Intellectus Speculativus

Home » Posts tagged 'novella'

Tag Archives: novella

The Fisher of Bones by Sarah Gailey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones by Torrey Peters

bb83d98f-caba-4db0-95c5-caf5ebef1bb6
In the future, everyone will be trans.

So says Lexi. She’s a charismatic trans woman furious with the way she sees her trans friends treated by society and resentful of the girl who spurned her love. Now, Lexi has a plan to wreak her vengeance: a future in which no one can produce hormones and everyone must make the same choice that she made—what body best fits your gender?
~~~~~
I first heard about Infect Your Friends And Loved Ones through Helen McClory’s Unsung Letter, specifically Letter 37 by Anya Johanna DeNiro; a novella about trans lives, literalising the transphobic myth of trans as contagion, by a trans woman? I’ll be reading that!

Peters’ novella is a slim volume, barely over 60 pages long; but Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones packs a lot into that space. It’s a story about trans life now, and the trans community; about the toxicity of masculinity, and the cisheteropatriarchy; about the way trans people are treated by society, and the way trans women are fetishised, othered, and attacked. The narrative jumps back and forth around time; so we see trans women in the modern world, marginalised and mistreated by cis men who claim to love them, and in the post-contagion future, where everyone has to choose gender, but trans people are the scapegoats for the problem, blamed (albeit accurately) for its existence.

Peters’ narrative strength rests on its characters. There are two whose interactions colour every part of the narrative; Lexi, and the unnamed narrator, a former friend and lover of Lexi. Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones makes Lexi both charismatic and unlikeable; her passion and dysfunction are incredibly powerful and draw the reader to her strongly, while her willingness to lash out and hurt those around her, and her manipulative nature repels the reader at the same time. This is also true of the self-centred trans woman whose voice the whole story is told in; less charismatic, and more obviously self-centred, she is a frustrating guide to events, with her sense of self-worth so obviously contingent on the approval of those around her. Both characters are incredibly believable and sympathetic, and their growth over the course of the narrative is effective and well written; Peters understands the way people change and develop and puts that in here very effectively.

The worldbuilding is quite slim; Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones has some vague sketches about the impact of everyone having to take hormones all the time, and of government supplying hormones to everyone, although it doesn’t really get into that, beyond looking at the black market supply of hormones to cis people (something that is a reality for many trans people in the present day). Peters isn’t really interested in the effects of the contagion on cis people, or for that matter on intersex people (which, given the premise of the novella, is a rather problematic piece of erasure); she’s really only interested in the effect on trans women.

That erasure of intersex people is symptomatic; Infect Your Friends and Lovers has two types of characters in: cis men, and trans women. No other kind of character gets a look in; cis women are mentioned at most in passing, in relation to husbands or boyfriends, and intersex, nonbinary or trans male people simply don’t exist in the narrative. Peters isn’t interested in their stories, and seems to be saying that solidarity is for trans women; that trans women’s communities are all, and only, about supporting people who identify as women. This doesn’t reflect the trans community I know, nor one I would wish to believe in.

In the end, Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones is an interesting novella, and the emphasis it places on a sense of community is hugely important; but Peters’ erasure of trans people who don’t identify as women is a severe dampener on this whole work.

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

Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

9780765395092
Walking through his own house at night, a fifteen-year-old thinks he sees another person stepping through a doorway. Instead of the people who could be there, his mother or his brother, the figure reminds him of his long-gone father, who died mysteriously before his family left the reservation. When he follows it he discovers his house is bigger and deeper than he knew.

The house is the kind of wrong place where you can lose yourself and find things you’d rather not have. Over the course of a few nights, the boy tries to map out his house in an effort that puts his little brother in the worst danger, and puts him in the position to save them . . . at terrible cost.
~~~~~
It’s after Halloween, but still time for one last good chilling read…

Stephen Graham Jones’ Mapping the Interior is an odd little novella, about culture, about family, about love, and about the lengths one will go to for those we care about. Jones’ story is about a family of Native Americans who left the reservation after the death of the father of the household, moving to a poverty-stricken exurb; their physical environment is as much a source of horror as the supernatural elements that appear in the story.

Jones brings this environment into the stark foreground incredibly powerfully; Mapping the Interior is as much concerned with mapping the prefab house the family lives in, in all its different parts, as anything more interior to the family, and indeed, the unfolding mapping of the house plays a major role in the unfolding strangeness and horror of the plot. Jones describes the house in detail, through the eyes of a child; it’s a very effective approach, as we build a complete picture up only in snapshots, and somewhat impressionistic ones, as much emotional as physical.

The main horror of Mapping the Interior is built up slowly; Jones starts the novella off looking like one kind of ghost story, and then turns around and writes a rather different, darker, more horrifying kind. The way this is achieved is through the dawning realisation of a child of the reality of his dead father’s return; at first, he thinks of it as a blessing, his father come back to him, but the cost of this return becomes increasingly clear as the novella goes on, even as the benefits are shown. It’s a dark story, and Jones doesn’t shy away from its darkest elements; the gut physicality of violence is painfully clear, as is the familiarity with it of our twelve year old protagonist and narrator, Junior.

There are also banal horrors around; Jones doesn’t overlook the effects of racism, or of ableism directed at a developmentally delayed child, Dino, on a Native American family. Indeed, one of the biggest horrors of Mapping the Interior comes from a violent pack of dogs kept by one of the neighbours, who seem more like coyotes than domestic canines; their desire to eat the children of the family is powerful and brutal, and Jones really brings the fear of them home, with a visceral reality. These horrors are the backdrop to the supernatural horrors, and indeed almost an alternative to them; they make the supernatural seem more benevolent at the start, before its true nature becomes clear.

This isn’t a perfect novella; Mapping the Interior has a tendency to treat developmental delay as a comic relief motif or as the effect of supernatural agency, although Jones is fundamentally writing about Dino with sympathy. Some of the key plot points turn on his unspecified condition, and the way it is treated is at times deeply frustrating. Furthermore, Jones’ tendency to cut away at key moments, for various somewhat contrived reasons, cuts the tension a bit, and makes the novella more convoluted than it has to be.

In the end, though, despite these problems, Mapping the Interior is a powerful, dark, and moving novella, with a real chill at its heart.

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

patreon.png

You Should Have Left. by Daniel Kehlmann, trans Ross Benjamin

isbn9781786484048
On retreat in the wintry Alps with his family, a writer is optimistic about completing the sequel to his breakthrough film. Nothing to disturb him except the wind whispering around their glassy house. The perfect place to focus.

Intruding on that peace of mind, the demands of his four-year-old daughter splinter open long-simmering arguments with his wife. I love her, he writes in the notebook intended for his script. Why do we fight all the time?

Guilt and expectation strain at his concentration, and strain, too, at the walls of the house. They warp under his watch; at night, looking through the window, he sees impossible reflections on the snow outside.

Then the words start to appear in his notebook; the words he didn’t write.

Familiar and forbidding by turns, this is an electrifying experiment in form by one of Europe’s boldest writers. The ordinary struggles of a marriage transform, in Kehlmann’s hands, into a twisted fable that stays darkly in the mind.
~~~~~
Literary turns at horror are an interesting beast; some people, like Michelle Paver, get it absolutely right, whereas others end up writing subpar horror and subpar literature at the same time. So with the imprimatur of authors like Jonathan Franzen behind it, and a brilliantly simple cover, I was curious to see what the German novella You Should Have Left. would be like…

At the start of the book, Kahlmann proceeds as if this were just ordinary literary fiction; a blocked screenwriter and his former actress wife take their four year old daughter to a lodge in the mountains to retreat from the distractions of life while he writes a new screenplay. The book itself is the notes, a mixture of diary and screenplay, the nameless husband is making. The domestic tensions are all there, from the disinterest of the wife and the little squabbles between the spouses to the frustration of trying to care for a child; You Should Have Left starts in a very mundane way, leavened more than anything else by the snatches of screenplay we see, which look like a fascinating what-next romcom sequel about growing up and domestic dissatisfaction.

However, Kahlmann slowly builds up the weirder elements; from the odd warnings villagers the nameless narrator encounters, to the dreamlike nightmares and visions of the narrator, You Should Have Left leaves the realm of the mimetic and enters a slightly sidewards realm, with the cliches of horror the signposts to what is to come. What raises the book above those cliches at this stage is the way the writing breaks up, at moments; things like “Get away” are interspersed in ordinary narrative, and the writer of the book keeps breaking off the narrative only to return and explain the odd event that caused him to stop writing mid-sentence. It’s very artistically done, and does create a kind of mingling of reality and unreality; none of the events at this stage are necessarily external to the narrator’s own mind, after all.

When it ramps up the horror is when Kahlmann is perhaps weakest, although also most innovative. You Should Have Left bends and plays with reality, and the way the characters are trapped in the rented lodge is dark and powerful; however, the constant seeking for a cosmic metaphor, or one based in quantum physics, for the entrapment feels forced and unnatural from the narrator. Furthermore, Kahlmann can’t quite seem to decide if the ennui of the fear or actual terror at the impossibilities going on are the emotion he wants to convey and make readers feel; at times it seems almost like he thinks one leads to the other, and thus neither really lands.

You Should Have Left. is an interesting little book, and a good approach to melding literary and horror fictions, but in the end, Kahlmann is far better at the literary than the horror, and leans too much on the latter for the former to really shine.

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

patreon.png

A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M. Harris

isbn9781473222182
I am as brown as brown can be,
And my eyes as black as sloe;
I am as brisk as brisk can be,
And wild as forest doe.
(The Child Ballads, 295)

So begins a beautiful tale of love, loss and revenge. Following the seasons, A Pocketful of Crows balances youth and age, wisdom and passion and draws on nature and folklore to weave a stunning modern mythology around a nameless wild girl.

Only love could draw her into the world of named, tamed things. And it seems only revenge will be powerful enough to let her escape.
~~~~~
Folklore and mythology have always been fertile ground for genre fiction; Joanne Harris herself, with an added Iain Banks-style M., has previously touched on the Norse sagas in novels like Runelight and The Gospel of Loki. Now, though, she’s turned her sights to a mythology far more rarely treated in fiction: that of the Child Ballads, in this case, specifically Child Ballad 295…

Harris’ novella retelling the story of that Ballad is focused, as is the ballad itself, on the wronged woman at its heart; the “brown girl” of the title. In A Pocketful of Crows, Harris makes this titular woman a witch, a member of the “travelling folk” who can take on the form of animals and do certain magic. She falls in love with a local lord’s son, William McCormac. This fall is precipitous and extreme; Harris writes sympathetically and with a lot of heart about the way our protagonist slowly realises how deep her attachment to William is, and the way her denial of it slowly falls away, over the course of a series of months; and the way he slowly accepts her and draws her in, tempting her into the human society he is a part of and naming her Malmuira. As a result of this, she loses her powers, and Harris writes about the trade off of magic for love with a real beauty; it’s heart-wrenching but worthwhile for the protagonist, even as she regrets the loss.

Of course, this can’t continue; A Pocketful of Crows isn’t a romance, after all. Instead, William casts aside Malmuira on the orders of his father, as an unsuitable partner; at which point Harris’ narrative takes on a colder, crueler turn, as she seeks to regain her old powers and freedoms. This takes up the latter two thirds of the book, as the woman who was nameless then named Malmuira frees herself from the tangle of human concerns involved in loving William; it’s a dark series of events, and Harris revels in that darkness, really giving it weight and heft. However, A Pocketful of Crows doesn’t just delve into the darkness; it contrasts that with the way its protagonist finds her freedom through this darkness, and how she returns to herself rather than the person tangled up with William. The way Harris ties these two narratives strands together, and then slips a third brilliant twist in right at the close of the novella, is absolutely brilliantly crafted.

This section, the latter two thirds of the novella, contains both the most beautiful writing in A Pocketful of Crows, and also some of the least effective. The darkness and frustration of the protagonist is powerfully evocative, and the way Harris calls the passing seasons and changing world to mind brilliantly and with a real sensorium. However, it can also drags a little; scenes feel repetitive as nothing happens or changes, and as we experience slight variations on the same events time and again, losing some of the edge of the book.

Throughout the story is a theme of identity as mediated not by the individual, but by the way the individual is perceived; as Malmuira’s identity in the public perception shifts and warps from William’s bit on the side to an evil witch, the character herself finds herself freer of human society and the constraints it imposed on her powers. A Pocketful of Crows is deeply concerned with the idea of the mutability of stories; the way Christianity is overlaid on old folk beliefs, the way fear of witches can develop and be fostered, and the way stories change are all things that Harris doesn’t foreground so much as allow the reader to glimpse the importance of as she tells this dark tale.

The big flaw in the novella is the way it carries certain racist tropes from its inspiration. A Pocketful of Crows is based on a Child Ballad, which carried tropes about mystical Travellers and magical dark skinned people. While Harris makes her brown girl into a non-human being, solitary and isolated, a truly magical witch rather than a Romani person, there is still a hint of the way much Western literature caricatures the Romani people in there, perhaps inescapably.

In the end, though, A Pocketful of Crows is a dark tale, and a savage one, and a beautiful one; Harris really shows what she can do with the short form in this little novella.

Disclaimer: Joanne Harris is a friend. This review was based an ARC, without illustrations, provided by the publisher, Gollancz. An event to launch the novella will be held at Waterstones Argyle Street, my place of work, on October 18th.

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

patreon.png

The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion by Margaret Killjoy

9780765397355
Searching for clues about her best friend’s mysterious suicide, Danielle ventures to the squatter, utopian town of Freedom, Iowa, and witnesses a protector spirit — in the form of a blood-red, three-antlered deer — begin to turn on its summoners. She and her new friends have to act fast if they’re going to save the town — or get out alive.
~~~~~
Margaret Killjoy, transfeminine anarchist queer, has written in the past about anarchist utopias – A Country of Ghosts is explicitly about one. It’s therefore not a surprise that her new novella, coming with praise from people like Nick Mamatas and Alan Moore, is another engagement with anarchism and utopian ideals.

The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion is a book very much about power, the wielding of power, and the idea of power. Structured around a kind of death investigation (suicide, rather than murder), Killjoy sends her protagonist, Danielle Cain, into Freedom, Iowa, an anarchist-socialist squatter commune in an abandoned town in flyover state America, to find out what drove her old friend Clay to take his own life. Arriving into the town, Danielle is confronted rapidly with some dark supernatural goings on, and some very rapid problems of how an anarchist commune can self-organise and self-sustain…

Danielle Cain is a brilliant character, a perpetual drifter who runs on curiosity and idealism; she is a queer punk anarchist in one of the purest modes possible, a vocal and outspoken woman who will defend herself against male aggression or protectiveness while also being unafraid to ask for what she wants. The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion is full of characters like her; driven by their idealism to try to build an impossible world, knowing their own flaws and limitations, and with an utter commitment to something outside themselves. They’re also a diverse cast; Killjoy presents us with a trans man (revealed to be trans to the reader in the most casual way), ace characters, characters with various allosexualities, all without their various queernesses being in any way really plot-relevant; and she includes characters of various different ethnicities, often an overlooked issue in anarchist circles.

The plot to The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion is reminiscent of books like The Dispossessed, Iron Council, and Killjoy’s own A Country of Ghosts; it isn’t concerned with everyday life in an anarchist commune, although it does convey what that’s like across its course, but more with the struggles when community tensions appear. Killjoy shows us the community in normal times by including elements of continuity and having characters note the changes; if Freedom, Iowa is a blueprint for an anarchist commune, it’s a pretty comprehensive one. Where Killjoy’s blueprint falls short is, of course, where her novella steps up: what happens when someone tries to take power or abuse the community? The fractures in the community are what really drives The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion; the magic in it serves only to emphasise and reify those fractures, and to bring them rapidly to a crisis.

That aspect is really well handled; Killjoy threads a strain of creepy strangeness throughout The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion with her use of the supernatural and magic, never making it follow any kind of systematised rules but rather more emotional than that. It’s a beautiful approach to magic in a modern-world setting that really does raise magic as that numinous other, as a strange and powerful thing that meddling with can be incredibly destructive; here, it reifies a number of different elements, but centrally it reifies the idea of a community’s power to self-police, and the way that can be turned on the community itself or harnesed to do ill within the community.

The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion is a politically charged utopian novel; but it never becomes a manifesto. Killjoy’s writing will carry you along through the book; this isn’t literary fiction, it’s much closer to pulp in terms of prose style, simply letting the words get out of the way of the story whilst also serving it. There’s an almost punk simplicity to the prose, of the kind where the reader can see there’s a lot of skill involved, but Killjoy never feels the need to show off; The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion is written as a sparsely beautiful, rather than a lush, novella.

I can tell that this powerful, brilliant little book is going to be one of the best things I read this year; The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion is a thought-provoking and intelligent novella, and I look forward to Killjoy’s sequel!

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

patreon.png

The Memoirist by Neil Williamson

book_memoirist
In a future dominated by omnipresent surveillance, why are so many powerful people determined to wipe a poignant gig by a faded rock star from the annals of history? When Rhian is hired to write the memoirs of Elodie Eagles, former singer with the politically charged, electro-rock band, The HitMEBritneys, she has no idea of the dangerous path she is treading…
~~~~~
Britain is one of, if not the, the most heavily surveilled place in the world; figures from 2013 suggested there was a CCTV camera for every fifteen people in the country. Add to that the way we share information about ourselves on social media and are both rewarded for it and used by marketing departments because of it, and a novella about the Panopticon society becomes incredibly timely…

The Memoirist is a near-future science fiction novel set in a society where surveillance of all, by all, at virtually all times (except where specific opt-outs have been applied) is the rule. Williamson doesn’t go into the way this society came about, instead handwaving at terrorism, safety concerns, and social media universalisation as having led to this point; he’s not particularly interested in how we get to the society he’s putting under the microscope, instead wanting to talk about how it functions when we get there. It’s an interesting thought experiment and extension of where society is now; universal surveillance and social media ranking as determining friendships and job prospects, given that people have lost jobs over social media posts, aren’t outlandish prospects, and The Memoirist isn’t optimistic about where that might go given human nature and prurience.

The reaction against this society drives much of the plot of The Memoirist; indeed, what starts as a minor theme, over the course of the novella, becomes the dominant melody. Williamson is interested in different factions’ takes on the society this creates, especially the uneven distribution of information – inevitably, government and government officials still have secrets; the richer one is, the more privacy one can afford. The Memoirist sees different people approaching how to deal with that reality in very different ways; it’s a thoughtful and intelligent meditation, and doesn’t come to any easy answers on the topic, insteead suggesting a multiplicity of futures.

That only really defines one strand of the plot, in which Rhian is drawn into a factional fight between different groups of people who have different ideals of how the pseudo-panopticon society they live in should develop. The other strand is a historical attempt to unearth the last concert by Elodie Eagles, to curate her memoir from the information about her out there; this is the strand that names The Memoirist. It’s an interesting one, and the way Williamson engages with the mutability of memory, and the preciousness and personal nature of individual recollection of even group experiences and of the ephemerality of individual memory is brilliant. However, it’s not given very much weight when compared to the other strand, and the way Williamson ties it into the broader societal topics of the novella seem overdone and unnecessary; rather than being neat, they make The Memoirist feel a little overcontrived.

The emotional core of The Memoirist is Rhian and her relationships, and that’s where Williamson really shines. Rhian is a brilliant character, flawed and constantly curating her online presence and persona, always aware of the surveillance she’s under; her reactions feel intensely familiar to anyone who has lived under the scrutiny of online peers. Her relationships are deeply human – the strained and complicated relationship with her mother, whose reaction to the society they live in is so different; her off-the-grid sometime-lover and friend Pawel, whose connections to extralegal conspiracies drive so much of the plot; and the way she constantly sands down her spikier edges when talking to people professionally.

In the end, The Memoirist might be somewhat flawed, but it’s a fascinating novella; I want to spend more time in Rhian’s spiky company, although I wouldn’t want to live in the society she does…

Disclaimer: Neil Williamson is a personal friend and a regular host of events at my place of work.

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

patreon.png