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The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

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On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past. As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her Empress.

Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.

One world will rise – and many will perish.
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Kameron Hurley is well established, at this stage, as a writer who pushes boundaries, who innovates, who embraces and applies new ideas and ways of doing things. The Mirror Empire, her first new book since finishing the Bel Dame Apocrypha in 2012, in some ways is less radical than that science fiction series; in other ways, however, it bears some of the hallmarks of Hurley’s mould-breaking brilliance.

If the blurb makes The Mirror Empire sound like a complicated novel, that’s because it is one. Despite the farmhand-to-powerhouse trope (subverted in that this time, it’s a girl; and again in that the other farmhand who becomes powerful knows he is the son of the ruler), and the slave-race (the daijin under the Saiduan and Dorinah powers are Dhai who, Hurley makes it very clear, have been broken to slavery as a people; the independent Dhai, once an imperial power, are now isolationist and pacifist vegetarians), The Mirror Empire introduces some fantastic new concepts into the realm of epic fantasy, not least the multiple-worlds interpretation of quantum physics.

As one character after another realises and exclaims, “We’re fighting ourselves.” The Mirror Empire is in a mirror-universe where the Dhai retained power; I didn’t pick up on this until a fifth of the way through the novel, myself. The central conflict of the novel, then, is between the mirror-Dhai trying to leave their world for the “prime” – and needing to wipe out all the Dhai in the “prime”, because they can’t cross between worlds if their double lives; and the various powers in the “prime” world (who, unlike the mirror-Dhai, are all morally complex powers, none of whom can be called outright evil), trying to defend their homes. However, the status of the Dhai as a once-empire, the Saiduan as those who overthrew them, and the Dorinah as a province of Saiduan that successfully won independence, means that those in the “prime” world are as prone to stabbing each other in the back as they are to defeating the mirror-Dhai. The plot weaves a complex knot that, at the end of The Mirror Empire, is made more complex by an unnecessary epilogue that, I think, would have made a better prologue to the next volume; as it is, Hurley leaves us with such a full, complicated plot that it’s clear she can take us through at least a trilogy in this world-breaking conflict.

The characters of The Mirror Empire are all surprisingly winning. From Akhio, the farmhand (well, ethics teacher at a farm) who becomes Kai after the death of his sister, whose unwillingness to rule doesn’t stop him trying to, through Roh’s affable enthusiastic teenage blundering about, to Zezili, raised in a matriarchy where men who are allowed to live are property and to be treated as such, who is half-Dhai but most famous for defeating that people, and Anavha, Zezili’s husband-slave, who has one of the most disturbing points of view in the book, as a victim of essentially domestic abuse; Hurley does an impressive job of writing rounded, interesting full characters, who have understandable and believable motivations for all their actions. Perhaps Lillia is the epitome of this; thrown from one world to another by her mother as a child to save her life, she is driven and motivated in an entirely believable way and incredibly well written.

This is also, it’s worth noting, a book as queer as the Bel Dame Apocrypha, if not queerer. The Mirror Empire‘s cultures all have multiple genders – three or five; and bisexuality is completely normalised and expected. The Dhai are a polyamorous society, where multiple-person marriages with all sorts of configurations of gender are shown without comment, and the men of Saiduan seem to be shared at their owner’s whims. Hurley has also included the Orlandoesque character of Taigan, who changes gender with the seasons; we see Taigan as both male and as an intersex individual in the novel, but presumably in future installments we’ll see her become female too. The one criticism I have is that Hurley only ever uses binary pronouns, which can be startling; someone who thinks of themselves as neither male or female will still be referred to as “he” or “she”, and I think The Mirror Empire might have benefited from greater use of Spivak or even invented pronouns.

There is so much more to this book than will fit in any reasonable length of review; but hopefully I’ve captured some of the glorious essence of The Mirror Empire, even without discussing the moon-based magic system, the “Winter is Coming”-style prophecies of doom, the various characters I’ve not even mentioned who are wonderfully rounded humans, the nuances of the different cultures, the different strands of plot and internecine infighting; Hurley has really come into her full strength with the start of the Worldbreaker Saga, which reads like an angry, feminist George R. R. Martin dropping acid and using steroids.

This novel has more substance to it than most entire series of fantasy with a pagecount less than many single volumes from those series, and I heartily recommend that you pick up a copy of The Mirror Empire when it is released in September.

DoI: This review was written based on an ARC sent by Angry Robot Books in response to a request for one. The novel will be released in early September, around which time I will reblog this review and post a guest-blog from Kameron Hurley.

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Rider by Joyce Chng

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Li-Fang has a way with nature. So she is sent against her will to train as an Agri-Seer, though she dreams one day of joining the Rider Corps like her sister Lixi. Partnered with an arrogant Rider, Daniel Kelso, Lifang must forget the wild Hunter Quetz she met by a hidden waterfall near her home, and accept who she is.

Until, that is, a wild Quetz is captured. Lifang discovers she can communicate with a creature, a skill no Rider has ever demonstrated, and must now confront her destiny all over again. Will going against convention be worth the cost?
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Chng’s novel is the first in a series, and whilst Rider does have more to it than the blurb above, it honestly doesn’t have that much more; it’s a slim volume with a serious inclusivity policy that is on the whole carried out well, but sadly, that doesn’t make for a perfect novel…

The novel’s strongest point, I think, is its inclusivity. Chng uses shared eating practices and throw-away mentions of food, alongside a variety of naming traditions, to demonstrate that she has written a world that at the same time features Singaporean, Indian and Western cultural traditions and ethnicities; and Rider stars an apparently-asexual, disabled woman as its protagonist, while having homosexuality firmly situated in the world by a number of mentions. It even avoids the Pern problem, dealt with so brutally by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, by simply saying breeding Quetzs have no reflection on their companions. So we have a planet colonised by people from across the world who have, to varying degrees, retained their cultures (one character remarks “I don’t [care about my roots]. My family started afresh on Jin. We are Jinians.”), and a variety of sexual identities, although so far only the gender binary has appeared.

That’s, perhaps, where Rider ends its praise. The fact is, the blurb sums up over half the novel, and the other half is predictable from the word go. Chng’s plot is almost as simplistic as it gets; Lifang gets sent off in one direction, part of her past giving the opportunity to go in the other returns, tragedy occurs but she still gets to try the other out, and… actually that’s pretty much where the book stops and starts setting up its sequel, Speaker. We see two sets of training – one as Agri-Seer, basically a botanist-cum-terraformer, and the other as a Rider, working with the Hunter Quetz (flying beasts that are telepathic and bond with humans, not unlike McCaffrey’s Pern). We therefore learn an awful lot about the world of Rider, but very little actual plot takes place; even for a novel that’s barely 150 pages, this book drags a surprising amount.

The writing style is breezy and the use of the first person, a standard YA trick, effective in conveying this as a sort of coming-of-age account, but Rider, even here, never seems to go anywhere; apart from Lifang, all the characters are incredibly shallow, especially Daniel Kelso, who is portrayed as stereotypically as you can imagine a teenage boy being portrayed. Lifang herself doesn’t have a terribly consistent character, as if Chng wasn’t quite sure whether the confident, angry Lifang or the self-doubting homesick one was the star of Rider; worse, she undergoes no character development throughout the novel, instead remaining stuck in the same kind of mode at the end as the beginning.

In the end, I perhaps went into Rider with my expectations set too high, but it’s especially disappointing to have to damn a book that is, indeed, so inclusive.

Infidel by Kameron Hurley

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The war may be over, but the battle’s just begun…

Nyx used to be an assassin, part of the sisterhood of the Bel Dames. Now she’s babysitting diplomats to make ends meet and longs for the days when killing was a lot more honourable.

So, when her former ‘sisters’ lead a coup against the government, she’s the perfect choice to stop them. But can one lone assassin stand a change against the elite?
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Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha has had an interesting publication history, some of which she discussed here. Infidel, the second installment (and the often-difficult middle book), was published at the start of this month. It’s also an interesting case study in the Queering the Genre product; the Bel Dame Apocrypha has queerness as the unmarked state, at least in one culture, but at the same time it’s only on one access of queerness…

Hurley’s pseudo-Islamic societies were first introduced in God’s War; one, Nasheen, is a matriarchy due to the meatgrinder of the war with Chenja, it’s patriarchal neighbour that is more immediately recognisable to Western eyes as a repressive Arabic state. Both present case studies of responses to the mass-slaughter of one gender, in the context of the same base religio-cultural imperatives; Chenja controls its women very strictly, enforces femininity, demands their subservience to men. Nasheen is run by women, controlled by women, policed by the Bel Dames – women trained to kill, nationalised bounty hunters who mainly go after traitors and male deserters. In all the societies of the Bel Dame Apocrypha, of which we see more in greater detail in Infidel than ever before, this rigidity and inflexibility of gender roles hold true, although the margins have different rules, and it is in the margins that Nyx exists. The place queerness exists is in the utter unremarkability of female homosexuality in Nasheen; the lack of men normalises it as a way to, as it were, scratch the sexual itch, and Hurley’s treatment of this as utterly unremarkable when writing Nashenians and utterly strange when writing Chenjans demonstrates the oddity of anti-homosexuality attitudes.

Of course, that’s largely side-story in Infidel, where it played some – although still not extensive – role in the plot of God’s War. Here, Hurley is writing much more of an intrigue, and somehow an even more grimdark one than God’s War; the brutal meatgrinder of war, the horrific damage of an internal civil war, the politics of those around a long-term war (Hurley’s absolute contempt for the Tirhani, an arms-dealing nation selling to both sides and trying to prolong the war because of it, is very clear). It’s a complex plot, but one Hurley pulls off; Nyx’s determination and the way she doggedly chases down the plot amongst the Bel Dames to overthrow the queen, and the way all sides use and abuse her, is fantastically executed. It’s a dark and strange plot, but Hurley carries off the twists and turns excellently.

It’s hard to assess the characters of Infidel, however, because they’re tied in, in a number of ways, to the events especially at the end of God’s War. Indeed, despite the six-year time gap between the two novels, Hurley’s characters are defined by the traumatic events at the end of the book; it’s excellent writing, and the ways that the effects of decisions and actions taken at the end of God’s War impact on the characters are well explained within the novel to allow new readers to jump into the series in book 2. Indeed, Infidel avoids the middle-book problem by being both a standalone novel that provides a satisfactory conclusion and is self-contained, but also drawing on the events and character development of God’s War.

I wouldn’t say Infidel is a book I’d have read for the Queering the Genre project if I’d known how little role it played going in; on the other hand, it is a fantastic, and very feminist book, and as a whole Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha so far are a fascinating case study in the normalisation of homosexuality.

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Guest Post: Liz Bourke on Wider Varieties of Human Experience

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Liz Bourke has written for me before, reviewing Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, and of course I mentioned her as one of the better writers on diversifying fantasy in <a href="https://intellectusspeculativus.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/queering-the-genre-a-personal-project/&quot; my post last Monday introducing the Queering the Genre project. I was also privileged to stand in for her at Satellite4 losing out to Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook for Best Nonfiction. So, as she says, I asked her to write me something about queer speculative fiction, and being an amazing friend, she obliged!
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Dan asked me to talk about queer speculative fiction. Of course, I said yes; but a request to talk about queer speculative fiction is an odd thing for me to receive. My personal genre categories contain no overarching category of “queerness,” no particular group of works that I think of primarily in terms of their gender-bendy-ness. 

When I think about it, I can come up with any number of works that involve queerness, or that challenge set gender roles: the oeuvre of Joanna Russ; Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; the oeuvres of Elizabeth Bear and of Melissa Scott (alone and in collaboration); others, like Nicola Griffith, Ellen Kushner and Tanya Huff, in both short and long form; but with the exception of Joanna Russ – because Russ never lets you forget – I’ve never really thought of them primarily in terms of their approaches to gender and orientation, but rather in terms of the wide variety of stories they choose to tell. 

(Which probably goes to show that queer characters are characters first.)

There are groups of texts that I categorise by the gender and sexual orientation of their protagonists: but “lesbian SFF romance” and “entertainingly bad lesbian SFF romance,” while running counter to the narrative priorities of the heterosexual economy, are only as queer as their protagonists. They form a separate subcategory of texts, and one that is rarely discussed in any major consideration of queer speculative fiction. Indeed, it is noticeable that the figure of the lesbian, outside some of the specifically feminist texts of the 1970s and early 1980s, is a latecomer in discussions and works involving queerness in speculative fiction. I’ve heard more about Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint and Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett’s Point of Hopes (works which feature queer men) than I ever did about Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite (which is all about women): it is only, it seems to me, in the last decade, and especially in the last five years, that lesbian protagonists and main characters have entered the mainstream of science fiction in any numbers. 

This isn’t to say, of course, that those numbers amount to any great sum, but they are a noticeable increase

I started reading lesbian SFF romance by accident. I didn’t realise that Jane Fletcher’s books were about women in love with other women. But they were, and it was a rather mind-cracking-open moment for me. 

As this post points out, women have a hard time thinking about a female sexuality that doesn’t involve men. Women aren’t brought up to see female bodies are normal, as normative; lesbian sexualities threaten the heterosexual economy and the male-dominant penetrative model of sexuality in ways that gay sexualities may not necessarily do. 

Since my first introduction to SFFnal lesbian romance, I’ve made a habit of seeking it out. There are a handful of really interesting, good, or fun writers working in this subgenre: Heather Rose Jones, with her debut novel; Sophia Kell Hagin; Andi Marquette; Jane Fletcher; Barbara Ann Wright; but with all my heart I wish this sort of thing could be more common in the mainstream of SFF. Because it is the literature of speculation, of testing ideas to destruction – and the heterosexual economy is an idea whose destruction can only lead to the telling of more interesting stories.

Stories that reflect a wider variety of human experience.

Here, We Cross ed. Rose Lemberg

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Here, We Cross collects twenty-two queer and genderfluid poems from the digital pages of Stone Telling magazine. This chapbook is a celebration of speculative poetry that is diverse and varied; here you will find poems with speakers or protagonists who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, genderqueer, trans*, asexual, and neutrois; speakers who struggle with the body and the society’s imposed readings of that body. It is a painful book, a triumphant book, full of works that soar and breathe and live. Just like us.
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I’m, it has to be said, an on-and-off reader of poetry; epics aside, I’ll usually dip into and out of collections or anthologies for a couple of poems then put them down again for a while until the mood suits me again. My approach to Here, We Cross was radically different; I sat down and simply read, from the introduction through to the end of the last poem, and I think that different approach was very rewarding. I’m not entirely sure how to analyse or review an anthology of poetry, but here goes…

Here, We Cross is not just a collection of poems that present different views on queerness; it’s also got a number of different approaches to poetry, from the traditional (Mary Alexander Agner’s ‘Tertiary’, for instance) to the barely-recognisably-poetic (Samantha Henderson’s ‘The Gabriel Hound’). The mixture of approaches is handled well by Lemberg in her selection, avoiding leaning too heavily on tradition or on the edge-cases; a variety of styles means that poems are held entirely distinct in the mind of the reader. These are mostly also narrative poems, leaning towards the speculative or at least slipstream; fairytale-like poems (Lisa M. Bradley’s ‘we come together we fall apart’) are side by side with out-and-out science fictional narratives (Alex Dally MacFarlane’s ‘Sung Around Alsar-Scented Fires’) and poems that aren’t really speculative at all (Hel Gurney’s ‘Hair’). The variety of subjects, styles and approaches to telling queer stories, and the importance of queerness to those stories (MacFarlane’s poetry is both truly beautiful and only tangentially queer) all bring out different parts of the queer experience.

The poem that most stands out for me is a prose-poem, beautifully told and stunning lyrical; Alexandra Seidel’s ‘A Masquerade in Four Voices’ continues to stick with me and haunt me, lines resounding in my mind, even as I write this review having finished the collection and pottered around for a bit. A relatively simple fairytalesque prose narrative, it is told in poetic style, and the beauty of it is a dark and haunting one; three pages of absolutely stunning verse(?) really stick in the mind. Of course, it’s far from the only wonderful piece of writing; Bogi Takács’ ‘The Handcrafted Motion of Flight’ is a brilliant piece of futurist agendered storytelling as well as being fascinating poetry, and its use of Spivak pronouns is incredibly effective, as is the slow realisation of the narrator of the agendered identity of the character they are observing – and the reactions of those surrounding the narrator. On the other hand, some poems seem to drag for too long, with Bradley’s ‘we come together we fall apart’ taking up a quarter of the chapbook but actually just seeming to fill space and Mary Alexandra Agner’s ‘Tertiary’ feeling a touch messier and less well written than many of the entries.

Here, We Cross is perhaps most noteworthy, in queer terms, for the attempt to cover the breadth of queer identities; Lemberg has included poems covering gender and sexuality, in a wide variety of permutations, and in doing so has ensured that the reader isn’t excluded from the queer community she is curating. This may be in part due to her own background as a queer immigrant to the United States, and it shows in her contributors; largely female-identified and many of them are queer-identified, both sadly still unusual facts for a speculative fiction anthology.

Lemberg’s collection, then, not only spans a variety of poetic styles and includes some really strong poems, but Here, We Cross also highlights a number of queer voices all too often sidetracked in the speculative fiction conversation, and should be applauded for that.

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Guest Post: Stephanie Saulter on Gender, Language and Understanding

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I first ran across Stephanie Saulter’s work through Cheryl Morgan’s review of Gemsigns, which I went on to race through voraciously and with huge admiration for the humane, sympathetic and interesting approach Saulter takes to questions of language, identity, humanity. So when Binary (my review) came out, with a title that was immediately evocative to me of the queer community, I grabbed it expecting to be blown away; and, although as she says she didn’t actively intend to deal with questions of queer identity, I found the resonances fascinating. That only increased when I met her at Satellite4 and chatted to her about the novel, and she spoke passionately about the resonances of the title for her, a woman of colour from Jamaica who studied at MIT in the 1980s. She agreed to write something on the resonances between the queer community and the ®Evolution novels for me; and that’s what lies below.

Oh, and for you unlucky Americans, Gemsigns is almost available to you – it’s hitting the States some time next month, while Binary is already out here in the UK.
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One of the many pleasant surprises I’ve had in the year and a bit since Gemsigns was first published is the warm reception that it, and I, have received from members of what I broadly think of as the queer community – LGBT or QUILTBAG if you prefer (though I chafe at the inelegance of those acronyms). I say ‘surprise’ because I hadn’t mentally tagged any of the themes of the ®Evolution novels as being specifically queer – and as a straight, cisgendered woman with little personal experience of queer issues I wouldn’t have felt qualified to address them if I had.

But neither was I taken aback, because I’d never thought of the issues of discrimination, dehumanisation, exclusion and exoticisation that are threaded throughout Gemsigns and its sequel Binary as being fundamentally different for queer folks than for any other marginalised, minority group. I suspect that the experience of inequality, indifference or incomprehension is much the same, whether it’s rooted in value judgements about race or class; the historical legacy of conquest and colonialism; or biologically determinist views of gender, sex and sexuality. And the resonance that my books have had within the queer community has had the very welcome effect, for me, of introducing me more fully to it; broadening and deepening my own understanding; and making me even more aware of those parallels.

It’s also made me belatedly aware of some interesting quirks and coinages in the language around gender. Take, for example, the word ‘binary.’ I’ve always understood it to refer to any conjunction that is composed of two either-or alternatives, and most specifically as the word that describes base-2 numerical notation: the base code of computers and logic systems. It was with these general and specific meanings in mind that I selected it as the title for my second novel.

As such it describes the book perfectly; but at the time I had no idea that ‘binary’ had also become a code word, a sort of shorthand in discussions around understandings and definitions of gender. It wasn’t until a few months after Gemsigns came out, when I was both basking in that positive attention and learning the lingo of the queer community, that I realised there were going to be a lot of people for whom the title Binary would suggest something very specific.

Sorry about that. I didn’t know. Not that I would necessarily have done anything differently if I had known; but it’s a reminder of how much the degree to which we do or don’t understand each other comes down to the words we use, what we think those words mean, and what emotional resonance we attach to them. There’s an added irony in that one of the themes of Binary IS language – it’s there in the base code that the savant Herran manipulates, the genetic index that a desperately ill Rhys seeks, the twinspeak Rhys shares with his sister Gwen, Herran’s constrained vocabulary and codified syntax, Callan’s mission to translate knowledge from dead tongues into live ones, and the language of memory that illuminates the linked pasts of Aryel Morningstar and Zavcka Klist. It is, as much as anything else, a book about how communication happens, and what is won or lost when we get it right, or wrong.

Because another conceit of Binary is indeed the whole notion of binaries. Every foreground relationship or archetype is mirrored at least once, pursuing a broad theme that does not specifically address gender, but encompasses it within a wider commentary about perception and prejudice. So much of the way we comprehend each other comes down to the oppositional frames of reference we set up: us/them, good/bad, strong/weak, right/wrong, normal/abnormal. Man/woman. Straight/gay. But human beings, and our cultures, societies and relationships, are far more complicated – and interesting – than those dichotomies would suggest. They make the world simple, but they don’t make it true.

I think it’s important to weave these issues into narrative; but I really dislike it when subtext gets in the way of the story. People come to fiction primarily to be entertained, and it’s part of my job as a writer to make sure that any deeper meanings in my work are subtle enough not to detract from that. The result is that I sometimes wonder whether my thematic conclusions are so obscure that no one will notice them but me. So I was really tickled when one of the first reviewers both enjoyed the story, and got the point right away: ‘Things are not binary.’

No, they’re not. There are so many more options. There are so many ways to think and to feel and to love and to live. There are so many ways to be human.
We need a better language for those breadths of possibility. We need a broader, more inclusive set of symbols and archetypes. We need to move beyond the binary programming that defaults between ones, and zeros.

As I said, I didn’t have the queer community specifically in mind when I wrote, or named, Binary. But I didn’t not have them in mind either. And I hope and believe that they, of all people, will understand what it is I’m talking about.

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Shadow Man by Melissa Scott

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In the far future, human culture has developed five distinctive genders due to the effects of a drug easing sickness from faster-than-light travel. But on the planet Hara, where society is increasingly instability, caught between hard-liner traditions and the realities of life, only male and female genders are legal, and the ”odd-bodied” population are forced to pass as one or the other. Warreven Stiller, a lawyer and an intersexed person, is an advocate for those who have violated Haran taboos. When Hara regains contact with the Concord worlds, Warreven finds a larger role in breaking the long-standing role society has forced on ”him,” but the search for personal identity becomes a battleground of political intrigue and cultural clash.

Winner of a Lambda Literary Award for Gay/Lesbian Science Fiction, Shadow Man remains one of the more important modern, speculative novels ever published in the field of gender- and sexual identity.
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It was perhaps inevitable that, between Cheryl Morgan and Alex Dally MacFarlane, with their very different conclusions about the presentation of a queer future in Shadow Man, Scott’s novel was always going to be one of the first books I tackled as part of the Queering the Genre project.

It’s interesting to see Lethe Press’ blurb for the novel describe it as “one of the more important modern speculative novels…in the field of gender… identity”, because in reality, Shadow Man is barely interested in gender identity. The two legal systems in the book are both biologically determinist, with the Haran system flexible only in allowing the “odd-bodied” to choose and change their gender while the Concord only recognises five sexes, and doesn’t seem to have room for fluidity of sexuality let alone changes of gender (the shock espoused by Myhre Tatian on hearing his ex-partner has taken up with a “mem”, one of the three intersexed sexes recognised by the Concord, having thought she was “man-straight”, is very strong). While watching the three systems practiced in the book – the Concord system, the Haran system and the hardline radical interpretation of the Haran system espoused by Tendlathe, in which the “odd-bodied” are nonhuman – is a fascinating vision of how different systems of gender, sex and sexuality interact and collide, and an interesting take on the inevitable crumbling of systems that don’t reflect reality, for a genderqueer person who is male-sexed, Shadow Man doesn’t seem to reflect the messy reality of sex and gender.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t an enjoyable book taken as a story, of course. Scott’s novel consistently rejects, in its plotting, easy answers; from start to finish, Shadow Man is a story of the way that economics, politics, personality and power all come together to create, reinforce and bring down systems, the way that myriad different factors impact on the motivations of characters, and the ways in which personal morality and political expediency can collude in real horror. All this plays out in a plot that is actually surprisingly slow and quiet, focused on the offworlder Mhyre Tatian, the representative of the pharmaceutical company NAPD on Hara, and Warreven Stiller, a lawyer whose practice focuses on questions of “trade” (effectively sex work) who is sidelined away from this into representing 3is clan as their negotiator with the offworld pharmaceutical companies thanks to the machinations of the Most Important Man, Temelathe Stade.

Whilst sounding like an incredibly difficult universe to understand and a hard novel to get into at first glance, in fact Scott’s novel is incredibly accessible; very readable, fast-paced language, with definitions between each viewpoint-section of both social terms and terms around the systems of gender and sexuality used by the Concord and Hara, combine with the plot to draw the reader on and never let up; Shadow Man is one of the most simply enjoyable books I’ve read in some time in that regard, because it really plugs into that part of the reader which simply wants to know what happens next. The delayed climax, and the intricacies of the plot, all fall into place over the course of the novel which ends, like China Mièville’s Iron Council, just before the inevitable revolution explodes and takes hold; Scott’s refusal to answer the questions the clash of cultures asks is excellently executed.

The characters of Shadow Man are a more mixed point, however. Whilst Warreven and Myhre Tatian are both fascinatingly painted, rounded characters, they’re probably the only two who really are; Temelathe is very simplistically painted as simply interested in power, his son Tendlathe is almost the archetypical homophobe sublimating his desires into anger and bigotry, and the rest of the cast are equally simply portrayed. Motivations appear to be single-stranded, and largely responses to the social pressures of two cultures coming into conflict, rather than the more interesting, varied rainbow of human actions that the world and our experience presents. It’s also surprising to note that, in a book about sex, gender and sexuality, we barely see women; all of our main cast but for Warreven are male-identified men, and even Warreven spends the majority of the book as a male-identified “herm”. This is a strange lack, and a noticable one.

In the end, Shadow Man deserves praise for a fascinating portrayal of cultural change and shift, and for some excellent writing around its central duo; but Scott’s interrogation of gender and sex really falls down on inspection, and her male-dominated cast tends towards the flat. This is an important and enjoyable book, but not necessarily an successful one, interesting more for its failures than its successes.

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