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In these sixteen exquisite stories Kat Howard deftly weaves in and out of the countries of myth and hagiography to write the lives of women untold and unexplored.
A woman being written into her boyfriend’s fiction is at first flattered to be his muse, but then finds her real life literally consumed and overtaken by his. A desperate young woman makes a prayer to the Saint of Sidewalks, but the miracle she receives isn’t what she expected. A painter spies a naked man, crouched by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, transform into a beautiful white bird and decides to paint him, and becomes involved in his curse. Jeanne, a duelist and a sacred blade for God and Her holy saints, finds that the price of truth is always blood. And in the novella “Once, Future” Howard reimagines the Arthurian romance on a modern college campus as a story that is told, and told again, until the ending is right.
Mundane and magical, profane and reverent, romantic and uncompromising, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone journeys into the liminal spaces of contemporary fiction and unfurls them.
I first encountered Kat Howard’s fiction in her novella length collaboration with Maria Dahvana Headley, The End of the Sentence, and then again in her debut novel, Roses and Rot, a brilliant dark fairytale retelling. A Cathedral of Myth and Bone is the first time I’ve really engaged with her short fiction, with its arresting title, especially for an architecture and myth geek like myself.
A Cathedral of Myth and Bone takes sixteen of Howard’s stories from the last decade (the oldest, and the first in the collection, is from 2010; the most recent is original to the 2019 collection), and allows the reader to luxuriate in her thematic and aesthetic approach. That approach comes wearing purple crushed velvet and listening to The Sisters of Mercy, Paradise Lost, and at its lighter moments, perhaps Evanescence; this is one of the most beautifully goth collections of stories I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.
The stories are melancholic, and even formally tragic, without ever defaulting into cliches of how that should look; nothing in A Cathedral of Myth and Bone comes without cost, without payment, and nothing comes easy, but equally, nor is anything worthless, or without consequentiality. These stories reframe their narratives, often repeatedly; ‘Once, Future’, the original novella-length piece in the collection, most obviously engages with the idea of retellings and myth-patterns in its engagement with Arthuriana, but there is a theme of creating one’s own story and seizing control of the narrative running through the entire collection.
One stand out piece in this regard is the one that closes the book, ‘Breaking the Frame’; in it, Howard tells the story of how a woman goes from passive muse to active changer of the art to creator herself. In so doing, she changes the narratives the art also depicts. The layering of the story is typical of Howard’s work; the surface, simple read is true, but misleadingly simple, as depths reveal themselves with more consideration. Technically, the story also shows off Howard’s skill at creating verbal portraits; ‘Breaking the Frame’ rests on a series of photographs, and Howard’s brief descriptions of each are precise and powerful vignettes that really convey the imagery.
A very different story using a similar technique of narrative interspersed by something else is ‘The Calendar of Saints’, Howard’s homage to Ellen Kushner’s Riverside. It is simultaneously very familiar, in that regard – the sense of faded grandeur, the honour at the point of the blade, the ritual – and very different; a much more religious world, and the whole story centres on faith in an alternate Catholic Church whose nature and differences are slowly revealed as the story moves. The ending is tragic, unexpected, and beautiful, a signature Kat Howard ending judging by this collection.
It is hard not to talk about every story in the collection, but I would be remiss if I did not return to ‘Once, Future’, since it (length-wise, at least) dominates the volume. In it, a modern class on Arthuriana decide to test the narrative inevitability of the story, and it turns out to be a lot stronger than anyone (or almost anyone…) had anticipated; Howard’s take on the Arthurian myth, and modern engagements with it, is brilliant, and her characters’ approaches to the events of the various parts of the corpus (such as the Green Knight) are well thought out and intelligent, while still letting the essential course of the story shine through, and the tragedy of Arthur slowly unfold while also fighting against it.
What may not have become obvious so far is the centrality of women to A Cathedral of Myth and Bone. In all the stories, women are central; every story is about a woman, with the exception of ‘The Speaking Bone’, which is about a place, and even still the only solid characters are women, and ‘Painted Birds and Shivered Bones’, about a man and a woman. Howard’s women are not the simple maidens of much genre fiction; they are abused women, they are angry women, they are women with agendas and minds of their own, and in every case, they want control of their own stories, whatever that takes. The opening story, ‘A Life in Fictions’, is the weakest in this regard – the ending feels a little like a failure to really take agency back, especially in light of later approaches to similar dilemmas – but the women of the collection are universally intelligent and dedicated, in their different ways, and very different to each other.
If a collection can be said to reveal the author, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone reveals Kat Howard as a mythographer, as a woman demanding the right to her own agency and to control her own fate, as a goth… and above all, as a bloody brilliant writer.
Revealed•The terrible truth about why humans were created – and why we’ll never discover aliens. •A tale of three wishes, after the end of the world. •A family reunion in which some of the attendees aren’t human any more – but they’re still family. •TFW you try to solve a problem with time travel, and now you have two problems. •The love affair between the man who can see the one true foreordained future and the woman who can see all the possible futures. •And a coda to Anders’ bestselling All the Birds in the Sky, answering the burning question of what happened to Patricia’s cat.
Charlie Jane Anders has been building her genre bona fides for some time; beyond her role as cofounding editor of io9 with her wife Annalee Newitz, she’s been nominated for the Nebulas, Sturgeons, and Hugos multiple times, winning a Hugo in 2012 for the titular story of this, her first short fiction collection.
Six Months, Three Days, Five Others is an interesting collection; while seemingly disparate at first glance, comprising a mixture of science fiction, fantasy, science fantasy, and urban fantasy, stories, there are some themes which emerge from the six stories in the collection. The biggest of those is Anders’ interest in romance and love; an oft overlooked idea in genre fiction, love of various kinds is either central to or plays a major role in every story in this set.
“The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model” is an odd choice to open the collection with, as the least strong story collected. While amusing, and while the characterisation works very well, the aliens are far too human as characters, despite their apparent physical differences. They’re rescued somewhat by the way Anders threads a tense romance between them through the story, and the execution of their relationship. The plot itself feels like a joke extended rather too far, and the ending of the story feels like it demonstrates that Anders didn’t quite know where to go with it.
“As Good As New” is a rather stronger tale; Anders takes a traditional fairy story, resets it in a postapocalyptic landscape, and subverts it. The banality of much of the story, in contrast to its actual events and weightiness, is brilliantly balanced, and adds a lot of humour to what could otherwise have become more a philosophical problem than a piece of fiction. The role of fictional drama of various kinds within the story itself is also rather masterful, and really lets Anders play with narrative.
“Intestate” is another odd story that could almost only have come from Anders. In it, she plays between mimetic fiction and speculative; the open-endedness of the story is not just about the events afterwards, but about the reality of the shared ideas the characters have within it. The combination of themes of posthumanism and technological personal upgrades with family strains and tensions is handled well, and the balance between the two, with each reinforcing the other, works fantastically. It could have seen the characters a little better fleshed out, but overall, it is effective.
“The Cartography of Sudden Death” is an odd time travel story. The drive that pulls Ythna through the story is powerful, but often eclipsed by simple events, and Jemima’s motivation and characterisation is basically completely blank. The action is fast-paced and well written, really punchy stuff, and it’s an interesting take on the inevitable rise and fall of empire and society, but the flat characterisations and lack of motivation of the primary actors makes it feel a little hollow.
“Six Months, Three Days” is the longest story in the collection, and one of the quietest; it is about a relationship between two clairvoyants, whose clairvoyance work in different ways. There aren’t world-shattering events involved, and the stakes are almost entirely personal; Anders keeps the story on a very human level, and the friction between the two main characters is far more powerful as a result. It’s a little solipsistic, and the engagement with free will versus clairvoyance can feel a little light and frivolous, but really, this is a beautiful story about love, and about male arrogance.
“Clover” closes the story with another small, quiet, domestic romance. Anders’ strength of writing, using the supernatural to simply exaggerate the mimetic, is on full display in this story; the ups and downs of a relationship, the strains and difficulties of romance, are emphasised but not created by the minor magical elements of the story. It’s a beautiful piece, and the way Anders writes both the cats and the humans involved in the tale is incredibly well done, although one suspects cats aren’t quite this human. It’s worth noting that although this ties into All the Birds in the Sky, and has greater poignancy if you’ve read that novel, it stands perfectly well on its own and retains all its own beauty.
Six Months, Three Days, Five Others isn’t a perfect collection, but its strongest stories are absolutely brilliant, and Anders’ writing of romance is truly a wonderful thing to read. More, please!
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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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In her vivid and sly, gentle and wise long anticipated first collection, Delia Sherman takes seemingly insignificant moments in the lives of artists or sailors—the light out a window, the two strokes it takes to turn a small boat—and finds the ghosts haunting them, the magic surrounding them. Here are the lives that make up larger histories, here are tricksters and gardeners, faeries and musicians, all glittering and sparkling, finding beauty and hope and always unexpected, a touch of wild magic.
Sherman’s first collection of short stories collects works published in various venues over the course of two and a half decades, but Young Woman In A Garden has, in some key ways, less variety to it than even many themed anthologies do, not that that’s a bad thing.
All Sherman’s stories are simple, small-scale, very human things; Young Woman In A Garden isn’t interested in the shining chrome gleam of space opera or the grand, flashy magics of epic fantasy, but far more on magical realism, to various degrees and in different kinds. Sherman’s collection is interested in interiority, in people’s emotions and feelings, in how we can better expose and understand those by looking at them through a fantastic lens, rather than in novae for their own sake. If fantasy and science fiction literature is the literature of what-ifs, Sherman’s stories aren’t about societal or universal what-ifs, but about very personal, individual hypotheticals, about the ways the interaction of the fantastic in the lives of people might change them.
The titular story, ‘Young Woman in a Garden’, is one of the stand-out works of the collection. Something between an investigation on the idea of art and who produces it, and a polyamorous queer ghost story, it is told from the perspective of a student doing some work on a (long-dead) lesser-known painter who has been invited to the home of the painter to go through his papers. Sherman traces her explorations and slowly builds in and builds up the supernatural elements of the story, dropping breadcrumbs for the reader both about that and the hidden questions about art and creation that it’s asking, questions that have interesting parallels with those raised in Siri Hustvedt’s The Burning World.
At the other end of the spectrum is the fairy story told in ‘The Faerie Cony-Catcher’, Sherman’s foray into historical fantasy. It is clearly fantastical, largely taking place outside the world, but also written in a sixteenth century style and language that is reminiscent, inevitably, of writers like Shakespeare; focusing on the arrogance and growing self-awareness of a jewelry-maker who has finished his apprenticeship. The man thinks himself very world-weary at the start of the story, as a series of run-ins indicate, but is shown to in fact be out of his depth and overconfident, and the extent to which this is the case is only revealed towards the end of the story. However, Sherman does a double-aversion in the end, evoking and then denying something akin to trans panic, not entirely successfully; the story ends up homophilic but transphobic, albeit clearly without that intention.
This isn’t to say all the stories here have queer text, or even queer subtext; for instance, one of the shortest pieces in the volume, ‘Nanny Peters and the Feathery Bride’, deals with a woman whose sexuality is simply left unstated and a general society of heterosexuality. It’s about suitability for marriage, about advice and how sometimes taking it is important, about partnerships and the way people outside a relationship can see better than those in it sometimes, and about the fact that people don’t really change. It’s interesting as a story, in part because of the patois in which Sherman writes it; not gratingly, full of apostrophes, but simply, straightforwardly, honestly, and naturally, which is much better.
I’ve only picked out three here, but they suffice to demonstrate that Sherman’s stories address a range of issues, including racism, sexism, and queer topics, as well as being in some cases stories without explicit interrogation of society; they are all sparkling little gems, and Young Woman in a Garden is a truly spectacular and varied collection as a result.
FAIRYTALES FOR LOST CHILDREN is narrated by people constantly on the verge of self-revelation. These characters – young, gay and lesbian Somalis – must navigate the complexities of family, identity and the immigrant experience as they tumble towards freedom. Set in Kenya, Somalia and South London, these stories are imbued with pathos, passion and linguistic playfulness, marking the arrival of a singular new voice in contemporary fiction.
Fairytales for Lost Children came across my radar primarily through Roxane Gay, but the idea of a selection of short stories based around immigration, homosexuality, and African life was immediately appealing.
Osman’s collection is a short one – barely 150 pages – and made up of 11 stories and illustrations; the art is line drawings in what we might describe as a traditional African artistic style, but also incorporating Arabic and elements of modern political cartooning into it. They bear at first glance little relation to the stories they illustrate, but give a flavour of Fairytales For Lost Children; the mixed cultural heritage, the imagery of gender-transgression, and in many cases a certain flirtiness to the portraiture combine to create a sense similar to that of the stories.
Those stories are a revelation. Osman’s writing is incredibly human, incredibly gentle, and incredibly visceral; by gentle, I don’t mean that Fairytales for Lost Children pretends life is better than it is, but rather than Osman slips into the lives of his characters, brings the reader with him for a brief snapshot, and then slips out again. Whether it is Zeytun, the protagonist of ‘Earthling’, a schizophrenic lesbian who has to deal with the loss of her sister, or Hassin, of ‘The Other (Wo)Man’, an immigrant in London who is isolated and longs to build a relationship, Osman creates whole characters, human characters, in a very short space, and brings them painfully to life. There is a degree to which most of these stories are tragedies, but at the same time, some have true catharsis at their close, such as ‘Earthling’; despite being on the surface horrendous stories, they have a sense of rightness and closure about them too.
Fairytales for Lost Children is ineluctably erotic; almost all the stories include Osman describing sex, although the stories of women loving women tend to have less of this, but ‘My Roots Are Your Roots’ is practically pure pornography, beautifully evocative erotic writing that mixes at once the idea of immigrant communities, the homophobia that traditional families sometimes bring with them, the exclusion from both community and country that this can create, but also the idea of the gay community and the community of love. It’s a strange story, at once dark and light, sexual and playful but also threatening; of release and ending all at once, wonderfully.
Osman is also wide-ranging. His stories touch a mix of experiences; queer youth (‘Shoga’, ‘Fairytales for Lost Children’); queer life in Somalia (‘Watering the Imagination’, about being the parent of a lesbian; ‘Shoga’ again); about being an immigrant (‘The Other (Wo)Man’, among others); about mental illness (‘Your Silence Will Not Protect You’), but also a variety of different kinds of queerness. As well as homosexuality, and the gender-transgression of ‘The Other (Wo)Man’, there is the genderqueer protagonist of ‘Pavilion’, presented with humour and affection by Osman, but without becoming a comedic character; Fairytales for Lost Children never sympathises more with oppressor than oppressed, but does have a certain sympathy for the oppressor, the straight, the cis. Osman seems to understand the imperatives that make people discriminate against, attack, verbally abuse queer people; and he presents those who do this as human too, especially the relatives of the queers he is portraying.
It’s a fascinating, beautiful, haunting collection that won’t leave the reader happy, per se, but will leave one satisfied and wanting more all at once; Osman, in Fairytales for Lost Children, has unleashed a truly amazing collection on the world that every queer-basher, and every racist anti-immigrant demagogue, should be forced to read. It drips empathy off every page, and that’s a rare, and beautiful, thing.
A Datin recalls her romance with an orang bunian. A teenage pontianak struggles to balance homework, bossy aunties, first love, and eating people. An earth spirit gets entangled in protracted negotiations with an annoying landlord, and Chang E spins off into outer space, the ultimate metaphor for the Chinese diaspora.
Straddling the worlds of the mundane and the magical, Spirits Abroad collects 10 science fiction and fantasy stories with a distinctively Malaysian flavour.
I first knowingly ran across Zen Cho at some point during Nineworlds, and then again at LonCon, in part through discussion of how fast copies of this collection had sold in the dealers’ room. I feel a little guilty, therefore, that it has taken me this long to get around to reading it, having scored myself a copy after the cons…
Spirits Abroad is a Fixi Novo book, and that means a few things. Primarily, it will use dialect and non-English terms, it will not translate them (though it does transliterate), and it will not italicise them; that leads to a smoother, more integrated reading experience in stories that are intentionally, in many cases, cross-cultural. It also won’t be apologetic about using Malaysian culture; Zen Cho is herself Malaysian, and the stories here all draw to a greater or lesser extent on that cultural heritage, without feeling a need to justify that. It’s a rather beautiful sight.
Of course, that’s the publishing house as much as the collection specifically; Spirits Abroad is more than simply unapologetic about being Malaysian. For a start, it’s a collection of damn good stories. There are ten stories collected in the volume in three loose categories; the first, Here, comprises about half the book and is three stories set in Malaysia while the second, There, is made up of four stories set amongst the Malaysian diaspora, largely in student communities in the UK, and the last, Elsewhere, is set in places that do not in fact exist. Each rough thematic grouping is consistent in that sense and in some of the themes that come through across the stories collected under those headings, but also has a variety in their actual content; Cho’s ten stories are so varied in what they’re doing, who they focus on, and what they are interested in, even while having shared characteristics, that to try to talk about the volume as a whole is almost pointless.
Instead, let’s briefly talk about each story. The three stories that open Spirits Abroad each deal with traditional Malaysian myths interacting with or living in the modern world; first the most familiar to Western readers, the idea of the witch, in a story that is as heartwarming and funny as it is emotionally moving and sad, packing a huge amount into only a brief space and discussing family, diaspora, the changes that happen in an individual when they leave their community and the strain of trying to assimilate to another country. The second story, ‘First National Forum on the Position of Minorities in Malaysia’, is one that has elements familiar to any student radical – a group brought together to try to advocate for minority rights but instead devolving into a round of nostalgia for the past, and dominated by a forceful personality; but Cho subverts expectations by introducing a mythical minority, the orang bunian, and drawing out of this a romance across worlds, that is beautiful and incredibly human in its emotional truth. The last story of Here, and the longest of the collection, is explicitly a vampire story and yet not, being about a family of pontianak; ‘The House of Aunts’ is a coming of age story, a feminist tale that really drives home the exploitation of women by men in their personal lives, and the myriad forms such abuse can take. It is also a teenage romance, and that combination works much better than it should; the lecturing of the Aunts to our protagonist on the theme “All men are bastards” contrasts with her teenage idealism and her own experience of the world beautifully.
There is a section that has a more uniform theme running through it; each of the protagonists of the stories is a Malaysian student in the UK studying, either at school for A-Levels or at university. Each of them is also straddling two worlds, having to deal with being in the UK while also being centred in the diaspora community; this is something a that is often discussed negatively in terms of tribalism, but Spirits Abroad excellently lays out some of the reasons for it – not least of which is not having to explain yourself if you associate with people coming from a shared cultural background, an automatic privilege to “domestic” students. The stories are wildly different in tone, from the brilliant humour and anti-romance of ‘Prudence and the Dragon’ (complete with scathing caricature of Boris Johnson) to the darker, creepier and yet still at times funny ‘The Mystery of the Suet Swain’; Cho’s control of voice and style is really strong, and going from story to story here is a joy as we see different parts of the Malaysian student experience in Britain dissected.
Spirits Abroad closes out on its most speculative section, Elsewhere. The three stories here are radically different from the previous works in that they don’t insert the supernatural into the everyday to create their analogies, but rather are wholly speculative; from the literally ancestral homes of ‘Liyana’ to the layering of alienness/alienation, cultural and physical, between diaspora generations in the science fiction of ‘The Four Generations of Chang E’, Cho creates incredibly human worlds that seem perfectly natural in her nonhuman settings. The stories here are the warmest in the collection, in some ways, feeling almost cosy at times, and while ‘Chang E’ doesn’t quite connect for me, a white Westerner living in their nation of origin, nor is it really intended to.
Zen Cho, in Spirits Abroad, shows such a variety of different storytelling approaches, but two things are clear; she has something to say with her fiction, and she will not be stopped from saying it. And a third thing, too – you should listen to what she is saying, not only because it is important, but because she is an excellent author of fiction, too.
Éire is one of the most powerful empires in the world. The Anglian Dependencies are a dusty backwater filled with resentful colonial subjects, Europe is a disjointed mess, and many look to Éire for stability and peace. In a series of braided stories, Beth Bernobich has created a tale about the brilliant Éireann scientists who have already bent the laws of nature for Man’s benefit. And who now are striving to conquer the nature of time.
The Golden Octopus: Áine Lasairíona Devereaux, the young Queen of Éire, balances Court politics while pursing the Crown’s goals of furthering scientific discovery. When those discoveries lead to the death and madness of those she loves, Áine must choose between her heart and her duty to her kingdom.
A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange: Síomón Madóc is desperately trying to discover who is killing the brightest of Éire’s mathematicians. The key to saving lives lies in the future…and Síomón must figure out a way to get there.
Ars Memoriae: Éireann spymaster Aidrean Ó Deághaidh goes to the kingdom of Montenegro to investigate rumors of great unrest. But Ó Deághaidh is tormented by visions of a different timeline and suspects that someone in his own government is playing a double game….
The Time Roads: Éire stands on the brink of the modern age, but old troubles still plague the kingdom. An encounter with a mysterious stranger near death holds the clue to both the past and the future of the nation.
The Time Roads is part-novel, part-collection. Its four stories – varying in length from long short story through to average novella – could each be read in isolation, in theory, but the way Bernobich links them and makes each rely on the events of the others means one would get a lot less out of the book, and this review will therefore be treating the whole rather than the individual parts.
It’s a whole that works rather well. Bernobich’s alternate history isn’t actually interested in how it is alternate history, only in how the present of the world – a turn of the century present, granted – works; we’re not treated to long historical digressions on when the world of The Time Roads departed from the world we live in, to stories of how Éire not only broke free from but came to rule Anglia, how the whole face of Europe and the world is changed from that we know. Instead, this is all just taken for granted, revealed piecemeal as and when it becomes necessary without any infodumping. It’s an interesting handling, especially since the period is such a contentious one historically speaking; to release a book which goes right up to alternate-1943, and has stories specifically focused on alternate-1914, is a bold move this year.
It’s also bold to treat the Anglian Dominions the way Bernobich does; but not necessarily a good one – The Time Roads never really challenges whether Éireann rule over the Anglian territories is benevolent, rather than simply unjustified, and thus fails to really engage with some of the issues it raises. Any novel inverting the power involved in the history of Anglo-Irish relations should not simply valourise the Irish it empowers, and The Time Roads does exactly that; it feels like the worst kind of British self-delusion about our treatment of the Irish and Northern Irish populations over the centuries we have ruled there, especially when the Anglians start committing terrorist attacks in a seemingly unprovoked manner.
Of course, The Time Roads is not really concerned with this, which is part of why the problem arises. Instead, it is concerned more with playing with the idea of time and time-travel as tools and weaponry. Hence, the stories have an internal chronology that is absolutely rigid despite subsequent events, in some cases, stopping previous stories from having happened by the time of later stories; keeping clear what happened and what was subsequently erased from history is a challenge the reader must grapple with as much as the characters, and it works extraordinarily well at conveying some of the complexities and paradoxes of time travel, while remaining an incredibly readable novel.
The Time Roads‘ biggest strength is its characters. They are all interestingly human, from the royal Áine, concerned with status and the safety of her people (an almost dully ideal monarch in the first story, more interesting but still rather frustratingly idealised by the end of the collection) and trying to do what she believes is right through to the scientifically-focused Síomón Madóc and his sister Gwen, who have little care for the outside world other than a refusal to see their ideas weaponised. Each character is interestingly painted with their own idiosyncracies and desires, but the best of the set is Aidrean Ó Deághaidh, also the only character to play a major role in every story; conflicted about his country and ideals, driven but not always confident, Aidrean is the most relatable character because he is the most human, and seeing his development is fascinating.
In the end, The Time Roads works for me because it is written compellingly and does some fascinating things with character; but Bernobich also fails in some pretty spectacular ways, not least of which is her failure to engage with colonial politics while attempting to portray them. Tread warily!
DoI: Review based a copy of the novel solicited from the publisher, Tor Books.