Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

February 23, 2010

Elizabeth Bear – Blood and Iron/Whiskey and Water

This is a re-read – I didn’t like these very much the first time around, but it would have been unfair for me to dismiss them on one reading. So now I’m going to dismiss them, rather more comprehensively, after two. It’s a pity; I’m immensely fond of the basic themes involved. Tradition & the supernatural vs progress and the “mundane[1]“, grace and pride and redemption, human brilliance and folly in the face of the crushing historical weight of evil and incompetence… and it has both Lucifer and Kit Marlowe in it. It also has both Sidhe and werewolves in it, but I wanted to give it a fair chance to impress me despite those.

Bear’s an immensely talented writer – technically brilliant, in fact. And I’m sure these books have a lot to say to many people, but I’m not one of them. They’re just not speaking my language.

Bear has talked about writing “comedies of ethics” – that’s a pretty fair description of these books. The thing is, though, ethics are always very much dependent on the moral gravity of the universe in which one finds oneself, and this one’s been quite thoroughly structured as a crapsack dystopia where kingship really matters, where biology is destiny, and where absolutely everything is a competition – predator and prey, and everyone is both at once. Victim and victimizer, in fact, with no space for any other mode of interrelation.

They’re also intensely American books, and intensely Eurocentric & colonial. Somehow, the Courts of the Sidhe have become some sort of paradigmatic supernatural force, accessible from all over the world (though focused on America) and apparently in charge of all the weird-shit; there are Russian horse-fairies serving them, a subcontinental assassin, and (in the second book) an Aboriginal spirit, the Bunyip, as a major villain. (Though I use “villain” advisedly; these are not books for clear-cut shades.)

I counted one reference to anything Native American anywhere in the two books, and that was a white New Age hedgewizard who tried to look like one. There are a couple of black characters; the only female one is introduced with a ridiculously lubricious passage of race-centric drooling.

[A] mask as impassive as an Egyptian empress’, lips blooming fat and sensual as orchids beneath the flat, aristocratic nose; skin red-black as the famous bust of Queen Tiy; hair braided in a thousand beaded Medusa serpents.

Others have spoken, at length, on the problematic nature of the first we see, who is a murderous cannibal rapist horse-spirit, and who is the first whom we see enslaved, so I’m not going to.

It amuses me that several of the characters – and ones who should know better – use the term “Dark Ages” without irony, and referring to something dreadful that should never be allowed to happen again. Then again, they’re all hung up on the hierarchy/kingship shite… but so is the universe, and whilst there are hints of subversion there aren’t any sensible characters to support them.

The elevation of some little local narrative to overarching global significance has a long tradition in fantasy & SF (after all, it’s what ends up happening in the real world too) but we have to be particularly careful when one author’s responsible for the lot – as has happened here, it erases any other narrative. Unlike in the real world, alternative narratives become not just invisible but nonexistent.

And it’s always the same little local narratives that get elevated. One of these days we’ll see Fairy Queens chained and leashed by the Bunyip’s divan bed, or Nyaminyami commanding djinn and talking horses, or the Workers’ Council of Naiads, Rusalka, Berehynia, and Allied Trades with their Sidhe flunkies. But so far? Not a sausage.


[1] “Mundane” is so often applied, or understood, derogatorily – especially by some particularly stupid SF fans. But consider the derivation; is there anything more wonderful?

July 31, 2009

Silver on the Tree

The Dark is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper. Book 5.

In many ways, this is a wonderful book. But in a lot of others, it makes me really angry.

Written in 1977 (when mass immigration from the Commonwealth was still relatively new in most of England) it’s explicitly anti-racist, which is wonderful. Will’s family defend a Sikh child (and correctly identify his ethnicity) against a racist bully and his racist father, and the racism is explicitly linked to the Dark. On the other hand, it still doesn’t give active roles to women – Jane’s only task is to avoid being eaten by a lake monster – and demonises people with red hair.

It’s set in Wales again, both in the real and immediate landscape of West Wales and in Cantre’ Gwaelod, the Drowned Hundred – the land lost when the dykes failed and the sea came in, between Llyn[1] and Gower, that now forms Bae Ceredigion. On the other hand, the cast take a train (an antique steam train, in fact, that the Light sends when it’s needed, and which then turns into a boat – I’m reminded of the dream travel sequences in the first and next-to-last Sandman books, though of course they were much later) back to the Chiltern Hills for the arbitrary finale.

It’s arbitrary, because we hadn’t heard about the Midsummer Tree before, nor that the mistletoe on it opened its flowers once every seven hundred years and that the side whose champion cut the mistletoe at the instant of its full flowering could permanently banish the other from Time.

For that matter, we didn’t have (or at least, I didn’t see) any foreshadowing that one of the supporting cast had been a stealth Lord of the Dark until she gets suddenly unmasked and banished on the train.

The Light never tells its champions what’s going to happen, any more than it tells the readers, so this ties in well with the single thing about the book that angers me most.

At the end of the book, after all they’ve gone through, after being chased around and stalked and threatened by the Dark, everyone who’s not a wizard-by-predestined-birthright is made to lose their memory for their own good. The one grownup is given a choice, but resigns it, and asks the Light to choose for him; the children aren’t even given that choice. It’s not even that they go Susan, and think it was all a game; they can’t remember any of it. And John Rowlands, the one mortal adult at the finale – who is a really good character – gets to live out the rest of his life in the comforting illusion that his wife was nothing more than the ordinary loving woman she seemed, and forget everything about the Light and the Dark and the Old Ones, forget that he stood firm against the greatest darkness that ever was, forget that victory hinged on his judgement.

Going back to the bright spots for a while, when Will and Bran go through Cantre’ Gwaelod we see guest appearances from Gwion[2] and Gwyddno Garanhir, and we get a long section all about craftsmanship, which I can’t do better than to quote.

‘It was made by one who was close to the Light,’ Gwion said, ‘but who was neither a Lord of the Light nor one of the Old Ones – there are none such bred in this land… He was the only one who had the skill to make so great a wonder. Even here, where many are skilled. A great craftsman, unparalleled. But the Riders of the Dark, they could roam freely through the land, since we had neither desire nor reason to keep any creature out – and when they heard that the Light had asked for the sword, they demanded that it should not be made. They knew, of course, that words already long written foretold the use of Eirias, once it was forged, for the vanquishing of the Dark.’
Will said, ‘What did he do, the craftsman?’
‘He called together all the makers in the land,’ Gwion said. He tilted his head a little higher. ‘All those who wrote, or brought life to others’ words or music, or who made beautiful things. And he said to them, I have this work in me, I know it, that will be the peak of everything I can ever make or do, and the Dark is trying to forbid me to do it. We may all suffer, if I deny them their will, and I cannot therefore be responsible alone for deciding. Tell me. Tell me what I should do.’
Bran was gazing at him. ‘What did they say?’
‘They said, You must make it.’ Gwion smiled proudly. ‘Without any exception. Make the sword, they said.’

And the Dark’s revenge on the craftsman was to bring a great depression on him –

Fear of age, of insufficiency, of unmet promise. All such endless fears, that are the doom of people given the gift of making, and lie always somewhere in their minds.

Don’t we all know it…


[1] The y there should have a circumflex, but HTML 4.0 does not support Welsh very well. “Llyn” without a circumflex means “lake”, and this particular geographical feature is a peninsula, which is rather different.
[2] Yes, that Gwion. And when he packs lunch for the children, he gives them apples and hazelnuts.

July 29, 2009

The Grey King

The Dark is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper. Book 4.

Very Welsh, and feels right to me. Given that I spent a lot of my A-level science lessons looking out of the window at Cader Idris, if I’m happy with it then anyone should be.

I can’t find any Welsh spelling mistakes – though Welsh is a language with a lot of stratification and regional variation – and Bran’s Welsh pronunciation lesson to Will is pretty much spot on.

It does well on Welsh mythology, too; at one point, Bran and Will are asked riddles, the answer to which are Triads – Who are the three wise elders of the world?[1] Who are the three generous men of the Island of Britain?[2]

As far as plot goes, this one lives out the first prophetic verse we heard at the end of Greenwitch, and emphasizes very pointedly that the Light is Not Nice. Unpleasant things have to happen to good people, or the Dark will win and everyone will be vastly more unpleasant to each other. To be more specific, the Light has to do unpleasant things to good people, and there isn’t any mention in the text of alternatives being considered & rejected – the things the Light do are the right things to do because the Light did them. On the other hand, victory is by no means predestined[3], so the idea of just treading out the predestined steps is a little problematic. Of course, it’s not the only problematic thing – it’s heavy on the “birthright” angle. Anyone trying to reach the plot coupon who wasn’t born to do so will be killed, and all that.


[1] The owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, the eagle of Gwernabwy, and the blackbird of Celli Gadarn. Oddly, the romance of Culhwch and Olwen lists five – the ouzel of Cilgwri, the stag of Rhedynfre, the eagle of Gwernabwy, the owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, and the salmon of Llyn Llyw.
[2] Nudd the Generous, son of Senyllt, Mordaf the Generous, son of Serwan, Rhydderch the Generous, son of Tudwal Tudglyd. And Arthur himself was more generous than the three.
[3] Well, except in the sense that we’re reading 1970s children’s fantasy.

July 17, 2009

Over Sea, Under Stone

The Dark Is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper. Book 1, and there’s a reason the sequence is named after Book 2 instead.

Yet another piece of Utterly Classic British Children’s Literature, this time published in 1965. Like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, it features middle-class urbanized English children going on holiday and having Adventures – this time, in a fishing village in Cornwall, where they retrieve an ancient and incredibly important treasure. Said treasure was hidden 900 years ago, presumably by someone fleeing the Normans, and concealed by writing down a treasure hunt in two only mildly cryptic steps and then leaving the map in someone’s attic. It’s also part of the Arthurian cycle – they’re after a grail. (“What’s a grail?” “A kind of cup.”) It’s not just any grail, though – this one has all the stories of Arthur engraved on its panels. So it’s presumably not the Grail…

Everything was Planned, and Prophecy works out nicely; interestingly, though, we don’t get to see the prophecy. The archetypal White-Haired Guy (Professor Merriman “Merry” Lyon, who turns out to be the archetypal White-Haired Guy) protects the children while they get on with things, and then tells them afterwards that it was all planned that way and that History trusted they would be able to do it. There’s no overt magic involved, and the enemies do nothing scarier than kidnap one child from the middle of a carnival procession and then feed him lemonade and sandwiches. Oh, and Loom While Wearing Cloaks. (One’s a Hastings, interestingly – also the adopted name of a villain in Weirdstone.)

The first 30 pages or so get rather racist – the children go exploring through their rented house, and pretend they’re in the jungle. With “rude natives” surrounding them.

Simon: And I should have gone exploring into the interior and the rude natives would have turned me into a god and tried to offer me their wives.
Barney: Why would the natives be rude?
Simon: Not that sort of rude, you idiot, it means – it means – well, it’s the sort of things natives are. It’s what all the explorers call them.

That’s 1950s England for you… not that we stopped having those kinds of Educational Books for quite some time after that, of course. I still saw quite a few of them (second-hand, at least) growing up in the 1980s.

It’s not a bad book, but rather slight.

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