Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

December 15, 2011

Seanan McGuire – Rosemary and Rue

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 11:35 am

Let’s get this out of the way first: it’s a fairies-in-America book, the first of the October Daye (Fairy PI) series. It involves the usual pointless feudalism and Native American erasure—the only non-Celtic creatures in the list at the front are djinn, lamia, and peri—but the racial politics are rather more crosslinked and nuanced than in most such.

The list at the front, unfortunately, set my expectations very low for the rest of the book; it’s a pronunciation guide, and it’s wrong. “Coblynau” (Welsh for “Goblins”) is plural, not singular, and it’s “cob-luh’nigh” not “cob-lee-now”; similarly, “Tylwyth Teg” (literally, “fair folk”) is “tuhl’with tair’g” (more or less) not “tillwith teeg”. As for “Tuatha de Danann”, that would have been even easier to research than the modern Welsh names are. As is traditional, they’re all presented as different species or clans, with distinct phenotypes; unusually, none of the traditional names are cultural analogues of one another.

Happily, I can report that the book improved. It’s a good, uncomplicated read, and the worse characteristics of fairies (imperiousness, secrecy, and drama queening, for instance) are presented as annoyances rather than good things. Toby herself is competent and proactive (rather too much so for her own good, at times) and McGuire’s both good at introducing interesting supporting characters and unafraid to kill them off when we’re getting fond of them.

August 6, 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – a decision

Filed under: meta,rereading — Tags: , , — Sam @ 11:06 am

Life has caught up with me, and I’m not going to be able to finish the project. I was initially leaving it for a few weeks, to make sure there was a decent gap between the “official” Fae Awareness Month posts and the continuation, but then of course that stretched, and since I’ve also been spending my time looking after a partner who’s been going through an ME flare-up I’ve had no energy left to write with. I decided that if I hadn’t managed to start again on the project by the beginning of August, then realistically I wouldn’t manage it at all.

I hope I’ll get back to it eventually, because it’s a book I utterly love, but it’s not like it’s going anywhere.

If you’ve been waiting for more, then please accept my apologies, and if you can keep reading without me then please let me know how you get on!

June 10, 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

My re-read project, over at Fae Awareness Month, is going apace:

Chapters 1-5

Chapters 6-10

Chapters 11-15

June 2, 2011

Fae Awareness Month

Filed under: signal amp — Tags: — Sam @ 5:11 pm

Long-term readers, or even casual readers, will know all about my Thing About Fairies. Real fairies don’t get nearly as much love – or helpless adoration, or sheer gut-wrenching terror, or all three – as they deserve, so some of us have put together a month-long blog project to celebrate Faerie in all its forms.

You can find it at Fae Awareness Month, and my first post has just gone live, so go and read all about the fae of A Midsummer Night’s Dream here.

November 8, 2010

Lisa Mantchev – Eyes Like Stars

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 1:53 pm

Beatrice Shakespeare Smith (Bertie) lives in the Théâtre Illuminata, where every play in the English language is performed, and the characters themselves tread the boards. Her bedroom is a stage set, and the characters & Théâtre staff are the only family she’s ever known.

Bertie makes rather a good YA heroine—she’s seventeen, impulsive but committed, possessed of brightly coloured hair, and extremely believable as a teenage girl. She has (as is of course obligatory) Relationship Problems, with two men competing for her affections. The Good Boy is called Nate; he’s a pirate, muscular and plainspoken, with a bit part in The Little Mermaid. Ariel (from Shakespeare’s Tempest) is the sly, deceitful, and intoxicatingly sexy Bad Boy, who is using Bertie in some plot of his own, but nevertheless seems to love her.

Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are Bertie’s unruly and chaotic sidekicks. They work very well indeed as backup, comic relief, and a good reason for Bertie to talk about the plot without talking to herself, but they’re also well-sketched characters in their own right; there’s a strong family dynamic going on, with Bertie cast as their amused and harassed older sister. Their first entrance, in Chapter One (“The fairies flew suspended on wires despite their tendency to get tangled together.”) is delightful, and shows the same quirky, subversively faux-Edwardian charm as the rest of the book.

The Théâtre is a peculiar one in many ways—with actors who will always play the same part forever, and who only return to existence when called, a lot of the usual theatre politics are abstracted away. We hear quite a lot about an ongoing feud between Set and Props, but there are no technical staff at all, and everything Just Works—I’m starting to suspect that Lisa Mantchev is a director herself! I’d have liked to see more of the Théâtre’s internal life & social structure, but then I’m a techie myself, and it’s not a long book. Mrs Edith, the Wardrobe Mistress (and the person responsible for bringing Bertie up, insofar as any bringing up happened at all) is rather a stock character, stern and obsessed with Bertie’s appearance but always loving and supportive. Then again, the rest of the Théâtre staff are largely stock characters too; I suspect that’s rather the idea, since all the world’s a stage.

As the back cover tells us, the Théâtre is under threat, and only Bertie can save it. With that, her romantic troubles, and the mystery of who her family really is, there’s plenty of plot to go around. It’s well-paced, too, with intriguing hints of metatextuality in the worldbuilding and in Bertie’s gift of magic with words. The writing style is lively, vivacious, and at times rather beautiful & magical; it fits the Théâtre well.

July 16, 2010

Mike Shevdon – Sixty-One Nails

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 1:37 pm

Angry Robot bill this as “Neverwhere’s faster, smarter brother”. My (somewhat predictable) initial reaction to this claim was along the lines of “Ah ha ha ha ha… NO.” Of course, being the generous and kind-hearted person I am, I decided to keep reading it anyway, just to see whether it did have something comparable to Gaiman’s work after all.

It turns out that there are a couple of points in common—they’re both set in London, and… er. No, I think that’s it.

It’s about fairies—excuse me, “Feyre”. I’d like to say that that’s the single silliest and most pretentious misspelling of “fairy” I’ve ever seen, but one of the subspecies of the Feyre is the “Fey’ree”. The Feyre are all aligned towards one or more of the Aristotelian elements, completed in the obligatory manner by “Void”. The Void fairies are the bad ones who refuse to breed with humans, and there’s a mystical barrier keeping them out of our world. But it’s breaking down… and our protagonist is a special, unique Void-fairy halfbreed, which nobody thought could ever exist. Of course, that particular plot point is resolved casually at the end, with a bit of waffle about unexpected heritages and nobody being able to predict what kind of fairy they’ll turn out to be.

A lot of the story concerns learning & mastering the rules of fairy magic, and working out what fairies can and can’t do. And if that last sentence didn’t seem wrong to you, you’ve been reading about a different kind of fairies to the ones I was brought up on. Honestly, this book would have been more readable and made more sense if it started with a crashed alien ship several millennia ago, and superstitious humans treating the advanced travellers as supernatural beings, because these are no kind of fairies I’ve ever heard of. At least Shevdon doesn’t abuse any of the traditional names, so if you do want to read it you can safely pretend they’re just space aliens.

The treatment of fairy tropes in the book is inconsistent, too. They can’t touch iron (it gives them electric shocks) but they’re absolutely fine with steel. Iron is intensely antithetical to magic, but at one point they get into an iron safe using fairy magic. Fairy magic interfaces nicely with technology (at one point, the protagonist uses a mirror to make a call to someone’s mobile), but they regularly use ignore-me-I’m-not-here fairy magic to conceal themselves, or large melee weapons, from security guards and nobody ever worries about being caught on CCTV.

The CCTV thing is a particularly London issue, but there are a few other places in the book which ring rather untrue to me, too. Fifteen quid for a taxi to Heathrow before dawn, for instance; things that eat London pigeons and apparently enjoy them; walking around next to the Fleet without protective gear, let alone falling in it and surviving… Shevdon’s done his headline research pretty well, it seems, but not bothered with the little things.

The writing style is flaccid, with a lot of just-past-tense first-person reflections, and a keen eye for cliché & the pointless minutiae of everyday life, whilst carefully avoiding little details that might enliven a scene beyond the bare-bones setting. It’s still readable, but one gets the feeling that writing is being treated as a necessary inconvenience involved in getting on with the plot, rather than the book itself.

The story’s nominally about the discovery of an unexpected new layer to life, replacing and changing all that’s gone before, but there’s very little sense of real dislocation or threat. The opponents we’re shown are dangerous enough, but they’re all predictable and well defined; there’s none of the lurking, numinous sense of unknown threat, or the unpredictable desires & disposition, that characterize things of faerie in English folklore.

If you have a few hours to waste and nothing better to hand, you won’t be harmed by reading this, but that’s the best I can say about it.

July 13, 2010

Justina Robson – Going Under

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 4:03 pm

Micro-review, since I’m about to take it back to the library.

Short summary: para-rom tropes from a perspective about halfway between hard SF and fantasy-of-manners. Good. Warning: contains elves.

Irritated complaint: publishers who don’t make it prominent (eg. on the bloody cover) that it’s part of a series. To be precise, book 3, which is almost inevitably the worst place to start a series.

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?

June 22, 2009

Lucy Bond – Red Tape and Cold Iron

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 11:16 pm

Red Tape and Cold Iron, or A Proposal for the Re-Introduction of the Faery Folk To the United Kingdom (Jim Baen’s Universe, 2, 6)

This is a nicely polished little semi-precious stone of a short story, elaborating around a whimsical conceit. Someone wants fairies back in Britain, because they’ve been reading too many of the wrong kinds of books; someone else has a rather better idea of what fairies are like, but wants them back there anyway. Civil servants, I have observed, can be really quite nasty pragmatic at times…

Interestingly, Bond has chosen to narrate everything rather than present the action; it’s quite a traditional fairy-tale stylistic technique, but normally we’d hear some dialogue too, especially since so much of this story does consist of discussions and negotiations. The other oddness about her choice is the lack of any framing story – we do have to wonder who the narrator is, and why they’re telling us all this.

The writing could have done with a bit more editor’s pencil, but it’s still delightful – very arch, mannered and precise, with tongue very firmly in cheek. I want to quote huge swathes of it, but this one will have to do.

[S]he was, none-the-less, a Folklorist, and it is very hard not to be a lover of real ale if one is a lover of olde Englande.

And casting spells with horse-brasses, no less… that’s Olde Englande for you. Full of bloody fairies.

Powered by WordPress