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The Brittle Star by Davina Langdale

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When his mother’s ranch is attacked, sixteen-year-old John Evert is wounded and left to die. But John Evert is no ordinary young man. He’s a frontiersman’s son, a rancher who’s lived his whole life in the untamed Southern California wilderness of 1860.

In a journey that will take him from the bustling young city of Los Angeles to Texas to Missouri and back, to the front lines of the American Civil War and home again, John Evert will learn the cost of vengeance and the price of forgiveness.
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After reading Days Without End, something of a palate freshener was required; hence, Langdale’s The Brittle Star, another modern Western, although in this case without the queerness.

Brittle Star, like Days Without End, is an essentially American novel – about the Old West, about the Civil War, about being an outlaw, running from the law, and eventually having a reckoning with it, about belonging; and like Barry’s book, it’s by a non-American writer, in this case the British Davina Langford. However, unlike Barry, Langdale doesn’t write Brittle Star as ‘Murcan; instead, she peppers the book with a light dose of Americana, giving it the feel of a traditional Western, using the language of the Western (including Spanish loan words), and the third person prose has a style that really evokes its events and summons up a feel of the Old West and Western films.

Brittle Star is centred on relationships. Not sexual ones; instead, the familial – and pseudo-familial – relationships of John Evert Burn, first his mother, then his surrogate father, then his found family. Langdale writes with a deep sympathy and empathy about these relationships and makes them really believable; none come immediately and without work, but all are developed over time, and their full extent and nature slowly laid out across the course of the book. The various character relationships are beautifully laid out and developed, and only work because Langdale gets the reader to care about every character; however awful they may later be revealed to be, we care about them, and that cannot be changed by retrospective re-examination.

The plot is a relatively simple, linear one; Brittle Star isn’t doing anything particularly new or interesting there, and indeed, Langdale’s approach to the plot might even be a little flawed. While the novel does follow a linear progression of events that feel like a progression, they also feel, and in some cases are, rather episodic; we see an extended period of time, and then a jump, and another extended period, and what happens in those jumps, or what happens between moments, feels rather empty and undeveloped, as if Langdale simply had no interest in portraying it.

That takes a certain something away from what otherwise flows beautifully in the novel; Brittle Star is really well paced on a chapter and a sentence level, matching its style to its moment really powerfully, such that there are beautiful, long flowing sections describing nature and travel, but Langdale changes style completely when it comes to her more action-centred moments, with really punchy sentences blasting away, and the emotional beats timed well to hit in the middle of either of change up the pace, throw the reader into a new mood. It’s a stylistic quirk that feels rather cinematic: in the middle of the battle, the slow shot of the friend dying, rendered into prose, works to the same powerful effect, while somehow feeling a little less manipulative, in part because the connection to the characters is stronger than in most films.

One thing worth noting is that some descriptions of Brittle Star have suggested that it’s a book about racism. It’s not even really a book about a white person overcoming their racism; Langdale instead writes about John’s racism, which springs from a traumatic event, and how it casts a blight over many relationships in his life, and over his interactions with other people. She also focuses on how he can make exceptions for individuals as he gets to know them, and from them start to generalise out; I can’t speak for how well the narrative works from the perspective of a Native American, the focus of his racism, but Langdale certainly does not condone his bigotry, and indeed the characters around him do not either, and he challenges other bigotries of others (such as towards African Americans). The real problem with the discussion of racism is how simplistic it is; Langdale doesn’t cover societal attitudes, or subconscious prejudices, leading to a rather flat caricature of the complex realities of bigoty.

In the end, The Brittle Star is a rather good Western in the modern mode, evoking the wide open plains and the feel of the period, and with fantastic characters; but Langdale’s attempts to cover such a broad time period hurts the cohesiveness of the novel somewhat, and her discussion of racism is, at times, a little tin-eared.

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Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

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Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.

Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.
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Elizabeth Bear swung by last week, before I had received my copy of Karen Memory, to talk to us about strong female characters; and what she said was brilliant, setting my expectations of the novel even higher than they had already been. So, how did it live up to those expectations…?

I’m going to talk a bit more personally about how I relate to Karen Memory, if the reader will indulge me. My copy arrived by post on Thursday morning of last week, and I read the first quarter or so of the novel between its arrival and four o’clock that afternoon. At that point, I received a phonecall from my mother, telling me my grandfather had died – suddenly and unexpectedly – the night before. Over the following few days, I had no fixed sleeping pattern, no real motivation, even no motivation at all – except to read Karen Memory, both so I could get this review up today, and because I wanted to. It afforded, by being first-person, escape into being someone else, someone with such different problems, and indeed a different life, to me, but with related problems; Karen is an orphan, and her processing of her grief for her father helped me process grief for my grandfather. It was also a book that took me away from the world; once I started reading, it was hard to drag myself out of the book, because Karen’s voice just drew me along, Bear keeping it smooth and consistent even while varying the pace, and making it very welcoming. The book provided a sort of haven from dealing with the reality of the world; when asked to think about saying something at my grandfather’s funeral, I wrote some brief thoughts and then retreated straight into Karen Memory, looking for the fun and joy that permeates the novel.

What I’m trying to say above is, I am hardly at my most objective when it comes to this novel; between the diversity of it, which I rejoiced in wholeheartedly for that first quarter, and the cloud hanging over me while reading the rest of Karen Memory and which it released me from, I have a huge love for this book, and am intensely grateful to Elizabeth Bear for writing it.

So frankly, Karen Memory surpassed all my expectations. This is an enormously fun book with enormous heart to it, even by the emotionally punishing standards of most of Bear’s output; helped no doubt by the very welcome return to first-person narration that we haven’t seen from Bear in some time. Indeed, the joy of the voice of Karen Memory is one of the best things about the book; our narrator-protagonist is Karen Memery, a seamstress (that article also gives some insight into the inspiration behind Bear’s fictional Rapid City, the setting of the novel) who speaks like a moderately-educated but by no means upper-class American of the 19th century, elided endings, dated terms (Bear doesn’t shy away from the racism of her time period), and a bawd’s sense of humour (innuendo abounds, and on at least one occasion is noted only to be taken back as actually literal). She’s a real delight to read, a joyous presence full of life, even in the darkest moments of Karen Memory; a sort of celebratory presence whose narration itself, by existing, reassures the reader that it will all work out in the end somehow.

Of course, Karen is also an animating presence in another way – it is largely her actions that drive Karen Memory, for better or worse, involving the rest of the cast in one another’s affairs in such a way as to cause the eventual explosion of chaos that concludes the novel. That chaos involves a Singer sewing machine pseudo-mecha reminiscent, intentionally, of Ripley’s xenomorph-slaying lifting suit; dynamite; explosions; a submarine with kraken-like tentacles for crushing ships; devious foreign plans; and US Marshal Bass Reeves as sidekick to Miss Memory, all coming together in the most pyrotechnic and cinematic scene you will ever read. This book, at times, reads like a James Bond film on speed, or run through the mind of a mad steampunk scientist; at others like the best kind of big stupid science fiction blockbuster; and at others, like a sort of steampunk Sex and the City; all the while sneaking in some very subversive messages.

And oh, does Bear ever bring in subversive messages to Karen Memory. This is a novel whose cast includes a number of people of colour, including the aforementioned historical figure of Bass Reeves and a fictional Native American posseman, Tomoatooah, filling the role of Tonto, but without the racism; a woman with disabilities, namely only one arm, and another old woman with movement difficulties; sex workers of various kinds (indeed, the disabled woman is a sex worker); and a trans woman, Francina, who is gendered female throughout, and on the one occasion when she drags up as a man, Karen as narrator is deeply confused. There are also blunt statements about privilege and about who we value (as for instance on p274), where Bear explicitly distances herself from some of the prejudices of her narrator by means of another character pointing them out, a very effective tactic.

Which leads to my summation; Karen Memory is a kick-ass, fun, diverse, and dare I say it spunky novel. It might not be Bear’s most cerebral work, but damned if I don’t think it might be her best to date. Indeed, it’s probably the best book I’m going to read all this year, and it’s barely even February…

Nunslinger by Stark Holborn

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The year is 1864. Sister Thomas Josephine, an innocent Visitantine nun from St Louis, Missouri, is making her way west to the promise of a new life in Sacramento, California. When an attack on her wagon train leaves her stranded in Wyoming, Thomas Josephine finds her faith tested and her heart torn between Lt. Theodore F. Carthy, a man too beautiful to be true, and the mysterious grifter Abraham C. Muir.

Falsely accused of murder she goes on the run, all the while being hunted by a man who has become dangerously obsessed with her. Her journey will take her from the most forbidding mountain peaks to the hottest, most hostile desert on earth, from Nevada to Mexico to Texas, and her faith will be tested in ways she could never imagine.

Nunslinger is the true tale of Sister Thomas Josephine, a woman whose desire to do good in the world leads her on an incredible adventure that pits her faith, her feelings and her very life against inhospitable elements, the armies of the North and South, and the most dangerous creature of all: man.
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Nunslinger is a very strange beast. Serialised fiction in the 21st century, it’s a demonstration of a concept that hadn’t really been tested; pseudonymously published, it comes without even a bare-bones biography; a Western, but incredibly modern feeling; and, indeed, feminist, without attacking religion – despite being centred on a nun.

Holborn’s novel is, inevitably, episodic; told in 12 “books”, each with a brief description of its contents in true Victorian style, the actual chapters within those books are very short, sharp, and punchy, moving fast and dragging the reader along. Nunslinger is told in the first person, which has an incredibly interesting effect on the reader as we see Sister Thomas Josephine changing from the inside without her noticing those changes herself; it gives an in to the character as well as lending that sense of immediacy that first person is famous for. That immediacy is key to this novel; not only does every book end on a cliffhanger, but Holborn manages to end most of the hundreds of chapters on cliffhangers of some kind, without it feeling like artificial suspense. Because Nunslinger doesn’t have any slack, the whole thing just keeps holding the reader’s attention; one is drawn in and can’t re-emerge, because to do so would be to be left on tenterhooks.

This would not work if the reader were not concerned for Sister Thomas Josephine, of course. Nunslinger hangs on getting the reader to empathise with and care about its protagonist and narrator, and Holborn does so excellently. Dropping the reader into the story in media res, we’re introduced to Sister Josephine as an unworldly nun; that is, with seemingly no experience of life outside the convent. As the novel proceeds, though, we learn about her past, and see the pre-convent life of the sister, and see her confront the darker aspects of life; she isn’t presented as purity and love entirely, but as human, as conflicted, as having to deal with the places where her nunnish ideals run into her lived experiences of the world and her personal sense of justice. It creates a brilliant conflict between two loves; Nunslinger is at its heart about the struggle between Sister Josephine’s love for God, and her love for the outlaw Abraham C. Muir. It’s a balance that Holborn handles incredibly deftly, not making either obviously the right or wrong choice, showing her commitment to both, in a really interesting piece of emotional engagement.

This is, of course, a Western, and that determines an awful lot of the plot of Nunslinger. Virtually every vital ingredient is here; from the deserter with a heart of gold to the implacable lawman (in the form of Benjamin Reasoner, an amazing character and a great addition to the cast as a character of colour), from the beautiful but corrupted soldier to the shadowy figure behind it all (not who you might think), Holborn has stacked her novel with cliché after cliché, and yet has also made it work. This is in part due to the aforementioned excellent writing, but is also because Holborn understands how to use clichés; Nunslinger doesn’t simply embrace the standard formulations, but approaches them intelligently and, dare one say, progressively. This isn’t a 1950s vision of the Wild West so much as a 1950s vision seen through a 21st century lens; it is willing to show, but not willing to heroise, white attacks on Native Americans, including the brutality of the genocide perpetuated, for instance.

Nunslinger ticks any number of boxes in my mind for great, enjoyable reading. It’s fun, it does ask big, important questions, it’s progressive, and it’s just generally a really good book. Whoever Stark Holborn is, they’ve delivered an excellent piece of work here.

The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs

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In the contested and unexplored territories at the edge of the Empire, a boat is making its laborious way upstream. Riding along the banks are the mercenaries hired to protect it – from raiders, bandits and, most of all, the stretchers, elf-like natives who kill any intruders into their territory. The mercenaries know this is dangerous, deadly work.  But it is what they do.

In the boat the drunk governor of the territories and his sons and daughters make merry. They believe that their status makes them untouchable. They are wrong. And with them is a mysterious, beautiful young woman, who is the key to peace between warring nations and survival for the Empire. When a callow mercenary saves the life of the Governor on an ill-fated hunting party, the two groups are thrown together.

For Fisk and Shoe – two tough, honourable mercenaries surrounded by corruption, who know they can always and only rely on each other – their young companion appears to be playing with fire. The nobles have the power, and crossing them is always risky. And although love is a wonderful thing, sometimes the best decision is to walk away. Because no matter how untouchable or deadly you may be, the stretchers have other plans.
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This is the first of Jacobs’ novels I have read, and I come away with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is a fantastic reception element. On the other hand… well. We’ll get to the other hand of The Incorruptibles shortly.

The setting is the strongest part of this novel by far. A thinly veiled alternate Earth with an alternate history, demon-based industrial-scale everyday magic, and fantasy races (the vaettir, elves-ish, and dvergar, dwarves), The Incorruptibles‘ cast is entirely Rumans; and if you think that might be a thinly veiled reference to Romans, you’re right. Tripartite names, distinctly Roman attitudes and customs (both the triclinium and the toga are mentioned), an Emperor-and-Senate combination… it’s fascinating to see what Jacobs does with the familiar to both situate the reader in and alienate the reader from the world.

On the other hand, the worldbuilding also contains one of the biggest problems of the novel. The vaettir are savages, inhuman, murderous, and eaters of human flesh. They’re also scalpers, resisting the humans encroaching on their territory, and clearly marked as a villainous and evil race. The Incorruptibles forgets that, in the 21st century, the Westerns-style attitude to the colonised has become unacceptable; and that making your evil race somewhat obviously a parallel to stereotypical depictions of Native American culture is rather seriously problematic. That the women are given a decent role in the novel is, at first glance, a good thing; yet once again Jacobs displays attitudes that are rather less than appropriate. His point of view narrator consistently deploys the male gaze (describing one character’s bodice as “displaying her feminine features to great effect” [88]), and while Livia is a character who is competent, able to handle a number of roles, and able to use a shotgun, she still seems to turn to her sex as the weapon of first choice, and to naivete as a default state; without mentioning that the rest of the women are impressively awfully portrayed.

The Incorruptibles is also interminable. A novel with a plot so formulaic, without an untelegraphed twist in sight, needs to have either good characters or a good writing style to replace that. Jacobs’ prose. however, is slow, plodding, and dull; it feels like the benefits of first person (immediacy, for instance) have replaced any need for actual skill, to the point where Jacobs forgets that in a retrospective, future events should colour the past, that emotions need to be demonstrated, not just told, and that a poor approach to prose will only lose the reader’s attention. Instead, we’re treated to prose that is at best workmanlike detailing a plot that is dull, acted out by characters who are… well.

The cast of The Incorruptibles doesn’t make up for its failings. Livia has been discussed above; Fisk is, despite having backstory and clear hints of attempts to make him more, just another Western stock figure, the gunman with a heart of gold; Shoe, our narrator, is along for the ride, never showing any evidence for why Fisk puts up with him, or his abilities, just telling us about them; the Cornelii have personalities flatter than the featureless plain the book is largely set in, and even more one-dimensional than the approach to the vaettir; and the rest of the cast are equally irredeemably dull.

The blurb and quotes on The Incorruptibles try to situate it as part of the grimdark movement. To be related to that movement, one must have certain characteristics; a so-called crapsack world? Yes. A “realistic” approach to the world? Well, not really; the simplistic approach to the vaettir alone prevents that, but so do the approaches to Fisk’s attempt-at-character-development and Livia’s feelings. A willingness to show the grime and blood of a violent life? Well, passages lasting multiple pages about torturing a woman, dwelt on in almost pornographic detail, aside, no. And those passages are indeed pornographic; even as Shoe is supposedly disgusted, he describes them in a manner closer to lust than hatred.

The Incorruptibles is grimdark in the same way Terry Brooks is epic fantasy: derivative, dull, poorly written, and aping much better books. John Hornor Jacobs might not be a racist, nor a misogynist, but from this book, one wouldn’t know it.

DoI: This review was based on an ARC solicited from the publisher, Gollancz. The Incorruptibles will be released on August 14th.