Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

April 27, 2011

Privilege & fantasy

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 3:32 pm

In my last essay, I talked about two forms of nostalgia, and the characterization of History within fantasy texts. This time around, it’s time for an assertion: it’s much harder for the privileged classes to write literary fantasy than it is for the oppressed and marginalized.

Let’s start with some definitions (do feel free to take issue with them in the comments—I’m not going to be ideological about them):

Literary: of enduring worth; of complexity; supporting multiple disparate readings; possessing novelty or making an original contribution. Layered and polysemous enough that it isn’t immediately accessible in its entirety. Possessing an awareness of itself as a text.

Fantasy: That Which Is Not: a change in the philosophical and/or metaphysical nature of the world, which I’ll tentatively call a diversa after Suvin’s “novum”. A desideratum, or an elegy. Passion is a necessary and perhaps sufficient condition for fantasy; there are some unpleasant words for fantasy without passion. Popular trope fantasy is perhaps the apotheosis of advertising, without any product. It’s normally impossible to tell it from pisstake fantasy.

Privileged: Possessing something inherited or innate that makes life easier for them than most people, and, in general, not aware that this makes a difference. Tending to ascribe their success entirely to hard work or luck. Generally, in the case of fantasy writers, it means “middle-class white cis urban-dwelling Western/minority-world men whose first language is English, and who aren’t disabled”, and it covers most of them.
(more…)

November 13, 2010

Gwyneth Lewis – The Meat Tree

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Sam @ 4:44 pm

Seren Books, 2010—part of the “New Stories from the Mabinogion” series. Paperback, 256 pp., £7.99.

The Mabinogion is the mediaeval Welsh myth cycle; it comprises the Four Branches themselves; the four native tales; and three romances. There are several English translations available online, linked from the Wikipedia page above, and they’re well worth reading. You don’t need any familiarity with the original to read this, and I’d be really interested in hearing from someone who came to the story fresh with this version. For me, it’s in my blood & bone; I read it in English and in Welsh before I was fifteen, living in the same green valleys where it’s set, so when I was reading this I had the ghosts of a half-dozen different versions reading over my shoulder.

The Meat Tree is a version of the Fourth Branch, called in most translations “Math son of Mathonwy”; here it’s “Blodeuwedd” after the woman made from flowers to be Lleu’s bride, and Lewis’s narrative moves away from the traditional masculine-centred tale of magic and war towards a story centred on relationships—sexual & familial, through love, hatred, resentment, and obligation—and on what it means to be a flower and what it means to be meat. Gwydion and Gilfaethwy’s journey to Annwn, and the War of the Pigs, is passed over in a paragraph, but we hear a lot from Blodeuwedd herself and from Aranrhod. None of the women are given much page time in the original, and are mostly positioned as villains, victims, or (usually) both, so this is a good change.

Trigger warning: the myth deals with rape and incest, and this version doesn’t sugar-coat it.

The framing story is explicitly science-fictional, with two people going to board an unknown derelict near Mars. Campion is an Inspector of Wrecks, a fussy old man nearing retirement who sublimates himself in his work; Nona is an up-and-coming young student, sent out for some practical experience. The wreck looks like an old-time Earth ship, but it’s come from entirely the wrong direction; that’s the first mystery we see, and the story keeps circling back to it.

Inside, there are no bodies, and nothing in the logs to indicate what happened. There’s a clunky old VR immersion unit, though, and our protagonists decide to experience it in order to reconstruct what was important, what the crew valued, what might have happened.

The whole book is told through the crew logs; we open with the Inspector of Wrecks, in his distinctive (and very Welsh) narrative voice.

Is that working now, I wonder? I hate these thought recorders. They’re good in very confined spaces, where you don’t want to overhear the idiotic things your colleagues say to their families back on Mars, but I think they’re overrated. But, there we are, I’m Old School. The trick is to keep the unconscious out of it as much as possible and pretend that you’re talking to yourself.

We alternate between his narrative, Nona’s, and the shared channel they use when exploring the wreck and in the VR environment. The VR sessions themselves are done at a remove, because all we have is the log, with the two of them discussing what’s happening and trying to analyse both the story and the game system—the story behind the story.

Lewis is an extremely accomplished poet (Torchwood viewers will know her work through the inscription on the Wales Millennium Centre, Creu Gwir Fel Gwydr O Ffwrnais Awen) and she uses the myth to examine ideas about storytelling, imagination, and the writer’s process. More than that, though, the story is about itself, about this Welsh national myth, with its tricks and transformations and the struggle to claim independent selfhood. It has a great deal more in it, but in the end, it’s mythlore; it has a whole peoples’ world in it, and there are a great many perspectives on it.

Science-fictionally, it works well; the framing plot is an interesting twist on the old “something comes from outer space, and it’s not what it seems” plot so popular in Golden Age SF, and both the story-within-a-story and the game-that’s-more-than-a-game have been used to good effect recently as well. (I’m thinking of The Habitation of the Blessed, and Stross’s Halting State, respectively—though that’s the only similarity with the latter.)

The only issue I have with Lewis’s SF writing is that her explanations of her future technology are occasionally a little clunky.

Inspector of Wrecks: No, it can’t be. I’ve heard old-timers talking about something like this, but I’ve never seen one. I think it’s something called an audio-cassette player. There’s even a tape in it. Early personal entertainment system.
Apprentice: You’re kidding, when technology was still outside the body? That’s hilarious.
Inspector of Wrecks: See those couches? I bet they’re old VR systems.
Apprentice: VR?
Inspector of Wrecks: Virtual Reality. Before you swallowed the nano-synaptic dream tablets for training and recreation.

The formatting is from the book there, incidentally—the whole thing is written in the style of a play script, and I’d love to hear a radio play á la Under Milk Wood. Her characterization is amazingly expressive; the Inspector of Wrecks came fully formed from his first words. Nona was less real for me, but I think that’s at least as much because I have more trouble empathizing with her.

Overall, I recommend this highly; it’s very accessible poetic criticism, it’s a new (and woman-centred) take on the mediaeval myth, and it’s good SF.

October 29, 2010

A.M. Tuomala – Erekos

Erekos is A.M. Tuomala’s first novel, and also the first offering from independent digital publishers Candlemark & Gleam. You can read the first chapter, or buy it for immediate download, at the publisher’s website here. (250pp, PDF/ePub/mobi, US$10) There’s also an interview with the author over at Bibliognome.

It’s an intricate, thoughtful jewel of a book, with rich gleams of meaning, translucent depths, and sharp-edged facets, which opens with a magical spell as swamp witch Achane tries beyond hope to resurrect the sister she couldn’t heal. Magic in Erekos—this country of forests and swamps, between the mountains and the sea—is very much a thing of words and sigils, of ink and papyrus and answered prayers, and Tuomala neatly manages that all-too-rare feat of showing us viewpoint characters who use magic themselves without trivializing or demystifying the spells.

Achane’s spell works, after a fashion, and her dead (decayed, rotting, vermin-infested) sister returns as a zombi. We aren’t spared the details, but nevertheless we always see people treating Shabane as primarily a person, rather than as a type or an object of revulsion. The one exception is the king who captures Achane, dreaming of a host of zombi soldiers so that no more living men need die in the war against Weigenland.

Erekos is a colonized country; hundreds of years ago, a pseudo-Greek people came from the sea, and conquered the dark-skinned natives. By the time of the novel, their peoples have melded into one, and so have their mythic cycles, stories colliding and finding a mutual accommodation.

Look closely—can you see the place where two stories collided long ago? Can you see the jagged edges of one ideology grafted messily onto another, justification of war meeting a more nebulous ideal? These edges still grind together today; in places where their shade of skin marks the local people as particularly unmixed, where the colonist or the indigen is particularly close to the surface, the two pieces of the story do not mesh until one has broken the other to fit.

Our other main viewpoint character is Erlen, a young Weiger anthropologist turned mountain commando; we follow him and his lover Jeiger through several battles against the Erekoi invaders. The text is very good about humanising each side, and showing us a fascinating take on the “war god” trope so common in fantasy: The devoted know that Loukaros is only the god of war because war is the swiftest way to change the world. Loukaros is also the god of storms, and water imagery is associated throughout the book with war, but also with healing.

This is clearly epic fantasy, from the map at the front (beautifully drawn, too, with iconic cities and shrines and even a lighthouse) and the pronunciation guide that follows it. Unusually, though, both of those clearly show competing sources of authority—the map has both Germanic- and Greek-derived placenames, and the pronunciation guide takes care to note several regional accents for each language. Tuomala’s prose shows—and assumes—a lot of familiarity with some standard fantasy tropes:

The priestesses of Terīchone are seldom slender waifs who grow into tall and ethereal women; they have never worn robes of purest white silk. They know that the most powerful mystic pools come after the rains that rip the world apart, and they lie deep in the forest—not ensconced in marble, where the waters cannot touch the land.
No, a priestess of Terīchone is a firm, comfortable sort of woman with serviceably ruddy arms over which she has always pulled up her sleeves. This sort has reaped the rewards of her hard work in the gardens or with the hogs or out on the boats, and she is often heavy in the solid, maternal way of good cooks.

Tuomala’s style is clear but multilayered, showing strange translucencies and currents as the reader looks deeper, with the occasional sentence that chimes like delicate wooden bells, and a strong focus on people usually disenfranchised in epic fantasy.

She looked into the eyes of a beautiful, thick-set woman with her grey hair pulled into a bun; the woman had an age-wrinkled face, nut-brown but with cheeks as red as hands long lent to laundry, and she wore her skirt pinned over the knee and her sleeves rolled up over her broad, hairy arms. Nothing in this woman must seem beautiful, for beauty is too often defined by delicacy. But for those who understand what compassion and love look like when they are ingrained into the fiber of a body—when every muscle is filled with love so that every gesture and step becomes an act of goodwill—for those people, this woman was the most lovely woman alive.

Again in the tradition of epic fantasy, the text has quite a bit of mythology interwoven with the action, and this is also done well—partly, of course, because Tuomala is using it to make the very Tolkienian point that our adventures are others’ stories, and that all the stories came from somewhere. This is not just epic fantasy in the purest sense, but epic fantasy with many characters of colour, competent older women, and a very touching gay relationship. Very much recommended.

October 21, 2010

Catherynne Valente – The Habitation of the Blessed

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 12:16 pm

This isn’t officially released till the 1st of November, but it’s available early for the Kindle and through Webscriptions, where you can read sample chapters.

To summarize the plot briefly, a monk reads three books. He is Hiob von Luzern and he has travelled Eastwards in search of the legendary kingdom of Prester John, who in 1165 sent a long letter to western Christendom detailing the marvellousness of his person and the realms under his rule.

Hiob picked the books himself from the tree where they grow, and is racing to copy them before—like all fruit—they spoil and succumb to mould. The first is The Word in the Quince: “an Account of My Coming to the Brink of the World, and What I Found There, As told by John of Constantinople, Committed to Eternity by his Wife, Hagia, who was afterwards called Theotokos”.

It is, as you would expect, a story of strangeness and newness, of a man missing his first home and his love, clinging to his own notions of rightness and truth in the face of an entire nation who do not know Jesus and who think the concept is Extremely Silly. It’s also a story of a man finding his truth and falling in love. John is an extraordinarily self-centred man and this never changes, but his wife & amanuensis Hagia of the Blemmyae[1] is always present in the text she records.

The second, The Book of the Fountain (“an Account of Her Life Composed by Hagia of the Blemmyae Without Other Assistance”) is her own story, and there we see much more of Pentexore—of the wonderful soil wherein anything, or anyone, which is planted will grow into a tree after its kind; of the multiplicity of races; of the Fountain which confers eternal life; and of the Abir. Every three hundred years, the whole civic and social life of Pentexore is whirled about and shaken and stirred, because immortals inevitably get bored, and a historian might become a playwright, or a amyctrya who brewed poisons and perfumes in his huge jaw like a barrel become a maker of ink instead.

Stories are a heady and an addictive thing in this world (where aren’t they?), and there’s a constant tension running through the novel between faithful, accurate transmission and the golden glow of propriety bestowed by editorial redaction. Brother Hiob voices it, but others live it.

The third book, The Scarlet Nursery, has the subtitle “Told by Imtithal the Panoti[2] to the Three Children of Queen Abir, Who Were Lamis the Reticent, Ikram the Intractable, and Houd, Whom You Might As Well Indulge”. It’s Imtithal’s story of herself and her own life, as she watches the three cametenna[3] children grow up, and of the stories she tells them.

I came to this knowing very little of the source material, or at least never having read the primary sources—this will almost certainly change, quite soon. So I shall say only that the first of the three books reminds me rather of Philip Jose Farmer’s adventure stories, and the third of all those charming Edwardian books for older children (Travers, perhaps?), told in a precise, slightly arch manner like a panoti pirouetting over deep snow. The second is not something that wishes to be categorized by similarity, because Hagia’s voice is insistently unique. She’s a skilled scribe finally telling her own story, a forthright woman with a lot of life behind her and a lot more to come. It isn’t a retelling and revisioning of John’s story, but rather it bookends it, showing what Pentexore was like before he arrived, and how he ruled. It makes me wonder a little how a retelling of Where the Wild Things Are from Moishe’s perspective might look, or The Phantom Tollbooth from the Humbug’s.

The stories are interspersed rather than sequential, and thoroughly fractal; each book contains other books, and tellers of stories, and listeners to stories, and allusions to stories that are not told or not heard.

It’s the first part of a trilogy, but is very much a complete tale on its own; I confidently expect the others to be very similar things, rather than “the middle” and “the end”.


[1] A blemmy has no head, but instead has her face set into her chest, with eyes where those persons possessed of heads keep their nipples, and a mouth at the navel.
[2] A panoti is a small pale person with immense ears, which they can wrap around themselves or a friend like a bat. They do not eat, but live off pleasant sounds.
[3] Cametenna have pumpkin-coloured eyes and extraordinarily large hands.

July 6, 2010

Aliette de Bodard – Servant of the Underworld

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 5:51 pm

It’s pretty much impossible, these days, to chuck a stone in a decent-sized library without hitting a few fantasy books that are also mysteries or police procedurals, and since I’m a definite fan of all those things I rather like this trend.

It has to be done right, though, and done thoroughly enough—nobody ever talks about the Harry Potter books as fantasy mysteries, even though most of them follow that plot structure. This, on the other hand, is mostly mystery, with a hefty dab of mythology, and the fantasy elements are very well integrated with both.

It’s set in pre-Columbian America, in Tenochtitlan; the detective is Acatl, High Priest for the Dead, called in when someone is murdered by magic… and his own estranged brother looks like the obvious suspect. It’s not all paint-by-numbers plotting, however, and it gives a very similar sense of a detective out of his depth amidst politics, but determined to do the right thing, as Lindsey Davis’s Falco books or Liz Williams’ Detective Inspector Chen books (which de Bodard namechecks as an influence in her afterword, at that).

The worldbuilding is solid and consistent, and there’s a reassuringly sizeable bibliography at the back, which is always a good sign. A few things threw me (like the reference to drinking chocolate from a “clay glass”), but those are strictly minor issues. Overall, definitely recommended.

March 15, 2010

Alex Bell – Lex Trent Versus the Gods

Filed under: children's lit,review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 10:52 pm

This is a very fun book, and a very quick & easy read. It’s told by a seventeen-year-old confidence trickster and second-story man, who’s a horribly unsympathetic narrator, but it’s still a lot of fun being inside Lex’s head as we rush through a lightly but vividly sketched fantasy world.

Bell’s setting & worldbuilding imagination is wonderful—a world divided in two, with hundreds of ladders connecting the Realms of the Gods below with the Upper Lands, inhabited by humans, enchanters and their crones[1], and any number of strange animals[2].

On the one hand, this book is about overcoming a set of challenges and Humorous Mishaps in the course of winning one of the Games of the Gods for Lex’s patron. On the other, since this is YA, it’s about personal growth & repairing a relationship with family, and for once it isn’t the tedious dealing-with-your-parents’-divorce novel we’ve seen so many times before.

The Gods here are I think the one weak point of the book. Bell’s used the bog-standard Edwardian/TSR interpretation of the Graeco-Roman pantheon, with “X god of Y”—named deities with standard invariate portfolios. Which is simplistic and historically inaccurate.

Take Apollo, for instance. He’s “God of” music, poetry, healing, plague, colonization, and the sun. Animals especially associated with him include dolphins, ravens, roe deer, hawks, snakes, cicadas, wolves, and mice. He’s a pastoral shepherd, a great horseman, the Lord of Hounds, and a catcher of mice. He’s worshipped differently in nearly every site or text, and conflated or aggregated with any number of local deities.

I want fantasy gods with that much realism! Mostly, though, I want fantasy gods derived from ideas about real-world ones, rather than AD&D sourcebooks or half-remembered Edwardian mythology summaries.


[1] This is slightly troubling: old women are presented effectively as a separate species, and mostly the subject of mockery. “Crones need”, “Crones aren’t happy without”, “Poor crone, she thinks she’s a fairy godmother”…

[2] With an actual ecology, no less. Farmers have to wear protective suits, because the hay that drayfii eat (a drayfus is a shaggy hippo with wings, extremely placid and obedient) is a favourite habitat of nasal lice, which live inside nostrils and induce violent sneezing in order to find new hosts.

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?

November 5, 2009

Ursula LeGuin – Lavinia

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 11:02 pm

Like Ithaka, this is another retelling (or reclaiming) of Classical mythology. This time, it’s the Aeneid, and Aeneas is about to land on the shore of Latium. Our viewpoint character is Lavinia, king’s daughter and faceless cipher in Vergil’s poem – but, since this is LeGuin, it gets Complex. The Lavinia who speaks to us is not a historical character precisely, not a real person[1] in the secondary creation, but the character in the poem, rounded out and given life in the Miltonian sense[2].

She has a series of conversations with Vergil as he lies dying, and he’s enjoying getting to know her properly – rather than the one-dimensional character with no lines that he wrote. “I thought you were a blonde.” On the other hand, there’s no recrimination or contempt for his (lack of) characterization, and it’s obvious that the poet’s insufficiency (unfinishedness – there’s quite a debate about that) hasn’t detracted from the secondary world. LeGuin obviously loves the text, even without the afterword explaining so, and she describes the countryside of mythic Latium very evocatively.

I say mythic, because LeGuin’s always very conscious of the Aeneid’s roots in Octavian’s time – the afterword discusses why she had the characters drinking wine and eating olives despite the agricultural anachronisms involved. This is very much a novel which looks forward rather than backward – that’s absolutely characteristic for LeGuin, but rare in fiction set in Classical times.


[1] Insofar as “real person” has any meaning in fiction, but you get what I mean.
[2] For books are not dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them equal to that soul whose progeny they are.

August 29, 2009

Ithaka

Filed under: children's lit,review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 10:38 pm

A children’s book by Adèle Geras, telling the story of those Odysseus left behind on Ithaka when he went to war – Penelope, his queen; Telemachus, their son; Klymene, her handmaiden, with whom the gods converse; and Ikarios, her twin brother.

I read this courtesy of Second Judith, or to be more accurate I was asked to carry it back to her and accidentally read it myself instead.

It’s a good book, with lots of warmth and vitality; the characters are fairly lightly sketched, but with a myth I (and most of us) know so well then it’s easy for us to flesh them out. On the other hand, this is the same familiar myth from a very different standpoint. The Greek myths are very much Hero Tales – stories of musclebound idiots throwing spears at each other and setting fire to things for the sake of a local beauty queen and the hope of undying fame. Of course, one of the reasons Odysseus is so popular is because he subverts this stereotype; he’s the classic trickster hero. I remember seeing a really interesting adaptation on stage at the Lyric Hammersmith a while back, with Odysseus as a scrawny guy with a dodgy beard and bags of charisma, trying to get his war-weary troops home and ending up stuck in a refugee detention camp with a bunch of Trojans.

The thing about having kings turn up and drag the menfolk off to war, however, is that that leaves the womenfolk at home to mind the house, bring in the harvests, milk the goats, and generally keep life going while the men muck around with their little toys. And since they’re culturally discouraged from violence or effective self-defense, Penelope’s in a sticky position when a whole bunch of suitors show up and start making comments like “Νιγε πλαγε ιου ηαυε ηερε”.

Of course, since this is like Ultimate Patriarchy, Telemachus is also in a sticky position. He wants to toss all the suitors out on their collective ears, and feels he won’t get any respect unless he does, but he’s just a teenager, not a hero, and since he’s a smart lad (he’s Odysseus’s own son, he’s got smart and plenty to spare) he knows he won’t manage it.

This tension is basically what the novel’s about – that space where the family left at home try and maintain their lives in the face of bullying on one hand and abandonment on the other. Of course, just because Odysseus has abandoned them doesn’t mean his actions don’t still affect them; Poseidon, in his grief for his child Polyphemus, goes to the sea strand and the taverns of Ithaka to mutter about his Plan and prepare his revenge.

Because we know that the myth is going to end well – for values of well that include a lot of blood and guts everywhere, and Penelope staying with the man who took ten years to get home from Troy to Ithaka, a distance of about 1,000 miles or three months’ leisurely hike – then we have the liberty, as readers, to focus on Klymene’s coming-of-age story, her relationships with the other Ithakans and the separate peace she forges with one of the suitors’ men, instead of the mythic backdrop. It’s a really good book, and definitely recommended.

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