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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.
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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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.
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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.
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