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You ask if I can forgive myself? I can forgive myself…
And so begins The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, a haunting story of family, the otherworld, and a search for hidden treasure. This gorgeous full-colour illustrating book was born of a unique collaboration between Sunday Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman and renowned artist Eddie Campbell, who brought to vivid life the characters and landscape of Gaiman’s award-winning story. In this volume, the talents and vision of two great creative geniuses come together in a glorious explosion of colour and shadow, memory and regret, vengeance and, ultimately, love.
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is less a novellette than a sort of form-defying artistic project; as Gaiman’s afterword says, it’s unlike anything he’s done before. That doesn’t mean that it’s immune to review, though!
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is a simple little folk tale, essentially, with the traditional Gaiman darkness at its core, in this case on a number of levels. Indeed, in some ways, this comes from the same place as Stardust; a fairytale for both children and adults, which tells essential human truths and looks at basic human actions and motivations. The story feels like it should be much older than it is, tapping as it does into standard Scottish folkloric themes like reaving, otherworldly beings, feuds and the mysteries of Scotland; it’s a mark of Gaiman’s ability as a writer that he manages to pull that off with a story that is in fact very new. It’s a quality aided by Campbell’s art, which uses traditional Scottish imagery – the misty line of mountains, say, or the tartan – without ever touching kitsch, and just far enough from realism to be somewhat dreamlike in its qualities, especially in the way it can highlight elements of the story.
That story unfolds slowly, moving backwards and forwards at once, laying out what lies behind as it moves to an almost inevitable conclusion; indeed, The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains has something like the famous ring structure of the Homeric epics, but also a kind of karmic logic to it. Gaiman doesn’t use it to moralise but to tell a powerful and effective story; that story works in part because of its structure which relies on mystery, secrecy and withheld information, and Gaiman is a master of those qualities.
The place this beautiful work falls down is, unfortunately, when it combines art and words. The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is beautiful when art and prose are side by side, but when it tries to combine direct speech with art in comics-style panels, it gets messier; it breaks the natural reading flow, since it doesn’t fit the flow of the reader, confusing the scenes, needing some serious attention not to content but to layout to decipher the form. Campbell’s art in the panels is still beautiful, and his lettering clear, but the layout really does here not quite work when straightforward prose is interleaved on the same page as panels of dialogue essential to read the prose.
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is undeniably a beautiful achievement and a wonderful story, but I fear Gaiman and Campbell may have to collaborate on a few more works in this vein before the problems are ironed out.
Abruptly his stronghold folded. His names struck. He tore my mind-veil off. Before I could react, the names retreated, reformed his stronghold. All too powerful for me. He laughed. “The Raker’s daughter has taken a single two-syllable. Women, huh. Weaker even than your mother. So be more sensible than her, sweet Vendelin….”
Rose Lemberg is one of those amazing people on Twitter who, on seeing someone looking for diversity in their reading, will turn around and recommend a whole tranche of work… and discuss why finding intersectional genre fiction is so hard. She’s also absolutely lovely, and described the world in which this story takes place as an incredibly intersectional one, so I couldn’t really resist giving it a go!
Held Close In Syllables Of Light is, in some ways, standard secondary-world coming-of-age travelogue fantasy; Vendelin is in many ways the stereotypical protagonist of such a story, headstrong, struggling to find her place in the world or who she is, trying to live up to the reputations and expectations of those around her whilst not betraying either her friends or her principles. The personal conflicts that engenders are fantastically portrayed and Lemberg manages to write teenage angst without it feeling like teenage angst; rather, it feels like the disgruntlement, uncertainty, lack of belonging that we feel at that age and that is (dismissively) described as teenage angst in bad fiction. Held Close… also manages to portray a number of other characters, and while the Shahniyaz is rather two-dimensional and stereotypical in his evil, the allies of the protagonist are rounded out and interesting characters who add a lot to the story in the ways they act on and are acted on by Vendelin, which has an interesting impact on the plot.
Held Close… has a plot that at times feels a bit unfocused. It’s not just episodic, though it certainly is that, it also seems to lack a unifying theme other than Lemberg’s need to move the chess pieces for her set-up at the end; Held Close… in some ways feels like the long prologue to a standard epic fantasy novel, wherein the teenage protagonist is set on a coming of age quest that goes wrong and becomes a far bigger quest than anticipated. A number of things just don’t seem to have a pay off in the story, but Lemberg does manage to keep the reader’s interest, in part with a beautiful, visual writing style that creates a fantastical world wonderfully and that really manages to realise the secondary world of the setting.
It’s also an incredibly queer setting. Held Close In Syllables Of Light features a number of different societies, but the one that is portrayed in the best light is Vendelin’s native society. This is one in which polyamory is the norm, homosexuality is perfectly acceptable and even expected, and there seems to be no real judgement about consensual sexual acts in or out of marriage; the lack of nonbinary gender aside it is almost a queer paradise in its acceptance, and Lemberg’s obvious partiality to it does nothing to undermine its uniqueness. The other societies are different, much less accepting, and that is shown to be damaging to everyone involved; Lemberg clearly has no time for the restrictions on human sexuality that the modern West places on us.
In the end, I wish Lemberg had been more clear about what Held Close In Syllables Of Light was doing; as it stands, it feels more like the prologue to an Eddingsesque high fantasy than the new, mold-breaking story that both world and characters clearly want it to be. Since it’s available free in Beyond Ceaseless Skies #80, I do recommend taking the time to read it for its portrayal of these accepting societies, just don’t say you weren’t warned about the plot!
Bogi Takács is another author who, like Benjanun Sriduangkaew, writes very intersectional fiction, fiction that matches eir intersectional life as a Hungarian Jewish genderqueer author studying in the United States of America. Giganotosaurus, as with Sriduangkaew, is where I found this particular piece (April 2014 issue), and again, it’s in that interesting space between short story and novella, too short for one and too long for the other…
Three Partitions is, perhaps, best read as someone with at least a better-than-passing familiarity with Jewish faith and culture; my paternal relatives being practicing Jews, that’s something I bring to my reading of this story. It focuses on the life of a Jewish settlement on a planet that is, essentially, Lovelock taken to the next level; the conflict arises not out of any inherent problems with Judaism on another planet, but with how human insularity and dislike of differences interacts with a planet that needs an intermediary… but one who it must, essentially, possess in order to communicate through. The three partitions of the title are the mechitza, curtains used in Orthodox synagogues to separate male and female worshippers; here, there is a third partition, for the intermediary who is neither male nor female. That is, essentially, a secondary characteristic of her difference, the primary one being her reliance on the community to keep her whole; but it is a marked one, that marks her as apart from the rest of the community. Takács approach to writing about this is fantastic, and eir sympathy for Adira, the agendered intermediary, is very clear.
The actual plot is very briefly summable up as Chani, a woman in the settlement, coming to terms with both the planetmind and Adira’s status as its intermediary, and then trying to force the settlement to do the same. Takács is very sympathetic to her ignorance and failure of empathy, and impressive feat for an author who must have suffered much from exactly that; but Three Partitions really takes off in the back half when Chani’s sympathy becomes evangelistic and she plots how to ensure the rest of the community understand the reality of the situation. It’s a deftly handled, simple, slim plot; Takács certainly knows eir craft with that, as e uses Jewish culture and science fictional tropes together to create a story that really draws the reader along. It does use some, at times, rather frustrating elements – telepathy that doesn’t seem to have clear consistency, a precognitive who shares information with his acolytes more sparingly and more manipulatively than Dumbledore – but overall this is a story that works, and works very well at its length.
Giganotosaurus is quickly looking like it will be my go-to for queer genre short fiction, and it is for stories like Three Partitions and authors like Bogi Takács that this is the case. I commend it to you.
Benjanun Sriduangkaew has been one of the writers that, in the past year, has basically exploded into ubiquity amongst the more progressive parts of the genre scene; unfortunately, that hasn’t gone alongside the sale of a novel (yet), and while novellas and novellettes have earned her a place on the Campbell shortlist, they… don’t tend to come with blurbs. So, we’ll start this review with a summary!
Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon was published by Ann Leckie in Giganotosaurus in their November 2012 issue. It is, as the title implies, somewhere between a reinvention of an old myth-type – the romance doomed never to be fulfilled, between an avatar of the Sun and one of the Moon – and a whole new mythology itself; replacing the generally-straight couple with women, taking a fictional Oriental-inspired(?) setting and indeed drawing on homophobia for a plot element, Sriduangkaew refreshes the myth in her retelling, the combination of innovation and tradition creating an interesting story.
As a presentation of a queer relationship, Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon is rather beautiful; Sriduangkaew doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of a queer life, no least the prejudice and refusal to accept it as valid of those around one (both gods and mortals seem to take the view that homosexuality is abnormal or simply nonexistent, an odd take given the genderfluid nature of the gods). However, she also doesn’t try to minimise the humanity, sexuality or romance of a queer relationship; Houyi and Chang’e are a real couple, who don’t always get on perfectly, who have to deal with people outside their relationship and their problems, but who also revel in each others’ company and are both emotionally and sensually connected. Sriduangkaew writes one of the most beautiful relationships I’ve ever read, and it’s a really refreshing read to see one so happy, too!
Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon is not, of course, without conflict. Much of that is driven by Houyi’s refusal to bow down to normal social convention and gendered activities; she is an archer and refuses to be second to anyone or to pretend to be anything other than a woman who is the best archer there is, and that – along with her spurning of the advances of various male gods – leads to her downfall. But Sriduangkaew doesn’t let the reader think the downfall is her fault; rather, it is the fault of those who cannot accept that Houyi isn’t interested in them romantically, and in those who think it is better to force a woman into a social box into which she doesn’t fit than to change the society. On those terms, Houyi is a fascinating character study of a woman in conflict with her society.
As a retelling of the old myth, Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon is perhaps inevitably an unsurprising tale; but at the same time, Sriduangkaew adds some twists of her own (including one recognisable from the Pirates of the Caribbean use of the same trope), not least her setting. This novella is set in a lush, rich, beautifully portrayed and living setting incorporating gods and mortals into a society and cosmology very heavily reminiscent of the Chinese Imperial belief system; and the way the myth makes use of that setting is fantastic, with place and culture both forming a part of and irrelevant to (in different ways) the characters’ lives and relationships.
Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon is the first work by Benjanun Sriduangkaew I’ve read, but it makes me want to seek out more of her work and preferably a novel; if this is her general standard, it’s no wonder she’s made the Campbell ballot.