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Transcendent ed. K. M. Szpara

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There are fantastical stories with actual transgender characters, some for whom that is central and others for whom that isn’t. And there are stories without transgender characters, but with metaphors and symbolism in their place, genuine expressions of self through such speculative fiction tropes as shapeshifting and programming. Transgender individuals see themselves in transformative characters, those outsiders, before seeing themselves as human protagonists. Those feelings are still valid. Cisgender people can never quite understand this distancing. But though the stories involve transformation and outsiders, sometimes the change is one of self-realization. This anthology will be a welcome read for those who are ready to transcend gender through the lens of science fiction, fantasy, and other works of imaginative fiction.
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K. M. Szpara, in his introduction to Transcendent, explains where this anthology came from: a submission to Lethe Press’s Wilde Stories 2015, their year’s best of gay speculative fiction. As a result of that, Steve Berman of Lethe Press gave Szpara a call, and asked him to edit a similar anthology, but trans themed… to which, thankfully for us and for history, Szpara said yes. Collecting the year’s best trans speculative fiction must be an incredible challenge, and to narrow that down from however many submissions Szpara received to the fifteen he eventually chose must have been a monumental task; I don’t intend to comment on all fifteen stories, but to highlight those I think are best – and those that I think don’t fit so well into the collection, for whatever reasons.

It’s hard to pick out the best stories to talk about in a collection where the standard is so high; but one of the best is E. Sexton’s ‘The Librarian’s Dilemma’, which is barely speculative fiction (and increasingly mimetic as time advances), and that is absolutely brilliant. It’s a relatively short story that draws on queer love to help boost the tension felt by its central character between preserving texts and ensuring access for as many as possible; Sexton walks that tightrope without ever providing an answer to the titular dilemma, and the transness of the central character matters but isn’t what the story is about.

Transcendent is full of stories like that; Bogi Takács’ story ‘The Need For Overwhelming Sensation’ is a queer, kinky space fantasy that looks at assumptions, power, and politicking, whilst also being about a beautiful and sweet queer sub-dom relationship. The presentation of nonbinary gender is natural, as one might expect from eir work, and the way e challenges assumptions about kink is fantastic, but the transness of the story is almost incidental. The same is true of A. Merc Rustad’s ‘Where Monsters Dance’, in which the protagonist’s girlfriend is a trans woman; the story is largely about parental abuse of the protagonist by their step-father, and the psychological protective mechanisms one builds to deal with abuse, among other things, and it is a fascinating, powerful, and moving story.

A few of the stories in Transcendent are very directly engaging with being trans. The volume opens on one, ‘The Shape of My Name’, by Nino Cipri. Their story is a fascinating take on time travel and on the emotional complexities it can lead to, with the mixture of certain fate and changing destiny a major theme; Cipri writes about being trans powerfully in the story, and is interested in the circularity a time travel narrative can allow. Everett Maroon’s ‘Treasure Acre’ also plays with time travel, but rather more simply; it’s a very short story, about the way that the struggles we have to face as trans people make us who we are, and although we could wish them away, it might not actually be better to not have them. Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s ‘Everything Beneath You’ is the most personal to me; it engages directly with the wish to be neither male nor female, and the possible consequences of that, whilst also telling a tragic love story in a very mythic fashion. Stufflebeam’s embrace of myth is powerful, and her use of mythic motifs works excellently.

One theme I singularly dislike that runs through a number of these stories is nonhuman, magical transformations as a metaphor for trans experiences; this is strongest in Alexis A. Hunter’s ‘Be Not Unequally Yoked’, but Transcendent also sees it occur in ‘The Thing On The Cheerleading Squad’ by Molly Tanzer, ‘into the waters i rode down’ by Jack Hollis Marr, and ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ by Holly Heisey. Each of these stories has their own strengths, and some of them, notably Marr’s, also have trans characters outside their metaphors, but at the same time, it is still frustrating to see selected as some of the best trans fiction stories that conceptualise being trans as essentially not human.

That said, of that set of stories, Heisey’s ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ really does convey powerfully and movingly a lot about the experience of transition and the reactions to it of different people; the three parts of the story are fascinatingly written with different approaches to transition, with the last being cathartic and heartbreakingly beautiful in its simplicity.

There are also a couple of stories which are simply not up to the same standard as the rest of the anthology; Benjanun Sridungkaew’s ‘The Petals Abide’ has the potential to be a fascinating piece, and the way she uses gender in the story is important in its straightforward acceptance of a variety of gender identities, but the whole thing should have been about half the length, and the literary quality of the language is such that it tends to tip into convolution and self-parody rather than beauty. E. Catherine Tobler’s story, ‘Splitskin’, feels like it isn’t sure quite what it’s trying to be; somewhere between a circus tale and magical realism about the gold rush, it never really works as a piece of fiction until the very ending, which is beautifully written.

The anthology closes on a very interesting story which brings together multiple themes discussed above; Penny Stirling’s ‘Kin, Painted’ in one sense is a metaphorical discussion of being trans and trying to find one’s gender, and in another sense, given the explicit inclusion of trans characters of a variety of genders, is not about that at all. Stirling’s story is a fascinating meditation on art, and how art derives meaning from its context; ou writes about growing up, discovering oneself and one’s community, and about the idea of family, whilst also having built an incredibly queer world in the background.

Transcendent isn’t perfect, as no anthology can be; I think there’s too many stories which treat being trans as a metaphor, and some which just aren’t up to scratch in here. But overall, Szpara has done a fantastic job of selecting stories to showcase a range of trans narratives and voices, and his work should be applauded.

Disclaimer: I am a friend of Bogi Takács, one of the writers in the anthology, and of K. M. Szpara, the editor. Transcendent 2, also published by Lethe Press, is forthcoming, edited by Bogi Takács.

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

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Love Beyond Body, Space & Time ed. Hope Nicholson

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Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time is a collection of indigenous science fiction and urban fantasy focusing on LGBT and two-spirit characters. These stories range from a transgender woman undergoing an experimental transition process to young lovers separated through decades and meeting in their own far future. These are stories of machines and magic, love and self-love.
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Love Beyond Body, Space & Time occupies an important place in science fiction: not only centring queer voices and narratives, but also centring Indigenous voices and narratives, a group all too often left out of discussions of the genre. Not all the writers in the anthology are themselves Indigenous, a point Nicholson acknowledges in her Editor’s Letter, but all the stories feature Indigenous characters, cultures, and themes.

Love Beyond Body, Space & Time opens with three nonfiction pieces. Nicholson’s opening letter is largely a disclaimer about this not being her story to tell, but the others are more interesting; a piece on two-spirit stories as survivance stories in science fiction by Grace L. Dillon, and a piece on the historical and present day role of two-spirit people in Indigenous communities by Niigaan Sinclair. Both are fascinating essays, situating some of the things the anthology is doing in a wider cultural discourse and a wider social model, and providing multiple possible frameworks with which to approach the stories within.

There are a couple of absolutely outstanding stories in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time. Daniel Heath Justice’s ‘The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds’ reads as a fable, with a very obvious moral; it’s well written and beautiful, as the best fable are, and with the poetic style and lack of specificity that much living myth has. Its queerness is explicit, varied in kind, and powerfully central to the story, and to the model of diversity in which Heath Justice is invested in the tale.

In stark contrast, ‘Né Łe!’ by Darcie Little Badger is straightforward science fiction, albeit with mythic resonance; it’s also a sweet lesbian romance story, that is impressively moving in its simplicity and with very strong characterisation over its short length. In similar vein is ‘Valediction At The Star View Motel’, a lightly fantastic story of young love, passion, and memory; Nathan Adler takes on the racism faced by the Indigenous community, including some of the racist policies applied to them, whilst also keeping at the core of the story the simplicity of young love.

The strongest story in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time, by my lights, is Gwen Benaway’s ‘Transition’. Benaway writes a transition narrative that deals with the difficulties of being trans in a cis world; the way every day involves armouring up and self-defence strategies to keep cis violence from breaking out against one. It’s also a story of community and history; Benaway builds into the very bones of the story the acceptance of trans people by at least the Indigenous community she chooses to present. The mythic fantastic creeps in around the edges of the story, which is essentially mimetic, and ‘Transition’ emerges as emotionally resonant and incredibly powerful.

At the other end of the spectrum, ‘Aliens’ by Richard van Camp is a frustrating piece, which if the reader accepts and enjoys the voice in which it is told might well work. However, it feels too mannered for the attempt at naturalism it is making, and the treatment of gender diversity as a big secret and major revelation at the end of the story is a frustrating one, playing into a number of harmful tropes and a deeply problematic presentation of gender diversity. Similarly, in ‘Imposter Syndrome’, Mari Kurisato writes a transition narrative that uses an alien transitioning to human as a metaphor for gender transition; seeing human trans people in fiction is powerful, whereas in this collection especially, this treatment of transness felt painfully out of place. Kurisato’s style and characterisation are excellent, and there are some really brilliant ideas in the piece, which makes the fundamental failure all the more frustrating.

Failing in a different way, ‘Perfectly You’ by David Robertson just doesn’t emotionally connect. This attempt to tell a romantic story feels strained and emotionless, essentially empty of real content; there isn’t really enough ground on which to build the payoff Robertson wants to give, and the strongest parts of the story are those in which he is building that ground.

In the end, Nicholson has engaged in an important project in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time, centring Indigenous queer people, but it’s a deeply flawed execution of that project; we need more anthologies like this, but next time, more stories like Heath Justice’s and Little Badger’s, please!

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Trans Like Me by CN Lester

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What does it mean to be transgender? How do we discuss the subject? In this eye-opening book, CN Lester, academic and activist, takes us on a journey through some of the most pressing issues concerning the trans debate: from pronouns to Caitlyn Jenner; from feminist and LGBTQ activists, to the rise in referrals for gender variant children – all by way of insightful and moving passages about the author’s own experience. Trans Like Me shows us how to strive for authenticity in a world which often seeks to limit us by way of labels.
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At this ‘trans tipping point’ (thank you, Time), a lot of people still don’t know anything about trans people outside a famous few: Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock. All of them are beautiful, and identify as women. CN Lester doesn’t: like me, they are genderqueer, and want to open up the discussion about trans issues to a more diverse array of genders. Trans Like Me is their book-length attempt to do that.

Trans Like Me is written very much for a cis audience. That is, it’s written with the intention of educating a cis audience about trans issues and trans lives, and the reality, complexity, and diversity of those lives, rather than to a trans audience as a rallying cry or political manifesto. Lester certainly has a political agenda, but it’s one that involves getting cis people to sign up to trans rights; hence, explanations of how dysphoria can feel from the inside, discussions of the reality of discrimination against trans people on an everyday basis, and explanation of the medical and legal obstacles trans people face in getting recognition as ourselves. They lay these things out excellently, while also combining them with calls for change in how the world handles trans people: Trans Like Me suggests how the medical and legal professions can handle trans people better, with concrete ideas for recognition.

Lester’s marshalling of evidence is an interesting combination of scientific data and personal anecdote; much of their argument about gender diversity not being a mental health condition comes from their own personal experiences of having mental health conditions, rather than discussions of psychologists’ research. Trans Like Me does use scientific evidence and historical evidence in other areas though; for instance, Lester makes a very strong argument using historical evidence from a broad swathe of the past to demonstrate that gender diverse people have always existed and been part of (Western) society in varying ways.

One of the key elements of Trans Like Me that distinguishes it from most volumes on trans issues is the way Lester engages with gender diverse people who are not, like themself, binary trans people. Trans Like Me talks about a range of gender expression, from genderfluidity to nonbinary, and how they fit into the discussions of trans issues that we usually see; thus, they open up a space for nonbinary people in the discussion of trans issues and of what needs to be done for a more trans-inclusive society. They are also very clear on the importance of allowing flexibility and change in one’s gender over the course of one’s life; this includes discussion of raising children who are gender diverse, through to late-life transition.

There are weaknesses and gaps in Trans Like Me; Lester unfortunately doesn’t discuss agender people at all, assuming gender is something everyone has, and their discussion of intersexuality (as distinct from the range of trans identities) is both brief and focused largely on undermining the idea of a biological binary of sexes. Lester also at times tends towards the defensive; while necessary when trans people are under attack from a variety of fronts, it would have been nice to see them put forward a stronger argument of itself, rather than strong arguments against trans-exclusionary positions. I would also have liked to see a more clear set of proposals for change: Lester does have some policy ideas, but they don’t really have much of a programme for social reform, or concrete suggestions for action.

Those weaknesses are relatively minor, though; Trans Like Me is an absolutely fantastic book for educating a cis audience about trans issues, as well as opening up the world of nonbinary issues for binary trans people, and I heartily recommend it.

Disclaimer: I am hosting an event with CN Lester and Kaite Welsh at Waterstones Glasgow Argyle Street on August 17th. Please join us!

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

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Just Girls by Rachel Gold

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Jess Tucker sticks her neck out for a stranger—the buzz is someone in the dorm is a trans girl. So Tucker says it’s her, even though it’s not, to stop the finger pointing. She was an out lesbian in high school, and she figures she can stare down whatever gets thrown her way in college. It can’t be that bad.

Ella Ramsey is making new friends at Freytag College, playing with on-campus gamers and enjoying her first year, but she’s rocked by the sight of a slur painted on someone else’s door. A slur clearly meant for her, if they’d only known.

New rules, old prejudices, personal courage, private fear. In this stunning follow-up to the groundbreaking Being Emily, Rachel Gold explores the brave, changing landscape where young women try to be Just Girls.
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There aren’t many trans narratives out there, so when one comes recommended strongly, I’m always going to perk my ears up, as I did for Just Girls when it was recommended by a friend at Eastercon in Birmingham this year…

Just Girls is an odd book for a trans narrative. After all, much of the transphobic abuse we encounter isn’t directed at a trans person, but at a cis person who pretended to be trans to protect a hypothetical trans person they didn’t know; but that doesn’t make its portrayal any less real. Similarly, there are times when Gold straightforwardly reproduces the arguments of TERFs and other transphobes in order to have characters counter them – often ineffectually or without really having another character doing so, as if the rest of the dialogue is missing. As such, this is an odd book, that seems to be reproducing a lot of the abuse it is trying to highlight; this isn’t helped by a strange avoidance of consistent language (trans, transgender and transsexual are all used, in overlapping and often interchangeable ways).

Where Gold engages with sexual and intimate partner violence, she’s much better; it’s explicitly described in retrospect, although not at the time, and controlling behaviours are conveyed very well, and the consequences to the characters are real; Just Girls makes it a secondary core of the novel, although the ways it is tied into the trans narrative is slightly strained.

Of course, there’s more to Just Girls than intimate violence and arguments with Germaine Greer (who Gold namechecks as wrong). The whole book is a slightly overlong, complicated set up for an ending that feels a little too neat for the complexity of the story Gold is telling; she sets up love triangles, squares, and polygons of all kinds, and then knocks them down into simple pairings, in a rather frustrating and reductive way that fails to engage with the possibilities of, for instance, polyamory. On the other hand, some of the elements of the plot are carried off really well – Gold’s description of augmented reality gaming is fun and immersive, and her idea of gamifying social justice activism is an interesting one with true real-world application.

The place where Just Girls really thrives and falls is in its characters. The non-protagonist cast are really well drawn, although there is a strange dichotomy between “good” people who all get trans issues instantly and without question and “bad” people who are vilely transphobic, with nothing in between (and no “bad” people who are bad but not transphobic). The LGBTQIA Alliance members are fantastically portrayed, as are the geeky friends Ella makes; but the standout secondary character for me is Nico, the genderqueer friend Ella made at school who changes hir/per/yos pronouns as and when they become bored of them.

Ella herself, narrator of half of Just Girls, is a slightly annoying character; for someone so interested in science, it seems to barely be an interest of the narrative, just dropped in occasionally for flavour, and her trans narrative and her love triangle is really all there is to her, something the story and the internal monologue keep coming back to in unsubtle ways. Tucker is more interesting; her own mixed emotions are much better portrayed and much more richly human, and the third-person limited frame of her sections allow her to breathe a bit more, Gold’s writing tending to be better in these sections and much more able to create a character from the outside than in.

In the end, Just Girls is a worthy book, but I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile one: it can’t quite decide what it wants to do, except argue for trans acceptance, and it can’t quite decide how it wants to do that.

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Shattered Minds by Laura Lam

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Ex-neuroscientist Carina struggles with a drug problem, her conscience, and urges to kill. She satisfies her cravings in dreams, fuelled by the addictive drug ‘Zeal’. Now she’s heading for self-destruction – until she has a vision of a dead girl.

Sudice Inc. damaged Carina when she worked on their sinister brain-mapping project, causing her violent compulsions. And this girl was a similar experiment. When Carina realizes the vision was planted by her old colleague Mark, desperate for help to expose the company, she knows he’s probably dead. Her only hope is to unmask her nemesis – or she’s next.

To unlock the secrets Mark hid in her mind, she’ll need a group of specialist hackers. Dax is one of them, a doctor who can help Carina fight her addictions. If she holds on to her humanity, they might even have a future together. But first she must destroy her adversary – before it changes us and our society, forever.
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Back in March, I wrote a piece about Laura Lam as a writer of queer speculative fiction; now, in June, her latest novel, again with queer elements, comes out, Shattered Minds, set in the same world as, and after the events of, False Hearts, although with a different set of characters and little direct connection between the two.

Shattered Minds is a mix of psychological thriller, corporate espionage novel, and heist story; Lam blends the three elements, which are admittedly relatively natural cohabitants, together to create an exciting and interesting plot which moves from one stage into the next very naturally. Underlying everything is the psychological element, with Carina’s extremely violent urges present throughout the book as a threat to those around her and as a kind of visceral violent shock punctuating and puncturing things like camaraderie. That’s paired with Carina’s and Roz’s flashbacks, to Roz’s work with Carina and to Carina’s childhood; both of these build to joint climaxes towards the end of the book which really punch home how much Lam has built a groundwork of violence and ethical questions together into an actually relatively pacific book. The corporate espionage blends seamlessly into the heist as Carina and the Trust work to take down Sudice, the core plot of Shattered Minds, with information an insider sent to Carina; the book follows the Trust unlocking that information and understanding it before deciding how best to use it, and the reactions of Roz and Sudice to this threat.

On the whole, the book is low key. Shattered Minds is tense, but it’s the tension of waiting for the violence, waiting for the extreme action; there are moments throughout of such action, including some which feel very much like classic cyberpunk as hacking involves virtual reality trips and interfaces, but this is largely a psychological exploration. Lam keeps the tension working well throughout the plot, making the reader want to know the answers to the mysteries she has set and seeded; each mystery links in to the rest, in a kind of complex interplay that Lam consistently excels at in her novels.

This introspective approach means Shattered Minds lives or dies by its characters, and Lam makes very sure it lives. With three viewpoint characters, it would have been easy to have them all on one side of the moral equation, or all agreeing to the same value systems; as it is, we also see Roz’s viewpoint, and Lam depicts it with an impressive level of empathy and understanding, without making her evil or heartless but instead someone who very solidly believes they are doing absolutely the right thing. Carina, meanwhile, is a fascinating character who constantly struggles with addiction, self-doubt, and homicidal ideation; Shattered Minds doesn’t shy away from the awfulness of any of this, but instead embraces it, and shows that Carina isn’t a bad person for what she thinks, but is defined, as the rest of the cast are, by what they do.

The third viewpoint character, Dax, is arguably the least morally complex; on the side that Lam expects the reader to be on throughout Shattered Minds, and with a palliative role for much of the book, he could have, in other hands, been a very simple, indeed boring, character. Instead, Shattered Minds gives us an incredibly human, and sympathetic, view of a trans man; Dax’s transness isn’t a central point of the novel but does affect his character, and Lam writes with an incredible power about it, such that a passage where he talks about having brought his body to fit his mind made me spontaneously burst into tears (the bottom of page 281 of the ARC, for reference). Dax’s presence isn’t the only queerness on the page; we also have a gay couple, a pair of secondary although still vital characters, who Lam treats with the respect and dignity she extends to every single one of the compact cast of the book.

Shattered Minds is an absolutely fantastic novel; it balances quiet and loud, action and emotion, brilliantly, and in a very different way to most thrillers and science fiction novels, to stunning effect. I don’t think it’s Laura Lam’s best work (I think that is yet to come, and is going to cement her status as a modern master) but it’s head and shoulders above most of the genres it plays with.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received from the publisher, Pan MacMillan. Laura Lam is a friend, and will be launching Shattered Minds on 22nd June at Waterstones Glasgow Argyle Street in conversation with Kirsty Logan.

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

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The Manifold Worlds by Foz Meadows

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Rather than reviewing these books, I’m just going to talk about some of the things they do; specifically, some of the wonderfully queer things they do. Since I am covering both An Accident of Stars and A Tyranny of Queens, there will be SPOILERS in this post, as well as TRIGGER WARNINGS for discussion of rape and sexual assault. The blurb of An Accident of Stars can be found here.

These books are the portal fantasy of my heart. In a way that something like Every Heart A Doorway appears to have been for others, the Manifold Worlds tapped into everything I loved about portal fantasy, everything books like Narnia ever set up for me, and also into everything I never saw in portal fantasy: real consequences, real people, real lives. This is a series that engages with issues of mental health, consent, different manifestations of queerness, power, perceptions and how they can be clouded, and even the very idea of narrative; that is a backbone of the whole duology, in fact. The Manifold Worlds are meaty, meaty books to get your teeth into.

Let’s start by talking about queerness. This is a series which not only has multiple trans characters, but it also depicts multiple ways of being trans, and ways of relating to one’s body. Yena, who we meet in An Accident of Stars, is a trans woman, who used a magical ritual to bring her body in line with her self-image as a woman. This is, per the worldbuilding Meadows does in her primary secondary world, a fairly standard thing; not exactly common, but no stigma attaches to it, and it’s just something you can do. However, another character, Naruet, a trans man we meet in A Tyranny of Queens, does not wish to change his body; mention is made early on of his binder, and later in the book he talks explicitly about not wanting to change his body, for various reasons. Again, this isn’t judged; it’s simply his choice, and that’s all that matters: he’s a man with this body, and that’s fine too. Meadows has built a world so incredibly powerfully accepting for trans people in a way reality isn’t, yet, and reading it feels like coming home.

This is also a world where sexuality is seen as much more fluid, and polyamorous bisexuality the assumed norm. In both An Accident of Stars and A Tyranny of Queens, Meadows gives us multiple models of relationships in various forms, whether couples or larger groups, of various gender combinations, and none are valued or devalued; the central theme is trust and mutual respect and openness. Meadows makes it a point to build every good relationship on those foundations, and reveals, in A Tyranny of Queens, that a key relationship was built on manipulation and lies and shows how much damage that can do to everyone around the manipulator, but especially their primary victim.

Indeed, The Manifold Worlds deals with sexual assault and other kinds of trauma on multiple occasions; sexual assault is most explicitly a theme in A Tyranny of Queens, but trauma of all kinds runs through both books, including of physical injury, complete culture shock, and the result of abuse. Saffron, one of the viewpoint characters and protagonists, has PTSD which becomes gradually more pronounced in An Accident of Stars, climaxing in her treatment by a counsellor in A Tyranny of Queens and the complete failure of those around her to understand her PTSD, except for a character who was victim of a rape, but not believed by anyone; Meadows doesn’t expicitly make statements, but does expect the reader to draw a particular conclusion. Further, Leoden, the primary antagonist of An Accident of Stars, is revealed to have been literally brainwashed and mindwiped by his consort Kadeja, who takes over the role of primary antagonist for A Tyranny of Queens; the reactions of different characters to this revelation – including disbelief, blaming him, and blaming themselves for not protecting him or seeing it – are portrayed with an incredible complexity, and an emotional empathy which doesn’t stop Meadows from coming down on one side of the issue. Trauma isn’t the only engagement with neurodiversity in The Manifold Worlds; the aforementioned trans man, Naruet, is portrayed as being autistic, and characters in A Tyranny of Queens adapt to his needs and requirements virtually without comment or without pressuring him to neurotypicality.

On a more purely narrative level, The Manifold Worlds is interesting for how it deals with the idea of narrative. In both books, there is the order of the Shavaktiin, “mystics and storytellers who believe that history is shaped by human stories” (to quote the glossary), who both observe and involve themselves in events as recorders and as influencers. Meadows plays with the way the Shavaktiin abrogate agency to the Great Story whilst also having to exercise it all the time in their choice of interventions in service to it; An Accident of Stars, in fact, turns on the idea of how much agency Shavaktiin are allowed to display, and A Tyranny of Queens takes up that thread, with interesting consequences for what we might call genre-savviness, only rather less genre-specific and more related to the shape of human narrative.

On the whole, portal fantasy doesn’t have major traumatic psychological consequences for the characters, and the portals they step through are usually into worlds far more familiarly normative. Foz Meadows, in The Manifold Worlds, throws those norms completely out of the window, and does so with gusto and relish; reading these books was like coming home to me, to a place I was welcome and known in, and where the friends I know exist and have a home too. For all the marginalised people out there, I cannot recommend these books highly enough.

The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

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As the city rebuilds from the onslaught of sorcery that nearly destroyed it, the Great Houses of Paris, ruled by fallen angels, still contest one another for control over the capital.

House Silverspires was once the most powerful, but just as it sought to rise again, an ancient evil brought it low. Philippe, an immortal who escaped the carnage, has a singular goal—to resurrect someone he lost. But the cost of such magic may be more than he can bear.

In House Hawthorn, Madeleine the alchemist has had her addiction to angel essence savagely broken. Struggling to live on, she is forced on a perilous diplomatic mission to the underwater Dragon Kingdom—and finds herself in the midst of intrigues that have already caused one previous emissary to mysteriously disappear…

As the Houses seek a peace more devastating than war, those caught between new fears and old hatreds must find strength—or fall prey to a magic that seeks to bind all to its will.
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Back in 2015, I reviewed House of Shattered Wings, Aliette de Bodard’s introduction to the world of a Paris broken by magical warfare and the emergence of the Fallen. de Bodard has returned to that world two years later with The House of Binding Thorns; does it live up to the high bar of its predecessor?

Whereas House of Shattered Wings had a strong focus on Silverspires, House of Binding Thorns shifts focus to a dual one; on Silverspires’ rival, Hawthorn, who we only saw as dark antagonists in House of Shattered Wings, and on the dragon kingdom in the Seine, which was only a bit part before. This shift in focus means de Bodard does a lot of new of worldbuilding; each place she shows us has such a sense of rootedness and geographical specificity that it really feels inhabited, lived in, aged and fallen. The whole world’s decrepitude takes different forms; de Bodard isn’t content to just let Paris fall, but it has to fall in ways that make sense for the part of Paris it is – whether rusted, or faded grandeur, or the mold of the dragon kingdom, each one evokes a past golden age as well as showing us the gaps between the aspirations of characters and the realities of their situations. Places are as much characters as the people are.

That only works because House of Binding Thorns is full of very human people, from the returning Philippe and Madeleine to the expanded role of Asmodeus, and the new characters – the dragon prince spying on Hawthorn, Thuan; the Annamite Houseless Françoise and her Fallen lover Berith. de Bodard has four protagonists and three major viewpoints in the novel, an impressive number to handle (Asmodeus is a protagonist but never a viewpoint); but she does it deftly and with a clear demarcation of shifts in viewpoint, as much in writing style as in physical markers of line breaks. The narrative control here is much stronger than in House of Shattered Wings, and the occasional messiness that plagued the first book is definitely cleared up here for a more streamlined reading experience.

That applies to the plot too; The House of Binding Thorns is a deeply political novel with tangled intrigues moving into and through each other. The factions within Hawthorn, and within the dragon kingdoms, as well as outside groups, all of whom have different agendas and who can be at times unfortunately unwilling to recognise that there might be more factions at play than they initially assumed, each have their own plans that intersect in ways that de Bodard keeps a very tight control of. Everything that happens here has had its trail laid earlier, to a greater or lesser extent, and things refer backwards and forwards in interesting ways; de Bodard lays strands of plot to the side temporarily only to pick them up again later, but in a very deliberate way that really builds the novel.

Thematically, The House of Binding Thorns is an expansion on the ideas of House of Shattered Wings, and an interesting one; it looks at power, and different kinds of approaches to it; it looks at what being a part of something bigger than oneself can mean; it looks at conceptions of sacrifice, and what one might be willing to sacrifice; and in Madeleine’s sections, it looks at addiction and PTSD with an intelligent and sympathetic eye, without cliche. de Bodard never lets theme overtake story, so The House of Binding Thorns moves at a good pace; it isn’t a fast novel, but it’s not sprawling either, more a kind of stately procession that turns into a bit of a brawl at the close, but intentionally and in a very controlled and clear way.

House of Binding Thorns is a grand and striking expansion upon the world of the Dominion of the Fallen, and a powerful novel from de Bodard, who really brings her full talents to bear on every aspect of the book. A distinct level up from someone who was already a master.

DISCLOSURE: Aliette is a good friend, who I’ve hosted here for guest spots in the past and will again; and I purchased a Tuckerisation in the novel for my partner.

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