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All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry

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The first book in an exciting YA trilogy, this is the story of two best friends on the verge of a terrifying divide when they begin to encounter a cast of strange and mythical characters.

Set against the lush, magical backdrop of the Pacific Northwest, two inseparable best friends who have grown up like sisters—the charismatic, mercurial, and beautiful Aurora and the devoted, soulful, watchful narrator—find their bond challenged for the first time ever when a mysterious and gifted musician named Jack comes between them. Suddenly, each girl must decide what matters most: friendship, or love. What both girls don’t know is that the stakes are even higher than either of them could have imagined. They’re not the only ones who have noticed Jack’s gift; his music has awakened an ancient evil—and a world both above and below which may not be mythical at all. The real and the mystical; the romantic and the heartbreaking all begin to swirl together, carrying the two on journey that is both enthralling and terrifying.

And it’s up to the narrator to protect the people she loves—if she can.
~~~~~
As a former student of the Classics and someone fascinated by the genre of academia known as Reception Studies, a book that is at least Orpheus-adjacent is always going to fascinate me; as part of a series whose title is explicitly Ovidian, McCarry was always going to get my attention. But what does All Our Pretty Songs do with that attention…?

All Our Pretty Songs is beautifully written, that’s definitely true. The language is on its face very plain, simple, and blunt; McCarry doesn’t use the lyrical approach much fantasy applies to create its beauty, and isn’t a poetic writer. However, she is a fantastic prose artist; using a simpler language and a plainer prose style to realise some really fantastic visuals and settings, and to set a mood of euphoria, despair, drunkenness etc. There’s a very well controlled approach to voice on display, and some of the best passages of the book are where McCarry in using run-on sentences and chaotic grammar to create a psychedelic sense of the world.

However, this is where my appreciation for All Our Pretty Songs starts to break down a bit. The characters are a little flat, in part because our protagonist never really cares about anyone else’s wants or desires much; instead, she imprints her belief about what they want onto them, assumes their motives and minds. That would work better if we were shown at any time other than the twist that she was wrong; and might work better if the protagonist was a little more interesting herself, rather than so bent on defining herself against the people around her, and by comparison to them, so we never really get a good sense of anyone, and no emotional relationship feels particularly impactful. It also doesn’t help that McCarry flirts a lot with queerness without ever coming out and making it explicit; Aurora and our narrator share a lot of kisses for people who are apparently completely straight, and there’s a lot of queer-coding without ever once having queer desire among the protagonists a reality.

The plot is pretty simple; romance followed by katabasis, as one might expect from an Orphic retelling. All Our Pretty Songs leans pretty hard on the romance aspect, and the impending tragedy of the (double-)katabasis, for its emotional impact; everything is built up with a sense of inevitable tragedy built very explicitly into the story and writing, so that everything is tinged with doom, but that doesn’t make it powerful and portentous, only far too drawn out. It might work better if the romance felt a little more real, but it all feels a little too storybook; McCarry’s failure to create characters, through the narrative lens, who feel like people really shows here.

In the end, this is about 150 pages of set up for a 60 page pay off; intending to be a meditation on love, on ambition, on competing desires and drives, it ends up without the heft to make that work, and without the audience connection to really successfully drive it, at least for this audience. All Our Pretty Songs has great potential; it’s intensely frustrating that it doesn’t live up to it.

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“You Hunted Slaves”

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Some while ago, back in January last year, whilst still on my Masters course, I did a module on Classical Receptions. As part of that, we were required, inevitably, to write an essay on some form of reception of the Classical world; and, as this blog demonstrates, I have a strong interest in comics. At the time, Kieron Gillen’s & Ryan Kelly’s Three was just coming to an end (issue #4 came out in January 2014), and was in very explicit and direct conversation with Frank Miller and Lynne Varley’s 300, so I decided that – since I had the opportunity to do so, I would compare the two works in one specific aspect.

The aspect I chose was perhaps not the best; the Spartan rite of passage known as the κρυπτεία (krypteia) is shrouded in mystery, even down to what it actually consisted of or who took part. However, both 300 and Three attempt to show it, and use it for dramatic purposes; and while an essay on their presentation of helotage would have been interesting, in light of the fact that 300 completely ignores it would also have been a rather unbalanced piece.

So, I’m attaching here a piece of work I handed in on January 17th, 2014 to the University of Glasgow, about the comparative presentation of the κρυπτεία in 300 and Three. It’s long, and written in academese, but I hope you enjoy anyway!

“You Hunted Slaves”: The Presentation of the Krypteia in 300 and Three

The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs

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In the contested and unexplored territories at the edge of the Empire, a boat is making its laborious way upstream. Riding along the banks are the mercenaries hired to protect it – from raiders, bandits and, most of all, the stretchers, elf-like natives who kill any intruders into their territory. The mercenaries know this is dangerous, deadly work.  But it is what they do.

In the boat the drunk governor of the territories and his sons and daughters make merry. They believe that their status makes them untouchable. They are wrong. And with them is a mysterious, beautiful young woman, who is the key to peace between warring nations and survival for the Empire. When a callow mercenary saves the life of the Governor on an ill-fated hunting party, the two groups are thrown together.

For Fisk and Shoe – two tough, honourable mercenaries surrounded by corruption, who know they can always and only rely on each other – their young companion appears to be playing with fire. The nobles have the power, and crossing them is always risky. And although love is a wonderful thing, sometimes the best decision is to walk away. Because no matter how untouchable or deadly you may be, the stretchers have other plans.
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This is the first of Jacobs’ novels I have read, and I come away with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is a fantastic reception element. On the other hand… well. We’ll get to the other hand of The Incorruptibles shortly.

The setting is the strongest part of this novel by far. A thinly veiled alternate Earth with an alternate history, demon-based industrial-scale everyday magic, and fantasy races (the vaettir, elves-ish, and dvergar, dwarves), The Incorruptibles‘ cast is entirely Rumans; and if you think that might be a thinly veiled reference to Romans, you’re right. Tripartite names, distinctly Roman attitudes and customs (both the triclinium and the toga are mentioned), an Emperor-and-Senate combination… it’s fascinating to see what Jacobs does with the familiar to both situate the reader in and alienate the reader from the world.

On the other hand, the worldbuilding also contains one of the biggest problems of the novel. The vaettir are savages, inhuman, murderous, and eaters of human flesh. They’re also scalpers, resisting the humans encroaching on their territory, and clearly marked as a villainous and evil race. The Incorruptibles forgets that, in the 21st century, the Westerns-style attitude to the colonised has become unacceptable; and that making your evil race somewhat obviously a parallel to stereotypical depictions of Native American culture is rather seriously problematic. That the women are given a decent role in the novel is, at first glance, a good thing; yet once again Jacobs displays attitudes that are rather less than appropriate. His point of view narrator consistently deploys the male gaze (describing one character’s bodice as “displaying her feminine features to great effect” [88]), and while Livia is a character who is competent, able to handle a number of roles, and able to use a shotgun, she still seems to turn to her sex as the weapon of first choice, and to naivete as a default state; without mentioning that the rest of the women are impressively awfully portrayed.

The Incorruptibles is also interminable. A novel with a plot so formulaic, without an untelegraphed twist in sight, needs to have either good characters or a good writing style to replace that. Jacobs’ prose. however, is slow, plodding, and dull; it feels like the benefits of first person (immediacy, for instance) have replaced any need for actual skill, to the point where Jacobs forgets that in a retrospective, future events should colour the past, that emotions need to be demonstrated, not just told, and that a poor approach to prose will only lose the reader’s attention. Instead, we’re treated to prose that is at best workmanlike detailing a plot that is dull, acted out by characters who are… well.

The cast of The Incorruptibles doesn’t make up for its failings. Livia has been discussed above; Fisk is, despite having backstory and clear hints of attempts to make him more, just another Western stock figure, the gunman with a heart of gold; Shoe, our narrator, is along for the ride, never showing any evidence for why Fisk puts up with him, or his abilities, just telling us about them; the Cornelii have personalities flatter than the featureless plain the book is largely set in, and even more one-dimensional than the approach to the vaettir; and the rest of the cast are equally irredeemably dull.

The blurb and quotes on The Incorruptibles try to situate it as part of the grimdark movement. To be related to that movement, one must have certain characteristics; a so-called crapsack world? Yes. A “realistic” approach to the world? Well, not really; the simplistic approach to the vaettir alone prevents that, but so do the approaches to Fisk’s attempt-at-character-development and Livia’s feelings. A willingness to show the grime and blood of a violent life? Well, passages lasting multiple pages about torturing a woman, dwelt on in almost pornographic detail, aside, no. And those passages are indeed pornographic; even as Shoe is supposedly disgusted, he describes them in a manner closer to lust than hatred.

The Incorruptibles is grimdark in the same way Terry Brooks is epic fantasy: derivative, dull, poorly written, and aping much better books. John Hornor Jacobs might not be a racist, nor a misogynist, but from this book, one wouldn’t know it.

DoI: This review was based on an ARC solicited from the publisher, Gollancz. The Incorruptibles will be released on August 14th.

Spin by Nina Allan

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In Nina Allan’s re-imagining of the Arachne myth, Layla, a weaver of extraordinary talent, leaves home to make her own way in life.

She heads to Atoll City in a modern alternate Greece, attracting the interest of an old lady along the way. The old lady informs Layla that she knew her mother, and of the gift the woman once possessed.

A gift that brought tragedy on Layla’s family.

A gift that Layla too possesses.
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As a Classicist with a particular fascination with reception studies, all this novella needed to do to get my interest was have the phrase “re-imagining of the Arachne myth” on the back; I hadn’t read the blurb above until I searched for a proper blurb to go with this review, since Spin-the-publication only has critical praise on the back. Of course, that might be because no blurb could really do this little piece of beauty justice…

The centre of Spin is its aesthetic. I’m not used to visualising fiction intensely – falling into its world, yes, but falling into its colours less so; but Nina Allan slowly weaves her colourful, fully-throated beautiful and incredibly visual world around the reader slowly and clearly, with an undeniable and absolute power. The use and importance of colour is emphasised throughout but also subtly layered into the story; colour sets tone, atmosphere, scene, even character, and the vividness of Allan’s writing really makes that work. From the “lacquered craquelle green” of thorns to “dark skin lustrous as teak” this is an intensely visual piece of writing.

It also packs in an awful lot of character. Spin is eighty-odd pages, but into that slight length is packed more character and humanity than many novels; Allan handles, with a deft touch, Layla’s maturity and her growing understanding of herself and her role in the world; the development of her character from child to adult; and the sympathetic approach to her very definite, set materialistic worldview. That, of course, doesn’t mean Allan endorses that view, and indeed she undermines it, both through other characters – Alcander Crawe and Thanick Acampos especially – but also through the narrative itself; and in challenging Layla, Allan develops the rest of her characters into fully rounded beings, flaws and all, in the most interesting way.

Spin also holds the distinction of being set in an alternate-present(?) Greece; Carthage appears to have existed within a century of iPads, Rome to have fallen not within living memory but certainly not a millenium and a half ago, sibylls have existed and been outlawed in living memory, and more. The handling of this is really subtle, and grows as the novella continues; casual references build up into a more and more complete image of the Mediterranean world Allan has invented for Spin, and it’s a fascinating one, with the gods still the major religion and Christianity still only at cult status. As with Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas, there’s clearly a lot of thought about the alternate history of the world that’s not made it into the text, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Where Allan falls down is with her plot. Spin is sold as an Arachne-myth, but doesn’t quite do that; nor does it actually deliver a real plot, per se. Instead, we have a character study at a series of snapshots; events don’t quite join up, the chronology is unclear, certainly the timings of many of the events don’t seem to map onto each other. Treating this as a myth, of course, helps in many of these regards, as we don’t expect it of myth, but Spin is a little too grounded, a little too engaged with modern narratologies, to be a myth; so it hits some serious bumps for a reader, especially when read in a concentrated way.

In sum, Spin isn’t flawless – the plot is thin and rocky at best – but it is a beautiful piece of writing, both evocative and intensely coloured. I recommend it as a brilliant piece of character-writing.