Intellectus Speculativus

Home » Posts tagged 'fantasy'

Tag Archives: fantasy

What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

what-it-means-when-a-man-falls-from-the-sky-by-lesley-nneka-arimah
A childless woman resorts to forbidden magic in her quest for a baby. A widow boils with rage at the grudging welcome her daughters receive in her sister’s home. In a devastated, not too distant future, a ‘grief worker’ discovers a miraculous ability to remove emotional pain – at a price.

The characters in What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky are men and women who want things that remain impossible or out of reach. What unites them is the toughness of lives where opportunities are scant, and fortunes can change faster than the flick of a switch.

Conjuring worlds at once familiar and unsettlingly different, What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky showcases the work of a writer of startling promise at the beginning of an exciting literary career.
~~~~~
I’m not much of a literary fiction reader, as regular followers of this blog will have noticed; however, sometimes, an author crosses my path with enough force and weight behind them from both genre and literary communities that I have to pick them up. Lesley Nneka Arimah is one such author, and her debut collection, What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky, seemed like the place to start…

The collection opens with a real firecracker of a story, ‘The Future Looks Good’. The title is a definite misdirect; the story looks at the history of lives that have led to the moment that Bibi is in, the expectations and relationships of her predecessors that went into producing her and the moment she occupies. Arimah beautifully builds misdirects into these histories, and writes with a fascinating grace; which lends the unexpected punch of the last line an incredible power, which makes ‘The Future Looks Good’ take on a very different shape.

‘War Stories’ is more typical of the collection, a slightly longer story, and again a story that is as much about stories as anything else. The focus on parental and familial relationships, and the way the past shapes the present, are again powerfully brought to the fore. This story suffers a bit from not knowing quite where it is going, however; Arimah doesn’t really end it, but instead just stops the narrative, either just before or just after its natural conclusion, leading to a kind of dissatisfaction with what had gone before.

‘Wild’ is a story of immigrant experiences and parallel lives; the lies people tell each other and believe of each other form a key part of this third story. The way Arimah builds up and knocks down expectations is very effective, and her deployment of female friendship and rivalry incredibly powerful. The way that mothers treat their daughters is the central theme, and it is very well conveyed. However, this is another story that drifts to a close; while the last line is powerful, it isn’t an ending, and it feels rather as if Arimah wrote towards that line but didn’t quite know how to use it to wrap up the story.

‘Light’ is less a story than a character study; Arimah looks forward and backwards through the life of a girl and her father, who is parenting her alone while his wife studies in the United States of America. It’s a powerful, moving story about the risks of parenting, about the difficulties of relationships at a distance, and about the struggles to bring up a child in a world that is hostile to them. The circular structure of the story works incredibly well, and the slight unhinging from time is very effective in really giving us a fantastic look across a life.

‘Second Chances’ is less effective, although the central conceit is arguably more so; a mother returned from the dead. This is a plot we’ve read before – it’s almost Orphic in its resonance, and Arimah’s treatment of the conceit definitely has a strong scent of that about it. The way Arimah draws the discontented relationship of one daughter with her mother against the rest of the family feels a little strained; it’s almost excessively differentiated, and the story as a whole feels a little drawn out, although the punch of the end is very powerful.

‘Windfalls’ is one of the least effective stories. Arimah’s use of the second person feels strained, and the lack of focus is a little wearying. It is once again the story of a difficult relationship between mother and daughter, but the way Arimah tells it, we really don’t care about the mother, who comes across incredibly two dimensionally; unusually, the characterisation here is incredibly weak, and the end of the story is spectacularly predictable almost from its start.

‘Who Will Greet You At Home’, one the other hand, is a very effective use of a twist on the common metaphors around making babies from various materials. Arimah’s mingling of a number of fantastical elements is very effective, none of them themselves the focus of the story but rather lens through which to approach human relationships. The way she treats the metaphor she’s using for childbearing is at once very unsubtle and very effective, with a glorious commitment to some of the darkest extensions of the idea. The end of the story is a brilliant close, with a call back right to the beginning that is a clear hallmark of Arimah’s best stories.

‘Buchi’s Girls’ is the exception to that rule. This story is the only one of those about mothers and daughters which centres the mother over the children; her concern for her offspring, and her attempts to give them a good life, are the focus of the story. Arimah never loses sight of the central relationships and the possibility of betrayal in the story, and the layered accidental woundings characters give others never fail to have consequences and all feel horribly real, right up to the open ending.

The titular story of the collection, ‘What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky’, is perhaps the most fantastical, combining sin eaters, a post-climate apocalypse future, and an equation that allows for magical abilities into one narrative. It is also one of the weaker stories; Arimah has gotten a lot of concepts in, but a number of them feel underdeveloped and underexplored, leading to a world which doesn’t quite make sense. The whole narrative is drawn out, and while the foreshadowing of the end is very effective, Arimah has failed to really make the story connect to the reader enough for the ending itself to work.

‘Glory’ is one of the most frustrating stories in the collection, because it just doesn’t work very well. Arimah’s story of Glorybetogod, a woman who always makes the wrong choices, feels somehow off; it doesn’t really have a heart, it feels like a story written because its author had the concept but didn’t really have any characters. Everyone in the story is an archetype, and feels very thin, as do all the relationships; there isn’t really anything to get emotionally hooked into.

‘What Is A Volcano?’ is, from a different angle, almost equally frustrating. A just-so story of the origins of vulcanism, it is also a mythic story of warring gods; but it never really feels like it takes its concepts seriously, and every time a critique of some of the key parts of the tale start to appear, Arimah skips over them and moves on, never engaging. There are hooks to a much more interesting story which problematises its assumptions scattered throughout, but they’re never picked up on, which makes this just another mythic story that doesn’t really do anything.

Finally, ‘Redemption’ closes out the collection with a return to realism. This is a powerful an effective story in many ways, with its themes of rape culture, classism, and the shared reality and oppression of women, but the lack of emotional connection between any of the characters is frustratingly distancing. Arimah emphasises repeatedly the way the narrator creates fictional emotional connections, but meanwhile, the narrator is too flat for us to even connect with her; thus, we fail to have any connection to the story, although the ending retains a lot of power despite that.

What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky is a strong collection in terms of ideas, and Arimah clearly has the ability to write beginnings and middles; but a lot of the stories simply drift off, rather than ending, and there are too many missed emotional connections to call this the masterwork it is being described as. The best stories are brilliant, but there simply aren’t enough of that quality in here.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

9781781259528
In her provocative debut, Carmen Maria Machado demolishes the borders between magical realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. Startling narratives map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited on their bodies, both in myth and in practice.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the mysterious green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague spreads across the earth. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery about a store’s dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted house guest.

Bodies become inconsequential, humans become monstrous, and anger becomes erotic. A dark, shimmering slice into womanhood, Her Body and Other Parties is wicked and exquisite.
~~~~~
Carmen Maria Machado has been publishing stories since 2012, to great acclaim in both literary and genre circles, and in both literary and genre markets, including Granta and Strange Horizons; finally, she has brought out a debut collection of a precise collection of her tales.

Her Body and Other Parties is a collection with a definite theme; it is about the liminal horror, the strangeness that exists around the edges of the world as it is, and it is about women. Every story in this collection also centres on a woman, and in most cases a queer woman; some are unsubtly autobiographically inspired, while others are much less so. Given the constraints of choosing stories to fit a theme, many collections can become rather samey and uniform; Machado’s collection avoids that by taking very different approaches to the same issues.

The collection opens with ‘The Husband Stitch’; this is Machado’s retelling of the traditional story of the girl with the ribbon around her neck. Here, Machado follows the traditional structure, in some regards; every woman has a ribbon somewhere, which cannot be untied. Men are very curious about these ribbons; indeed, the taboo around them is one of the gender differences in this world. Machado subverts the normal story, though, by having the husband push his wife’s wishes, but never actually break them; the analogy for sexual relations and power relations isn’t subtle, but it is powerful. The way Machado invests her characters with personality and a full life is beautiful, making the end of the story all the more tragic, whilst also feeling intensely right.

‘Inventory’ is a shorter story, and a strange one; it’s an episodic story, chronicling a series of encounters of a woman as an apocalypse happens around her. Machado builds up the sense of impending doom to an absolutely fantastic climax, while also investing her central character with life; we see her through meetings with people, which tend to include sexual encounters. These are powerfully and erotically conveyed, whilst not being voyeuristic or pornographic; and the variety of sexual relationship models shown is brilliant, in the different ways people relate to each other.

‘Mothers’ is a weaker story, however. Whilst still emotionally resonant, the story of imagined futures blending into the real world feels a little messy; there are too many things going on, and while Machado portrays the lesbian relationship and the abuse in it powerfully, as well as portraying the single-minded devotion of a single mother beautifully, the way she matches these two together, and then adds a magical element, simply does not connect. The story feels like it’s trying to simply do too much at once.

‘Especially Heinous’ is similarly a little bit messy; told episodically, it’s inspired by Law & Order: SVU. Machado digs into the gendered horror of crime procedurals, and of the treatment of sex and sex workers in particular, through a kind of spectral lens; there are a couple of plot strands which just seem to fizzle out, and the story falls apart slightly as it progresses, but there are some incredibly striking and powerful moments and images in there.

‘Real Women Have Bodies’ moves back to the territory of absolutely heartwrenching stories. Machado’s simple, unexplained premise of women simply fading away from the physical realm is explored beautifully and powerfully, in the context of male attitudes to women but also in the context of women’s ability to take up space. The story is powerful and painful to read, and the love affair that emotionally anchors the climax of the story is truly moving and wrenching.

‘Eight Bites’ takes on similar territory, but more explicitly; it is very much about fatness and one’s attitude to one’s body. There’s some absolutely beautiful imagery in here around food and eating, as well as some fantastic metaphorical work around embracing one’s own body; Machado writes powerfully about familial relationships between women as well as their relationships with their own bodies, and that gives a certain weight and heft to the story that otherwise might have been a little Doctor Who.

‘The Resident’ is the most obviously autobiographically inspired story; Machado has done a number of residences herself, so a story about a writer at a residence feels like it must draw on her own experience. The sense of strangeness and unease that permeates this story is powerful, and the disjointed nature of the experiences of the protagonist are a very effective device in emphasising the weird state of being withdrawn from the world into oneself to Do Art.

Her Body and Other Parties closes on perhaps its darkest story, ‘Difficult at Parties’, which is about a survivor of an unspecified crime. It’s a dark, strange story, with trauma at its centre, and the reaction to that trauma. Machado doesn’t try to make her protagonist especially likable; instead she makes the reader empathise directly with her, get in her head, and experience part of the trauma recovery process. It’s a strange tale, and the way Machado weaves a supernatural element in is both particularly effective and strangely voyeuristic.

Her Body and Other Parties meanders a little in the middle, with a couple of stories that feel like they could be tighter; but on the whole, Machado’s selection of her work is absolutely stunning, and incredibly strong. The themes shine through clearly, and Machado’s facility for language and turn of phrase is absolutely unmissable. The emotional and intellectual impact of the vast majority of stories in this collection is such that I had to stop and pause between each one, an unusual practice for me, to simply let it sit with me for a bit, to let it impact me and to let me think about it. Machado’s debut is a fantastic, and important, collection.

Disclaimer: Her Body and Other Parties is published by Serpent’s Tail in the UK. Serpent’s Tail is owned by Profile Books, whose managing editor is my uncle.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

patreon.png

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

The Only Harmless Great Thing RD3_quote4_pms2_pink
In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.

These are the facts.

Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.
~~~~~
Brooke Bolander’s work has garnished any number of nominations, including multiple Locus, Hugo, and Nebula awards, among others. The Only Harmless Great Thing is her first solo volume; a slim novella out of Tor.com, it’s already picked up a lot of interesting buzz and an excellent marketing campaign… but does the novella bear out the speculation?

The Only Harmless Great Thing is a very odd book; it marries together alternate history with a science fictional future, in two parallel narratives, with a third, folkloric deep-history narrative running alongside those two. Bolander’s choices of narratives are not pleasant ones. The Only Harmless Great Thing is the story of an elephant, Topsy, brought with a little alternate history into the story of Regan, a Radium Girl. In Bolander’s world, elephants are discovered to have language and a degree of sentience in the 1880s, and so when the effects of radium were discovered, US Radium brought elephants in to paint the watches – one of whom is Topsy. In a parallel narrative, much later, Kat is trying to persuade elephants to allow humans to make them glow near nuclear waste dumps as a lasting warning about the presence of radiation, as a ten-thousand-year warning sign.

Bolander slips between the different narratives, registers, and narrators of The Only Harmless Great Thing with a skillful grace and ease that ties the whole thing together; the voices are very distinct, and that helps to distinguish between the stories as we slip between them. At times, it can be a little confusing for a few lines, but on the whole which narrative Bolander has the reader in rapidly becomes clear. The alternate and future histories are intertwined seamlessly with reality, and on the whole their revelation is well done; there are moments Bolander relies on knowledge that she hasn’t given the audience yet, but they’re few and far between.

This is a sparsely characterised novella; The Only Harmless Great Thing has a grand total of nine characters, which includes two pachyderms, one character who only speaks once and that through a post-mortem letter, an interpreter, a supervisor, an academic, a corporate executive, and a bitter Radium Girl. Of these, three are at various times viewpoint characters, and the rest appear only briefly; Bolander doesn’t make their characters much more than the flat necessities for the advancement of the plot, but her three core characters, those whose viewpoints we follow, are far better realised.

Each has a very unique voice and thought process, from the slangy dialect of Regan through to the mythopoetic style of thought of Topsy and the straightforwardly modern Kat. The Only Harmless Great Thing does a fantastic job of showing how Topsy’s and Regan’s lives parallel each other and how their struggles with forces outside and larger than themselves change them. There is a strong streak of radical politics on display in the work, and a class anger, that Bolander infuses with a kind of bleak despair at the state of the treatment of the working classes and of nature; and the way she uses that and filters it through her characters is incredibly powerful. The problem is Kat; Bolander’s treatment of her is uneven, and her character veers sharply between profoundly empathetic and profoundly disconnected, growing from one to the other and back again, and without any real sense of who she is as a person outside the project she proposed.

Finally, and almost without characters, is the deep-history myth-narrative that runs alongside these two core narratives. Bolander tells this in something akin to the style of a Just So story; and her style for these sections is absolutely beautiful and perfect, and the story itself is dark, moving, and painful. The Only Harmless Great Thing takes this extra piece of the jigsaw and moves, suddenly, from a two dimensional to a three dimensional puzzle, a complex narrative of interlocking parts with multiple messages; it’s only at the end that the relevance of this story becomes obvious to the others, in a very neat bit of writing.

The Only Harmless Great Thing isn’t a perfect novella, but it is a fantastic one; Bolander’s continues to go from strange, dark strength to dark, strange strength, and this continues that trend.

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

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

patreon.png

Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707
America, 1920s. A plague is spreading, and it’s spreading fast, from New Orleans to Chicago to New York.

It’s an epidemic of freedom, joy and self-expression, being spread by Black artists, that makes anyone who catches it desperate to dance, sing, laugh and jive. It’s the outbreak of Jazz, Ragtime and Blues onto the world scene; the spirit of Blackness overtaking America and the world. And it’s threatening to dismantle the whole social order.

Working to root out the plague by any means possible – even murder – are the members of The Wallflower Order, an international conspiracy dedicated to puritanism and control. But, deep in the heart of Harlem, private eye and Vodun priest Papa LaBas is determined to defend his flourishing ancient culture against their insidious plans. And so, he finds himself locked in a race against the Order to find an ancient Egyptian text which might just be the key to keeping the virus of freedom alive.
~~~~~
I first heard of Mumbo Jumbo through Tor.com, specifically this essay in Nisi Shawl’s fantastic History of Black Science Fiction series. Given Shawl’s recommendation, I picked it up – from the general fiction, not SFF, section – as soon as I saw the new Penguin Modern Classics edition.

Mumbo Jumbo is an odd book; there is a single narrative strain to it, a single plot, but the way Reed tells his story, it feels rather more disjointed, more confused, less cohesive as a single thing. This is clearly an intentional choice, and lends a fascinating kind of puzzle quality to the book; working out how different things, different characters, and different aspects of the novel fit together with each other becomes a harder task, but also a more rewarding one, than in a more traditional Western narrative. Reed rejects these models to combine different forms into a single work, creating a modernist experimental novel.

That novel follows the phenomenon of Jes Grew, a kind of socio-spiritual movement which combines dance, religion, and free decolonised thought; Mumbo Jumbo can be read as (relatively) mimetic if the reader chooses, though Reed’s inclusion of supernatural elements, and a consciousness and intention behind Jes Grew, suggests such a reading would lose something key. The different things Reed draws into the story of Jes Grew include Western global colonialism, Black cultural development and radical Black thought in 1920s America, an internationalist tendency, a resistance to Western patronisation of other cultures, and more.

One of the ways Reed takes on imperialism in Mumbo Jumbo is through the Mu’tafikah, an internationalist and multiracial group dedicated to taking non-Western artifacts from Western museums and returning them to the cultures from which they were plundered. Reed is unabashedly on the side of these liberators, and the novel has, in its occasional moments of focus on them, an absolutely brilliant heist quality and sense of lightness. The characters of the Mu’tafikah are some of the most oddball of the novel, and absolutely wonderfully characterised, with their own prejudices but working together through them against a common enemy.

The other, more central plot of the novel follows the attempts of the Wallflower Order to suppress Jes Grew. Mumbo Jumbo posits an ideological system called Atonism that is upheld across the West, and seems to have its roots in Judaism; there is a somewhat antisemitic undercurrent in the way that Judaism is treated as a (part of) a shadowy force that has constantly attempted to suppress Black thought and art down history. The different ways the Atonists try to control power, and the different Atonist organisations – including the Knights Templar, and the Masons, naturally – are unsurprising and typical of this kind of conspiracy, but the way Reed writes them as barely competent and always on the edge of exposure and total failure is refreshing. Similarly, so is the opposition to the conspiracy; Reed gives us different individuals working at cross-purposes to the same ends of Black liberation, and Mumbo Jumbo draws both comic and tragic power from the factionalism of the resistance to White supremacy and the Wallflower Order.

The actual characters of Mumbo Jumbo are, given how intellectual the underpinnings of the novel are, actually fully fleshed out and interesting characters, far more than just authorial constructs. Reed gives us a broad cast, including Black gangsters and hustlers, White newsmen and bigots, a VouDou priest who also has a sideline in private detection, a Nation of Islam forerunner, and more. They’ve all got pasts, and perspectives on the Jes Grew phenomenon and the state of America; they’ve all got different interests outside the focus of the novel which they attend to from time to time, taking time away from the plot only to appear again, or even being followed while doing something of little immediate bearing. Mumbo Jumbo‘s pages are peopled by characters who are not only fully fleshed out but also familiar; not as tropes, but as people one might know, might have encountered in life, and Reed makes them all feel like old friends.

Mumbo Jumbo is a bit of a jumble of a novel, but it’s also a work of genius; a modernist masterpiece, a patchwork of different elements that arguably ought not to work together, but that Reed brings together with a confidence and style that makes it look almost easy. This is a strange, mind-bending read, like little else I’ve read.

If you would like to support these reviews, and the trans community, and have a chance at winning a book, all at once, please take a look at this post requesting donations or activism to trans causes.

The Fisher of Bones by Sarah Gailey

the-fisher-of-bones-cover-image
The Prophet is dead.

The eyes of the Gods have turned to his daughter. But she isn’t ready. Not for the whispers in her ear, for the divinations… for the blood. Her people’s history and their future, carved by ancients into the bones of long dead behemoths, are now her burden. Only she can read them, interpret the instructions, and guide them to the Promised Land.

Their journey is almost at an end, but now, without the Prophet, she must find a way to guide them to the place they will call Home. Through blood and through sand, against the will of her own flock, against the horrors that haunt the darkness, only she can bring her people Home.

The Prophet is dead. Long live the Prophetess.
~~~~~
I’ve already reviewed Sarah Gailey’s American Hippo duology on the blog, so the author needs no real introduction; The Fisher of Bones was published for free in serialised form at the fantastic Fireside Fiction, as well as in a collected edition that came out halfway through the serialisation; this review is of the collected volume.

The Fisher of Bones is essentially a religious novella; it is about Fisher, who has taken the place of her father, Fisher, as the prophet of the Children of the Gods leading them from a secular land which has banished its divinities to a Promised Land described in revealed scriptures on the bones of extinct creatures. The plot describes the journey from the point at which Fisher’s father dies to the arrival at the Promised Land; along the way, the pilgrims meet and bring into their ranks outsiders, lose members, and have to deal with logistical problems. And then, of course, they arrive.

The simplicity of the plot is a strength, given what Gailey is really concerned with in The Fisher of Bones: faith and authority. Fisher is, after all, a new prophet to her flock, and Gailey deals with some of the consequences of that, such as the mistrust attendant upon her among some and the lack of faith in her ability to lead. The different manifestations of religious faith are also brilliantly handled; Fisher’s essentially nonhierarchical faith running up against the increasing idea of a hierarchy among some of her flock, for instance, or the way Fisher’s attitudes, and those of others, are permeated by the sense that everything the gods give is a positive gift, even if it is not always immediately apparent as such. The handling of faith is very sensitive and intelligent, and Gailey really embraces the centrality of it to her characters and plot.

The other big theme Gailey deals with is fertility and blood. The Fisher of Bones is one of the few stories centring a woman where periods play pivotal roles in the plot and emotional development of the story; in different ways, and at different times, characters’ periods or lack thereof is key. Similarly, Fisher’s pregnancy is brilliantly described, although the mysticism around her giving birth is a little frustrating; the physicality of the fertile womb is wholly embraced in Gailey’s writing and shown with a rare bluntness.

That isn’t to say The Fisher of Bones is simply a dry exploration of big themes. Fisher is a fascinating character, as is her friend Naomi; both are practical women with faith, whose practicality, faith and friendship can put them at odds or in alliance. The way the two are developed and written across the course of the novella is fascinating and beautiful. Unfortunately, they’re the only two particularly solid characters; the closest to another we see is Marc, the husband of Fisher, whose character is rather two dimensional and undergoes a dramatic revelation part way through to become a very different, equally two dimensional character, with little discussion of the effect of that on the relationship between the two characters.

The Fisher of Bones packs perhaps its best punch at the very close of the novella; Gailey fantastically turns everything upside down in a wholly unexpected way, and reconfigures everything that has come before. To say too much would be to spoil the impact of a brilliant close, though, to a novella that, while not as good as some of her other work, is still a brilliant piece of writing from an excellent author.

Disclaimer: Sarah Gailey and Pablo Defendi, publisher of Fireside Fiction which published Fisher of Bones in both serialised and collected forms, are both friends of the reviewer.

If you would like to support these reviews, and the trans community, and have a chance at winning a book, all at once, please take a look at this post requesting donations or activism to trans causes.

The Stone In The Skull by Elizabeth Bear

anderson-stone-skull
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.

If you would like to support these reviews, and the trans community, and have a chance at winning a book, all at once, please take a look at this post requesting donations or activism to trans causes.

When The Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

9781250058669
To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.
~~~~~
When The Moon Was Ours had come to my attention even before it won the 2016 Tiptree Award, given that Anna-Marie McLemore’s novel features trans characters, immigrant characters, and magical realism; the Tip win just raised its profile for me, and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it…

When The Moon Was Ours is one of those books that really speaks to me as a trans reader. McLemore’s narrative isn’t solely concerned with trans narratives, though one of the central characters is an immigrant mixed-race trans boy (a kind of character we see all too rarely in fiction generally and speculative fiction particularly); but it’s the narrative of transness that really spoke to me, so it’s where we’ll start. McLemore threads throughout the novel the way Samir feels about his body, and about his gender; When The Moon Was Ours talks about gender dysphoria and the disconnect trans people can feel from their bodies, as well as the way some embrace theirs. It talks about the social stigma towards trans people, and how we internalise that, and how that shame manifests in our self-image. It talks about trans people’s sexuality, about the conflict or congruence between anatomy and emotion. McLemore really cuts through the normal cliches of a trans story, and instead tells something true, recognisable, and because of it, heartbreaking.

This is a book that is about much more than its trans protagonist, though. When The Moon Was Ours also has a cis female protagonist, marked as different from her community by her origin (falling out of a water tower) and by the roses that grow from her wrist. Miel has a tragic backstory, which is slowly revealed over the course of the book; as well as a present which has both its beauties, like her mother-figure Aracely, and her romance with Samir, and its threats, like the Bonner sisters. These aren’t contradictory, although they are in tension at times; it’s the tension that gives rise to the story, and McLemore plays it perfectly, with the teenage emotionality given free rein to really be extreme and powerful.

Every character in When The Moon Was Ours has their struggle; there are only really eight major characters – Samir, Miel, Samir’s mother, Aracely, and the Bonner sisters – but most of the minor characters, such as the Bonner parents and Miel’s own parents, are fleshed out as well. Those we encounter once tend to be a little more one-dimensional and simplistic, but they are really props for the eight core members of the cast to interact with and around; those eight members are intensely real and human, each with secrets of their own, and with their own different, difficult pasts and mysteries.

If When The Moon Was Ours has a flaw, it’s in the way it deals with its magical realism. While some aspects – the rose, for instance – are beautiful and powerful, others seem more laboured, and drawn out; the glass pumpkins of the Bonner farm are strange and beautiful, but little more than a pretty symbol, and a metaphor that really wasn’t necessary and didn’t add anything – or get meaningfully addressed, leaving McLemore’s idea a little half-baked. This is a tendency throughout the book, where symbolism trumps anything else, just layering it on without consideration for what that would actually mean for the characters, or anything else.

This is slightly undercut by the prose of the novel. McLemore’s style is very poetic and flowing; When The Moon Was Ours isn’t told as mimetic fiction, which means some of the disjoints, and some of the excessively-heavy, underbaked symbolism isn’t too jarring, because the novel as a whole treats itself as a piece of folklore. There are references, which feel at times a little too self-conscious, to the way Miel and Samir have become myth in the village; the novel tends to forget those between times, and while poetic, is essential a straightforward fabulist narrative. The mixed approach weakens the effect of either of these styles a little, although the language is still beautiful and penetrating.

In the end, though, When The Moon Was Ours tore my heart out and handed it to me on a platter as a bare, naked, vulnerable, beautiful thing. If you’re trans, it may well do the same for you. McLemore has written a fantastic, beautiful romance, and one well worthy of her Tiptree win.

If you would like to support these reviews, and the trans community, and have a chance at winning a book, all at once, please take a look at this post requesting donations or activism to trans causes.