Intellectus Speculativus

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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From author Lara Elena Donnelly, a debut spy thriller as a gay double-agent schemes to protect his smuggler lover during the rise of a fascist government coup

Trust no one with anything – especially in Amberlough City.

Covert agent Cyril DePaul thinks he’s good at keeping secrets, especially from Aristide Makricosta. They suit each other: Aristide turns a blind eye to Cyril’s clandestine affairs, and Cyril keeps his lover’s moonlighting job as a smuggler under wraps.

Cyril participates on a mission that leads to disastrous results, leaving smoke from various political fires smoldering throughout the city. Shielding Aristide from the expected fallout isn’t easy, though, for he refuses to let anything – not the crooked city police or the mounting rage from radical conservatives – dictate his life.

Enter streetwise Cordelia Lehane, a top dancer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret and Aristide’s runner, who could be the key to Cyril’s plans—if she can be trusted. As the twinkling lights of nightclub marquees yield to the rising flames of a fascist revolution, these three will struggle to survive using whatever means — and people — necessary. Including each other.

Combining the espionage thrills of le Carré with the allure of an alternate vintage era, Amberlough will thoroughly seduce and enthrall you.
~~~~~
Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough takes as its very obvious touchstone the musical Cabaret: the (ultimately resistible, if one would only try) rise of fascism as backdrop to a hedonistic foreground refusing to engage with politics. She goes a different direction in some regards, but how well does it work…?

Amberlough, from the start, runs three parallel plotlines. The first concerns Cyril DePaul, intelligence agent for the regionalist government of Amberlough turned, in the wake of being blown, into a double-agent for the nationalist, fascist One State Party (Ospies); his personal libertine lifestyle and his political acumen, as well as his abilities as an agent, all become both useful tools and liabilities across the course of his plot. The one problem with Donnelly’s portrayal of Cyril is that much as she tells us he used to be an excellent agent in the past, we never see any evidence of this in the present; no part of Cyril’s conduct in the novel gives us any hint of this excellent espionage that we’re told is part of his backstory.

The second major plotline is that of Aristide Makricosta, smuggler, libertine, drag queen and Cyril’s lover, at the start of Amberlough. He’s got an interesting plotline of his own, mostly revolving around dealing with the fallout of Cyril’s espionage work and the rise of the Ospies; we see a certain amount of ruthless illegal trade and dealing, and some excellent intelligence work, from Ari, and Donnelly really gives him a dark edge. He shines most brightly, though, on the stage and in the sections where he is dressing up, whether in drag or in civvies but designed to shine; Ari is a performer, and Amberlough gives him ample stages, large and small, intimate and personal or broad and general, and Donnelly relishes giving us his performances.

The third character through whose eyes we see this resistible, even if relatively unresisted, rise of fascism, is Cordelia Lehane, stripper at the same cabaret as Ari; indeed, their joint act, involving both dragging up, is the star of the show. Cordelia is an interesting character in Donnelly’s hands; through the course of Amberlough, she is by turns unfaithful lover, drug dealer, cabaret dancer, resistance runner, willing beard, and ends up… well, that would be spoiling things. Her character development is fascinating, as we see her realise how attached to certain people and places she really is, and as that affects her interactions with the world; Cordelia is where Donnelly really shows us what she can do in terms of taking a relatively simply character and then drawing them out to be so much more than that, and so much more interesting, in part by simply making clear to the readers her greater attachments.

The politics of writing a novel are often fraught, but one can only presume that was especially the case with Amberlough. This is very much a novel about the rise of fascism; all three characters’ plotlines are centred on the rise of the Ospies, whose very name is reminiscent of those fascists who cast their long shadow over all who came after, the Nazis. It’s unfortunate that much of the political machinations happen off-stage; Donnelly has a tendency to jump-cut past what one might regard as some of the more fascinating elements of the plot, tangles which the reader might enjoy moving through, rather than just seeing the consequences of. As it is, most of the political events happen off-stage, and inexplicably, and we see their consequences, instead of the events themselves; that’s not an entirely satisfactory way to write the book and ends up leaving Amberlough plot feeling a little empty and underbaked.

The setting deserves at least as much attention as the plot, since Donnelly clearly gave it at least as much lavishment. Amberlough is mainly set in the titular city, although it ranges outside that briefly to various places and refers to more; the city of Amberlough is a gloriously louche, corrupt, decadent place that really springs to life off the page, a kind of mash-up of Weimar Berlin with all the cliches of Prohibition-era Chicago, with an almost dieselpunk approach to technology. Brought to life by a mix of beautiful descriptions of the art deco and art nouveau architecture, the 1920s costuming, and the generous use of slang, Amberlough joins the ranks of settings which almost outshine the characters living in them, places like Peake’s Gormenghast or Tolkein’s Middle Earth; but rather than gothic or epic, the word that best describes Amberlough might be louche.

Amberlough is a very queer book; despite a relatively compact cast, of whom an even smaller number are actually depicted as queer, those characters are disproportionately on stage, and centred by the narrative. There are hints of more queerness around the edges of this plot – multiple-marriages and polyamory are part of the “old religion”, which the fascists oppose, and given the prominence of drag, hopefully there is more gender nonconformity to come in the auspices of the old religion in future books, necessary to tie up the fact that all three protagonists end their plots on very much cliffhangers.

Amberlough is, inevitably, not the perfect novel, if such a thing even exists; but Donnelly has produced a well-written and at times beautiful take on the themes of the rise of fascism and life under an oppressive government. The cliffhanger endings, and unresolved plots, will draw me into the sequel, but I’m hoping for slightly stronger plotting there.

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Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

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San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World’s Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer “authentic” experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.

Six women find their lives as tangled with each other’s as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.

Inspired by the pulps, film noir, and screwball comedy, Passing Strange is a story as unusual and complex as San Francisco itself from World Fantasy Award winning author Ellen Klages.
~~~~~
Passing Strange is a bit of an odd duck in the Tor.com novella line up: so far everything I’ve read from them has been very much core genre, and I’ve read most of the line up, at least one installment in each series. Passing Strange is a very different beast, although one still very much in line with the rest of its author’s (fêted) ouevre…

As we all know, being queer was taboo in the 1940s in America, even in liberal bastions like San Francisco, the city to which every black sheep ran; Passing Strange is all about that experience, about being a queer woman in that period – and about different ways of being a queer woman in the period. Klages assembles a small ensemble cast to show us multiple different intersecting oppressions – the Japanese-American Helen Young, dealing with anti-Japanese racism in an America only a few years away from war with Japan; the disinherited upper-class Emily Netterfield, who performs drag; pulp cover-artist Loretta Haskel (misgendered by later ‘experts’ in the field, of course); and more. Each woman sparkles brightly and beautifully with a vivacity that feels something like a Hollywood glamour film; they leap off the page brightly, and even in their quieter, more domestic moments, they have a kind of shine.

It’s beautiful writing and character realisation, and the way that Klages developes the relationships between the women across the course of Passing Strange is slow and very human: friendships formed in a single meeting, a social gathering of Sapphic sistren, out of which comes a tangle of friendships, relationships, and events. Things move quickly and slowly by turn, beautifully developing; Klages writes with a sensitive, emotionally deft hand about exploring one’s own and each other’s feelings in the early days of a relationship, as well as the comfort and familiarity of the latter stages of one. The plot really takes a backstage to the relationship; indeed, the plot is the relationship, really, with a few events that add tangles to it, but even there everything is centred on relationships, mainly that between Haskel and Emily.

Klages isn’t writing history, but she is writing realism; Passing Strange spends a certain amount of time on looking at the effects of the strictures of the day, and what those strictures were. Things like the three-garment test (of whether women were breaking the law by wearing men’s clothing), the police attitude to gay establishments, and general social attitudes; Klages is far from sympathetic to these bigotries, but she is sympathetic to the women who have to deal with them, and there’s a beautiful critique, worked in throughout the narrative, of the way heteronormative society tries to force queers into the closet.

All this history is surrounded by a wonderful frame story of Helen in her old age, in the contemporary world; it’s a bittersweet story, but also pulls cackles from the reader, as Klages ensures people get their comeuppance, as Passing Strange deals out appropriate ends and ensures some rather fun loose ends are tied up – and points out certain modern hypocrisies, to boot. It’s a framing story that really drives home the magical-realist elements of the novel, which are essential to the ending but for the rest of it are just a little extra flavour Klages adds beautifully and, seemingly, purely for the whimsy of it.

Passing Strange is a beautiful, wonderful gem of a story, a lesbian romance that really feels sweet and gentle and happy; Klages has crafted a real joy of a story. And if that weren’t enough, there’s a Diego Rivera cameo, so how can you resist?

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Testament by Hal Duncan

On my Patreon, one of the rewards, for $5/month, is collectively choosing something for me to review at the start of the next month; that goes up at the start of the month for patrons at that level, and they decided that they should also go up publicly! As a result, a month after my patrons see these reviews, they’ll be posted here. And in February, my $5 patrons decided I should review… Hal Duncan’s Testament

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In the 21st Century, a scalpel slices bible pages, passages spliced to restore lost truth. In the days of King Herod, the messias rises, calling to black sheep: walk with me. Now, here, between two aeons and across Æternity, a beloved student rebuilds his Gospel for the era of Anonymous: anarchist, socialist, atheist, revolutionary. Forget the tale you were spun and open your ears to the teacher who said, I will have mercy and not sacrifice. From the Hebridean fishing village of Capernaum, to a Jerusalem under Il Duce Pontius Pilate…

The Empire ends today.
~~~~~
Hal Duncan is possibly best known as a poet and a commentator on science fiction and fantasy from a queer, anarchist, iconoclastic, somewhat punk perspective, setting himself up as the Elder of Sodom, and the blurb of Testament lays out his manifesto in the book perfectly accurately: it is a retelling of the Gospels from a queered point of view, with God taken out of the equation.

It must be emphasised that taking God out of the Bible is a long tradition, though I’m not sure Duncan would see himself as in continuity with Jefferson or Pullman; but as a project, this has very similar roots – suggesting that the morality Christ taught is valid, but the idea of his divinity is not. Whereas Jefferson simply removes those as later interpolations and Pullman posited a fictional, manipulative brother, Duncan suggests they’re a misreading of what Christ was saying: there is no God but only humanity, the “everyman”; Christ’s father was not God, but an unknown revolutionary. The problem with any of these projects is the same, though; picking and choosing what bits of the Gospels you accept as true, and which bits you think are lies, can never be backed up by anything but “Because I say so”, and Duncan’s project, though explicitly fictional, does nothing to stand up to the question of, “Aren’t you ignoring the actual language involved for your own purposes?”

Testament also stands in a long tradition of Jesus/Judas slash; this particular queering of Jesus is a slightly odd one from Duncan, relying as it does on reading three distinct people as all being Judas, and on presuming all love (at least, all love between men) is sexual. It’s absolutely true that there’s no textual evidence that Christ wasn’t queer, and indeed some that He may have been, although it’s… at best tenuous, but what strikes this reader as strange is the effort Duncan goes to in reading queerness into parts of the Bible where it wasn’t, while ignoring areas where there is much stronger evidence of queerness (the pais of the centurion, here treated simply as a slave, for instance). Queerness, for Duncan, appears to be specially reserved for Christ and the Disciples, and not all of them.

That’s not the only odd, tenuous reading, of course. While many people have questioned how the epistles of Paul fit with the teachings of Christ, and how the edifice of the Catholic Church (as founded by Peter who was Simon) fits with those teachings, Duncan’s explanation is… unsatisfactory: Paul was a sleeper agent sent by the Roman Empire to undermine the Church? Peter founded the Church and was the one who reconciled it to Empire? And yet, chronologically and historically and sociologically, in terms of the Early Church, that just doesn’t make sense (think Diocletian, if you’re wondering why). Testament doesn’t engage with later persecution of the Christians, going right up to the modern day, instead casting Christianity as purely persecutor; an argument that strains credulity.

Finally, there’s the approach to chronology and timeslipping that Testament deploys. This is fundamental to Duncan’s project; he slips references to modernity into this Gospel of Judas, with Christ preaching at the kirk, with the setting changed from Judea to Aberdeen, with the Romans pepperspraying lines of Christians. It’s evocative, to be sure, but it also feels messy; it departicularises Christ from his time and place, something Duncan sometimes relies on, to universalise everything he says, even when it isn’t. The time slipping is especially problematic in the way Duncan, a Gentile, deploys the Holocaust, and how he, a white Scot, deploys Black suffering; laid at the foot of the Christian Church (not unreasonably), he takes them as his own stories to tell, as his own events to use however he wants. As a Jew, this is, to say the least, offensive to me.

I’m not the right person to engage deeply with the theology of Testament; it seems to me to be taking the messages of Jesus and distorting them in a mirror image of the way some established churches do. But for what I can comment on, while this is an artful novel, and an interesting one, it’s also a deeply flawed project that repeatedly undermines itself; useful to read, but with one’s head cocked, as it were.

DISCLOSURE: Hal Duncan is a fellow Glaswegian and a friend.

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Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

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After attacking Devil’s Reef in 1928, the U.S. Government rounded up the people of Innsmouth and took them to the desert, far from their ocean, their Deep One ancestors, and their sleeping god Cthulhu. Only Aphra and Caleb Marsh survived the camps, and they emerged without a past or a future.

The government that stole Aphra’s life now needs her help. FBI agent Ron Spector believes that Communist spies have stolen dangerous magical secrets from Miskatonic University, secrets that could turn the Cold War hot in an instant, and hasten the end of the human race.

Aphra must return to the ruins of her home, gather scraps of her stolen history, and assemble a new family to face the darkness of human nature.
~~~~~
Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide is one of Tor.com’s line of revisionist Lovecraftiana, alongside Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone and Victor LaValle’s Ballad of Black Tom: grappling the worst of Lovecraft’s legacy, his racism and hatred, as well as the best, his existential terror and horrifying vision of the world and of human history.

Winter Tide is a meditation on monstrousness, monstrosity, what makes one monstrous, and what others see as monstrous; it is also a story about found family and making one’s own family. The former theme is as much about the cultural relativism of monstrosity, and the things we justify because we psychologicall must, as it is about actual monsters; after all, as Emrys’ protagonist Aphra Marsh is at pains to point out, the Deep Ones (of which she is one, granddaughter of Obed Marsh) are as much humans as any homo sapiens. This also plays into the queer characters somewhat – what American society saw as monstrous in the 1940s, other cultures, including the Deep Ones, did not.

Emrys also ties in this theme of Winter Tide with racism; fear of the Other is hardly limited to non-homo sapiens, after all. The Deep Ones living in Innsmouth were, in this timeline, incarcerated in an internment camp in 1928, after accusations by Daniel Upton; almost all, except Aphra and her brother Caleb, perished by 1942… when the American government incarcerated Japanese-Americans in the camps, reusing the Innsmouth camp as one of its locations. Another character in the novel is FBI Agent Ron Spector, a Jewish man who has to deal with the antisemitism of his supervisors, especially in the wake of the foundation of Israel; another is a black woman, Dorothy Dawson, who has to suffer the prejudice of the white characters. Winter Tide centres on these characters Lovecraft was terrified of, and has them doing the work to keep humanity from abusing magic and the spaces beyond the world; Emrys very consciously pulls together a group whom Lovecraft could scarcely have despised more on sight, and then makes them shine.

Winter Tide is also about found families, of course. Aphra finds her first family in the camp, with the Japanese-American Kotos, whom she lives with in San Francisco after they’re released in December 1945; but over the course of the novel she builds another family, including the Kotos, people who are interested in magic and discovery, or in her friendship. Found families aren’t so uncommon in speculative fiction as they once were but Emrys’ novel-length meditation on developing one and the random chance encounters that lead to deep bonds of affection, and the way relationships can change as people learn each other better, is one of the more beautiful I’ve seen.

I’ve not actually mentioned the plot, and that’s because Emrys is at her weakest when it comes to the plot. Winter Tide is a novel of characters and relationships; the plot takes a very second strand to that, with many events just seeming to happen without any logical precipitating factor beyond the need for something to advance the story. The first three quaters of the book are a little slow and unfocused, as a result; and the last third feels like a separate novella stuck on the end, except for how it utilises relationships (not events qua events) from the earlier part of the book. The sudden change in focus isn’t smooth, but does work to really pull the reader to the end of the novel.

Winter Tide, then, is a beautiful, langorous book about interpersonal dynamics and relationships, about what it is to be human and what makes one a monster, and an elegant riposte to Lovecraft’s many vile bigotries. What Emrys has not written is a thrilling tale to pull you through it; that may put some readers off, but I’d urge them to keep going for the human core of the novel. It’s worth it.

DISCLOSURE: This review was based on an ARC provided by the publisher, Tor.com.

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The Djinn Falls In Love eds. Mahvesh Murad & Jared Shurin

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Imagine a world filled with fierce, fiery beings, hiding in our shadows, in our dreams, under our skins. Eavesdropping and exploring; savaging our bodies, saving our souls. They are monsters, saviours, victims, childhood friends.

Some have called them genies: these are the Djinn. And they are everywhere. On street corners, behind the wheel of a taxi, in the chorus, between the pages of books. Every language has a word for them. Every culture knows their traditions. Every religion, every history has them hiding in their dark places. There is no part of the world that does not know them.


They are the Djinn. They are among us.
~~~~~
The Djinn Falls In Love is one of those anthologies one hears of long before it ever comes out; containing a mixture of luminaries of the field (Nnedi Okorafor, Neil Gaiman, Amal El-Mohtar) and rising stars, including people whose profile in the Anglosphere isn’t high yet, it crosses a mixture of different approaches to a singular subject matter – although I slightly miss the original title, Djinnthology. But how does this set of stories, themed around the inherently mercurial subject matter of the djinn, come together?

As a whole, the anthology has an interesting shape; opening with the titular poem by Hermes, it balances in the middle with a prose-poem by Amal El-Mohtar, which seems to also be the point after which it shifts from the more mythic stories to the more traditionally Western speculative fiction model. The first half of The Djinn Falls In Love isn’t exclusively the more poetic approach to stories, but it’s certainly a theme there in a way it isn’t in the second half; thus Kamila Shamsie’s beautiful, sad tale, ‘The Congregation’, shares space with the very 1,001 Nights-reminiscent ‘Majnun’ by Helene Wecker, another tale of tragic love with a very different narrative trajectory; both are about identity and what one has to sacrifice for one’s own independent identity, and both are beautifully shaped around a kind of emotional core of personal singularity. J.Y. Yang’s ‘Glass Lights’, on the other hand, is almost more defined by an absence of self; it’s a very beautiful, quiet, subtle kind of tragedy, of selflessness and personal obliteration, amazingly simple and subtle and powerful. The bookend story to this half of the collection, on the other hand, is the triumphant ‘A Tale Of Ash In Seven Birds’ by Amal El-Mohtar, a prose-poem in seven segments, a kind of building beauty and power, with shifting voice and amazingly beautiful writing. It is a stunningly self-contained piece of absolute rising beauty.

Not everything in this first half connects, though. The Djinn Falls In Love includes some mythological stories which feel a little obvious; Claire North’s ‘Hurren and the Djinn’, with its explicit connection to the 1,001 Nights, tells the reader its obvious and inevitable ending way before it manages to actually reach that point. Maria Dahvana Headley’s ‘Black Powder’, on the other hand, just feels like it would work better in the second half of the book… after a substantial rewrite; it tends towards women as objects of violence, not subjects, and feels overextended and somehow consistently fails to connect emotionally across its length.

The second half of the anthology is stories that are much more traditionally in the Western speculative fiction mode, and much less mythological in feeling, on the whole; the exception is Nnedi Okorafor’s beautiful closer, ‘History’, which straddles the line between the two modes fantastically and is a really beautiful little tale of unexpected consequences and of power and choices. Similarly, Catherine Faris King’s ‘Queen of Sheba’ is a brilliant slipstream story, which reminded me of Daniel José Older’s Bone Street Rhumba, where magic appears around the lived experiences of people in marginalised communities, and comes from those communities. Taking a very different approach, Saad Z. Hossain’s ‘Bring Your Own Spoon’ developes from a fun, seemingly quite whimsical story to a very profound piece of writing about living on the edge of the acceptable and respectable, and of community; it’s a powerful story that really does take its whimsy seriously. ‘Reap’ by Sami Shah, on the other hand, starts grimly serious and stays that way; told from the point of view of the team flying a drone over Pakistan, it really drives home the strange way wars are fought by industrialised nations, so divorced from the reality of the people they effect.

Two stories in this section fail in a very similar way; both James Smythe’s ‘The Sand in the Glass is Right’ and Kirsty Logan’s ‘Spite House’ felt like they really needed to establish a much stronger emotional connection with the reader to work. Both are stories about unintended consequences and misdirected wishes, and both feel a little padded, as if they really could have been trimmed and made a clearer, more powerful version of themselves; this is especially surprising in Logan’s case, given some of her beautiful past work that would stand alongside much of the first half of this volume. K. J. Parker’s story, ‘Message in a Bottle’, meanwhile, feels rather like anyone who has read a few Parker stories has read it before; it follows what is now a familiar pattern and model from him, without really deviating in any interesting directions. It’s undeniably well done, but feels a little divorced from the rest of this collection.

Finally, ‘Duende 2077’ by Jamal Mahjoub is the story in The Djinn Falls In Love that really fell apart for me. Set in a near-future world ruled by an Islamic Caliphate, with a Londonistan, regular beheadings of criminals, and a corrupt, hypocritical elite who indulge in haram pleasures they deny others, it felt like a fantasy ripped from a Daily Mail headline; in a longer, more developed work, that might work, but as it is, it feels like the setting is a bunch of Islamophobic tropes slammed together. That’s a shame, because the noirish political thriller plot deserved a lot better.

The Djinn Falls In Love isn’t a perfect anthology; it’s got, like all anthologies, its hits and its misses. But Shurin and Murad have assembled here a really strong collection of stories, and the standouts really are outstanding – this anthology is worth the price of admission for El-Mohtar, Okorafor, Shamsie, Wecker and Yang alone!

DISCLOSURE: This review is based on a copy received for review from the publisher, Solaris, at work. I am friends with Amal El-Mohtar and J.Y. Yang, who each have a story in the anthology, as aforementioned.

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Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hunger Makes The Wolf by Alex Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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