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Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time is a collection of indigenous science fiction and urban fantasy focusing on LGBT and two-spirit characters. These stories range from a transgender woman undergoing an experimental transition process to young lovers separated through decades and meeting in their own far future. These are stories of machines and magic, love and self-love.
Love Beyond Body, Space & Time occupies an important place in science fiction: not only centring queer voices and narratives, but also centring Indigenous voices and narratives, a group all too often left out of discussions of the genre. Not all the writers in the anthology are themselves Indigenous, a point Nicholson acknowledges in her Editor’s Letter, but all the stories feature Indigenous characters, cultures, and themes.
Love Beyond Body, Space & Time opens with three nonfiction pieces. Nicholson’s opening letter is largely a disclaimer about this not being her story to tell, but the others are more interesting; a piece on two-spirit stories as survivance stories in science fiction by Grace L. Dillon, and a piece on the historical and present day role of two-spirit people in Indigenous communities by Niigaan Sinclair. Both are fascinating essays, situating some of the things the anthology is doing in a wider cultural discourse and a wider social model, and providing multiple possible frameworks with which to approach the stories within.
There are a couple of absolutely outstanding stories in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time. Daniel Heath Justice’s ‘The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds’ reads as a fable, with a very obvious moral; it’s well written and beautiful, as the best fable are, and with the poetic style and lack of specificity that much living myth has. Its queerness is explicit, varied in kind, and powerfully central to the story, and to the model of diversity in which Heath Justice is invested in the tale.
In stark contrast, ‘Né Łe!’ by Darcie Little Badger is straightforward science fiction, albeit with mythic resonance; it’s also a sweet lesbian romance story, that is impressively moving in its simplicity and with very strong characterisation over its short length. In similar vein is ‘Valediction At The Star View Motel’, a lightly fantastic story of young love, passion, and memory; Nathan Adler takes on the racism faced by the Indigenous community, including some of the racist policies applied to them, whilst also keeping at the core of the story the simplicity of young love.
The strongest story in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time, by my lights, is Gwen Benaway’s ‘Transition’. Benaway writes a transition narrative that deals with the difficulties of being trans in a cis world; the way every day involves armouring up and self-defence strategies to keep cis violence from breaking out against one. It’s also a story of community and history; Benaway builds into the very bones of the story the acceptance of trans people by at least the Indigenous community she chooses to present. The mythic fantastic creeps in around the edges of the story, which is essentially mimetic, and ‘Transition’ emerges as emotionally resonant and incredibly powerful.
At the other end of the spectrum, ‘Aliens’ by Richard van Camp is a frustrating piece, which if the reader accepts and enjoys the voice in which it is told might well work. However, it feels too mannered for the attempt at naturalism it is making, and the treatment of gender diversity as a big secret and major revelation at the end of the story is a frustrating one, playing into a number of harmful tropes and a deeply problematic presentation of gender diversity. Similarly, in ‘Imposter Syndrome’, Mari Kurisato writes a transition narrative that uses an alien transitioning to human as a metaphor for gender transition; seeing human trans people in fiction is powerful, whereas in this collection especially, this treatment of transness felt painfully out of place. Kurisato’s style and characterisation are excellent, and there are some really brilliant ideas in the piece, which makes the fundamental failure all the more frustrating.
Failing in a different way, ‘Perfectly You’ by David Robertson just doesn’t emotionally connect. This attempt to tell a romantic story feels strained and emotionless, essentially empty of real content; there isn’t really enough ground on which to build the payoff Robertson wants to give, and the strongest parts of the story are those in which he is building that ground.
In the end, Nicholson has engaged in an important project in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time, centring Indigenous queer people, but it’s a deeply flawed execution of that project; we need more anthologies like this, but next time, more stories like Heath Justice’s and Little Badger’s, please!
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All her life, Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, dangerous Goblin King. They’ve enraptured her mind, her spirit, and inspired her musical compositions. Now eighteen and helping to run her family’s inn, Liesl can’t help but feel that her musical dreams and childhood fantasies are slipping away.
But when her own sister is taken by the Goblin King, Liesl has no choice but to journey to the Underground to save her. Drawn to the strange, captivating world she finds―and the mysterious man who rules it―she soon faces an impossible decision. And with time and the old laws working against her, Liesl must discover who she truly is before her fate is sealed.
Dark, romantic, and powerful, S. Jae-Jones’s Wintersong will sweep you away into a world you won’t soon forget.
Wintersong is one of those books that is getting hype all over the place, in part I suspect because of the way its plot (and indeed aesthetic) recalls the cult classic film Labyrinth, starring David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King. So, does it stand up to the comparison…?
In some ways, Wintersong is very much in the shadow of its inspirational predecessor. S. Jae-Jones has drawn strongly on the aesthetics of Jim Henson’s puppets and Ellis Flyte and Brian Froud’s costuming of both Jareth and Sarah, such that the Goblin King of the novel very strongly resembles the striking portrayal by David Bowie, including hair and slight androgyny. Similarly, the goblins strike the reader as rather Hensonesque, with the way they are described not recalling specific puppets from the film, but the whole aesthetic of the film. The big difference is in the setting; the late 18th century Bavarian setting of the real world and the very much more subterranean, earthy and claustrophobic setting of the Underground world are new to Wintersong, and Jae-Jones recalls them very clearly to the reader’s eye, not necessarily with precise strokes but with broad, evocative ones.
The other key aesthetic difference is the way Jae-Jones uses music in Wintersong. Music is the driving force of the novel, from Liesl’s music with her brother to the strange interest in her music of the Goblin King; music, its playing, its composition, its style and its quality run as themes throughout the novel, in a very explicit way. The problem here is that evoking something so auditory as music on the page is virtually impossible; different media manage different approaches, from only showing its effects, to putting in the notation in a comic, but describing it with a mix of specific (such as key and tempo) and general really doesn’t work. Instead, what the reader is left with is the sense of missing out on something, instead of Jae-Jones having achieved something.
The plot is a neat little thing of twists and turns, in five sections, each with its own way of turning what came before on its head; Wintersong diverges increasingly far from the Labyrinth template as you get deeper into the book, with an interesting approach to developing romance and love, and what those things can mean, explored by Jae-Jones. The different permutations of relationships in each movement are really well explored, and the relationship between Liesl and the Goblin King isn’t a simple, one-dimensional one, it’s a complex, changing thing, that develops alongside their characters across the course of the novel.
That character development is the core of Wintersong; it’s Liesl’s bildungsroman, and also to some extent Josef’s (happily queer!) bildungsroman in the background and enabled by Liesl. The way Jae-Jones handles that character development is subtle and never made explicit, very carefully; the whole book, being told in third person from Liesl’s point of view, shows the development in everything from the narrative voice to what it focuses on, but no one ever talks about growing up. We also see different ways of growing up and accepting oneself, dealt with very neatly.
In the end, Wintersong is let down by itself; if S. Jae-Jones had stuck to the emotional and visual-aesthetic story, this would be a brilliant fairy tale. As it is, she tried to deal with turning the purely auditory into text, and there, she failed, and in doing so, let the whole book down.
DISCLOSURE: This review is based on a copy of the final novel provided by the publisher, Titan Books.
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In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.
But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods…
As you’ll likely have gathered, I’m a sucker for fairytales, for non-Anglosphere stories, and for hype, and The Bear and the Nightingale is a much-hyped retelling of a Russian folk tale, grabbing my attention thricefold. Beautifully packaged and widely anticipated, when I saw it on the shelves at work I didn’t really bother trying to resist.
The writing is undeniably beautiful; Arden is fantastic at calling up the windswept snow, the chilly winter, the expectation of frostbite, the fear of famine, the darkness of a long night, the beauty of an icon, the crowded musk of a family packed together in the long months. The Bear and the Nightingale is a visually stunning book in that sense, with evocative writing that makes the best use of the landscapes and settings of the tale; there really are shadows in the woods, and those aren’t just your mind creating faces where none really are… It’s got a kind of creepiness to it, at times, that matches Algernon Blackwood at his creepy animistic best.
Sadly, the beauty of the writing isn’t really matched by the rest of the book. The Bear and the Nightingale falls into a number of tropes typical of fairytales, including passive women (it almost avoids this and then, at the crucial moment… men to the rescue), the wicked and hateful stepmother who sees her new stepdaughter as a rival, and a seriously weird objectification of women (from everyone; so many of the male characters’ motivations are based around the sexuality of the women, without concern for the thought of the women). Arden is uncritically retelling, rather than reworking, rewriting, or otherwise playing with, a folk story, and a rather misogynistic form of that folk story. This is no subversion, unlike the work of Kirsty Logan, or critical retelling, like Angela Carter, or complete rebuilding, a la T. Kingfisher; Arden has left all the elements of such stories that cry out to be rewritten for a modern age wholly intact.
The plot is also just messy. Plot lines are picked up (a son goes to a monastery; a daughter marries upwards; the father marries upwards) but then fundamentally abandoned – there appears to be no change in the family or in social stature from any of the events of the book except in the immediate village. Hooks are dangled throughout that are seized upon for a moment but then passed over as if the reader out to expect no further consequences from events, actions, or feelings; every character, one feels, is left totally unfulfilled because the thing that would fulfill them vanished from the book.
The other major problem is a thematic one. Arden takes as a key theme the conflict between traditional beliefs and Christianity, and ends up in something of an incoherent muddle; The Bear and the Nightingale casts as evil those who fanatically take religion as the only truth, in opposition to superstition, and makes those superstitions true without the slightest hint Christianity is… but also attempts to have Christianity correct, not just a positive force but a true one as well, a needle it never really threads well. It’s a poorly thought through argument that is just left to lie, like so many of the plotlines in the novel.
That is all compounded by an unnecessary afterword that her editors should have told her to leave on the cutting room floor. Arden, in The Bear and the Nightingale, uses inconsistent transliterations – which no reader would know unless they knew the Russian; the problem is her reasoning for why, namely “to retain a bit of their [the Russian words] exotic flavour”, and to make them “aesthetically pleasing” to Anglophone readers. Both lines of reasoning recast the whole book in an unpleasantly Othering light, right down to the approach to the setting; everything must be looked at with more critical eyes, and as a result some less pleasant and happy conclusions reached.
In the end, I came out of The Bear and the Nightingale disappointed. I was hoping for something more like Catherynne Valente’s Deathless, a reworking of a myth, but instead came out of a book with the prose of a Valente but no real craft to back it up.
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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.
Forget everything you think you know about fairytales…
Tehani Wessely of Fablecroft Press is one of the number of Australian editors producing really interesting work… that unfortunately isn’t seen enough by the wider world. To Spin A Darker Stair is an excellent example of how fairy stories can be told in a revisionist manner, and come out of the process truly fascinatingly.
Both writers in this slim volume have taken a traditional fairy story villain and reworked them through a feminist lens; the witches in Rapunzel and in Hansel and Gretel. Each takes the stock character from their fairytale and explains them; not content with the simple “evil witch”, To Spin A Darker Stair instead takes the Maleficent approach: seen from their own angle, and with more information, these characters move from unsympathetic to tragic figures whose bad ends we mourn, rather than celebrating. The recasting also, of necessity, recasts the roles of some of those around them; while in Valente’s ‘A Delicate Architecture’ only the witch is affected and Hansel and Gretel’s arrival only comes at the end of the story, let alone their interactions with the witch, Mudge completely recasts Rapunzel into a much darker, more interesting figure and her family in an altogether grimmer, tragic and arguably Greek light in ‘Oracle’s Tower’.
The way these fairy tales work is by their magical feel; both Mudge and Valente capture the feel and idea of ‘fairy tale’ excellently, combining the impossible magical whimsy with cultural tropes and ideas to create a story that really sticks. To Spin A Darker Stair contains two very poetic, very lyrical writers whose work can’t be discussed without discussing their style; it flows like a folk tale, rather than feeling like a story written down. It has the lilting rhythm of something that has been spoken time and again, worn smooth by tongue after tongue wrapping around its parts. However, ‘A Delicate Architecture’ suffers from a certain repetitious slowness and arguably a degree of obviousness; while ‘Oracle’s Tower’ uses its tragic inevitably as an inexorable, oncoming thing that gives the story a mythic power, Valente loses that rather, as she seems to try to gain that power while not quite successfully achieving it.
‘Oracle’s Tower’ alone makes this volume worth buying, but bring in Wessely’s introduction and ‘A Delicate Architecture’ and I recommend it not just to fans of fairytales but all readers everywhere.