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The Stone In The Skull by Elizabeth Bear

The Gage is a brass automaton created by a wizard of Messaline around the core of a human being. His wizard is long dead, and he works as a mercenary. He is carrying a message from a the most powerful sorcerer of Messaline to the Rajni of the Lotus Kingdom. With him is The Dead Man, a bitter survivor of the body guard of the deposed Uthman Caliphate, protecting the message and the Gage. They are friends, of a peculiar sort.

They are walking into a dynastic war between the rulers of the shattered pieces of a once great Empire.
Returning to the world of completed series seems to be popular in fantasy at present; Tad Williams has returned to Osten Ard, K. W. Jeter has returned to steampunk London, and Elizabeth Bear has returned to the world of the Eternal Sky once more, and to characters from her story ‘The Ghost Makers’ in Fearsome Journey

The Stone in the Skull takes place in the same world as the Eternal Sky trilogy, but in a different part of that world; we’ve moved south from the events of the earlier trilogy, and later, to the Lotus Kingdoms, some years after the fall of the Uthman Caliphate in Shattered Pillars. Bear takes us from one place to the other with a certain knowingness; the start of the novel sees the Dead Man and the Gage travelling south from Messaline to the Lotus Kingdoms bearing a message, and that journey is also, of course, the journey the reader is taking. It’s a very well done transition, and the journey itself, as well as being a cliche of the genre, also allows the reader to get a different view of the Lotus Kingdoms than is presented from the monarchs’ viewpoints.

If there’s a problem of the worldbuilding, it’s the timeline. The Stone in the Skull, especially in combination with ‘The Ghost Makers’, reads as if it has a very inconsistent historical chronology; timescales shift and blur, relations and family trees compress and expand in strange ways, and the novel seems to have a chronology that feels mythical in its blurriness rather than the more historical feel the rest of the novel gives its history.

The Stone in the Skull has four main viewpoint characters; the Dead Man and the Gage alternate chapters with two of the rajnis of the the Lotus Kingdoms: Mrithuri, the unmarried young rajni of Sarathi-lae, the richest kingdom, surrounded by the others; and Sayeh, mother, widower, and shandha (essentially, a trans woman), rajni of Ansh-Sahal, the poorest of the kingdoms. The four different perspectives on the Lotus Kingdoms and the world more broadly allow for a wider understanding of things, especially as the different religious approaches of the Dead Man and the native inhabitants of the Lotus Kingdoms are so variant.

The other strength this central cast gives to The Stone in the Skull is the diversity of voices. Bear has always been excellent at characterisation, and this novel is no exception; from the cynical worldweariness of the Gage through to the blunted youth of Mrithuri, from the emptiness and faith of the Dead Man to the absolute maternal devotion of Sayeh, these four characters have different but in some ways similar drives, and different voices and personalities. They’re easily distinguished, and their different views on the same events are fascinating.

The Stone in the Skull‘s brilliant cast goes beyond its four viewpoint characters; the servants of the various monarchs we encounter, the caravan members Gage and the Dead Man guard on their journey to the Lotus Kingdoms, all are human characters with a good deal of interiority we see hinted at, and their own agendas. Some of the characters’ hidden agendas feel like they’re hinted at very strongly only to be subverted, whereas others have agendas that are much more straightforwardly open, but none are without agenda.

Bear has very few straightforwardly evil characters; unfortunately, both of those who are are the two people with disabilities in The Stone in the Skull, the two rajas of the other Lotus Kingdoms vying to reunify them. Both are caricatured, and their representation is singularly unsympathetic; they may gain interiority later in the series, but at this point both are simply evil, from the points of view from which we have seen them, in one case to the point of cartoonish.

Finally, The Stone in the Skull is another showcase for Bear’s continuing excellence with prose. From the boredom and excitement of the start of the novel, through the rising tensions and complex politics of the body of the book, to the climactic moments of the end, the pacing is fantastic, and the flow of the prose fits the shape of events and the reactions of our viewpoint characters to them perfectly. This book draws the reader in deeply and hard.

I’m hoping later books in the series make the villains less two dimensional and less frustratingly caricatured, but even with that criticism, The Stone in the Skull is an absolutely fantastic epic fantasy from a master of the genre.

Disclaimer: Elizabeth Bear is a friend. I am one of her Patreon patrons.

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Fearsome Journeys ed. Jonathan Strahan


How do you encompass all the worlds of the imagination? Within fantasy’s scope lies every possible impossibility, from deagons to spirits, from magic to gods, and from the unliving to the undying.

In Fearsome Journeys, master anthologist Jonathan Strahan sets out on a quest to find the very limits of the unlimited, collecting twelve brand new stories by some of the most popular and exciting names in epic fantasy from around the world.
Fearsome Journeys is subtitled as the New Solaris Book of Fantasy; Jonathan Strahan has collected some of the most storied names in fantasy together and taken short stories from them, all under the broad rubric of “epic fantasy”. Unfortunately, Strahan’s model of epic fantasy is quite a narrow one here; while all the stories have differences in tone, they all fall under a broadly swords-and-sorcery model, set in secondary worlds, but without messing with the same basic formula.

On the positive side, though, they come from a variety of authors; half the contributors to this anthology are women, although only one is a person of colour. That shows in the stories contributed to Fearsome Journeys; they are a lot better than much epic fantasy at ensuring they feature rounded, interesting female characters treated on the same level as the male characters, some stories centred on women and some on men. This is most clear in Kate Elliott’s ‘Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine’, an amazing story whose protagonist is a widow with grown children, which avoids the standard violent solutions of epic fantasy in favour of politics, frienships and humanity. It’s a quiet little story but also a wide-ranging one, about heirarchies, status, power and how power can be used; an absolutely outstanding contribution to the collection.

Similarly, Ellen Klages’ ‘Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl’ focuses its attentions on a would-be thief and a tavern-running young woman. The former is not a hero, but rather a clumsy protagonist, while the latter, and her girlfriend, are what this story treats as heroes; not necessarily heroic per se, but at least heroised. The story is somewhere between a shaggy dog tale and a heist caper turned around on the would-be heister; Klages manages the characters well, and keeps her tricks concealed until she deploys them at exactly the right moment. Klages gets the beats exactly right to keep this a light and humourous story; the occasionally lewd humour is funny and well played, and doesn’t remove the fact that there are some interesting sociopolitical discussions going on in this little piece.

At the other end of the spectrum is Daniel Abraham’s ‘High King Dreaming’; this really is traditional fate-of-nations epic fantasy fare, but at the same time, it has an intelligent and brilliant twist. The High King of the title is Arthurian in status, having united a nation and having been prophesied to return in that nation’s time of greatest need; the story is told from the point of his death, as we watch him watching his funeral. Abraham plays with time, moving backwards and forwards to create a story that is about the demands on a ruler, the imperatives on a parent, and the compromises required by politics; he is unsubtle in talking about big themes and large ideas, in interesting ways.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an entirely strong collection. ‘Spirits of Salt: Tales of the Coral Heart’ isn’t one of Jeffrey Ford’s stronger stories; it’s long, slow, and fails to really get anywhere, while trying to be about power and violence. Instead, the story meanders, without any meaningful characters or resolution; it’s frustrating and drawn out, to the point that the reader is frustrated and thrown out of the story. The ideas behind the story could be quite well-written but turn out to actually be glib and trite, with the attempted twists oversimplified. Similarly, Saladin Ahmed’s ‘Amethyst, Shadow and Light’ has a lot of potential, and some fascinating elements in terms of character interaction, but in the end is a predictable story that fails to really engage with its subject-matter; the morality is simplistic and the approach to plot incredibly straightforward.

Fearsome Journeys is a fascinating snapshot of epic fantasy today; it avoids the worst of the worst, the excesses and incredible length of Brandon Sanderson and the racism of Peter V Brett, but does have a mix of the serious and the humourous, the small scale and the grand, the well-written and the poorly accomplished. Jonathan Strahan is an excellent anthologist, and Fearsome Journeys is one of the better anthologies out there; almost entirely strong, moderately diverse, and worth reading.

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear


Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.

Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.
Elizabeth Bear swung by last week, before I had received my copy of Karen Memory, to talk to us about strong female characters; and what she said was brilliant, setting my expectations of the novel even higher than they had already been. So, how did it live up to those expectations…?

I’m going to talk a bit more personally about how I relate to Karen Memory, if the reader will indulge me. My copy arrived by post on Thursday morning of last week, and I read the first quarter or so of the novel between its arrival and four o’clock that afternoon. At that point, I received a phonecall from my mother, telling me my grandfather had died – suddenly and unexpectedly – the night before. Over the following few days, I had no fixed sleeping pattern, no real motivation, even no motivation at all – except to read Karen Memory, both so I could get this review up today, and because I wanted to. It afforded, by being first-person, escape into being someone else, someone with such different problems, and indeed a different life, to me, but with related problems; Karen is an orphan, and her processing of her grief for her father helped me process grief for my grandfather. It was also a book that took me away from the world; once I started reading, it was hard to drag myself out of the book, because Karen’s voice just drew me along, Bear keeping it smooth and consistent even while varying the pace, and making it very welcoming. The book provided a sort of haven from dealing with the reality of the world; when asked to think about saying something at my grandfather’s funeral, I wrote some brief thoughts and then retreated straight into Karen Memory, looking for the fun and joy that permeates the novel.

What I’m trying to say above is, I am hardly at my most objective when it comes to this novel; between the diversity of it, which I rejoiced in wholeheartedly for that first quarter, and the cloud hanging over me while reading the rest of Karen Memory and which it released me from, I have a huge love for this book, and am intensely grateful to Elizabeth Bear for writing it.

So frankly, Karen Memory surpassed all my expectations. This is an enormously fun book with enormous heart to it, even by the emotionally punishing standards of most of Bear’s output; helped no doubt by the very welcome return to first-person narration that we haven’t seen from Bear in some time. Indeed, the joy of the voice of Karen Memory is one of the best things about the book; our narrator-protagonist is Karen Memery, a seamstress (that article also gives some insight into the inspiration behind Bear’s fictional Rapid City, the setting of the novel) who speaks like a moderately-educated but by no means upper-class American of the 19th century, elided endings, dated terms (Bear doesn’t shy away from the racism of her time period), and a bawd’s sense of humour (innuendo abounds, and on at least one occasion is noted only to be taken back as actually literal). She’s a real delight to read, a joyous presence full of life, even in the darkest moments of Karen Memory; a sort of celebratory presence whose narration itself, by existing, reassures the reader that it will all work out in the end somehow.

Of course, Karen is also an animating presence in another way – it is largely her actions that drive Karen Memory, for better or worse, involving the rest of the cast in one another’s affairs in such a way as to cause the eventual explosion of chaos that concludes the novel. That chaos involves a Singer sewing machine pseudo-mecha reminiscent, intentionally, of Ripley’s xenomorph-slaying lifting suit; dynamite; explosions; a submarine with kraken-like tentacles for crushing ships; devious foreign plans; and US Marshal Bass Reeves as sidekick to Miss Memory, all coming together in the most pyrotechnic and cinematic scene you will ever read. This book, at times, reads like a James Bond film on speed, or run through the mind of a mad steampunk scientist; at others like the best kind of big stupid science fiction blockbuster; and at others, like a sort of steampunk Sex and the City; all the while sneaking in some very subversive messages.

And oh, does Bear ever bring in subversive messages to Karen Memory. This is a novel whose cast includes a number of people of colour, including the aforementioned historical figure of Bass Reeves and a fictional Native American posseman, Tomoatooah, filling the role of Tonto, but without the racism; a woman with disabilities, namely only one arm, and another old woman with movement difficulties; sex workers of various kinds (indeed, the disabled woman is a sex worker); and a trans woman, Francina, who is gendered female throughout, and on the one occasion when she drags up as a man, Karen as narrator is deeply confused. There are also blunt statements about privilege and about who we value (as for instance on p274), where Bear explicitly distances herself from some of the prejudices of her narrator by means of another character pointing them out, a very effective tactic.

Which leads to my summation; Karen Memory is a kick-ass, fun, diverse, and dare I say it spunky novel. It might not be Bear’s most cerebral work, but damned if I don’t think it might be her best to date. Indeed, it’s probably the best book I’m going to read all this year, and it’s barely even February…

GUEST POST: Elizabeth Bear on “Strong Female Characters”


Elizabeth Bear has long been one of my favourite writers, as readers will know; her upcoming novel, Karen Memory, is one of the books I am most looking forward to in 2015, and comes out on February 3rd. Given Bear’s outspoken feminism and her tendency towards female protagonists, I’m delighted to be able to present to you a piece by her on the strong female protagonist, and the problems thereof.
Hi. I’m Elizabeth Bear, the author of Karen Memory, a new steampunk Weird West novel out from Tor. And I’m here to talk about failure modes in the theory and practice of creating the “strong female character,” specifically as it relates to female protagonists in science fiction and fantasy.

Or possibly, to rant about very concept of the “strong female character,” because it’s a catchphrase I’m starting to get really tired of. (I think Kate Beaton sums up why pretty well here)

Specifically, my problem is that the idea that a female lead must be a “strong female character” leads to a whole complex of other problems. So here’s an inexhaustive survey of some of them, and some suggestions on how to avoid the traps.

There’s the “She’s not like other girls” problem. (One of the things that I liked very much about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that while the protagonist is a Chosen One, part of the point of the narrative is that she is like other girls. She just, you know, has superpowers. I have other problems with the show, but that’s neither here nor there.) This is related to the Smurfette problem—where there’s only one female character in a male ensemble, and so that woman has to be all women, and exemplary in every way. (There’s usually one black guy, too, who stands for all black people everywhere.)

These characters never seem to have female friends, somehow. Possibly because they just can’t relate to other women with their hair and their nails and their silly giggling.

Then there’s the brittle-and-mouthy problem, which is particularly epidemic in urban fantasy, and has to do with writers attempting a sarcastic noir voice and a hard-boiled protagonist who takes nobody’s nonsense—and winding up with somebody who you would chew your arm off to get away from at a cocktail party. Except they would never be invited to a cocktail party, because they tend to provoke a fight in any conversation they get into, since it’s a cheap way to generate tension. These characters wind up making most of their own problems, frankly, because their only means of interpersonal communication is getting in people’s faces.

These characters never seem to have any female friends, either. Or maybe one. Somebody who enables their undiagnosed and untreated personality disorders.

(It is perfectly possible to write a female character with an attitude problem and have her work quite well. Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski leaps to mind as an example: she’s defended and sharp-edged and patrols her boundaries ferociously. But she’s also capable of realizing what she is doing and making a conscious effort to step the hell off. Self-awareness fixes a lot of characterization ills. And she has a number of female friends. 😉 )

Next on the list, there’s the thing the internet has dubbed Trinity Syndrome, which ranks as the characterization trope I hate most in the world. It’s generally identifiable when a totally cool woman shows up in the first act, is awesome and competent, mentors the ineffectual male hero, is generally better-suited for his job than he is… and by the end of the third act has lost all purpose in life except to hang on his arm and step aside so he can have her job. It’s the GIs coming home after WWII all over again. How to Train Your Dragon II, I’m looking at you!

These women never have any female friends because they are usually the Smurfette, too.

Last but not least, there’s the ever popular madonna/whore dichotomy, where women are either pure and innocent and defined by men, or self-actualizing and evil to the core. You can google that one if you want more information, because even typing “madonna/whore dichotomy” makes me tired to the bone.

They never have any female friends either, unless they’re mothering them.

So. You want to write about women, and you want to avoid falling into these traps. How does a well-meaning person go about it? (And it’s not easy! These roles and tropes are ingrained into the very fabric of our society, into the stories we grow up learning how stories work from. They feel superficially satisfying because we’re programed to expect them on a deep cellular level! No blame, as the I Ching says.)

Well, to escape the trope, we must learn to interrogate the trope. We have to stop thinking of our female characters as Strong Female Characters and let them be people. And more, let them be people on equal footing with the male people—in terms of agency and desires, at least, if not in terms of social expectations. (Heck, one way to show a woman’s strength is to show her dealing with the exhausting nonsense and the extra work that comes as part and parcel of being a woman.) (And heck, let’s see some roles go to strong characters who are trans, or who reject gender binary completely.)

There’s no particular magic to writing a Strong Woman that doesn’t apply to writing all people. The end.

Let’s have Strong Characters, by which I mean strongly characterized characters, people with foibles and strengths and bad habits, regardless of their gender and their sex.
Thanks Bear, for that amazing piece of writing, and excellent guide to how (not) to write female characters!

ElizabethBearCreditKyleCassidyElizabeth Bear was the recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2005. She has won two Hugo Awards for her short fiction, a Sturgeon Award, and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Bear lives in Brookfield, Massachusetts.



Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.

Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.

Karen Memory came out February 3rd. My review is forthcoming.

Dust by Elizabeth Bear


On a broken ship orbiting a doomed sun, dwellers have grown complacent with their aging metal world. But when a serving girl frees a captive noblewoman, the old order is about to change….

Ariane, Princess of the House of Rule, was known to be fiercely cold-blooded. But severing an angel’s wings on the battlefield even after she had surrendered proved her completely without honor. Captive, the angel Perceval waits for Ariane not only to finish her off but to devour her very memories and mind. Surely her gruesome death will cause war between the houses exactly as Ariane desires. But Ariane’s plan may yet be opposed, for Perceval at once recognizes the young servant charged with her care.

Rien is the lost child: her sister. Soon they will escape, hoping to stop the impending war and save both their houses. But it is a perilous journey through the crumbling hulk of a dying ship, and they do not pass unnoticed. Because at the hub of their turning world waits Jacob Dust, all that remains of God, following the vapor wisp of the angel. And he knows they will meet very soon.
Dust is the start of one of Bear’s ventures into far-future space opera; the multi-award winning, genre-hopping auhor started the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy back in 2008 with this by-modern-standards-short 300-page novel. So let’s dive into it…

…or rather, be dropped. Dust opens at full throttle, and within the first two pages we’re introduced to the feudalism of Jacob’s Ladder, to the level of technology (writhing nanotech chains!), to the distinction between Exalt and Mean (albeit not in detail), to the agendered Head (zie/hir); Bear doesn’t believe in As You Know, Bob passages, but nor does she always believe in easing you into a world, and Dust demonstrates the brilliant power of that approach. The opening sets the stage for the rest of the novel where one has to puzzle out the various aspects; Bear won’t explain what she’s doing for her readers, instead assuming intelligence on their part, and that pays off really well, especially around the Angels and the geno-politics of the Conns.

The plot is driven by a number of those factors; Dust is (reportedly – I wouldn’t know!) hard science fiction that takes on a number of the tropes of epic or high fantasy adventures; Bear has the servant who suddenly discovers she is nobility, the quest to get a Maguffin to solve the problems of the world (that’s a reductive description, mind you!), the picking up of a ragtag band of companions along the way, and the travels throughout all sorts of places and overcoming various different perils. Dust does all that but in science fictional trappings and with the brilliant skill Bear is known for; there is no clear morally superior force involved here, there is no clear side for which we should be cheering despite the protagonists’ sympathies. It’s an interestingly achieved tightrope walk with more sides than a die, especially as the different agendas of the protagonists become increasingly clear, and the complexities are admirably handled, including a number of unexpected twists towards the climax.

The characters are a real strong point of the novel. From the naive servant Rien, unexperienced in politics and yet still a key figure in them, through the upright Knight Errant Sir Perceval, to the Angels Dust and Samael, this is a novel of personalities; mixed, varied, strong personalities. Dust has a huge cast and yet every single character is distinct and has a unique voice. This is especially important in noting that Bear distinguishes very well between the Angels, which are essentially AIs which are bounded by all sorts of things and with their own agendas, and the nanotech-enhanced humans, who still think in a somewhat nonhuman way; that ability to evoke nonhuman and posthuman thought-processes is absolutely brilliant.

This is also a book that demonstrates the extent to which Bear’s frequent comments about queerness being the norm for her are true. Dust has a lesbian character, who has a relationship with an intersexed woman; it has an asexual woman; it has polyamory; it has an agendered character – and none of these are presented as being an issue, they’re all just people, having their relationships and existences affirmed rather than questioned or attacked by the narratorial voice and the other characters. It’s a beautiful thing to see in a wonderfully diverse, female-led cast, although some aspects of it – the gendering of the AIs – are odd.

All in all, Dust really demonstrates the potential of space opera; an absolutely brilliant generation ship story from Bear.


One-Eyed Jack by Elizabeth Bear


The One-Eyed Jack and the Suicide King: personifications of Las Vegas – its history, mystery, mystical power, and heart. When the Suicide King vanishes – possibly killed – in the middle of a magic-rights turf war started by the avatars of Los Angeles, a notorious fictional assassin, and the mutilated ghost of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel – his partner, the One-Eyed Jack, must seek the aid of a bizarre band of legendary and undead allies: the ghosts of Doc Holliday and John Henry the steel-driving man; the echoes of several imaginary super-spies, decades displaced in time; and a vampire named Tribute, who bears a striking resemblance to a certain long-lost icon of popular music.
Bear’s afterwork to One-Eyed Jack says she wrote the novel over the decade from 1996, when she was Vegas-based; that familiarity with the city, with the (a?) essential essence of Las Vegas, is clear, but on the other hand, the book feels like something that evolved…

That’s principally a function of the plot of One-Eyed Jack. Told from multiple points of view, it feels less like an integrated whole than like a film that has been assembled by a cut-happy director; we switch from viewpoint to viewpoint, character to character, so quickly that sometimes we lose everything else, just trying to keep up with the changes – and are hence somewhat thrown out of their place in the story, and their emotions. They’re there-and-gone, far too fast for us to get any kind of grasp on them – or for them to get one on us. While the spy-versus-spy, film-and-TV influenced plot does indeed demand a fast pace and a certain amount of cutting and jumping around, that emulation is here taken too far, forgetting the impact of the long single-take shot. However, the intricacies of the plot, once it is pinned down, are fascinating, and a stripped-back version of One-Eyed Jack would be a fascinating experience from a plot perspective, a really interesting piece of spy-versus-spy, Cold War-era fiction.

The Cold War era element comes in no small part from the cultural allusions and references Bear has used for her novel; inevitably, in a story about the genii of places and about shared myths, a number of mythised characters appear. One-Eyed Jack, in that regard, goes a little over my head; of the many different myths involved – including, I’m reliably informed, I, Spy, The Man From UNCLE, and others – I recognised The Avengers, Elvis, and James Bond; hence a whole lot of references passed me by. Indeed, Bear has written a novel which is almost in code; if you understand the cultural allusions involved I suspect you will get a whole lot more out of the characters than I did, simply because I did not know their background, history, or “mythic origins”. Bear’s crediting of fan communities for some of these references is also interesting, as the development of the characters within the novel demonstrates some of the same shift that those communities apply to characters, especially in things like fanfic, wherein characters change to match our expectations of them; in One-Eyed Jack, and indeed the whole Promethean Age series, characters are defined by our expectations of them. It’s an interesting idea but without the base frame of reference, lost a lot of its power for me.

However, one aspect of it didn’t lose any of its power; fanworks famously often have “slash fiction” as a key component, and One-Eyed Jack is all about the slash. Not only is the key central couple a pair of male avatars of Las Vegas, but various of the spies called up also seem increasingly queered as the novel goes on. Bear plays it low-key and neatly, but the creeping queering of the characters is a wonderful bit of writing, so what starts the novel as a shared glance of professional understanding becomes complicity becomes emotional connection; whether this is in the eye of the reader – and some of the characters – or in the text is a meaningless question, almost, given what One-Eyed Jack is saying about reality and fiction.

This latest (last?) entry in the Promethean Age series is a bit of a mess, but also brilliant; the uneven, choppy plot and required cultural reference points are easily outmatched by Bear’s fluid writing style and her fantastic characters, making One-Eyed Jack a whole greater than the sum of its parts.


My Nineworlds Experience!


Nineworlds is, this year, one of the most major convenions in the UK, what with taking place a week before WorldCon in London, and therefore sharing a reasonable proportion of guests and attendees. It’s also a very special convention, especially in a year where the venerable feminist science fiction convention WisCon is being rocked by serious problems around harassment and how to deal with it: Nineworlds is an actively inclusive, progressive, social-justice-oriented convention. With (separate) tracks on Geek Feminism, Race & Culture, and LBGTQAI Fandom on top of the more traditional tracks like All The Books, Doctor Who, Podcasting, Fanfic, Cosplay, Knitting, and Food Geekery (that’s not an exhaustive list of all the tracks on offer), Nineworlds isn’t just a matter of having something for everyone, it’s also looking to have something to *welcome* everyone.

So, my Nineworlds experience.

I went into Nineworlds with a plan for the panels I wanted to see, largely more than one at any one time; my plan didn’t survive contact with the convention, of course, but there was a lot of spontaneous socialisation, which helped! Panels started at 9am on Friday, and I was in one by quarter past after registration; “Archaeological Exploration of Fantasy Worlds”, a fascinating topic, led by H Grünefeld. Unfortunately, Grünefeld’s talk was less about the idea of how archaeology can help us approach fantasy worlds generally, or how the techniques of archaeology can be applied in our reading and writing for a deeper understanding of these worlds, and more about the ideal dig in a series of fantasy worlds including Middle Earth and Westeros; while moderately interesting, I had hoped for a more analytical approach. The Geek Feminism track’s “Geek Culture Needs Feminism Because…” open session was rather glorious; the modified slogan was, of course, on a number of whiteboards for completion and photographing. It was also here that I first ran into Laurie Penny, whose feminist writing I am rather a fan of; I got to shake the (truly diminutive) intellectual powerhouse by the hand. “Suffering Sappho: Queer representations in superhero comics” followed; while an interesting discussion in some respects, and which undoubtedly came out with some great recommendations and fascinating thoughts about why queerness is more commonly found in villains than heroes, the panel largely wandered far and wide without any real moderation or serious engagement with the topic; instead fanfic ideas were more heavily featured than any discussion of existing queer characters and their presentation (for instance, Batwoman or Young Avengers). The “Superheroes and Superhuman: exploding the myth of the superwhathaveyou” panel, featuring among others Stephanie Saulter and Nick Harkaway, was one of the best discursive panels of the weekend; the panellists moved from discussing comic book heroes to the idea of normality, through posthumanism, discussion of what makes a hero (and indeed what makes one super), and the impact of the absolutely out of the ordinary on the everyday. The discussion was brilliantly moderated by Jenni Hill, and it moved from point to point with such a level of intellectual debate and fascinating ideas that it was a real highlight of the con. The evening’s entertainment, by contrast, was less so; “Only A Moment” (or “Just A Minute But The BBC Says We Can’t Call It That”) only works when the participants are all confident, know what they’re doing, and are very up for the silliness of the game. As it was, while Laurie Penny got into the swing of it over the course of the session, the rest of the panelists really didn’t seem terribly up for it, unfortunately. On the other hand, seeing the Bear-and-Lynch show in the bar afterwards was fantastic, the first of a number of times that weekend; both are warm, friendly, funny and interesting people, and excellent conversationalists, with Lynch’s particular strength being his raconteurship.

Speaking of which… but before we get to that, the first panel of Saturday, on “Rule 63: Gender and subversion in history, popular culture and fandom”. Moderated by Alex Dally MacFarlane, who of course has interesting thoughts related to this subject for, the discussion felt a little stilted but still interesting, largely looking at the way the idea of Rule 63 reinforces the binary in ugly ways and how that could be fought back against, including the raising of a reworded version replacing “opposite gender” with “different gender”. There was also fascinating discussion of how Rule 63 allows fans to explore gender experiences outside their own that otherwise they might be unable to experience; that tied in brilliantly with personal anecdotes from the panellists themselves. The panel that followed rather threw it into the shade and was the most purely entertaining part of the weekend; “Dragons vs Werewolves vs Vampires vs Warlocks: the ultimate deathmatch smackdown”, with Elizabeth Bear representing dragons, Gail Carriger representing werewolves, Joanne Harris representing vampires, and the effusive Scott Lynch representing (or possibly being one of?) warlocks. In this panel we learned that dragons are the baddest motherfuckers in the valley, werewolves are great if you’re into kinky sex or beastiality, vampires are responsible for all culture ever including the Kardashians, and that warlocks will claim responsibility for everything ever. The panellists were brilliant, and really played off each other, in the most wonderful ways; the joyfulness of the panel really permeated the room brilliantly. After a break from formal conventioning for a few hours, I followed it up with the most impassioned of the panels I attended, “Monsterclass: Post-Colonialism”, led by Fabio Fernandes. The small room when I first arrived was sparsely populated, leading to a little worry on my part; but by the time we started, it was packed to the point of people sitting on the floor, and Geoff Ryman reclining on a sideboard and half-concealed by the whiteboard. Fernandes opened with a brief-ish introduction to the issues, before we had an excellent discussion around the idea of “post-colonial literature”, and the problems with it; Tade Thomson and Rochita Ruiz were particularly fascinating on this point, and Stephanie Saulter’s thoughts about the problems of the monolithic nature of the term given widely varying experiences of colonialism were brilliant. The whole panel made me think in a new, better way about literature from the global South and how we should understand it. Inevitably we then decamped again to the bar, where I continued the discussion with Rochita and Anne Lyle; the beauty of cons is of course that this is possible, and the passionate discussion that ensued (I’m afraid I may have spoken rather too much) was notable for its nuances, especially going on as it did until nearly midnight.

Sunday opened with that most enjoyable of topics… rape. Specifically, a panel titled “Assaulting the Narrative: rape as character motivation”, with panellists who had either written or written about rape; Sophia McDougall, for instance, stated she thought she was there because of her Rape of James Bond post. Mind you, that didn’t mean she had nothing to say, if anything the opposite; McDougall and Cara Ellison, a games writer, dominated much of the discussion which was fantastic, infused with feminism and brilliantly sensitive on the topic. Den Patrick and Tom Pollock, the other participants, also pulled their weight; they let the women speak, but also had points of their own to make, largely about sensitivity and necessity; both acknowledged their limitations in writing about rape, derived in no small part – as McDougall highlighted – from their lack of fear of it. The pace of discussion was brilliant and the thoughts exchanged really give me hope for the death of rape as thoughtless, easy character trope. There was a degree of crossover in the discussion of historical figures in my next panel, too; “Writing Historical Fiction and Fanfic: Is RPF okay when the person is dead?” discussed sensitivity to the individual, to those related to them, but also more broadly to cultural harm. Aliette de Bodard’s raising of the issue of the harm that RPF, historical fiction and similar things can do to other cultures, especially those not largely represented in the mainstream narratives, was powerfully expressed and heartily picked up by the rest of the panel. It was a good, nuanced, thoughtful discussion, and the different media and genre the panellists represented really brought an extra something to the panel. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of “X-Punk: punk as suffix, genre and state of mind”, whose panellists were perhaps rather too inexpert on cyberpunk and steampunk, either in their origins or their current forms, to really discuss anything but the broad-stroke categorisations and the theoretical ideas they held of these. The discussion was rather quotidian, unfortunately, and more about trying to understand what the suffix “punk” does without really looking at how it is used. The last panel of the day provided a good contrast; as a fantasy reader, “Epic Fantasy: the panel of prophecy!” was always appealling, and with Bear, Lynch and Gaie Sebold among the panellists, it also promised significant amusement. And so it delivered; Den Patrick’s moderation, focused heavily on discussion of the tropes of epic fantasy and how the panellists engaged with and used them, meant that the panellists built up an idea of the ur-form of bad epic fantasy, and demolished it utterly. The discussion of tropes was brilliant, and their various dissections by especially Scott Lynch, who has a lot to say on the topic, were hilarious.

And that was my weekend; exhilerating, enjoyable, educational, friendly, and bloody brilliant. Bring on Nineworlds 2015!!!