves in; he has some internalised queerphobia from his noble upbringing, but there doesn’t seem to be any biphobia or homophobia amongst the characters we meet in his adult life.

Laura Lam has since also gone on to write some fascinating near-future science fiction, in the Pacifica series; the first of these, False Hearts, came out last year, with Shattered Minds to follow in May.


False Hearts is one of the best books about an investigation into a crime involving a cult in a near-future setting to have come out in the last year (there were enough to say that, yes); it’s a fun fast-paced and thoughtful story that really digs into some cyberpunk ideas and stylings, including the use of neurohacking. But it’s mentioned here because the protagonist is queer, very openly and happily bisexual, in a society where sexuality doesn’t seem to be an axis of oppression; this is a book that is very willing to engage with a variety of sexualities and, indeed, gender identities, although that latter category is far less foregrounded. The semi-sequel (set in the same world, but with different characters), Shattered Minds, looks set to be equally exciting!

Finally, as mentioned yesterday, Laura Lam is one of the essayists included in the Nasty Women collection, which also features a variety of takes on feminism – including some explicitly about queerness!

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But now that I’ve told you about why you should be reading Laura Lam’s work, here’s a chance to win one! I have TWO copies of the new paperback edition of Pantomime to give away, anywhere in the world; see the link  below to enter! This giveaway will be open until 00:00 GMT on March 16th!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Nasty Women eds. Heather McDaid & Laura Jones


With intolerance and inequality increasingly normalised by the day, it’s more important than ever for women to share their experiences. We must hold the truth to account in the midst of sensationalism and international political turmoil. Nasty Women is a collection of essays, interviews and accounts on what it is to be a woman in the 21st century.

People, politics, pressure, punk. From working class experience to sexual assault, being an immigrant, divides in Trump’s America, Brexit, pregnancy, contraception, Repeal the 8th, identity, family, finding a voice, punk, role models, fetishisation, power – this timely book covers a vast range of being a woman today.
Nasty Women is a phrase that, of course, became popularised by now-President Trump during the election campaign, referencing Hillary Clinton, his (more qualified, more honest, BETTER) opponent in the Presidential election; in the wake of the horrifying election of the Misogynist-In-Chief, new Scottish independent press 404Ink decided to put together a collection of essays by “nasty women”.

It’s an interesting collection; Nasty Women consists of 22 essays (although the ARC I’m reviewing only included 20), by a mix of authors from different backgrounds – women of colour, a woman with disabilities, women talking about a variety of religious experiences, and a trans woman (namely, punk rock icon and Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace). As a whole collection therefore, it’s usefully intersectional; rather than focusing on a specifically cis, white, Scottish, Christian/nonreligious experience of being a woman, it contains a variety of different ways of being a woman.

It’s also got a variety of different approaches to essay in it; Laura Lam’s essay, for instance, is genealogical, looking at the history of the women on her side of the family, while Elise Hines’ essay is autobiographical, about her own experiences and history, and Alice Tarbuck’s essay is a historical survey of witchcraft and foraging as feminist praxis. Nasty Women, by taking in all these approaches, creates a more interesting and varied collection than any one form alone would, and allows for a variety of answers to the implied question of the title: what is a nasty woman?

There are some essays I want to single out for specific comment, but with 20 in the book, that obviously can’t be all of them. The one I found most interesting and engaging was Ren Aldridge’s ‘Touch Me Again And I Will Fucking Kill You’, a look at gendered sexual harrassment in the punk community, both the music and activist sides; taking a broad look at sexual harrassment as it is manifested on a community that often hails itself as progressive, and how the perpetrators of it are protected, and how that is changing slowly, it is a fascinating essay on a particular manifestation of a gendered heirarchy. It is also notable for being the essay most concerned with inclusivity; Aldridge puts an asterisk by “woman” throughout to demand the reader considers what the category means, explicitly invokes nonbinary people and trans women, and talks about issues of cisnormative and ciscentric thinking as well as misogyny.

A second essay I really want to pull out for its excellence is that of Claire L. Heuchan, ‘Black Feminism Online: Claiming Digital Space’. A mix of personal autobiography and discussion of racism and misogynoir in online (feminist) discourse, it really brings into stark relief the way so much of feminist discourse is centred around, and assumes, whiteness; and the way misogyny aimed at black women, online especially but hardly absent in the offline world, differs from that aimed at white women. It’s an interesting piece that also talks about carving out a space for oneself; Heuchan talks about the way she came to be a blogger and online presence, to the extent that she is known now for her work as Sister Outrider. I do need to add a caveat to this endorsement, though, and one that stands in stark contrast to the previous essay; while the essay, thankfully, does not reflect this, Heuchan is a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, and outspokenly so on the blog this essay is about; for an essay collection with only one trans contributor, her inclusion can be seen as an error in judgement, regardless of the excellence of her essay.

Nadine Aisha Jassat’s essay ‘On Naming’ takes a different approach to looking at being a woman of colour in a white supremacist world; Jassat talks about the way her name is perceived and read by a white-dominated society, the way people make assumptions based on it, often racist ones, and the way it is often mangled by strangers and what that means to her as a person. It’s a fascinating essay on the importance of naming to identity, and the importance of claiming and asserting one’s name as an assertion of identity; one I perhaps overidentify with, albeit along a different and distinct axis.

The final essay that is a display of stand-out excellence is that of Bella Owen, ‘Liberation or Segregation’; it is the only essay in the collection to discuss disability, and it discusses it through a mixture of analysis and personal autobiography in a way that really drives home the ways that Owen has had to deal with an albeist society putting restrictions on her. The specific venue for much of the essay is music gigs, which are a theme running through many of the essays, but Owen’s experience of being a disabled woman at them is obviously different to that of Laura Jane Grace as a trans star, or Elise Hines as a music photographer who is a woman of colour. The specific and the general experiences drawn out in this essay are really noteworthy in that they are also stories we are rarely told, so it is good to have them seen.

No collection will be all gems, though, and two essays just did not work for me. The first felt simply badly written; Alice Tarbuck’s ‘Foraging and Feminism’ appears to be trying to emulate the writing of Nan Shepherd, who it praises, and Robert MacFarlane, which it dislikes rather strongly, but falling somewhere between into a kind of poetic nothing, which while making some strong points along the way, and ending on a powerful note, has a tendency to descend into some very strange romanticisations of the past and of certain historical practices as feminist in a way the evidence presented in the essay doesn’t seem to support.

The other is Chitra Ramaswamy’s ‘After Expecting’; while this is an excellent essay where it limits itself to Ramaswamy’s experiences of pregnancy, when it talks about wider issues of pregnancy, it falls into a couple of (common) errors. The first is a kind of mysticism around pregnancy that it seems to also want to dismiss, as if it is necessary and intrinsic to a woman and a deep secret, even while demanding that it be made more open and understood. The other issue reflects a failing noted above, of a failure to register trans issues; the essay suggests that “while death happens to all of us, birth happens to women.” Either this is suggesting that only women are born or, and it seems this is likely what Ramaswamy means, that only women give birth – which, of course, is not true, and erases AFAB trans people.

A final issue to bring out with the volume is an uneven use of content notes. It is unclear whether these were added by the editors, or requested by the authors, but a number of the essays which talk about sexual violence in various forms have them; however, those which include (necessary and relevant use of!) racial slurs, sexist language, etc, do not, and not all the essays which include passing mentions of sexual violence have content notes. Nasty Women could easily have paved the way and demonstrated an excellent and consistent approach to content notes, it is intead rather a mixed bag on that front.

However, despite some shortcomings, Nasty Women maintains a high standard of excellence across its essays, and has some really good insights into the lives of women; as Margaret Atwood says, it is “[a]n essential window into many of the hazard-strewn worlds younger women are living in right now.” I highly recommend it to you, and am looking forward to seeing what 404Ink do next.

DISCLOSURE: This review is based on an ARC of the book provided by the publisher, 404Ink, which does not include essays by Kaite Welsh and Anna Cosgrave. I put money into the Kickstarter that funded this volume, and I helped organise the launch of the book yesterday (6/3) at my place of work. Laura Lam, a contributor to this volume, is a friend.

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They Can’t Kill Us All by Wesley Lowery

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In over a year of on-the-ground reportage, Washington Post writer Wesley Lowery traveled across the US to uncover life inside the most heavily policed, if otherwise neglected, corners of America today.

In an effort to grasp the scale of the response to Michael Brown’s death and understand the magnitude of the problem police violence represents, Lowery conducted hundreds of interviews with the families of victims of police brutality, as well as with local activists working to stop it. Lowery investigates the cumulative effect of decades of racially biased policing in segregated neighborhoods with constant discrimination, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure and too few jobs.

Offering a historically informed look at the standoff between the police and those they are sworn to protect, They Can’t Kill Us All demonstrates that civil unrest is just one tool of resistance in the broader struggle for justice. And at the end of President Obama’s tenure, it grapples with a worrying and largely unexamined aspect of his legacy: the failure to deliver tangible security and opportunity to the marginalised Americans most in need of it.
The broad Black Lives Matter movement has been one of the emerging political phenomena of the 2010s, affecting change, driving conversations and changing political priorities across the world. Wesley Lowery’s reportage gave him a unique point from which to observe the development of the movement, the mobilisation of a generation and community of people often seen as “apathetic” by outsiders, and this book came out of that reportage, so how does “They Can’t Kill Us All”: The Story of Black Lives Matter hold up to the task?

In a word, poorly. We’ll begin by addressing the subtitle; this book claims to be the story of Black Lives Matter. That’s always going to be a tall order for a slim volume (less than 250 pages, including the notes and index), but is even taller a one for such a partial and patchy volume as this is; what Lowery is presenting is rather less the story than his story of Black Lives Matter, with a few exceptions. This is unsurprising, given that They Can’t Kill Us All is based on his reportage, but it is a problem: we’re given a view that doesn’t ever tie different events together, that jumps from event to event and flashpoint to flashpoint without ever really covering the hard graft behind the scenes, the stuff that doesn’t get media attention. Reading this book, you’d think none of that actually happened.

Furthermore, They Can’t Kill Us All has a contradictory thread in it; on the one hand, the larger Black Lives Matter movement has many leaders, many people driving it, many people involved. On the other hand, Lowery has a specific set of contacts, so they come up time and again – as leaders and spokespeople for every situation; this is especially true of DeRay Mckesson, who Lowery appears to have relied on heavily for much of his access. The picture presented then becomes of a movement that is falsely protesting its own leaderlessness; the reality of the broad array of groups and people who are active in the cause belies that, but is only mentioned, not demonstrated, in the book.

They Can’t Kill Us All is also incredibly narrow. Rather than being a story of the movement, it is a story of specific moments in the movement: those that coalesced around a specific set of deaths or brutalisations by the police. There is a minimal historical framing in the book – Lowery acknowledges that the American original sin is slavery, and talks about different generations of black activism, but doesn’t really provide past or future context; there’s no suggestion of the historical roots of police oppression and little of the history of anti-oppression activism in the African-American community, and no look at the possible futures of the movement, or future trends in police-community relations.

Those moments are well-written, and the encounters with activists well portrayed, though; Lowery is a consummate journalist and his use of language is incredible. Each person we meet, we’re given a very short pen-portrait of, and those are evocative, packed full of interesting detail and character information; they’re brief but complex and seemingly complete, and the reportage of the black deaths and brutalisations covered in They Can’t Kill Us All are sympathetic, and told with a kind of eye for detail and clarity that really brings them to mind, in both memory and imagination.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of They Can’t Kill Us All is how dated it was the moment it appeared, though. This book came out in the UK & US in 2017. Wesley Lowery doesn’t touch on the racialised, racist Presidential campaign of Donald Trump, let alone his victory in November 2016. Lowery doesn’t touch on the responses of the Democratic or Republican primary candidates, let alone the eventual Presidential candidates, to Black Lives Matter activists and their disruption of events (the closest we get is the fact that some BLM activists became Sanders surrogates; no mention at all of Clinton). Lowery barely covers any of the events of 2016, almost as if Black Lives Matter just vanished into the Presidential campaign – something he says is a media misconception: well, if so, it’s one They Can’t Kill Us All perpetuates.

It’s possible I wanted a different kind of book; an actual history of the Black Lives Matter movement, not a series of snapshots of moments in the movement (but “This is a movement, not a moment”, per Lorenzo Norris, quoted on p73). But that’s what They Can’t Kill Us All claims to be; The Story of Black Lives Matter. On those grounds, despite the excellent journalistic style, this book is a definite failure.

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

A powerful and brave YA novel about what prejudice looks like in the 21st century. Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a powerful and gripping YA novel about one girl’s struggle for justice.
Some books, I’m not sure I’m the right person to review. Some books are written from so far outside my experience, I don’t know if it’s my place to speak on them, or whether I should just boost the voices of others. This is one of those books; The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, speaks to a black, female, poor, American experience I just cannot claim to have anything similar to. But it needs to be talked about, because this is one of the most important YA books to come out this year, if not the most important.

The Hate U Give is, as above, a novel about the Black Lives Matter movement, without ever explicitly being about the Black Lives Matter movement in the text, or about any specific police shooting of an unarmed black teenager. Instead, it takes a fictional scenario, and plays it out – from the point of view of the only witness to the shooting, Starr. The whole thing is set up within the first couple of chapters; very rapidly, Thomas drops us into Starr’s world, the two parts she works to keep separate (Garden Heights, the poor, black neighbourhood she lives in) and Williamson (the majority-white private school she attends), the personal and political conflicts raging around her, and the struggles of her life. Those are both ordinary adolescent struggles – boys, friendship groups, school – and larger ones: gang struggles, police racism, complicated family politics.

The Hate U Give ties these all together through the person of Starr; what could be a messy novel with too many threads not really tying together works well in Thomas’ hands as she controls each and every one carefully, bringing them to the fore and pushing them into the background in turn and bringing them together in parallel or running right into each other with a very well controlled hand. At times it doesn’t work quite so well – there are a few rocky patches where transitions between Starr’s self-presentation are hammered home a little too hard, and a few plotlines are just dropped into oblivion without ever going anywhere. There are also moments when it grinds screeching to a halt for Thomas to talk to the reader; while these sections convey important information, they feel clunky and unnatural, as Starr recites information she knows without it really adding anything to the book beyond educating the reader.

The biggest strength of The Hate U Give, though, is also its biggest weakness; the characters. Starr herself, as noted above, is brilliantly written in the centre of all kinds of complicated knots and relationships, and working her way through them is what the book is about; but that requires the other characters be well drawn too. Certainly her family members, especially her Daddy, her Momma, and her Uncle Carlos are all brilliantly drawn, complicated and interesting people, with individual mannerisms, understandings of blackness, and approaches to life, all smart and well-written; but some of the other characters fall flat. The flattest of all is Ms. Ofrah, the community organiser and activist who helps Starr; she is two-dimensional and uninteresting as a character in her own right, serving only to further the plot. Both Chris and Hailey suffer from this too, although that’s not unexpected; Chris, Starr’s boyfriend, is essentially “white ally learning how to be a better ally”, while Hailey is a portrait of white privilege; there’s no reason either needs to be more than that, really. However, that DeVante isn’t very rounded out is disappointing; his role in the book could have been rather more interesting and shown some interesting ideas and parallels, but he’s much more a case study than really allows for that.

It’s also worth noting how strongly this book is connected to generations of African-American culture. The Hate U Give takes its title from a Tupac line, and there’s an implicit struggle in Starr’s parents’ generation over modelling one’s activism on Malcolm X and Huey Newton or Martin Luther King Jr; “Black Jesus” is a constant in life, in houses and art; the soundtrack of the novel is generations of African-American music, from Tupac and NWA to Kendrick Lamar and Ice Cube, with the occasional dips into white superstars of the moment like Taylor Swift. This really does set the atmosphere and tone of the book powerfully.

The Hate U Give can be a tad preachy, with Thomas at times talking at the reader rather than telling the story, and it can at times fall a little flat, but overall, this is a powerful, brutal condemnation of the racist status quo in America, powerfully, brilliantly told from the point of view of one girl.

DECLARATION: This review based on an ARC received from Walker Books, the UK publisher, on request.

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Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

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It’s been a year since Binti and Okwu enrolled at Oomza University. A year since Binti was declared a hero for uniting two warring planets. A year since she found friendship in the unlikeliest of places.

And now she must return home to her people, with her friend Okwu by her side, to face her family and face her elders.

But Okwu will be the first of his race to set foot on Earth in over a hundred years, and the first ever to come in peace.

After generations of conflict can human and Meduse ever learn to truly live in harmony?
I loved Binti when it came out in 2015, and have been excited about Okorafor writing sequel-novellas in the series for since they were announced in April last year; so getting my hands on a copy when it came out earlier this year was rather exciting. But, with awards and anticipation behind Binti, did the sequel match the opening?

This review will contain SPOILERS for Binti.

Certainly, the novella picks up powerfully where Binti left off; it sees Binti studying at Oozma Uni, dealing with learning about her abilities as a master harmoniser and with the fallout of the events of the last novella – Okorafor writes about Binti’s PTSD and her therapy powerfully, and her emotions are one of the strongest draws of the story; they are really effectively put across to make the volume move the heart as well as the head, and to grip the reader and make them empathise with alien (yet familiar) experiences. The continuing character development is also powerful; Binti’s personal relationship with the world around her, with her family, with Okwu and the Meduse are all central to the plot, and the way Okorafor draws them each out is incredibly powerful and well written.

The plot is less strong, because it isn’t whole. Binti stood alone, and indeed every work of Okorafor’s I’ve read so far has been written as a stand-alone; seeing her approach to writing a series, it seems this is an important point, because Binti: Home takes us part-way through a plot and just ends, on a cliffhanger, having resolved nothing. This isn’t a neatly wrapped ending, it’s the end of the first part of a novel, the first act; the set up is here, but the rest of the story is apparently waiting for the third novella in the trilogy, a definite weakness (why not package the two as one novel?). Okorafor is usually good at endings, so it seems that the problem is in writing semi-endings; things for a book to end on that don’t wrap everything up.

One of the strengths of Binti is also doubled down on in Binti: Home and it’s one alluded to above; namely, that Okorafor is writing, in her (literally) alien experiences, allegories to very real situations and experiences. A lot of Binti and Binti: Home are concerned with prejudice and racism, and how that is taught to us and internalised even against the evidence of our own experience when it is what society believes; so Binti is both the subject of, and unconcious holder of, racist views about others, and Okorafor doesn’t suggest she’s inherently a bad person for this, but would only be if she clung to it in the face of contrary evidence. It’s an very sympathetic portrait of someone who has been raised as racist and cannot simply, in one go, shrug it off; almost too sympathetic perhaps given the real world we live in, but important all the same. However, at another point, Okorafor makes it clear she is not writing allegory; the very brief appearance of Haifa, a trans woman who is matter-of-factly introduced and totally accepted as female, setting the trans experience clearly outside the intentional allegories of the novella. (It is worth noting that while broadly well executed, Haifa’s self-description uses a phrase increasingly criticised and problematised by the trans community).

In the end, Binti: Home doubles down on many of the strengths of Binti, but the lack of any kind of ending makes it not work as a standalone very well; I’m eager for the concluding volume, but wish this had been stronger.

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Battle Hill Bolero by Daniel José Older

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Trouble is brewing between the Council of the Dead and the ghostly, half-dead, spiritual, and supernatural community they claim to represent. One too many shady deals have gone down in New York City’s streets, and those caught in the crossfire have had enough. It’s time for the Council to be brought down—this time for good.

Carlos Delacruz is used to being caught in the middle of things: both as an inbetweener, trapped somewhere between life and death, and as a double agent for the Council. But as his friends begin preparing for an unnatural war against the ghouls in charge, he realizes that more is on the line than ever before—not only for the people he cares about, but for every single soul in Brooklyn, alive or otherwise…
It’s no secret that I really enjoyed Half-Resurrection Blues back when I read it in 2015; Daniel José Older’s novels between then and now, Shadowshaper and (in the Bone Street Rumba series) Midnight Taxi Tango, showed a writer stepping up his game each time, so cracking the spine on Battle Hill Bolero, I went in with high expectations.

Taking high expectations to a Daniel José Older novel is a fool’s game, though, because they’re never the right expectations. Urban fantasy is a broad genre, and although the Bone Street Rumba fits perfectly into it, every novel has a very different feel; where the first was a detective novel, and the second more a crime and horror novel, this third is a war story, straight and simple. Only, as with all Older’s writing, it isn’t that simple. Battle Hill Bolero draws the threads of the previous two books together beautifully, with a real ensemble cast; it’s a testament to Older’s skill that the different voices are all still incredibly distinct, with not just attitudes but linguistic ticks all their own, even as they blend those linguistic ticks as they grow together (a really subtle touch). Character development for our pre-existing cast isn’t a huge feature of this novel, although Carlos and Sasha both come to terms with the events that lie between them; but for Krys, our new viewpoint character, we really see some development through the parts of the novel we get, well handled and beautifully written.

I also want to give Older a shout out for including multiple queer characters. Not only bisexual and homosexual characters, but also trans ones – in the background to the novel is Wendy, a nonbinary kid, and one of the secondary characters is a ghost called Redd, a trans man who was alive in the 18th century; the character in Battle Hill Bolero who questions it is a modern kid who gets shut down fast, and everyone else just accepts Redd, and it isn’t brought up again, and that’s a far-too-rare thing, especially in urban fantasy. This is a book in which the only white characters are on the wrong side, and all the queer ones are on the right side, and the trans man survives, and that warms my heart so much.

The only thing that remains to talk about is the plot, which is perhaps where Battle Hill Bolero isn’t strongest, but is by no means weak. The whole novel builds from its opening to its climax inexorably, with a kind of building fury preceding the storm that Older constantly harnesses in all the side-threads; there are a few elements that aren’t as well worked in, including the personal lives of some of our principals, but the whole thing ties into the central conflict that the series, and novel, build towards beautifully. Older continues to handle his action scenes fantastically and with a real viscerality, getting us up close and person and really letting the physicality move us, and his emotional scenes have a similar kind of strength, helping the slightly less smooth parts of the plot get past their bumps easily.

Battle Hill Bolero, then, is a fantastic, brilliantly written capstone to one of the best urban fantasy series of the 21st century, and one of the most aware of what that century looks like: not straight, white, or male, but more like Daniel José Older’s queer, colourful New York.

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The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley

Somewhere on the outer rim of the universe, a mass of decaying world-ships known as the Legion is traveling in the seams between the stars. For generations, a war for control of the Legion has been waged, with no clear resolution. As worlds continue to die, a desperate plan is put into motion.

Zan wakes with no memory, prisoner of a people who say they are her family. She is told she is their salvation – the only person capable of boarding the Mokshi, a world-ship with the power to leave the Legion. But Zan’s new family is not the only one desperate to gain control of the prized ship. Zan must choose sides in a genocidal campaign that will take her from the edges of the Legion’s gravity well to the very belly of the world. Zan will soon learn that she carries the seeds of the Legion’s destruction – and its possible salvation.
I’m a big fan of Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha and enjoyed Mirror Empire, so when I heard that she had written a new, stand-alone piece of feminist science fiction, I was inevitably very ready to jump on board; thanks to the kind generosity of Penny Reeve at Angry Robot Books, I got to do that a little earlier than most of you…

The Stars Are Legion is in many ways the archetypical Kameron Hurley novel; angrily and unapologetically feminist, grimdark and brutal, and with some very odd biopunk things going on in the worldbuilding. We go in expecting those now, though, so their presence per se is almost not worth commenting on; instead, their specific manifestations are relevant.

The novel as a whole is quite a fast-paced read, powering through a lot of plot very quickly; at times this makes it very choppy, as time is disjointed and unclear (if this was intentional, it isn’t clear that was the case, rather than something approaching carelessness), and at times it founders on repetition of things that were covered earlier being driven home, especially if those things are relevant to the thematic underpinnings. That’s something of a habit for Hurley; this is less choppy in many ways than previous novels, and has a much better approach to concealed information, with Zan’s lost memory and the way Jayn, our other viewpoint character, talks about things feeling naturally avoidant rather than forced for plot reasons. The eventual resolution feels forced though, and doesn’t really fit with the tone of the rest of the novel; whether Hurley or her editors wanted it, The Stars Are Legion wraps up in a way that grinds harshly against what came before.

In terms of character, though, the tight focus of The Stars Are Legion means it’s one of Hurley’s most accomplished books so far. Having only Zan and Jayn as viewpoint characters means we really get into their heads very deeply, and having quite a small ancillary cast to those protagonists allows Hurley to paint them vividly through both interactions with the principals and with each other; across the novel we see a variety of different expressions of personhood accompanied by different responses to the weird world Hurley has constructed. It’s an impressive feat to achieve that kind of variety, and to draw out the characters so powerfully and individually; although Zan’s characterisation seems to falter at the end and her decisions come out of left field, rather than reading as a natural extension of her development up until that moment.

This is a dark novel; The Stars Are Legion, as mentioned above, is hardly out of line with the place in the grimdark movement that Hurley has carved for herself. The worldbuilding is incredibly biopunk-centred, and that means that not only do the sections involving violence towards other people have viscera and gore, but much of the travel does; this is also a book in which we see multiple births, although those are almost sanitised compared to much of the rest of the viscera Hurley provides. It’s an interesting contrast, then, to look at the birthing scenes in contrast with, say, violence done against other people; there’s much more focus on bodily fluids in the latter, much more on noises in the former.

The Stars Are Legion is an all-female novel, set in an all-female world; that leads Hurley to make some decisions which are… arguably problematic, especially for trans people. For a start, no trans people exist in this world; every human is a cis female born with a working womb, for reasons that become clear as the novel progresses, but they still all identify as women, as if there’s some other thing they’re identifying against, despite that clearly not being the case. Furthermore, in this world shorn of trans people, a sincere and deep wish of many trans women, for working womb transplants, is not only possible, but something that happens on multiple occasions; it’s not regular, but it’s clearly doable, which feels a little painful to this queer. However, the feminism of the novel is otherwise very strong, with the cast being clearly marked as not white (and whiteness being noted as an exceptional state in one character) and the approach to culture being to create it virtually wholesale.

In the end, then, while The Stars Are Legion isn’t a perfect novel on either aesthetic or political grounds, I think it is probably Hurley’s best work yet, and a brilliant piece of feminist science fiction.

DISCLAIMER: I am friends with Kameron Hurley and support her writing on Patreon. She has previously contributed two guest posts to this blog. I am also friends with Penny Reeve, publicist at Angry Robot Books, UK publishers of The Stars Are Legion. This review is based on a finished copy sent to me by the publisher.

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