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A ruined city of the future lives in fear of a despotic, gigantic flying bear, driven mad by the tortures inflicted on him by the Company, a mysterious biotech firm. A scavenger, Rachel, finds a creature entangled in his fur. She names it Borne.
At first, Borne looks like nothing at all; a green lump that might be a discard from the Company. But he reminds Rachel of her homeland, an island nation long lost to rising seas, and she prevents her lover, Wick, from rendering down Borne as raw genetic material for the special kind of drugs he sells.
But nothing is quite the way it seems: not the past, not the present, not the future. If Wick is hiding secrets, so is Rachel – and Borne most of all. What Rachel finds hidden deep within the Company will change everything and everyone. There, lost and forgotten things have lingered and grown. What they have grown into is mighty indeed.
Jeff VanderMeer, perhaps now best known as an anthologist in collaboration with Ann VanderMeer and for his Southern Reach trilogy, has produced a strange new novel, Borne.
VanderMeer’s very public concerns with environmental issues and his approach to humanity’s impact on the world, so evident in The Southern Reach, are doubled down on in Borne: this isn’t a novel of climate change as it will be, but a blended mix of the metaphorical – strange, experimental creatures, wrecked cities ruled over by biotech, a ruined world, and a skyscraper-sized flying bear – and the literal: climate refugees, rising sea levels, poverty and chaos. VanderMeer uses these elements in Rachel’s past and present to create his world, his strange, slightly off-kilter world, with its secrets and lies and dangers, and brings home with it the consequences of climate change in making our world unrecognisably strange to all of us.
The story of Borne doubles down on that; it’s essentially in two parts, although VanderMeer divides it into three. The first part is that in which Rachel finds, and arguably raises, the creature she finds while scavenging in the city, which she names Borne; and the complexities that doing so, and that life in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, involve. The second part comes out of a distinct break that happens at the end of this first part (or rather, the first two parts); it would be, unfortunately, rather a severe spoiler to discuss specifics. Borne marries the two parts together well and keeps a singular narrative voice throughout, with Rachel remaining Rachel; VanderMeer’s real strength is that the plot of the is for the most part barely a plot, in terms of actual dramatic events, and a lot of time is spent in emotional reflection and personal introspection, but VanderMeer writes this well, rather better than most literary fiction writers. Those points when he does put in moments of hard action, including combat and dramatic elements of Rachel’s explorations, are fast and brutal; Borne treats its violence much like its sex, as something to be included but not pornographised, to be discussed from the emotional, more than physical, aspects.
The core of the book is questions about personhood, and what being a person means; Borne therefore relies on its characters. There are really only three proper characters in the whole thing, plus a number of background individuals who appear and disappear; our narrator, Rachel, her fellow survivor and partner, Wick, and the strange being Borne. Each is approached very differently as a character, even while they’re only seen through Rachel’s eyes, because she views them each very differently, and the consequences of that are fascinating. Part of that is about VanderMeer’s view of character: rather than being a solipsistic thing, Borne treats character as centred on relationships between people. How one treats and is treated by others defines one, in this metric; for a time, Rachel is thrust into a position of not being around anyone else, and becomes essentially an unperson, in a fascinating way, and the development of Borne especially is so shaped by Rachel and Wick that it’s a fascinating way to raise children.
In the end, Borne has a similar kind of approach to weird and environmental themes as Southern Reach, but a very different approach to narrative itself; and VanderMeer proves his versatility by continuing to carry it off excellently.
Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received on request from the publisher, 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins.
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One a month, those sponsoring my Patreon at $5/post or more get to nominate, and then collectively choose, a work for me to review that month. Last month, they chose…
Habibi by Craig Thompson
Sprawling across an epic landscape of deserts, harems, and modern industrial clutter, Habibi tells the tale of Dodola and Zam, refugee child slaves bound to each other by chance, by circumstance, and by the love that grows between them. We follow them as their lives unfold together and apart; as they struggle to make a place for themselves in a world (not unlike our own) fueled by fear, lust, and greed; and as they discover the extraordinary depth—and frailty—of their connection.
At once contemporary and timeless, Habibi gives us a love story of astounding resonance: a parable about our relationship to the natural world, the cultural divide between the first and third worlds, the common heritage of Christianity and Islam, and, most potently, the magic of storytelling.
It’s well known that alongside science fiction and fantasy novels, I have a serious passion for graphic novels and comics; not just the superheroes that are the most recognised and public face of the genre, but a whole variety of the form of marriage of word and art. I suspect it is with this, as much as the content, in mind that my Patreon patrons asked me to review Craig Thompson’s giant magical-realist science fiction comic Habibi!
Before we go any further, for reasons that will become clear, I think it’s worth reminding you that I’m a white British Christian raised in a white, secular household with Jewish family and influences, so what I say should be read bearing that in mind.
The art, it is undeniable, is beautiful. Thompson has integrated Arabic calligraphy into Habibi stunningly, using it to transition, as panel borders, and as part of the story; the pseudo-abstract patterns he creates using the sentences, poems and words in Arabic throughout the book are stunning, and provide a beautiful backdrop for detailed, rich art throughout, that is more than a little reminiscent of Hergé’s Tintin work. Unfortunately, that extends to the approach to drawing ethnicity; Thompson has a tendency towards racial caricature, notably with his black and Arab characters, who really do embody the worst visual stereotypes he could possibly have come across.
That extends into the writing of Habibi. This is a story centred around a Muslim woman who is sold into marriage as a girl, enslaved, flees and becomes a sex worker (clearly marked in the story as shameful by Thompson), and then a courtesan of the Sultan; and her companion, a black fellow slave who she cares for as a son, who becomes a water trader, and then a eunuch, before being reunited with her. With the Middle Eastern setting of the story, then, we hit all kinds of negative and problematic tropes about Muslim and Arabic culture, actively reinforced by the author and narrative alike; Thompson isn’t interested in deconstructing these tropes, only reinforcing them. This isn’t a clever deconstruction of the idea of the sex worker as inevitably-raped, objectified, and somehow damaged, nor of the eunuch or other nonbinary presentation as damaged and distorted by childhood events; instead, it straightforwardly replicated both of these, in painful ways to read. Habibi also of course suggests that all (Arab) men fetishise and sexualise peripubescent girls and want to sleep with them; this is of course tabloid-fodder in the UK, and no more true of any ethnic or religious group than it is of any other.
The real disappointment is that wrapped in this shell is some fantastic writing. Habibi borrows the tale-within-a-tale approach of texts such as the 1,001 Nights; Dodola tells stories to Zam and to herself as a kind of survival mechanism and teaching tool. These include stories from the Quran, myths about Solomon, cautionary tales, and more; they play with the differences between the different Abrahamic texts and traditions; and they do some fascinating things with religious syncreticism. The setting is also, were it less steeped in racism, worthy of thought; in a post-abundance world, there’s a blend of magical realist and post-apocalyptic elements, which creates a strange kind of familiarity and distance with the work that has some interesting ideas wrapped into it.
In the end, Habibi is almost like two things put together; some beautiful art and narrative approaches with some fantastic worldbuilding, married to an awful lot of really racist, sexist, transphobic ideas.
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Wasp’s job is simple. Hunt ghosts. And every year she has to fight to remain Archivist. Desperate and alone, she strikes a bargain with the ghost of a supersoldier. She will go with him on his underworld hunt for the long-lost ghost of his partner and in exchange she will find out more about his pre-apocalyptic world than any Archivist before her. And there is much to know. After all, Archivists are marked from birth to do the holy work of a goddess. They’re chosen. They’re special. Or so they’ve been told for four hundred years.
Archivist Wasp fears she is not the chosen one, that she won’t survive the trip to the underworld, that the brutal life she has escaped might be better than where she is going. There is only one way to find out.
Nicole Kornher-Stace’s novel of post-apocalypse is receiving a huge buzz, with positive reviews from luminaries like Liz Bourke and Amal El-Mohtar; Archivist Wasp may be dark, dystopian and grim, but it’s getting the same kind of reception as a novel like Uprooted or Goblin Emperor. The question is, how does the novel hold up to the buzz…?
The biggest strength of Archivist Wasp comes from Wasp, its protagonist. Kornher-Stace appears to have taken notes from some of the heroes on this list – but with a certain kind of conscience; Wasp knows how monstrous her actions are, but still commits them, knowing they are necessary for her survival – and making her central rule survival. The novel opens in the middle of a duel for her role as Archivist, against an upstart aiming to take her place; as if to set the scene for the rest of the novel Kornher-Stace has Wasp debate simply letting the upstart kill her… before allowing her bloody-mindedness to instead dictate the alternate course. That bloody-mindedness also leads to Wasp sparing the upstart, against tradition; another example of the ways in which Wasp confounds the expectations placed upon her by her role and the society in which she lives. In tht regard, this has something of the feel of a young adult novel; Archivist Wasp is all about Wasp fighting back against expectations of others and against the easiest course for her life, instead fighting for her independence with a fierce stubborness which is not presented as a wonderful thing to be imitated but instead as a brutal harshness in her that can be used for positive or negative ends.
The only other significant character of Archivist Wasp is the nameless ghost whose quest she takes as her own, for a price; we meet this nameless character a little way into the book as we see Wasp engaging in her role as ghost-hunter, finding, capturing and interrogating ghosts to learn about the apocalypse and to keep her world safe. Ghost, unlike Wasp, is very much an enigma whose character is slowly revealed across the course of the novel; whereas the question of Wasp is about the balance between stubborn rebellion and will to survive at any cost, including her integrity, the ghost is only questions, slowly answered across the course of the novel and the quest. It’s a beautiful paradigm as Wasp and the ghost keep each other guessing, our only two things to grasp first in the physical world and then in the afterlife; Kornher-Stace doesn’t make it easy for the audience, as Wasp is often actively hostile to both ghost and reader (although the tale is told in third-person past), and at times the narrative becomes a little disjointed as it follows Wasp so closely, but it creates a fantastic sense of character.
The sense of setting is much harder to get a grasp on, in part because much of Archivist Wasp takes place in the underworld (a true Hero’s Journey), and in part because it is so geographically specific and imprecise when on the surface; the world Kornher-Stace creates bears a vague resemblance to ours but there’s no sense of how to get from one to the other, although from a couple of mentions it is clear that the novel is set on Earth, and the vagueness of setting can be at times frustrating, making it hard to get a grasp on the plot and what’s happening exactly, as the world doesn’t make sense and so the characters’ actions, motivated by their world, don’t seem to follow anything. This is especially true of Wasp, who Kornher-Stace has a slight problem with keeping on track; every time she has to make a decision she seems to have forgotten the last decision, and the world backs her up in this, itself appearing to have forgotten her prior actions, strangely.
The plot is deceptively simple; Archivist Wasp follows Wasp and the ghost on a quest for someone from the ghost’s life, now dead and in the underworld. Along the way, Wasp discovers more about the pre-apocalyptic world, about the ghost and the person they are searching for, and about her own past; at times these reveals are singularly contrived and seem to come from nowhere, as in the case of the biggest reveal about Wasp’s past which is necessary for the end of the novel but comes from nowhere, and at times they are a little disjointed, but what Kornher-Stace is excellent at is conveying the emotional toll of each revelation. The brutality of the world Wasp comes from and the strangeness and grey cruelty of the (very Homeric) underworld create different challenges – although the repetition of combat is perhaps a bit of a problem, especially when the only toll of much of it is physical, rather than emotional; and at times that repetition is used to excellent effect by Kornher-Stace for character development, but largely it has a feeling of sameness.
Archivist Wasp isn’t really about the simple plot, but about the character trajectories that plot allows; the archetypical hero’s journey to retrieve someone from the afterlife, a staple of stories right back to Hercules and Orpheus, has always told us more about the character making the trip than anything else, and this particular iteration of that journey is no different; Kornher-Stace does that excellently, if at times with a touch too little control of her narrative. I can recommend this, but perhaps a little more warily than many others have done.
THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS. AGAIN.
Three terrible things happen in a single day.
Essun, masquerading as an ordinary schoolteacher in a quiet small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Mighty Sanze, the empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years, collapses as its greatest city is destroyed by a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heartland of the world’s sole continent, a great red rift has been been torn which spews ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
But this is the Stillness, a land long familiar with struggle, and where orogenes — those who wield the power of the earth as a weapon — are feared far more than the long cold night. Essun has remembered herself, and she will have her daughter back.
She does not care if the world falls apart around her. Essun will break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.
N. K. Jemisin is a writer who I have admired since her first series, the Inheritance Trilogy, and who has only improved over the course of her succeeding novels; so I’ve been looking forward to The Fifth Season since it was announced, to the point of buying the ARC in the Con or Bust auction just to lay hands on it faster.
Warning: this review contains some SPOILERS for plot and structure.
The blurb of The Fifth Season arguably reveals one of the most interesting things Jemisin pulls off in the novel; mentioning only Essun, it ignores the two plot threads of the novel that follow Damaya and Syenite (Syen), plot threads that at the start of the novel could be roughly contemporaneously set with Essun’s journey but increasingly, as the novel continues, are obviously not, and are instead Essun’s own history. Jemisin pulls off this trick excellently; each name reflects not only a different stage in Essun’s life, but also a different person, defined by experience and by the image Essun feels it necessary to convey in order to be safe. Indeed, this code-switching narrative in The Fifth Season is one we don’t see enough of in fantasy; a look, through the eyes of one character (referred to in the second person present as Essun, in the third past for the other characters, in an early hint of the later revelation), at how one has to change one’s self-presentation for self-preservation. Essun is a member of oppressed classes, too, as a woman (the main society of the novel seems to be patriarchal, or at least the society Essun starts in is) and as an orogene, a kind of geological magic user, treated like witches by villagers and like dangerous animals to be trained and used by the main state. Watching Essun negotiate these statuses, and how she has to act because of them, is fascinating; as is watching others use different strategies to negotiate the various axes of oppression on which they fall, such as Alabaster, whose orogenic power allows him to bypass a certain amount of the self-preservation efforts that Syenite must engage in.
Of course, there’s a whole lot more to the cast of The Fifth Season than code-switching, that self-preservation; they’re an amazingly diverse, well-thought-out group. Essun is obviously the most complex, bearing the different selves she has been on her shoulders as she changes from a seemingly diffident wife and mother to return more to her confident self, but not unchanged by that experience; the evolution of character she undergoes across the course of the book is one of the most impressive character developments I have ever read, tying three distinct moments together and yet not letting any of those moments be static or unchanging themselves. That’s not to say that characters who only appear in one of those moments aren’t good or rounded characters, though; Jemisin has created a tremendous ensemble cast in The Fifth Season to surround her undeniable protagonist, and they’re all well-written, interesting characters, all of whom have fascinatingly different attitudes to Essun and her abilities, from Schaffa Guardian Warrant, an abusive sadist who Damaya doesn’t realise is either of those things and who is amazingly written as showing a face of benevolence over a reality of brutal cruelty, to Alabaster, the incredibly powerful orogene who doesn’t really care about the opinions of those around him but who is also a deeply sensitive person once his defences of apathy fall, and the smart, slightly unworldly Tonkee, who joins Essun on her journey only to turn out to be someone unexpected from her past. Every character has a unique voice and character, and they all have different masks they wear; no one is who one assumes them to be at first glance.
This is also a very queer book, despite its patriarchal societies. The Fifth Season‘s core relationship goes from being a purely sexual, heterosexual one to being an emotional, polyamorous, queer triad; Jemisin handles the transition, the growing feelings, the introduction of an additional character, incredibly well and beautifully, giving the reader a glimpse of a relationship that is incredibly erotic, incredibly sensual, incredibly sensitive, and incredibly human, as well as incredibly beautiful, with the kind of quality of sex scenes we have come to expect of her and the kind of emotional honesty, including conflict, that reflects reality rather than some idealised idea of polyamory. This is hardly the first time I’ve seen poly in a novel but it is certainly one of the best instances, and truly beautifully conveyed.
Of course, there’s more to The Fifth Season than character; all this is, after all, happening against the background of an apocalypse. “An” apocalypse is the best descriptor, because this is a world which is incredibly unstable and appears to undergo regular apocalypses; everyone is a survivalist, because you have to be prepared for the next time the world upheaves itself under you, and society is organised around principles that are intended to aid in that preservation, such as a caste system, although that appears to have ossified into a problematic heirarchy as time has gone on. An empire rules over small communities, an empire that has lasted through a number of these apocalypses somehow; but this apocalypse, it won’t emerge from. The Fifth Season has an awful lot going on; Damaya is learning what it is to be an orogene, how society views her because of it and what the demands of the empire on her are. Syenite is learning about heirarchies with the orogenes, and how the empire uses them – the things that they’re not told, and have to try to learn from themselves; the abuses of orogenes perpetuated by the empire. And Essun is simply trying to find her daughter, after her son is murdered by her husband for being an orogene; fleeing through this apocalyptic (the apocalypse isn’t over, so though N. K. Jemisin describes the book as post-apocalypse, I don’t think that’s quite accurate) novel. This is where the novel starts to run into some problems; each strand follows the same parallel path – a journey that ends in finding a new community – but their pacing is different and the way Jemisin times them is different, which means chapters can jar against those around them because of a different feel or approach. This is the kind of literary structural engineering I really appreciate in a novel, and Jemisin carries off the theme elegantly; but the actual mechanics of precisely how parts of it work are less smooth, less polished, than would be ideal.
In the end, though, I have no hesitation about recommending The Fifth Season to you; it’s a fantastic novel that I heartily enjoyed, and a fascinating opening to a new series from one of the best writers in fantasy.
The Fifth Season comes out August 4th from Orbit Books
In the year 2060, the next plague has arrived. MaGo bots, the nanotechnology used for everything from fighting the common cold to radical life extension, have begun to malfunction, latching onto the brain’s acetylcholine receptors to cause a permanent state of delirium.
The Birthday Problem follows four Seattle survivors: Chaaya Gopal Lee, great-granddaughter of the MaGo programmer, whom the pandemic turns into a killer; 40-something ex-rock star and pharmacy technician Greystone Toussaint, the “King of Seattle”; Alastair Gomez-Larsen, forced to become a blood-smuggler to treat his father’s liver disease; and Didi VanNess, a lovesick former-WNBA center and CNA, who tries to win back her wife’s heart against a backdrop of madness, death and 30 cats, all named Ira.
The Birthday Problem is Gussoff’s first novel-length work, but in many ways it isn’t a novel; the title, coming from a mathematical problem, gives away its nature, a series of linked-in-passing stories.
Gussoff has constructed a mosaic story here, which tells, in the bulk of the novel, a series of stories connected to each other by characters who pass through some, are centred in others; it’s an interesting construction that highlights how what would seem implausible coincidence in a novel is actually not only but plausible in day to day life. This is framed around an apocalypse whose scale or extent is unclear, and whose cause is uncertain; The Birthday Problem‘s biggest flaw in its worldbuilding is that, at times, it feels like it hasn’t got any. There’s the apocalypse, and there’s the world preceding it, but there doesn’t appear to be much link between the two, or any real thought about the impact of the apocalypse even on the individuals affected; and the whole thing is irrelevant to the plot, leaving one wondering why it is there. The one interesting thing about the worldbuilding is how it normalises queerness, with gay prom dates, gay married parents, and so on, all going totally uncommented on, which is a nice element.
The Birthday Problem is, though, more of a series of character studies than interested in plot or world. Each of these short character studies focuses on a different person whose life interacts with one or more of the other characters in the novel and is then drawn into more interactions; Gussoff manages this tangling of threads well. The problem is, most of the threads we don’t care about; there are very few individual voices, very little reason to care about any of the characters because they’re very much uninteresting, and very little thought given to making them more individual than just changing the names. There’s a certain superficiality to a lot of The Birthday Problem, both the author’s and the characters’, that goes utterly uninterrogated; indeed, authorial assumptions are completely unquestioned, and all the characters bar one seem to basically share an understanding of the world and a defeatist psychology in the most strange way. There’s no motivation to any of what they do, not in the sense of purposelessness but in the sense of simply author-driven action; things happen so Gussoff can, later, have other things happen and draw out coincidences.
The structure of The Birthday Problem is one I’d love to see emulated more, with its mosaic style built on unseen or unexpected links; the problem is the rest of the novel is so poorly executed that I fear Gussoff may have killed off any chances of that emulation…