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Phantoms of the Midway by Seanan McGuire
McGuire’s Persephone retelling, centred on a fading American circus, is a beautiful and sweet story, that recasts its central couple as women, and Hades as not an abductor of Persephone but as the person willing to tell her the truth about herself. It’s a moving, emotional story, and one with a bite at the end; the way McGuire changes the nature of the six-month deal is absolutely brilliant, and impressively new. Talk about coming out of the gate strong!
The Justified by Ann Leckie
Leckie takes an Egyptian myth and makes it science fictional; there are traces of the same interests in power as she shows in the Raadch trilogy and in Raven Tower, but compressed, and reworked into the form of the myth, which she follows pretty faithfully – with her own twist, and a change of agency that turns the whole thing on its head in interesting ways.
Fisher-Bird by T. Kingfisher
Kingfisher’s aggressively Southern retelling of the Twelve Labours of Hercules is a fun fable, but the telling suffers from the strength of voice; the story works, and is very close to the standard Greek myths, but the Fisher-Bird is a frustrating narrator, and the story feels longer than it needs to be. If you’re a fan of this narrative mode, though, you’ll love it.
A Brief Lesson In Native American Astronomy by Rebecca Roanhorse
This is a sort of flipside to McGuire’s story, thematically; it’s about loss, and grief, and being driven to extremes by grief. It’s very well written, and the way Roanhorse extends contemporary Native concerns into the future is excellently done; the impacts of fame are well handled, and the love that makes the central character make the decisions he does is well portrayed and believably written.
Bridge of Crows by JY Yang
This is a beautifully told melancholic story; it feels similar to the videogame Journey, in its aesthetics, but its story is more revolutionary, and more pending, than that. The way Yang builds their narrative through a series of sacrifices and the results of those is expected, but the conclusion to the story is less neat than we might usually expect; instead, it is left open, in a very intentional and interesting narrative choice.
Labbatu Takes Command of the Flagship Heaven Dwells Within by Arkady Martine
If you’ve read A Memory Called Empire, you have some idea what to expect here; playing with history, narrative, and different forms, to give different perspectives on a singular set of events, reset into space, and without clear answers or truths in many cases. It’s a very effective display of Martine’s talents, and feels like there are many more stories in this world at its corners waiting to be told.
Wild To Covet by Sarah Gailey
Gailey’s rural resetting of the Thetis myth didn’t work as successfully as McGuire’s; while powerful, it felt like it moved a certain amount of intentionality onto Thetis, and a degree of cruelty towards her child, while also absolving the men around her of responsibility, in some key ways. The story is inevitably beautifully written and the end cruel and right, but as a whole it left a sour taste in my mouth.
¡Cuidado! ¡Que Viene El Coco! By Carlos Hernandez
Hernandez’ story feels a little sickly sweet; which is surprising, given the darkness of what it is dealing with. It’s well-accomplished, and the science fictional elements are small but well-presented in a way that is very effective, but at the same time, the end feels rather too neat and simple, and excessively wholesome, in a rather frustrating way. In a volume of children’s stories, it might have fit; here, it felt out of place.
He Fell Howling by Stephen Graham Jones
This was a rather uninteresting werewolf origin story; the twist at the end is mildly interesting and plays with the Lycaon myth, but fundamentally, it’s a horror story that isn’t particularly doing anything new in the genre it’s playing in. Well written but unoriginal.
Curses Like Words, Like Feathers, Like Stories by Kat Howard
Howard’s fascination with stories, and the power of stories, and stories as magic is one I share, and this story was, inevitably, one of my favourites in the volume; it’s a beautiful and simple story, that mixes its frame narrative with its internal narrative, and splits and moves across timelines while being completely clear. Howard’s control of the narrative strands is fantastic, and her ability to use few words to make you feel for a character is brilliant.
Across the River by Leah Cypress
Cypress’ story feels unusually melancholy for this collection; but appropriately so for much of Jewish folklore, of which this is a reworking of two different pieces. It’s well told, although at times a little pat, and the Jewishness of it is never something Cypress allows the reader to lose sight of; it’s very much engaged with a modern religious tradition, and working with that in clever ways.
Sisyphus in Elysium by Jeffrey Ford
Ford’s story is another weak one; while the ideas in it at times are strong, fundamentally it’s all about a man finding redemption and being rewarded with a woman, and it’s not a particularly interesting version of that trope. The moments when it seems to be working against that grain are undermined by other narrative choices Ford makes, leaving us with rather of an old-fashioned story, really.
Kali_Na by Indrapramit Das
Das’ story is a story about hope in a cyberpunk future, and about community and compassion; it’s a powerful and fascinating one, engaging with modern living faith and thinking about extensions of that faith into the future, and how it might look. It’s not actively predictive, but the predictive possibilities of it lend the character at its centre ever more depth; and her choices have weight and potency to them as we see ourselves reflected in them.
Live Stream by Alyssa Wong
Wong’s Actaeon retelling opts for one of the versions of the myth in which Artemis is revenging herself on a predator; it is also a parable about GamerGate and revenge porn and harassment mobs, sadly a fact of life for women on the internet as it currently is. It’s powerful, and dark, and pulls no punches in holding up a mirror to our culture and demanding we look ourselves in the eyes; brutally brilliant. It’s also hopeful, and a discussion of female agency and power and reclamation of both those things, and Wong makes that balance and shift with grace and skill.
Close Enough for Jazz by John Chu
Chu’s story is less a retelling of a myth than playing around the neglected corners of a mythology; but it’s a fascinating piece of play. The characters and world he build feel very real, and the dilemmas involved feel all too believable; there are points when reading this was a struggle, because the issues involved hit very close to home to me as a reader. It’s a simple little story, and one whose conceits fit together excellently with the characters playing in them.
Buried Deep by Naomi Novik
The Minotaur has been retold by any number of writers, perhaps most lastingly by Mary Renault; Novik’s crack at the myth feels rather half-formed, rather than full-fledged. The attempt to have it both ways with the Minotaur and Theseus both as heroic, positive figures feels forced, and the characters feel paper-thin.
The Things Eric Eats Before He Eats Himself by Carmen Maria Machado
Machado’s story is a brief one; it feels rather slight, and like Machado was more interested in some of the specific moments of imagery she includes than anything else, but given how powerful the final images are, perhaps she earns that a little!
Florilegia; Or, Some Lies About Flowers by Amal El-Mohtar
El-Mohtar is playing, again, with Bloduewedd; but this time, her engagement feels angrier, and more grown up. The story is told with a passion and frustration about the limitations placed on Bloduewedd, and the way she is treated; and the way El-Mohtar plays with and changes the story are powerful and beautiful, and her choice of narrative beats emphasise the importance of agency to her narrative.
The Mythic Dream
As an anthology, the variety of stories is incredible, and while there is a distinct tendency towards the Greek myths (nearly half the volume), it is actually the recentring of women and the centring of queerness into these stories that emerges as the strongest theme. Some don’t quite feel like they fit the volume, in some cases because they rub against that recentring; but the overall standard is excellent, the narrative flow of the stories as a whole and the order they’re in is brilliant, and the stand-out stories (McGuire, Martine, Howard, El-Mohtar) are truly spectacular. This is apparently the last collaborative anthology between Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, and they’re going out on a real high.
In these sixteen exquisite stories Kat Howard deftly weaves in and out of the countries of myth and hagiography to write the lives of women untold and unexplored.
A woman being written into her boyfriend’s fiction is at first flattered to be his muse, but then finds her real life literally consumed and overtaken by his. A desperate young woman makes a prayer to the Saint of Sidewalks, but the miracle she receives isn’t what she expected. A painter spies a naked man, crouched by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, transform into a beautiful white bird and decides to paint him, and becomes involved in his curse. Jeanne, a duelist and a sacred blade for God and Her holy saints, finds that the price of truth is always blood. And in the novella “Once, Future” Howard reimagines the Arthurian romance on a modern college campus as a story that is told, and told again, until the ending is right.
Mundane and magical, profane and reverent, romantic and uncompromising, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone journeys into the liminal spaces of contemporary fiction and unfurls them.
I first encountered Kat Howard’s fiction in her novella length collaboration with Maria Dahvana Headley, The End of the Sentence, and then again in her debut novel, Roses and Rot, a brilliant dark fairytale retelling. A Cathedral of Myth and Bone is the first time I’ve really engaged with her short fiction, with its arresting title, especially for an architecture and myth geek like myself.
A Cathedral of Myth and Bone takes sixteen of Howard’s stories from the last decade (the oldest, and the first in the collection, is from 2010; the most recent is original to the 2019 collection), and allows the reader to luxuriate in her thematic and aesthetic approach. That approach comes wearing purple crushed velvet and listening to The Sisters of Mercy, Paradise Lost, and at its lighter moments, perhaps Evanescence; this is one of the most beautifully goth collections of stories I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.
The stories are melancholic, and even formally tragic, without ever defaulting into cliches of how that should look; nothing in A Cathedral of Myth and Bone comes without cost, without payment, and nothing comes easy, but equally, nor is anything worthless, or without consequentiality. These stories reframe their narratives, often repeatedly; ‘Once, Future’, the original novella-length piece in the collection, most obviously engages with the idea of retellings and myth-patterns in its engagement with Arthuriana, but there is a theme of creating one’s own story and seizing control of the narrative running through the entire collection.
One stand out piece in this regard is the one that closes the book, ‘Breaking the Frame’; in it, Howard tells the story of how a woman goes from passive muse to active changer of the art to creator herself. In so doing, she changes the narratives the art also depicts. The layering of the story is typical of Howard’s work; the surface, simple read is true, but misleadingly simple, as depths reveal themselves with more consideration. Technically, the story also shows off Howard’s skill at creating verbal portraits; ‘Breaking the Frame’ rests on a series of photographs, and Howard’s brief descriptions of each are precise and powerful vignettes that really convey the imagery.
A very different story using a similar technique of narrative interspersed by something else is ‘The Calendar of Saints’, Howard’s homage to Ellen Kushner’s Riverside. It is simultaneously very familiar, in that regard – the sense of faded grandeur, the honour at the point of the blade, the ritual – and very different; a much more religious world, and the whole story centres on faith in an alternate Catholic Church whose nature and differences are slowly revealed as the story moves. The ending is tragic, unexpected, and beautiful, a signature Kat Howard ending judging by this collection.
It is hard not to talk about every story in the collection, but I would be remiss if I did not return to ‘Once, Future’, since it (length-wise, at least) dominates the volume. In it, a modern class on Arthuriana decide to test the narrative inevitability of the story, and it turns out to be a lot stronger than anyone (or almost anyone…) had anticipated; Howard’s take on the Arthurian myth, and modern engagements with it, is brilliant, and her characters’ approaches to the events of the various parts of the corpus (such as the Green Knight) are well thought out and intelligent, while still letting the essential course of the story shine through, and the tragedy of Arthur slowly unfold while also fighting against it.
What may not have become obvious so far is the centrality of women to A Cathedral of Myth and Bone. In all the stories, women are central; every story is about a woman, with the exception of ‘The Speaking Bone’, which is about a place, and even still the only solid characters are women, and ‘Painted Birds and Shivered Bones’, about a man and a woman. Howard’s women are not the simple maidens of much genre fiction; they are abused women, they are angry women, they are women with agendas and minds of their own, and in every case, they want control of their own stories, whatever that takes. The opening story, ‘A Life in Fictions’, is the weakest in this regard – the ending feels a little like a failure to really take agency back, especially in light of later approaches to similar dilemmas – but the women of the collection are universally intelligent and dedicated, in their different ways, and very different to each other.
If a collection can be said to reveal the author, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone reveals Kat Howard as a mythographer, as a woman demanding the right to her own agency and to control her own fate, as a goth… and above all, as a bloody brilliant writer.
In the court of the King, everyone knows their place. But as the Artist wins hearts and egos with his ballads, uncomfortable truths emerge that shake the Kingdom to its core. Part surreal fable and part crime romance, this prize-winning novel from Yuri Herrera questions the price of keeping your integrity in a world ruled by patronage and power.
Kingdom Cons is Yuri Herrera’s third novella with And Other Stories, and his third in the peculiarly Mexican genre known as narcoliterature; whereas Transmigration of Bodies is a postapocalyptic plague-ridden story, and Signs Preceding the End of the World a more traditional people-smuggling story, Kingdom Cons is a story itself about narcoliterature, and taking the form of a more mythic story, with Arthurian resonances.
Kingdom Cons doesn’t have characters, it has roles; it has members of the Court of the King(pin). The only character whose name we ever learn, the Artist, Lobo, is our viewpoint character, and we only see his name before he’s drawn into the orbit of the King; after that, he becomes the Artist, to join the Jeweller, the King, the Traitor, the Gringo, the Journalist, and so on. Each person has a kind of nebulous property; they are defined by their role, but also exist beyond it to some extent, such that the Artist especially has both a life revolving around the King, and a life in defiance of that life. Indeed, Herrera recalls Arthurian legend with the role of the Artist especially, as he echoes Lancelot, right through to the end of the novella’s story.
If the characters aren’t exactly fleshed out, and defined largely by their roles, those roles are incredibly vivid. Kingdom Cons doesn’t go into a detailed discussion of the King’s cross-border drugs empire, but it does give a vague picture of the kind of grime of that criminal enterprise, of the compromises made with other criminals, of the complicity of the authorities on both sides of the border, of the way that it impacts the lives of those in the orbit of the King and manipulates their lives into strange, near-mythic things utterly unlike those on the outside. Herrera doesn’t glamourise this life, but doesn’t pretend it doesn’t have upsides either; it’s an interesting balance to strike, and one done with great skill.
A theme throughout the novel, largely drawn from Herrera’s focus on the Artist as protagonist, is about the way stories about the drugs trade mythologise it. Kingdom Cons is a story about narcoliterature as well as being a piece of narcoliterature; the importance of face, the importance of image, are central to the story, and Herrera is very aware of what stories can do, in terms of giving or stealing away power from someone. The way Kingdom Cons engages with those questions, and the concommitant responsibilities or lack thereof, of artists is a fascinating discussion that is held by playing out different options for the Artist, and by following through the various possible consequences of different kinds of choice.
If Kingdom Cons has a drawback, it’s the treatment of women. In part influenced by the macho culture of Mexico, women are valued only for their sex appeal; every woman we meet, with the exception of the Witch, is a sexual partner or a potential sexual partner, and they are judged by their worth as such. Herrera doesn’t really give any of them any characterisation; he comes closest with the Commoner, but even she barely has a character or motivation, and her actions with regards to the Artist seem peculiarly undirected and motiveless.
It’s impossible to discuss Kingdom Cons without discussing the language. Between Herrera and Dillman, this is a really interesting novel; the whole thing is told in one breath, essentially, with a couple of seeming asides which move outside the immediate orbit of the Artist into a wider view or a more purely philosophical approach, and these are beautifully rendered in prose that Dillman translates with a crystal clarity. Similarly, Dillman translates the poetry and lyrics of Herrera’s novella into English with a deft hand, and presumably retains their original feel; even when Herrera is using onomatopoeia or phonetic renderings of words, Dillman conveys both their meaning and that they are translated rather than the direct words, an incredible balancing act.
Kingdom Cons may be a slim volume, but it’s a fascinating, thoughtful one. Be prepared to fall into Herrera’s myth and not fall out.
Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received from the publisher, And Other Stories.
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.
By day, Rupert Wong – former triad soldier and sorcerer turned chef – prepares delicious meals from human meat for a dynasty of powerful ghouls in Kuala Lumpur; by night, he’s a seneschal and arbitrator for the Ten Chinese Hells. It’s a living, if not much of one.
When Ao Qin – Dragon of the South, god of the seas – smashes in Rupert’s window and demands he investigate his daughter and her mortal husband’s murders, his peaceful (if not particularly comfortable) life comes to an end.
Caught up in a war between pantheons, shipped around the world, going toe-to-toe with Elder Gods From Outside Space And Time, and always taking the time to read the fine print, Rupert’s going to need all his wits and a lot of luck to survive.
Abaddon Books has a number of shared universes with multiple writers dabbling in their continuities, much like the Marvel and DC stables; one of their more recent worlds is Gods and Monsters, pioneered by horror writer Chuck Wendig. It’s therefore appropriate that Cassandra Khaw has also joined this universe, with Food of the Gods. Food of the Gods was originally e-published as two novellas, one the sequel of the other; this collected edition brings the two together.
Each follows the adventures of Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef; although Khaw may be misusing this moniker, since while Rupert butchers, prepares, and cooks human flesh for various entities, he himself does not seem to partake, with possible exceptions of tasting what he is himself cooking. Food of the Gods has a broad palate, taking in Malaysian cuisine, British staples, Western failures to cook South-East Asian food, Greek delicacies and more; one of Khaw’s great strengths is in her ability to write these foods with a deft touch that really makes the mouth water and nostrils twitch, even when the chief ingredient is homo sapiens. That’s of a piece with Khaw’s generally sense-centred writing; things have scents, sounds, feels, even tastes, as much as they’re seen, really invoking a kind of vividness through the writing that wholly engages the reader.
The voice of the book is also engaging; we’re told the story by Rupert Wong himself in the first person, and Food of the Gods does not stint on asides to the reader, on Malay and slang (the reader is addressed as ang moh throughout – or “white person”), and on the humour; Khaw often undercuts the most tense moments with Rupert’s ill-timed jokes. This combination can take a little while to get into, but rapidly it becomes a very individual narrative voice that demands the reader’s sympathy for Rupert and one’s concern for his future. Khaw also manages to make each of her secondary characters sound individual, a risky business with such a strong narrative voice; but each is distinct and unique, and strange in their own, divine ways, without falling back into cliche or simple cultural stereotypes or expectations.
The mixture of places, pantheons and gods on display in the book makes that even more impressive; Food of the Gods utilises Malaysiana folklore and traditional religion, Greek and Slavic gods, invented beings from the fiction of the 20th century, and even gods conjured less from specific beliefs than generalised prayers. This melange of different ideas of and approaches to divinity is fascinating and reminiscent of Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods and Hogfather (the Oh God of Hangovers, for instance), but Khaw takes it in a different, stranger, and altogether darker direction than simply a discussion of faith and reality; there’s more of an interest in what faith is, and she engages with that quite fascinatingly.
The plot of Food of the Gods is, then, perhaps the weakest link. The first half of the book feels a little contrived and not sure what it wants to be; originally published as Rupert Wong: Cannibal Chef, it does an excellent job of introducing us to the character and the world he inhabits, but the combination of murder mystery and high stakes politics doesn’t really hang together, and the plot doesn’t seem quite sure of its scale. The second half, Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth, hangs together more by virtue of being told it does than anything else; an awful lot of it feels like filler, fleshing out the world or the pantheon but not actually advancing the plot or events. That they’re also very obviously two novellas perhaps suggests Abaddon should have published this as two slimmer volumes, rather than one seemingly-single story.
In the end, though, Food of the Gods isn’t there for its plot, it’s there for its voice, and Rupert Wong is an incredible invention with a very distinctive and fascinating voice; I want to know where Khaw plans to take him next!
Disclaimer: This review was based on a final copy sent by the publisher, Rebellion Books.
If you found this review helpful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.
Imagine a world filled with fierce, fiery beings, hiding in our shadows, in our dreams, under our skins. Eavesdropping and exploring; savaging our bodies, saving our souls. They are monsters, saviours, victims, childhood friends.
Some have called them genies: these are the Djinn. And they are everywhere. On street corners, behind the wheel of a taxi, in the chorus, between the pages of books. Every language has a word for them. Every culture knows their traditions. Every religion, every history has them hiding in their dark places. There is no part of the world that does not know them.
They are the Djinn. They are among us.
The Djinn Falls In Love is one of those anthologies one hears of long before it ever comes out; containing a mixture of luminaries of the field (Nnedi Okorafor, Neil Gaiman, Amal El-Mohtar) and rising stars, including people whose profile in the Anglosphere isn’t high yet, it crosses a mixture of different approaches to a singular subject matter – although I slightly miss the original title, Djinnthology. But how does this set of stories, themed around the inherently mercurial subject matter of the djinn, come together?
As a whole, the anthology has an interesting shape; opening with the titular poem by Hermes, it balances in the middle with a prose-poem by Amal El-Mohtar, which seems to also be the point after which it shifts from the more mythic stories to the more traditionally Western speculative fiction model. The first half of The Djinn Falls In Love isn’t exclusively the more poetic approach to stories, but it’s certainly a theme there in a way it isn’t in the second half; thus Kamila Shamsie’s beautiful, sad tale, ‘The Congregation’, shares space with the very 1,001 Nights-reminiscent ‘Majnun’ by Helene Wecker, another tale of tragic love with a very different narrative trajectory; both are about identity and what one has to sacrifice for one’s own independent identity, and both are beautifully shaped around a kind of emotional core of personal singularity. J.Y. Yang’s ‘Glass Lights’, on the other hand, is almost more defined by an absence of self; it’s a very beautiful, quiet, subtle kind of tragedy, of selflessness and personal obliteration, amazingly simple and subtle and powerful. The bookend story to this half of the collection, on the other hand, is the triumphant ‘A Tale Of Ash In Seven Birds’ by Amal El-Mohtar, a prose-poem in seven segments, a kind of building beauty and power, with shifting voice and amazingly beautiful writing. It is a stunningly self-contained piece of absolute rising beauty.
Not everything in this first half connects, though. The Djinn Falls In Love includes some mythological stories which feel a little obvious; Claire North’s ‘Hurren and the Djinn’, with its explicit connection to the 1,001 Nights, tells the reader its obvious and inevitable ending way before it manages to actually reach that point. Maria Dahvana Headley’s ‘Black Powder’, on the other hand, just feels like it would work better in the second half of the book… after a substantial rewrite; it tends towards women as objects of violence, not subjects, and feels overextended and somehow consistently fails to connect emotionally across its length.
The second half of the anthology is stories that are much more traditionally in the Western speculative fiction mode, and much less mythological in feeling, on the whole; the exception is Nnedi Okorafor’s beautiful closer, ‘History’, which straddles the line between the two modes fantastically and is a really beautiful little tale of unexpected consequences and of power and choices. Similarly, Catherine Faris King’s ‘Queen of Sheba’ is a brilliant slipstream story, which reminded me of Daniel José Older’s Bone Street Rhumba, where magic appears around the lived experiences of people in marginalised communities, and comes from those communities. Taking a very different approach, Saad Z. Hossain’s ‘Bring Your Own Spoon’ developes from a fun, seemingly quite whimsical story to a very profound piece of writing about living on the edge of the acceptable and respectable, and of community; it’s a powerful story that really does take its whimsy seriously. ‘Reap’ by Sami Shah, on the other hand, starts grimly serious and stays that way; told from the point of view of the team flying a drone over Pakistan, it really drives home the strange way wars are fought by industrialised nations, so divorced from the reality of the people they effect.
Two stories in this section fail in a very similar way; both James Smythe’s ‘The Sand in the Glass is Right’ and Kirsty Logan’s ‘Spite House’ felt like they really needed to establish a much stronger emotional connection with the reader to work. Both are stories about unintended consequences and misdirected wishes, and both feel a little padded, as if they really could have been trimmed and made a clearer, more powerful version of themselves; this is especially surprising in Logan’s case, given some of her beautiful past work that would stand alongside much of the first half of this volume. K. J. Parker’s story, ‘Message in a Bottle’, meanwhile, feels rather like anyone who has read a few Parker stories has read it before; it follows what is now a familiar pattern and model from him, without really deviating in any interesting directions. It’s undeniably well done, but feels a little divorced from the rest of this collection.
Finally, ‘Duende 2077’ by Jamal Mahjoub is the story in The Djinn Falls In Love that really fell apart for me. Set in a near-future world ruled by an Islamic Caliphate, with a Londonistan, regular beheadings of criminals, and a corrupt, hypocritical elite who indulge in haram pleasures they deny others, it felt like a fantasy ripped from a Daily Mail headline; in a longer, more developed work, that might work, but as it is, it feels like the setting is a bunch of Islamophobic tropes slammed together. That’s a shame, because the noirish political thriller plot deserved a lot better.
The Djinn Falls In Love isn’t a perfect anthology; it’s got, like all anthologies, its hits and its misses. But Shurin and Murad have assembled here a really strong collection of stories, and the standouts really are outstanding – this anthology is worth the price of admission for El-Mohtar, Okorafor, Shamsie, Wecker and Yang alone!
DISCLOSURE: This review is based on a copy received for review from the publisher, Solaris, at work. I am friends with Amal El-Mohtar and J.Y. Yang, who each have a story in the anthology, as aforementioned.
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.
The phenomenon of colony-collapse disorder, the sudden mass disappearance of bees, has become so widespread that much of the world although not, as yet, Finland is facing agricultural and ecological disaster.
Amateur beekeeper Orvo, devastated by the recent death of his eco-warrior son, finds two of his hives deserted and begins to fear that the epidemic has reached Scandinavia. Then, in the attic of the old barn, he makes a mystical and frightening discovery: a pathway to a parallel world. Is it a hallucination stimulated by sorrow and loss or is it something very real and connected with the bees disappearance? His research teaches him that in practically every culture bees are viewed as half-supernatural messengers that can travel between worlds and are associated with resurrection and the afterlife. He begins to wonder if this portal could reunite him with his dead son and whether he can himself escape the ecological meltdown of this world.
The Blood of Angels reworks the Orpheus myth while analysing modern man’s need to deny his mortality and raise himself above the rest of nature, to compare himself to the angels but at what price?
Sinisalo’s writing, and her approach to nature, have been remarked upon as precursors to the approach to the weird taken by Jeff VanderMeer in Area X; having read this novel, that seems to do both a disservice, as they are doing profoundly different things with the environment, but there is no doubt that Blood of Angels has some of the same concerns as Area X, and some of the same presentations.
The similarity is in the understanding of the numinous in nature; Blood of Angels has a reverence and respect for nature throughout its pages, especially bees. It consistently mystifies and weirds nature, makes it strange, barely relatable to humanity; Sinisalo highlights the differences between how we live and nature, how we divorce ourselves from nature, and especially death. It’s a fascinating take on the kind of weird written by Algernon Blackwood, but whereas his sympathy was with man, making nature horrific, Sinisalo makes man horrific, alienates us from ourselves and civilisation, and making nature numinous but also truer, somehow.
It’s intensified by the animal rights theme that comes up in excerpts from the blog of animal rights activist Eero, son of our protagonist Orvo, which emphasises both the similarities and differences between humans and animals, arguing for equal rights from the position of similar-but-different approaches to man and beast. Blood of Angels uses the blog excellently; Sinisalo not only has entries, but comments, and entries coming off comments to previous entries, making it feel like a truly organic blog, the sort of political blog that has sprung up on the internet, with the kind of brashness and rudeness from both blogger and commenters that we have become inured to. It has an interested effect in a novel, shocking the reader with the violence of internet rhetoric, as if a novel should be a more genteel place, as if that vitriol should not infiltrate its pages; but the more traditional chapters of Blood of Angels can also contain that same vitriol and yet it feels totally normal, an interesting comparison.
Sinisalo’s work should not just be analysed on a political level, however, but also on its merits as a novel. Blood of Angels manages one of the most impressive feats I have seen in a novel, that of making a fully fleshed-out character who only appears in the occasional, brief comment on a blog; this is how Tirsu, especially, is manifested, a very real presence in the novel even while never actually appearing in person, and having so few lines dedicated to them. Pupa is similarly clearly portrayed, appearing only in Orvo’s memories, and Ari, who appears only briefly in the whole novel, is very clearly characterised as the money-hungry grubby businessman who will sacrifice anything for profit. It’s an interesting cast in that regard; characters fall on one side or the other of the ethics/profit line, with Orvo straddling it in his roles as undertaker and beekeper. Sinisalo keeps the balance excellently, and through character interactions Blood of Angels challenges orthodoxies on both sides, a difficult trick; yet Sinisalo keeps it meaningful and orthodoxies reveal as much about characters as they do about politics.
The blurb describes this as an Orphic retelling, and spoils a central aspect of the plot that Sinisalo semi-conceals for much of the novel, the death of Eero; Blood of Angels has one particularly Orphic passage, but otherwise is about the process of grieving, of the painful emotional coming to terms with death, and of how this can fail. Rather than being about an attempt to retrieve one’s love for oneself, the loss is concealed for much of the novel, there but not known, some strange cloud hanging over Orvo; when revealed it changes everything that has gone before, and Sinisalo’s concealment makes an awful lot of sense and proves a very interesting piece of character-work.
Blood of Angels is truly a stunning novel of nature, and a strange and numinous work; Johanna Sinisalo has produced a wonderful text here, that I’ll readily recommend.
Benjanun Sridungkaew will likely have come to most people’s attention over the last 18 months for her prolific, wonderful, non-Western-centric short fiction that has taken in virtually every subgenre there is; she has been published on Tor.com, Giganotosaurus, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, reprinted in various year’s bests – hell, just go and check out her bibliography; and this year she was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award. She’s finally graced the world with her first novella-length work, which I loved; so here is Benjanun Sridungkaew, on Scale-Bright!
When I came across this lovely art of Bai Suzhen and Xiaoqing – the white and green snake, respectively – I had a giggle when I read the description: like me, the artist thought ‘the guy the White Snake married’ (Xu Xian, though I often have trouble remembering his name, I think we all do) was… not perhaps the most exemplary hero. In the original legend, he comes across as gullible, weak-minded, and a little boring, being prone to fainting and being deceived. He is, to be charitable, not particularly worthy of Bai Suzhen (one wonders: what is he worthy of? Hm).
Which is to say, I could have told the story of the White Snake finding the reincarnation of her husband in modern Hong Kong – that would be how some writers might have done it – but, really, why would I? It doesn’t seem like much of a story, and if he failed her so badly back then it doesn’t seem likely he will be much more sensible a few reincarnations later. I would have been bored trying to whip that material into something that’d excite and interest me. Maybe she could look for her son, who would presumably have been born half-demon? That has a bit more promise, but it’s still not quite right. It’s lacking something. Fun. Excitement. When I write, I want the story to excite me first.
But I really liked the White Snake legend. What was one to do?
By that point I had already written the stories collected in The Archer Who Shot Down Suns, centered around the archer Houyi and her wife Chang’e. And I wanted to do more with those characters – and so tying them all into the same thing emerged as the likeliest choice. I would get to continue the thread I built up through those three short stories, and play with another favorite myth at once – and I really like efficiency! The best part is that I didn’t have to change anything about the original – with Houyi I made a particular, significant deviation from the source material, but here I built on what is already there. The legend of the White Snake already centers on two women bound as sworn sisters, who do all the things – having adventures, fighting, knowing what they want and going for it against all odds.
What I am taking a long, long way about to saying is that I think it matters what stories we choose to tell, the direction of narrative we take. Ana Grilo, reviewing Scale-Bright, says that the mythical story threads are ‘important in their reshaping the imagining of the world from a very feminine point of view’ – and I was so delighted to see that, it’s definitely one of the objectives I set out to accomplish. Yes, I could have woven the story around Bai Suzhen searching for her son, her husband, or both; another writer might even have made a reincarnation of Xu Xian or her son the lead of the book – or kept Houyi’s gender from the legends, brought ‘him’ into modern Hong Kong as a wuxia hero in leather jackets. Those could have been good stories, I imagine, but they are not the ones I chose. I’m faithful to old legends that I love, but I don’t think we should be totally shackled to them. Storytellers get to modify, leave out, expand.
In my book, Houyi is a woman. She has a wife and wears dapper, and loosely follows an internal code similar to that of wuxia heroes. Chang’e is not a frivolous ditz (as some of the variants portray her); she is an equal partner to her wife, as capable as Houyi and striving as hard to be an aunt to their niece Julienne. Xiaoqing is notorious for having seduced peasant girls in ancient China, and the demon’s realm is populated by beings who are unfettered in romance. The various story threads in the novella are held together by a depressed young woman, who gets to have adventures and find herself worthy of herself.
These narrative choices don’t come out of nowhere. Whom we choose to center is as important as whom (or what) we leave out. We make the choices of whether face-punching occurs in the stories we tell, or whether the shoes we make are comfortable for everyone to wear and don’t flood the waters with weird, awful chemicals. And personally, I feel much more comfortable not going around punching people in the face or pumping toxic waste into the waters. Hooray for nice, clean waters!