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The Fisher of Bones by Sarah Gailey

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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.

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Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones by Torrey Peters

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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.

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Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

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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.

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

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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.

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A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M. Harris

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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.

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The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion by Margaret Killjoy

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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!

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The Memoirist by Neil Williamson

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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.

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The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

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Mokoya and Akeha, the twin children of the Protector, were sold to the Grand Monastery as children. While Mokoya developed her strange prophetic gift, Akeha was always the one who could see the strings that moved adults to action. While his sister received visions of what would be, Akeha realized what could be. What’s more, he saw the sickness at the heart of his mother’s Protectorate.

A rebellion is growing. The Machinists discover new levers to move the world every day, while the Tensors fight to put them down and preserve the power of the state. Unwilling to continue to play a pawn in his mother’s twisted schemes, Akeha leaves the Tensorate behind and falls in with the rebels. But every step Akeha takes towards the Machinists is a step away from his sister Mokoya. Can Akeha find peace without shattering the bond he shares with his twin sister?
~~~~~
On Monday, I reviewed JY Yang’s The Red Threads of Fortune; today, I’m here with the other half of this initial duology in the world of the Tensorate, The Black Tides of Fortune. These reviews are up in this order because that’s the order I chose to read these two apparently standalone novellas.

Unfortunately, that’s not the order these novellas need to be read in. The Black Tides of Heaven ends in the same emotional place that The Red Threads of Fortune begins, approximately; the rebellion by Akeha against his mother, the tragic events of Mokoya’s life coming to their head, et cetera. Yang builds the world brilliantly in this novella, and really gets their ideas across; things referenced in Red Threads of Fortune are put centre-ground in The Black Tides of Heaven in a way that makes them much more explicable, such as Mokoya’s history as a prophet, the relationship between Protectorate, Grand Monastery, Tensorate, and Machinists, and the relationship between Akeha and his sister. That’s not done through infodumping; it’s backgrounded in Red Threads of Fortune because, fundamentally, it is the plot here.

This is very much a coming of age story; told in a series of sections focused on Akeha’s relationships with different characters, including his sister, his mother, and his lover, it’s an interesting lens through which to view Akeha’s journey through life. The Black Tide of Heaven really does do a lot of work on personal rebellion and political rebellion, looking at how they’re linked in the case of the Protector’s child, Akeha, and what that means for his actions. Yang uses other characters to give Akeha more roundness, through his reactions to and interactions with them, but without ever making them solely serve him: they all have lives of their own and motives of their own, which often Akeha is subordinated to.

While The Red Threads of Fortune is about personal feelings, told through a political lens, The Black Tides of Heaven very much reverses that; told through a lens of personal feelings and personal impact, Yang is incredibly engaged with ideas around politics. There is a theme of class struggle running throughout the novella, whether of the Gauri against the dominant (and, in a narrative focusing on them, unnamed) race, of those who can’t manipulate the magical Slack against the dominance of those who can, or religious repression of the Observant, a religion who seem very similar to Islam and are written sensitively and from a place of deep familiarity. The politics aren’t the kind where Yang delivers a monologue using a character as a mouthpiece, but where they’re baked into the world, and acknowledged as political choices.

Finally, one of the most interesting things Yang delves more deeply into in The Black Tides of Heaven is the system of gender in the Protectorate, a subject of obvious relevance to this blog. Children have no gender until they undergo a confirmation ceremony, at which they choose a gender, completely unrelated to physical sex, and are then “confirmed” in that gender by procedures and medication that are roughly analogous to sex reassignment surgery. Yang, and their characters, use the pronoun “they” for children who haven’t been confirmed, and we see the confirmation process through both Mokoya’s eyes (she talks about having always felt like a girl) and Akeha’s, who hasn’t really considered it before; the process is a fascinating one, made all the more so by a later character who it reveals binds his breasts because while being male, he did not feel his body needed to be changed. It’s a brilliant and innovative look at gender and ideas of transness, and Yang, themself a nonbinary person, really must have brought their own feelings on gender into play; I certainly as a nonbinary reader found it incredibly engaging and thoughtful.

I rather wish I’d read The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune in the opposite order to that which I did, since The Black Tides of Heaven is obviously intended as the first of the pair; I’d have gotten a lot more out of them. Given how incredibly excellent they both are, though, and how much I did get out of JY Yang’s paired novellas, I cannot commend them to you highly enough.

Disclaimer: JY Yang is a friend. This review is based on an ARC from the publisher, Tor.com.

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

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Bearly A Lady by Cassandra Khaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Red Threads of Fortune by JY Yang

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Fallen prophet, master of the elements, and daughter of the supreme Protector, Sanao Mokoya has abandoned the life that once bound her. Once her visions shaped the lives of citizens across the land, but no matter what tragedy Mokoya foresaw, she could never reshape the future. Broken by the loss of her young daughter, she now hunts deadly, sky-obscuring naga in the harsh outer reaches of the kingdom with packs of dinosaurs at her side, far from everything she used to love.


On the trail of a massive naga that threatens the rebellious mining city of Bataanar, Mokoya meets the mysterious and alluring Rider. But all is not as it seems: the beast they both hunt harbors a secret that could ignite war throughout the Protectorate. As she is drawn into a conspiracy of magic and betrayal, Mokoya must come to terms with her extraordinary and dangerous gifts, or risk losing the little she has left to hold dear.
~~~~~
JY Yang is one of the voices in the genre fiction community I always want to hear more from: intelligent, angry, nonbinary, queer, not white or Western. Imagine my delight when I discovered that I could hear from them in not one, but two novellas this autumn; and imagine my greater delight when Tor.com sent me ARCs of the pair of them… today I’ll review The Red Threads of Fortune, and on Thursday I’ll review the simultaneously released companion volume, The Black Tides of Heaven.

Silkpunk is a relatively meaningless genre descriptor, seeming to apply to everything with an East Asian influence on it; but The Red Threads of Fortune really does seem to solidly fit into the silkpunk designator. Not only is Yang using strongly East Asian influenced cultures as a starting point from which to build their secondary world, but they’re also using the political side of the silkpunk label; The Red Threads of Fortune is heavily engaged in discussions of, and resistance to, systems of various kinds, and is in dialogue with real world racism and assumptions. There’s a theme of resistance to authority, and of the way some authority collaborates in or overlooks resistance to higher authority; there’s a theme of personal relationships having political impacts; and so on, all fascinating and thought through. None of this is heavy-handed; instead, Yang makes them essential to the plot and world, seeding their themes throughout the novella, and rarely taking sides on the issues they raise but making it clear that these are issues to be considered.

That could suggest The Red Threads of Fortune is a very intellectual story, more of a thought piece than anything with emotional resonance. That’s very much not the case. Yang’s plot is built around heartbreak, love, resentment, and emotion; this isn’t a book about politics, really, but about the human heart. Specifically and mainly, the human heart of our protagonist, Sanao Mokoya. Mokoya has suffered the heartbreak of the death of her daughter, in a move that superficially resembles the opening of The Fifth Season, but has a completely different emotional reaction; Yang doesn’t pull punches, and Mokoya’s depression and grief are bluntly portrayed. However, Yang isn’t brutal either, and Mokoya isn’t a caricature of sadness; she is a complex, rounded, interesting character, one whose every interaction is coloured by the loss of her daughter but also by the way her mother raised her, and by her love life, and her emotional ties. Yang gives us a rounded and full emotional character to really connect to, even when she finds it hard to connect to others.

Around Mokoya, Yang arranges a number of other similarly complex characters; her twin, her husband and the father of her daughter, the person she has worked with since running away from her husband in the wake of the tragic death of her daughter, and most interestingly, Rider. Rider is a nonbinary character of a different racial and cultural background to the rest of the characters, and The Red Threads of Fortune relies heavily on emotionally connecting with them as well as with Mokoya; Yang really builds on and uses their relationship, and the way it develops, in a beautiful, powerful, and sweet way, without ever making it untrue. There are bumps and problems between them, and the emotional truth of the negotiation of the relationship is brilliantly moving.

Themes and characters don’t make a plot, necessarily. The Red Threads of Fortune slightly falls down on this front; the core plot is simple, and effective, and self-contained, with brilliant emotional resonances. The monster-hunting transitioning into politicking is brilliant, and the way Yang ties personal grief and responses to that into the plot is fantastic. It’s fast-paced and the romance feels very true. However, the way Yang ties the story into a wider world doesn’t feel complete; the references are obviously intended to be meaningful, but they don’t actually connect with the reader on the terms of The Red Threads of Fortune alone, and that takes some of the force of the story away.

The strengths of The Red Threads of Fortune more than makes up for the weaknesses; this is among the most beautiful and most deeply human books I’ve read in some time, and JY Yang is a truly fantastic talent whom I will follow wherever they lead.

Disclaimer: JY Yang is a friend. This review is based on an ARC from the publisher, Tor.com.

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

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