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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.

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The City of Woven Streets by Emmi Itäranta

9780007536061
In the City of Woven Streets, human life has little value. You practice a craft to stay alive, or you are cast out. Eliana, a young weaver in the House of Webs, knows she doesn’t belong there. She is hiding a shameful birth defect that would, if anyone knew about it, land her in the House of the Tainted.

When a mysterious woman with her tongue cut off and Eliana’s name tattooed on her skin arrives at the House of Webs, Eliana discovers an invisible network of power behind the city’s facade. All the while, the sea is clawing the shores and the streets are slowly drowning.
~~~~~
City of Woven Streets, known in the US and Canada as The Weaver and in Emmi Itäranta’s native Finland as Kudottujen kujien kaupunki, was released in June 2016 in the UK, and has been waiting in my TBR for me to get to it ever since… finally, that time has come!

The City of Woven Streets is fairly obviously a young adult novel, in terms of plot. Not only does Itäranta approach the standard rebellion against a restrictive society combined with forbidden romance angle, but she also integrates into this a kind of personal bildungsroman for Eliana in discovering her true power and role in things. It is a reasonably well executed example of its type; Itäranta’s version of an oppressive society built on a history of oppression and violence feels realistic in this regard, and the way it responds to opposition, and how the channels of power work, feel very plausible. It simply breaks no new ground, and there are certain moments, especially around the romance between Eliana and Valeria, which don’t feel like The City of Woven Streets really earned them.

The characters of The City of Woven Streets don’t stand out particularly strongly either; Itäranta’s characterisation isn’t bad per se, it’s just got a singularly unoriginal feel to it. Eliana feels like any other young adult protagonist discovering their powers and importance to the world while resisting the oppressive social order; Valeria’s muteness is virtually her only characteristic, which makes the romance between them a little strained; Weaver is the standard enigmatic, not entirely trustworthy mentor who is part of the structure of power; Alva is the wary ally; et cetera. The City of Woven Streets has characters, but none of them feel particularly real; the closest is Eliana, who at times does exhibit emotion and growth, but even her depths don’t feel very real.

The world of The City of Woven Streets is, on its face, a very creative and interesting one. Itäranta’s worldbuilding is complex and layered; the society she creates, with its rigid castes and classes, its professionalising of certain crafts as specialised to the point of not just guilds but almost monastic specialism, and its hidden, dictatorial political leadership, is one rarely seen in fantasy. The way Itäranta integrates these elements into a single society is at times very ill-considered; for instance, the gendering of certain roles like weaving and writing is stereotypical, and given the seclusion people with these roles are required to live in, the idea that they will also eventually get married seems rather strange.

This is also a world with very unclear attitudes towards queerness. At the same time, The City of Woven Streets has a couple of early references to homosexuality as a forbidden thing, but also not an uncommon thing in the cloistered single-sex environments; this would make sense were everyone’s reactions to the lesbian relationship that forms the key romance of the novel less straightforwardly accepting. The way Itäranta reveals both an intersex character and the treatment of intersex people by the society simultaneously is also rather problematic, almost brushing by the consequences of the worldbuilding she has done without really considering their implications.

Despite all this, I actually found myself enjoying The City of Woven Streets. Itäranta’s writing is fast and simple, without being simplistic; it keeps the story moving at a good lick, and draws the reader through, with hints at the broader picture and bigger world dropped from the start such that things build up slowly without too much by way of infodumping. The City of Woven Streets is almost like a packet of sweets: not as much content as one might have hoped for, and somehow disappointing afterwards, but at the time, definitely enjoyable.

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Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

9780765392091
When anything can be owned, how can we be free

Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane.

Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand.

And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?
~~~~~
Autonomous is one of those books which seems to be everywhere on social media, getting buzz and hype from everyone; Annalee Newitz herself was the founding editor of io9, so knows her geek culture, and is now tech-culture editor at Ars Technica, so she knows her science geek culture at that. But does she know about writing a novel…?

Before we go any further, Autonomous deserves praise for the style in which Newitz wrote it. This is cyberpunk thriller written for the 21st century; it’s driving, pacey, but not affectless or baroque, with emotionality bleeding through the text. The novel contains serial worldbuilding sections, but none too lengthy, and they all feel well integrated into the text; at times a little heavy-handed and a little too detailed, but on the whole, supporting the plot rather than being supported by it. Autonomous is written in close-third person, from a number of different perspectives, and each one is distinct and different, with different motivators; there is a slightly flat Americanness to all of them, but they are least easily distinguished.

Having said that, Autonomous is far from perfect. The plot is rather conventional thriller territory, right down to the ending, which one can see from rather far away; the race between heavy-handed state investigators and plucky infopirates to release information damaging to government-affiliated megacorporations isn’t exactly innovative. Nor, for that matter, are the subplots; Newitz writes with sympathy about the bot Paladin gaining a sense of self and others, but it’s again, not breaking new ground, and nor do the rather heavy-handed messages about out-of-control capitalism.

The characters are similarly drawn from previous works; Autonomous trades on pre-existing archetypes quite solidly, from the repressed Eastern European former Catholic Eliasz, now an agent of the IPC, to the pirate Jack with her heart of gold and desire to help other people. These characters are undoubtedly well drawn and written in a sympathetic way, but they’re nothing new to the reader; Newitz has less revitalised an old formula than simply regurgitated it.

This falls flattest around the questions raised by the novel’s title, Autonomous. It’s the characters whose actions are most obviously limited by questions of autonomy who are simultaneously the most new, and the least so. Paladin, for instance, the military spec robot, reads like virtually every other sentience coming into themselves; that she chooses to use a feminine pronoun rather than a neutral one, despite actively thinking about the fact robots don’t really have gender, is rather less interesting or exciting than Newitz seems to think. Threezed is at least a little more interesting, with his bitterness at the system and actions almost programmed; Autonomous gives, towards the end of the book, his perspective on events that transpired with Jack early in the book, and the contrast is quite fascinating, if also very incongruous.

Where the book falls down hardest, though, is its treatment of violence. Autonomous treats its first instances of violence very heavily and seriously; they are meaningful and important, and feel weighty, having continuing impacts on both plot and characters as the novel goes on. However, future violent outbursts seem far less impactful; there are multiple instances when characters torture others for information, and Newitz treats this incredibly lightly, with no seeming impact on those doing the torture, no second thoughts, or alternative paths seen as options. In the hands of a writer more prepared to engage with what that might imply, this could have been interesting; as it was, it just frustrated.

In sum, while Autonomous is intensely readable, and while the worldbuilding is detailed and fascinating, the actual novel, as a plot and set of characters, is distinctly lacking.

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Ruin of Angels by Max Gladstone

9780765395887
The God Wars destroyed the city of Alikand. Agdel Lex has risen in its place. Dead deities litter the surrounding desert and a squidlike tower dominates the skyline—while treasure seekers, criminals, angels, demons, dispossessed knights, grad students, and other fools gather in its ever-changing alleys, hungry for the next big score.

Kai Pohala (last seen in Full Fathom Five) finds her estranged sister, Ley, at the center of a shadowy and rapidly unravelling business deal. When Ley goes on the run, wanted for a crime she most definitely committed, Kai races against time to track her down. But Ley has her own plans, involving her ex-girlfriend, a daring heist out in the god-haunted desert, and, perhaps, freedom for an occupied city.
~~~~~
The Craft Sequence was nominated for the Hugo Awards for Best Series in 2017, for the nonchronological block of five novels that came out between 2012 and 2016. Now, dumping the numerical titles and for the first time releasing a book in immediate chronological succession from that which came before, Max Gladstone returns with Ruin of Angels

The Craft sequence has always been concerned with economics, with poverty, with religion, with imperialism and empire, with ideas of reality. Ruin of Angels engages with those concepts once again, fiercely; recalling the issues at the centre of Last First Snow, Gladstone draws the reader once again into a world where two different conceptions of reality and how the world should be are locked in a cold war, and something is about to give… Unlike that earlier novel, here, there literally are multiple layers of city; Ruin of Angels recalls China Mieville’s The City and the City, where the practice of knowing which city one inhabits is intensely political. The imperial authority of the Iskari believes in a specific kind of city, Agdel Lex, orderly, regimented, a planned urban metropolis of grids and wide roads, bordering a desert; and in the chaos of the God Wars, it implemented this vision on top of the city of Alikand, leaving that more organically evolved city of libraries in a kind of limbo between existence and not. The way Gladstone plays with these levels of realities, and the way the Iskari use the Rectification Authority (or Wreckers) to enforce their view of the city, feels almost Lovecraftian; certainly the tentacular symbiotes have something of that in their DNA.

Which city you inhabit at any time, which city you believe in, is a political act, and slipping between the realities of the two is a useful criminal survival skill; Ruin of Angels is in many ways a heist novel, or rather a series-of-heists novels, as various characters, most notably Ley and Kai, get in each others’ ways and ruin each others’ plans with the best of intentions. Indeed, Gladstone really captures the sibling rivalry between the two; the relationship between the sisters is at the core of much of what propels and prolongs the plot, as personal and political get entangled and miscommunication and noncommunication lead to disaster. That isn’t to say the plot is necessarily overlong; the way Gladstone propels it, with all its twists and turns, keeps the reader thoroughly engaged in Ruin of Angels, and wondering what happens, although perhaps with a few too many novel-prolonging jumps of point of view and obstacles thrown in. The biggest flaw it suffers comes from Ley’s character; like all heists, it relies on sleight of hand, the problem being that what Ley conceals from those around her, and Gladstone from the reader, raises the stakes of the novel dramatically as it draws to its close and seems to come slightly from nowhere.

Gladstone is always a fantastic character writer, and Ruin of Angels is no exception; that’s the greatest strength of the book, in fact. Kai, who we have met before in Full Fathom Five, sees her character fleshed out more, her realisation of her privileged background really being driven home and the trauma of the events of that novel driven home; Tara likewise continues her development from the hard, cold Craftswoman to someone who really cares and is engaged in a project of improving the world.

The rest of the cast are new, and make a fantastic set of points of view; Ley’s utter determination and refusal to open up to anyone else, to make herself vulnerable, are shown as both strength and weakness, and not the full extent of her character, while her former lover Zeddig is a brilliant, sharp, witty, committed woman who isn’t sure how to feel about her old partner, and gets caught up anyway. Relationships and their complexities are one of the hearts of Ruin of Angels; the way Gal and Raymet dance around their feelings is almost soap operatic in the way it is prolonged, and the way Gladstone uses their contrasting personalities to set up a beautiful romance pays off fantastically. Even the lesser characters who people Ruin of Angels are vividly written, from the vile agent of the Iskari, Bescond, to the perpetually high investments manager Fontaine, through the trans space-start-up ultra-rich visionary futurist (yes, Gladstone put Elon Musk in his novel… and made him trans); more than just broad brushstrokes, Gladstone gives them full personalities, in part by hinting at them around the edges of those strokes.

This number of characters introduces another innovation for the Craft Sequence to Ruin of Angels; in a book of less than six hundred pages, there are nearly eighty chapters, and each one is from the point of view of a different character, in some cases multiple characters. This is vitally important in giving us different perspectives on the events of the novel, and indeed the characters, at earlier stages; seeing how Kai and Zeddig see each other, for instance, is a wonderful piece of writing. However, especially as the action gets faster and Ruin of Angels moves towards its climax, it gets rather choppy and draws out the action and cliffhangers in a way that moves from powerful towards frustrating as Gladstone barely gives full scenes before cutting away.

Ruin of Angels marks something of a break for the Craft Sequence: less economic in scope, more concerned with naked power; more head-hopping and with a larger cast. But it still has the same essentially hopeful tone, the same flashes of brilliant humour, and the same excellence as ever; I highly commend Max Gladstone’s work to you, and think this continues the series in exceptional form.

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Love Beyond Body, Space & Time ed. Hope Nicholson

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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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Bearly A Lady by Cassandra Khaw

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Zelda McCartney (almost) has it all: a badass superhero name, an awesome vampire roommate, and her dream job at a glossy fashion magazine (plus the clothes to prove it).

The only issue in Zelda’s almost-perfect life? The uncontrollable need to transform into a werebear once a month.

Just when Zelda thinks things are finally turning around and she lands a hot date with Jake, her high school crush and alpha werewolf of Kensington, life gets complicated. Zelda receives an unusual work assignment from her fashionable boss: play bodyguard for devilishly charming fae nobleman Benedict (incidentally, her boss’s nephew) for two weeks. Will Zelda be able to resist his charms long enough to get together with Jake? And will she want to?

Because true love might have been waiting around the corner the whole time in the form of Janine, Zelda’s long-time crush and colleague.

What’s a werebear to do?
~~~~~
From the terrible dad-joke of the title through the back copy, I was always going to be interested in Bearly A Lady, even if it hadn’t been by Cassandra Khaw and put out by the Book Smugglers as part of an initiative I want to support. As it was, those factors all aligned beautifully, making this a very easy purchase decision…

Bearly A Lady is a slightly odd book; it’s chick lit, something Khaw discusses in her essay in the back about her influences in writing it, but it’s also very much not: it’s almost a send-up of chick lit in the way it uses the tropes of that genre and the conventions that it is playing with. Simultaneously, it’s subverting and embracing urban fantasy; whereas much UF is about a mystery or a supernatural threat, Bearly A Lady is about finding a date, and brings in other tropes of the genre along the way to that goal. What results is something that should be a light, frothy read, that carries far more substance than it should.

Bearly A Lady takes a lot onto its shoulders, not least of which is fatphobia; much of Zelda’s character, and her interactions with the world around her, are driven by reactions to her size. As a werebear, Zelda is a large woman – impressively, powerfully large, in her eyes and those of the reader, disgustingly fat to many background figures. Khaw excels in drawing out different manifestations of fatphobia, from treatment in restaurants and on public transport to casual comments from those around one, whilst also maintaining Zelda’s awareness of her size and a brilliant fat-positive attitude in the narrative.

That strength of empathy in the depiction of fatphobia carries over more broadly to the way Khaw writes Zelda. Bearly A Lady is one woman’s story, very much so; Khaw brings a sensitive and intelligent hand to Zelda’s issues with romantic anxiety, distress over competing emotional attachments and affections, and especially her (rather strong) crush on co-worker Janine. Zelda pops off the page beautifully, from her very first appearance through to the final line of her voice signing off at the end of the book; Khaw really brings her to life. The rest of the cast vary largely depending on gender; the women are all brought to life quite fully and well, even those who only appear briefly getting a strong backstory. The men, on the other hand, come off less well; the three romantic entanglements of Zelda are all, in different ways, creeps, and two-dimensional creeps, and Khaw doesn’t waste her time on giving them more characterisation than that, a powerful decision in contrast to too much (especially genre) fiction which emphasises its male characters at the expense of women.

As a genre, romance often gets a lot of criticism for the way it treats consent, and Bearly A Lady is very actively engaged in that criticism. Khaw treats consent seriously, not just in sex but in discourse generally, and anything that pushes the boundaries of consent is clearly inappropriate and problematised as such; this isn’t handled in a moralistic way, but as something that is simply part of the story and part of Zelda’s life. It crops up at work, in her social life, and inevitably in her romantic and sexual life; and the way characters deal with issues of consent is a key marker of whether we should sympathise with them or not, the way Khaw writes.

Khaw is generally strongest at character work; the plot of Bearly A Lady feels slightly like a series of anecdotes that she wanted to work into the novella, strung together a little haphazardly. The story goes from a to b adequately, but with a series of jump cuts and coincidental happenings that really frustrate. Many individual scenes are beautiful little moments that stand alone and crystalise all sorts of things out of the rest of the story; however, Bearly A Lady falls down on flowing between them. There’s a kind of disconnect that makes it feel like the novella was written as a series of stories, not a single narrative, and the joins aren’t quite smooth.

Finally, it would be a major omission not to discuss the humour that is a key component of Bearly A Lady. Khaw’s sense of humour is an incredibly important component in her work; the title onwards, this novella is no exception, and has a number of different forms of it. One of the most significant is the wry aside, such as her description of small talk as “the last bastion of the beleaguered British person”; these moments of cutting insight are delivered with a light tone that really works.

Bearly A Lady isn’t a perfect book, but it is one I heartily recommend, not just for its politics and the deft way Khaw works them in, but also for the absolutely brilliant characterisation and flashes of humour throughout the story.

Disclaimer: Both the author, Cassandra Khaw, and the publishers, the Book Smugglers, of this novella are friends of mine.

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Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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From author Lara Elena Donnelly, a debut spy thriller as a gay double-agent schemes to protect his smuggler lover during the rise of a fascist government coup

Trust no one with anything – especially in Amberlough City.

Covert agent Cyril DePaul thinks he’s good at keeping secrets, especially from Aristide Makricosta. They suit each other: Aristide turns a blind eye to Cyril’s clandestine affairs, and Cyril keeps his lover’s moonlighting job as a smuggler under wraps.

Cyril participates on a mission that leads to disastrous results, leaving smoke from various political fires smoldering throughout the city. Shielding Aristide from the expected fallout isn’t easy, though, for he refuses to let anything – not the crooked city police or the mounting rage from radical conservatives – dictate his life.

Enter streetwise Cordelia Lehane, a top dancer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret and Aristide’s runner, who could be the key to Cyril’s plans—if she can be trusted. As the twinkling lights of nightclub marquees yield to the rising flames of a fascist revolution, these three will struggle to survive using whatever means — and people — necessary. Including each other.

Combining the espionage thrills of le Carré with the allure of an alternate vintage era, Amberlough will thoroughly seduce and enthrall you.
~~~~~
Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough takes as its very obvious touchstone the musical Cabaret: the (ultimately resistible, if one would only try) rise of fascism as backdrop to a hedonistic foreground refusing to engage with politics. She goes a different direction in some regards, but how well does it work…?

Amberlough, from the start, runs three parallel plotlines. The first concerns Cyril DePaul, intelligence agent for the regionalist government of Amberlough turned, in the wake of being blown, into a double-agent for the nationalist, fascist One State Party (Ospies); his personal libertine lifestyle and his political acumen, as well as his abilities as an agent, all become both useful tools and liabilities across the course of his plot. The one problem with Donnelly’s portrayal of Cyril is that much as she tells us he used to be an excellent agent in the past, we never see any evidence of this in the present; no part of Cyril’s conduct in the novel gives us any hint of this excellent espionage that we’re told is part of his backstory.

The second major plotline is that of Aristide Makricosta, smuggler, libertine, drag queen and Cyril’s lover, at the start of Amberlough. He’s got an interesting plotline of his own, mostly revolving around dealing with the fallout of Cyril’s espionage work and the rise of the Ospies; we see a certain amount of ruthless illegal trade and dealing, and some excellent intelligence work, from Ari, and Donnelly really gives him a dark edge. He shines most brightly, though, on the stage and in the sections where he is dressing up, whether in drag or in civvies but designed to shine; Ari is a performer, and Amberlough gives him ample stages, large and small, intimate and personal or broad and general, and Donnelly relishes giving us his performances.

The third character through whose eyes we see this resistible, even if relatively unresisted, rise of fascism, is Cordelia Lehane, stripper at the same cabaret as Ari; indeed, their joint act, involving both dragging up, is the star of the show. Cordelia is an interesting character in Donnelly’s hands; through the course of Amberlough, she is by turns unfaithful lover, drug dealer, cabaret dancer, resistance runner, willing beard, and ends up… well, that would be spoiling things. Her character development is fascinating, as we see her realise how attached to certain people and places she really is, and as that affects her interactions with the world; Cordelia is where Donnelly really shows us what she can do in terms of taking a relatively simply character and then drawing them out to be so much more than that, and so much more interesting, in part by simply making clear to the readers her greater attachments.

The politics of writing a novel are often fraught, but one can only presume that was especially the case with Amberlough. This is very much a novel about the rise of fascism; all three characters’ plotlines are centred on the rise of the Ospies, whose very name is reminiscent of those fascists who cast their long shadow over all who came after, the Nazis. It’s unfortunate that much of the political machinations happen off-stage; Donnelly has a tendency to jump-cut past what one might regard as some of the more fascinating elements of the plot, tangles which the reader might enjoy moving through, rather than just seeing the consequences of. As it is, most of the political events happen off-stage, and inexplicably, and we see their consequences, instead of the events themselves; that’s not an entirely satisfactory way to write the book and ends up leaving Amberlough plot feeling a little empty and underbaked.

The setting deserves at least as much attention as the plot, since Donnelly clearly gave it at least as much lavishment. Amberlough is mainly set in the titular city, although it ranges outside that briefly to various places and refers to more; the city of Amberlough is a gloriously louche, corrupt, decadent place that really springs to life off the page, a kind of mash-up of Weimar Berlin with all the cliches of Prohibition-era Chicago, with an almost dieselpunk approach to technology. Brought to life by a mix of beautiful descriptions of the art deco and art nouveau architecture, the 1920s costuming, and the generous use of slang, Amberlough joins the ranks of settings which almost outshine the characters living in them, places like Peake’s Gormenghast or Tolkein’s Middle Earth; but rather than gothic or epic, the word that best describes Amberlough might be louche.

Amberlough is a very queer book; despite a relatively compact cast, of whom an even smaller number are actually depicted as queer, those characters are disproportionately on stage, and centred by the narrative. There are hints of more queerness around the edges of this plot – multiple-marriages and polyamory are part of the “old religion”, which the fascists oppose, and given the prominence of drag, hopefully there is more gender nonconformity to come in the auspices of the old religion in future books, necessary to tie up the fact that all three protagonists end their plots on very much cliffhangers.

Amberlough is, inevitably, not the perfect novel, if such a thing even exists; but Donnelly has produced a well-written and at times beautiful take on the themes of the rise of fascism and life under an oppressive government. The cliffhanger endings, and unresolved plots, will draw me into the sequel, but I’m hoping for slightly stronger plotting there.

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