February 13, 2018

January Reading

In January I packed up the entire last few years of my life, moved continents, did visa paperwork for a short trip to America, and drafted an article. I did not read many books, but honestly I’m impressed that I read any:


John Agard and Satoshi Kitamura, The Young Inferno: I’ve made some notes on this, and will be writing about it at greater length soon, probably. It’s a smart, and slyly clever retelling of Dante; the deviations in form make sense for several good reasons (especially the switch from Virgil to Aesop as a guide for a young boy); Kitamura’s art is always great.


Sofia Samatar, The Winged Histories: Reading A Stranger in Olondria a few years ago, I said (unoriginally, probably) that “stranger” was the important word–that this is, fundamentally, the story of an outsider to the fantastic word, and one whose relationship to that world has been mediated through text. This companion novel is almost the opposite of that one in that its protagonists are very much the insiders to this world–thought they’re all women, and forced to negotiate particular restrictions, not only have they grown up within reach of the Olondrian empire’s metropolitan centre, but three of the four women have been among or close to those who make the major decisions that shape this world. In a sense they’re even greater insiders to the narrative than if Samatar had decided to include a sort of Olondrian Man-on-the-Street; the rather confusing civil war that is the background to Jevick’s visit is of their making. Because it’s an insider’s perspective, this book widens and deepens what we know about Olondria’s internal functioning (and internal empire). Unsurprisingly, this is also a book about books–how texts live in the world, and how they live with one another.

I’ll be discussing this book, along with two others, with Maureen and Jonah, so less superficial thoughts to come.


Deepak Unnikrishnan, Temporary People: Also read for the above discussion, and because this is a book about which I was excited. A collection of short, fantastical stories set in the Gulf, usually among Malayali migrant workers, it’s necessarily a fragmented narrative–but one where the individual stories bounce off each other, and off what the reader already knows about this immigrant community, to gradually build up and layer a larger story. In its multilingualism and the sort of detached understanding of what narratives the reader already has access to as well as the stories it wants to tell, it reminds me a little of (the in all other ways completely different) Ghalib Islam’s Fire in the Unnameable Country. It’s good, it’s formally interesting, I’m glad it is winning prizes. (Am I allowed to quietly boast that I shared a TOC with Unnikrishnan once?)


Stephanie Burgis, Snowspelled: I started writing about this and it turned into a seperate post (or half of one; I’ve been lazy recently) so I guess that’ll be here soon? Spoiler alert: I’m being conflicted about regency romance again.


January 24, 2018

2017, begrudgingly

For the last few years I have, after posting all my reading round up posts for the year, done a sort  of summary, reflecting  on my reading (and my year) and  thinking about the year to come. But, as I said on twitter a few days ago, I haven’t felt very present in 2017. For much of the summer I had a mysterious illness that may have been exacerbated by stress, and that still flares up every so often, though less severely. And getting through the final months of the PhD was as exhausting as several people had warned me it would be. In most ways I haven’t made the transition from last year to this one–as I write this I’m visiting my parents in Delhi, in limbo between the thesis and a job I’ll hopefully be starting in the spring, and Of No Fixed Address. I’ve discarded most of what I own (all but the books, obviously) to fit the rest into a few suitcases; I’m not entirely sure what country (or continent) I’ll be in in a couple of months, so any marching boldly into the future has had to be put on hold. I’m feeling this page (the second one, on the right) of a comic by Krish Raghav quite intensely at the moment–everything is either endless queues or the possibility of more change than I can wrap my head around.

For now, though, I’m in this city I love, and close friends and family (and this perfect dog) are all within reach, so feeling stuck isn’t all that bad.

Some mandatory reading stats (see previous years’ disclaimers for this year’s disclaimers): I read (about) 50 books, of which (about) 35 were by writers who weren’t cis men, and (about) 25 were by writers who I knew to be non-white. As in previous years, the authors I binge-read tended to be white British women. Things I read that mattered: My SFF recommendations are in the Strange Horizons year in review, here, and I wrote about one of those books, The Magical Fish, here. I also liked both of Patrice Lawrence’s YA novels, and found comfort in the familiarity of the new Philip Pullman. I rarely talk about my academic reading on this blog (and maybe I should try to do more of that in the future), but the most engaged I’ve been this year has been when I’ve been rereading Simon Gikandi and annotating furiously.

Other things:

This interview with the Out of the Woods collective. One of the things that I (and others, I know) have found exceptionally difficult recently is to think in ways that aren’t fragmented. (As my friend Kate put it, “we don’t want to pretend things are okay, we want to know about the direness as it is–but it’s also hostile to having a train of thought. The fear and grief bursts come closer together.”) Something about the certainty of this interview, and its subjects’ ability  to define … not a manifesto, necessarily, though I think it might be that as well, but a broad, clear moral position, gave me something I really needed.

This essay, by aforementioned friend Kate. It’s very specific and personal (a decision not to have a baby), but it’s also about thinking about the future, loving people in this present, and other things that feel central to living in the world now.

This review by Samira Nadkarni, as a touchstone when I need to step back and think about what frameworks I am or am not willing to work within in my critical writing. (Also as an example of writing that is personal and emotional and rigorous all at once.)


2018, then. *Deep breath*

January 1, 2018

December Reading

So much of December is ritual reading. I read A Child’s Christmas in Wales out loud on Christmas day, and started a reread of The Dark is Rising (along with about half of twitter) at midwinter. I read the Christmas play section at the end of End of Term. And as I explain below, I’ve been rereading various things set in fairylands. Here are the other things I read, before I ignored the pile of newish books I’d been half planning to read in favour of a bunch of murder mysteries.


Jeannette Ng, Under the Pendulum Sun:  I just spent four years writing about the relationships between fantastic and imperial other spaces, and decided, sensibly, that I should give myself a rest and not think about those subjects for a while. So naturally, I read this book, which is about missionaries who go to Arcadia/Elfane/Faerie. It’s also: a sustained piece of Bronte fanfiction that engages with their lives, their published works and the Angria and Gondal stories; a book that quotes extensively and makes genuinely interesting use of its intertexts; quite a traditional fantasy about weird fairies; a book in which characters argue theology for a good portion of their lives (though a lesser chunk of the book itself than other reviews had prepared me for; as a result I felt a bit let down that there wasn’t more). This is all a bit much–even though I’m willing to forgive a lot when a book does so many things I like, it’s all a bit too much to sustain itself. Which is in keeping with the general Gothic excess of many of its source texts, and I might be complaining only because it’s the particular threads that I am most interested in that get dropped. (The other thing about Ng’s book is that I’ve also ended up spending much of my holiday season slowly rereading Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist and Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter; and I’m planning to start the year with Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin, so we’ve got a theme running.)


N.K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky: I’ve been enthusiastic about this series before, so this will be nothing new. The Stone Sky continues to be stylistically ambitious, and continues to portray relationships in this hellworld (the Stillness, but also this hellworld) as inherently broken, but still potentially tender; but it also (and this is the bit that is amazing) continues to do things that, a couple of years and several hundred pages in, make me think oh, clever. This book gives us what the previous two have denied us–context (a word that has some significance within the text as well, because these books are nothing if not self-aware), for the history of the world and the weird tech it has inherited as well as its bizarre climate. I was a bit dubious about this at first–in the earlier chapters dealing with this long-past time I suspected a more compact infodump would work just as well–and I’m still not entirely convinced by it even though what it adds deepens the main (?) plot. But it feels fitting that the first book should first focus our understanding of its world by shifting from three perspectives to one, and that the second and third should subsequently widen our focus in perspective and time. (A possibly trite thought I had while reading–I haven’t seen detailed discussions of this series’s worldbuilding, and in the wake of this book I want to; I get the feeling that much of traditional Worldbuilding Discourse tends to ignore precisely the questions of what worlds are built on that this series takes as fundamental to understanding its world.) (This has been another thought about Empire, probably.) And in the book’s present we’re given some of the possibility for rebuilding that the previous books have of necessity denied us; I don’t think this was precisely missing (these books are ruthless and they need to be), but it felt the more precious for that.


Charles Keeping (illus.), The Christmas Story: Keeping’s the only person credited by name on the cover, but the opening pages add that this is “as told on Play School”, and the inner flap explains that it has been produced to be legible to the youngest children, that it was originally told by Roy Castle, and that it’s based mainly on the gospels of Luke and Matthew. None of this matters (I wasn’t reading it to the youngest children); I bought this book for its illustrations, particularly one. During a talk on Keeping  several months ago, Brian Alderson showed an image of this book’s endpapers–just the star over Bethlehem, blazing white light over what I thought at the time was sepia, but in my copy is black and white and a greyish green. The star shows up in several of the images that follow–all monochromatic, with only hints of earthy pinks and greens, but full of light. (Some examples here, but not of the endpapers.)


Georgette Heyer, Envious Casca, Death in the Stocks, A Blunt Instrument, Detection Unlimited, They Found Him Dead, No Wind of Blame, Duplicate Death and Behold, Here’s Poison: I bounced off Heyer’s detective novels several years ago, and it was Christmas and I wanted some golden age-y murder. I don’t think these are anything like as delightful as her regencies (and the regency that’s most obviously a crime novel, Regency Buck, is also not great), but this time around I found them solidly enjoyable examples of exactly the sort of thing I wanted to read.

However: I have a question about monocles. In Detection Unlimited we meet an elderly spinster who “invariably wore suits of severe cut, cropped her grey locks extremely short, and screwed a monocle into one eye. But this was misleading: her sight really was irregular.” I assumed that the thing that was “misleading” here was a reference to the character’s sexuality–apparently wearing a monocle was just something cool lesbians did in the 1920s. However, in A Blunt Instrument we meet another monocled woman–this time, a “slim”, “young” journalist, who (spoiler, possibly?) ends up in a relationship with a young man. Does Heyer no longer know about lesbians; is her understanding (and, indeed, the contemporary understanding) of queerness more fluid–is this character closer to what I’d think of as bi; are the charms of a rich upper-class Englishman just too impossible to resist? A Blunt Instrument was published fifteen years earlier (1938, while Detection Unlimited is 1953) and is also earlier within the books’ internal chronology–but I’m not sure what to make of any of that.



December 4, 2017

November Reading

Things that happened in November: I passed my viva (trust me, I’m a doctor), I helped run a symposium, I conferenced, I continued to have a very persistent flu, I hung out with a cute dog and watched a lot of Agatha Christie adaptations but not the new one. I reread my own work a lot (for the viva, not out of vanity); I just about managed to read some other things.


Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties: Read in bits and pieces across the month. I’d read some of these stories before–and “Inventory“, which I love, was published in Strange Horizons, so seeing us mentioned here made me feel generally warm and fuzzy (nb: I have nothing too do with the decisions made by the fiction editors and therefore probably do not deserve to bask in their glory). This is a great collection–it’s good at bodies (the title would suggest this, I know, but really  good) and worlds that are suddenly (and have always been) hostile and strange, and there’s both desire and a sort of rueful acknowledgement of it, and it’s brutal. Machado has, to me, a really distinctive voice, and it’s one I enjoy a lot.

Also, rereading “The Husband Stitch” reminded me to reread Edna St Vincent Millay’s “Bluebeard“, so that was an extra good thing.


Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility: Din (who I’m hoping will write about this soon) has been reading and thinking about Austen, and I realised I was unequipped to have a conversation about Elinor Dashwood unless I reread this book–I don’t think I had in at least a decade and probably longer. Much more than my last read, I think, I was struck by how fallible Elinor is–that Austen clearly approves of her doesn’t prevent her from being a character who will get things wrong, and who we can see doing the sort of thinking that’s going to end badly. I love her for it, much more than when she was merely the Good Sister. (Marianne is still an annoying brat, the book is too kind to Edward and Brandon and devastating and great to everyone else.)


Arthur Flowers, Manu Chitrakar, Guglielmo Rossi, I See the Promised Land: I’m writing about this at greater length elsewhere, but Newcastle has been having a very Martin Luther King themed few months, to celebrate his trip to this city, and honourary degree from Newcastle University, in 1967. I’ve had this book for a couple of years now, and this seemed like an appropriate time to finally read it. It’s gorgeous, obviously; but also the form of the book, and the context in which I read it has made me think rather sentimentally about solidarities across nations, about MLK in the Britain that produced the Rivers of Blood speech, and Ambedkar writing to W.E.B. Du Bois; and it’s a reminder that I never did get around to finishing that strange Du Bois novel.


Maud Hart Lovelace, Emily of Deep Valley: My main reason for reading this was curiosity over a conversation about its portrayal of Syrian immigrants in 1910s America (it’s set in 1912; it was published in 1950). I completely failed to encounter the Betsy-Tacy books when I was growing up (she said, losing all Girls Own cred forever), and have only read one since, so I’m not particularly attached to the setting, and it’s only when Betsy actually showed up that I realised that this was set in the same town as those. Emily is classic YA though–she’s quiet and clever and a brilliant debater, and has a crush on the sort of clever, confident boy that readers who identify as quiet and clever know a little too well. He goes to college, along with all their less deserving friends; Emily, who has made a commitment to look after her grandfather, stays home and makes the best of things. And then there are the Syrians, who, we’re carefully told, are Christians fleeing religious persecution–just like the Pilgrim Fathers. Their inclusion in the novel is … interesting–there’s some 1912- (and maybe even 1950-) style stereotyping, and yet the attempt to write them into the mythology of America feels effective, in a novel that seems to fully believe in that mythology. (There’s an awkward moment when Emily’s new boyfriend bonds with her soldier grandfather over how his grandfather was also at Gettysburg, before adding that he was on the other side. They decide to tell both sides of the story to the Syrian kids. Or something.) Anyway, it is a YA story that has a romance and a makeover and is a lot less cringeworthy than it might have been, and I found it very satisfying.


November 4, 2017

September and October Reading

I only read one book in September. and did not want to isolate it in a post of its own, therefore this combined post.


Frances Hardinge, A Skinful of Shadows: I’m still thinking about this one, and I suspect I’ll have more to say about it in time, but at the moment I’m struck most of all by the fact that (if this is a spoiler it’s a very minor one), though we learn early on that the main character was renamed by her mother when the two of them went to live with her Puritan relatives, we never find out what that name was. This feels of a piece with the several name changes that Makepeace must put on/take off over the course of the book–as well as the (not a spoiler, really) number of people with whom she has to share her head. So often children’s lit is about asserting one’s selfhood against forces that seek to control or diminish it, and this book often does that (literally, for several of the characters); but Hardinge is also always good at dramatising the ways in which selfhood is contested and constructed and never as comfortingly innate as to make you secure about it (see in particular: Cuckoo Song)–so we don’t get to know Makepeace’s “original” name and feel like we have a hold on something important about her. And perhaps most crucially, we also see characters deliberately ceding selfhood out of choice or kindness. There’s so much here; it’s a genuinely rich book, and I’m looking forward to writing about it at length.


Osama Alomar, (trans. Alomar and C.J. Collins) The Teeth of the Comb and Other Stories: I’d planned to review this for Strange Horizons’s special issue at the end of October, but managed instead to catch some sort of flu and conjunctivitis (it  was not the best week) and there was no way I was also writing a review. I’m really intrigued by the ways in which this edition of the book (put out by New Directions) signals at these pieces both as poetry and as prose, and I think I’d want to read a lot more on the modern Arabic “very short story” before writing at length about the collection, but these stories are funny and bitter and clever, their imagery is startling and often SFnal, there’s a shifting between metaphor and real fantasy that wrongfoots you constantly. I felt out of my depth, but I enjoyed it a lot.


Ann Coburn, Glint: In early October I chaired a conversation between Ann and Chloe Daykin (the author of Fish Boy, which I write about here, and still plan to write about properly sometime). This book is two books–there’s a more mundane plot in which a girl searches through Berwick for a brother who has disappeared, and a fantastical one in which the character the siblings created in their childhoods goes on a quest, saves some dragons and meets a strange wild boy in the woods. The fantasy plot is dissatisfying, unsurprisingly; one’s always aware of it as only a metaphor. The realist narrative, on the other hand, genuinely works, and there’s a really strong sense of the town. Given that I’ve spent a lot of the last few years writing about fantasy landscapes and real space and the relationships between them, this was a really nice thing to read and not have to write about.


Patrice Lawrence, Indigo Donut: I was expecting to like this, given that I really enjoyed Lawrence’s Orangeboy earlier this year. I was a bit surprised, however, by how I ended up devouring it–with only occasional pauses to listen to Blondie songs, which form an important aspect of the plot. It’s a teenage romance (a genre that is by its nature usually going to be satisfying), but Indigo Donut is genuinely compelling on top of that. It’s also a sort of hybrid family story/mystery; the answers our characters find are difficult ones, and yet (again, as with Orangeboy) there’s a genuine sweetness about its relationships, how its decent people care about and for one another, that saves its more difficult moments from feeling gratuitous or marking it as That Sort Of Thing, and instead makes them just things that happen to these people.


Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage: I don’t think I’ve actually reread the His Dark Materials trilogy since 2006 or so, though in the interim I have read the two or three shorter books/short stories that Pullman has had published. Still, it’s been ages, and it was a surprise to me how much reading La Belle Sauvage, Pullman’s new novel set a decade or so before the events of the trilogy, felt like sinking into something warm and familiar. I read it while I was ill in bed, so I’m still not entirely sure if the weird, dream-sequence-y journey by boat that I remember as the second half of the book actually happened, but I want to believe. I want someone to write about this with The Faerie Queen, and I want them to write about it with The Buried Giant (and I refuse to be either of those people.)


E.K. Johnston, That Inevitable Victorian Thing: My comfort reading/guilty pleasure is the regency romance–and I use “guilty” deliberately here, not because I’m ashamed of my low-culture leanings, but because the genre as a whole is built upon an economics of slavery and empire, things that I can’t not be aware of. I read the books, but expect, and accept, that occasionally the horror of the whole enterprise will suddenly be present on the page in ways I can’t ignore for the space of my comfort reading. Johnston’s book seems to me, in part, a reaction to similarly ambiguous feelings about the genre–unfortunately, it strikes me as about the worst possible reaction.

The book is set in an alternate future, based on a world in which, according to the author, the British Empire made the best possible/least brutal choices at every point in its history, rather than, as often happened, picking the most violent. As a result, it has survived into a future where young people, reaching marriageable age, enter their genetic data into a computer which helps them to meet compatible matches. Besides the technology, the social structures that involve high status debutantes meeting eligible partners at a series of social events have remained largely unchanged since the nineteenth century–as have the clothes, though these high-tech corsets are apparently a lot more comfortable. Debuting this season in the Canadian social scene (still a part of the empire, obviously) are, first, the heir to the throne, disguising herself as a more ordinary young woman in order to escape the public eye; and another woman who is already in a relationship with an old friend. These two women meet and, in complicated circumstances (adopting fake identities online and in real life) fall in love; since, for some reason, it’s still unacceptable for the heir to the monarchy to marry another woman, they, and the abovementioned boyfriend enter into a discreet poly relationship for the good of the empire. There’s something about that particular relationship that genuinely does work for me; a group of sensible adults working out a system that they can all live comfortably with. But this is set against a background that really, really does not work. The whole thing feels like an attempt to render a beloved genre unproblematic, and while I can sympathise with that desire, the book does so by suggesting that empire is only bad when it’s at its most violent, and eugenics are only bad when they’re racially-motivated; that a benevolent empire could be a sort of wish-fulfillment.

It is not.


O. Douglas, Priorsford, Pink Sugar, The House that is our OwnThe Proper Place, The Day of Small Things, Jane’s Parlour, Taken by the Hand: I had such good resolutions for my holiday. We were driving around Scotland, and I took a bunch of things (academically relevant in some cases, just generally important in others) to read. I then spent the whole time reading O. Douglas books instead–I went to look something up and found myself reading almost all of her work within the week. I don’t really know what to say about these books, except that they were very satisfying, do some genuinely interesting things with character, and went very well with a hotel room by the sea.


September 1, 2017

Further self-promotion

(In lieu of any actual blogging, until this cruel thesis is over; you weren’t seriously expecting a Books I Read in August post.*)


I’m one of the academics interviewed as part of this project by Connie Jeffery on the history of British children’s literature, and its role in “shaping” ideal children. There are five twenty-minute podcasts, organised broadly chronologically up to the mid-twentieth century, and it’s impressively lucid, particularly if the other people interviewed were anything like as waffly as I was. Connie’s framing (morality) is one I rarely have to think of with regard to my research, so apart from being a fun thing to do, this was also an interesting exercise in putting my own work in a different context.

Go and listen!




* (I read no books in August.)

August 27, 2017

Some Borribles


While on the subject of things I’ve written in places other than this blog:

I was in Ireland late last summer, for a conference in Galway and general reunions with lovely people in Dublin, and while I was there took the chance to rummage about the Michael de Larrabeiti archive, which is now housed at TCD (it moved there almost immediately after I’d left, which seemed rather pointed). I’ve been sort-of-kind-of working on the Borribles books for years, though they’ve been pushed into the background for a bit while I finish my thesis. The archive made me really want to come back to them, though–I’m surprised (and a bit relieved) that no one has taken the opportunities offered by the last few years to think about these books in this historical moment. Almost a year later, I still haven’t sat down to think through all the notes I took, and I really want to go back and rummage some more. (I’d also really like to speak to someone working on German history in the 70s and 80s, to make sense of some of the correspondence about the translations of the books–if you might be that person, please let me know!)

tardiIn any case, here’s a short thing I wrote a few months ago for the Newcastle University Children’s Literature Unit blog, on libraries and archives and canons and the relation in which these books sit with all of them. I’m hoping, soon, to give proper time to writing about the books and canonicity as part of my next project. For now, that link leads to a much shorter version, and as a consolation I offer a French edition of the first book, with cover art by Tardi and with a title that is an absolute joy to say.



August 25, 2017

New review and Strange Horizons fund drive

SH logoI have a review at Strange Horizons this week. It’s of the Guy Ritchie Arthur film that came out earlier this summer; I was ridiculously late with it (particularly shameful given that I’m usually on the other side, sending gently nagging emails to reviewers). I happen to be editing a chapter of my thesis that does a lot of thinking about the Arthur myth after empire, so think of this as a tiny bit of my PhD, but with more dick jokes.

More importantly, this week also marks the start of this year’s Strange Horizons fund drive. Lots of lovely people have been saying nice things about the fiction we publish (and this year has been great–here’s Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s incredible “Bluebellow”, for example). But as I’ve said before (and before I joined the enormous team of people who make the magazine happen), the thing that makes me commit myself to SH is how seriously it takes its nonfiction. I love that we published this wonderful essay by Dexter Palmerthis roundtable by Rebecca Roanhorse, Elizabeth LaPensee, Johnnie Jae and Darcie Little Badger, these columns by John Clute and Andrea Hairston, Erin Horáková’s astonishing Kirk Drift piece; that these pieces can be academic or sweary or long or full of almost incomprehensible neologisms, or whatever they need to be. And obviously I love our reviews section, for similar reasons. (I’m planning a twitter thread of beloved reviews from the past year, but I’ve barely started it so here’s last year’s.)

All of which is to say: I think we do good things, and I hope we continue to be able to. If you like the things linked above (or any of the other things we make!) and if you have cash to spare, please consider contributing. There’s an indiegogo page, and a patreon, and 61 (!) hopeful members of staff.

(And if you cannot contribute, ignore the last paragraph and just enjoy the several thousand words of great writing linked to above.)

August 5, 2017

July Reading

What I read in July–not counting all the Wolves rereads (see here), because I’ve read them before. As I say below, much of this month has been about comfort reading, and I’m a bit sick of it. I don’t wish to dismiss fluff as a genre (I love it and respect it), but I’m really looking forward to having the mental space to have most of my reading be properly chewy again. Anyway.


Mhairi McFarlane, Who’s That Girl?: I’ve been ill for a large part of this month, and needed all the comfort reading I could lay my hands on. This was good on the subject of manipulative men, though the thinly-disguised Game of Thrones plot made me cringe and the instagram bits made me wonder why everyone was so young. (This was also a thing I noticed with some of the actual YA mentioned below, but McFarlane’s protagonists are about my age, which suggests I’m very out of touch.) Still, enjoyable.

Daljit Nagra, British Museum: The Nagra collection of my heart will probably always be Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White Man Eating Tiger Toy Machine!!!, because of course. British Museum feels … quieter, and less confrontational, but is also doing a lot of work. In particular it’s staking Nagra’s claim to the institutions he’s writing about–the lack of confrontation is because the poet’s adopting the voice of a collective “we” in ways that I can’t decide whether I find intriguing or a bit disappointing.

Becky Albertalli, The Upside of Unrequited: I’ve spoken at length about Albertalli’s first book, which is also deeply enjoyable fluff. This book feels like a natural sequel to that one–it’s good on very specific feelings (romance taking your people away from you, the sort of alienation that suddenly makes being around well meaning people whom you like a nightmare, body stuff). It’s good, I liked it.

Victor LaValle, Dietrich Smith, Joana Lafuente, Jim Campbell, Destroyer #3: When this series is complete I’m expecting to find that this issue was the one where most of the exposition happened. I’m still finding it difficult to believe that this story will be entirely resolved in the three remaining issues, but LaValle seems like he knows what he’s doing. The art continues to be gorgeous.

Julie Buxbaum, What to Say Next, Tell Me Three Things: On the recommendation of a friend to whom I’d mentioned reading the Albertalli. Both books are about teenagers coping with death, both very … teenage in the ways in which their characters are a) emotionally isolated b) the only people who feel this way (they’re not, of course, but the books commit totally to the feeling)  c) in the case of TMTT, unable to make sense of T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land (this is a plot point, and it’s to Buxbaum’s credit that she doesn’t artificially make these schoolchildren more erudite). Tell Me Three Things in particular gets a bit silly in its adherence to tropes–all the attractive boys in the book seem to be interested in our protagonist, and it’s annoyingly committed to retaining a dichotomy between nice girls in jeans and mean girls in pretty summer dresses. Still enormously satisfying to read.

August 1, 2017

Joan Aiken, The Stolen Lake

I’ve been ill, and so I’ve been comfort-rereading the Wolves Chronicles. Here is some thinking about one of them in particular.

TheStolenLakeThe Stolen Lake is set in an alternate history in which, during the Saxon invasion of Britain, a large community of (Romans and Briton) refugees fled to South America and founded the countries of Hy Brasil, New Cumbria and Lyonesse. This occurred soon after Arthur had left for Avalon; Guinevere was still alive, however, and knowing that Arthur would probably come back over the water had the lake transported in frozen blocks to New Cumbria, so that he would have somewhere to come back to.

There … is some stuff going on here. It’s never entirely clear to me what aspects of our world’s history do and don’t make it into Aiken’s alt-histories. Catherine Butler and Hallie O’Donovan (in Reading History in Children’s Books) point out that though it’s tempting to try and find a/the jonbar hinge in the Wolves series and extrapolate what changes might have stemmed from there, it’s all but impossible to do so; that form of alternate history is simply not the framework within which this series operates. I do understand this, and I don’t think this is an attempt to read the book in such terms. But there is, as I say, stuff going on, and I’m particularly interested in trying to parse for myself what it’s doing with regard to my own pet subjects, space and empire. The other books in the series don’t really suggest much is going on with the British empire–the monarchs we see are all benevolent and vague, and things like the East India Company aren’t mentioned. On the other hand, there are trading ships travelling across the world, pirates, and missionaries in China. Meanwhile, British material culture is broadly as you’d expect it to be for the mid/late 19thC. This is all fine; we’re in that familiar space of British children’s literature where the country is small and decent and there is no shortage of tea.

But then we leave the British Isles and it gets newer and more interesting. That long ago flight to South America described by this book takes place in 577AD. We’re not sure what it means for (our world’s history of) Spanish and Portugese colonialism, if the Americas are already widely known within Europe and large parts of South America are already essentially a British colony. Several minor characters have names like Jose or Gomez, but this could either signal an Iberian influence that happened anyway or simply be a shorthand for “South American” (since in the world in which the book is written, the Spanish and Portuguese did conquer the region). Scraps of information suggest that the Inca empire has continued in some form into the book’s present (sometime in the mid-19thC), though they don’t come into this book’s plot. It’s also not clear what the racial makeup of the three Roman colonies is–did the original colonists kill most of the natives, intermarry with them, or were the lands just mostly empty, terra nullius except for that one picturesque and unnamed tribe who shrink heads? (Of whom more later.) There are ancient temples on mountains here, but they are dedicated to “Sul” (New Cumbria’s capital is “Aquae Sulis”), who is also somehow Medusa. Hy Brasil (the book’s afterword explains what Hy Brasil was) is ruled by a king named Huascar, son of Huayna Capac, and there is a hint that the country will soon be taken over by Huascar’s brother, Atahuallpa; all pretty much as recorded, just a slightly different empire and three centuries late.

[According to Neil Philip, a major scene in Alan Garner’s Elidor was based in part on Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, which dramatizes Atahualpa’s encounter with Pizzaro. I’d love to know (someone must) whether Aiken had likewise seen or read Shaffer, or if for some reason there was particularly widespread interest in the Incas in 1960s and 70s Britain and both Aiken and Shaffer were affected by it.]

stolen lake gorey

Bodily transporting a myth across continents is fraught at the best of times. In Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, for example, we’re told that the Greek gods have moved their centre of operations to New York because America just is the centre of things now, so *shrug*. It’s a piece of imperial thinking that is so basic to the structure of the books that even the increasingly politically aware novels later in the series never quite get away from it. Riordan struggles to navigate this (as does Gaiman in American Gods, from what I remember of it) but I’m not convinced that there’s a way to do it that doesn’t invoke and then validate geopolitical inequalities. In this case, the myth is being transported specifically to a (current) colony, which makes this aspect of the situation even more acute.

Then there’s the fact that the Arthur myth itself is one that is inherently about landscape–Arthur territorially binds Britain (see Subramanian, 2017, or just take my word for it that I have a thesis chapter on this), is buried under Britain, will rise to save Britain. It makes sense, then, that the myth can only be relocated by relocating a part of the landscape itself. [That image of individual ice blocks being transported by ship (at some point they must have crossed the equator, I protested) also calls to mind that recurring image, in British children’s literature of the mid-century, of Americans buying up British heritage buildings and relocating them. (I have no idea if this happened often, yet the prevalence of the image has convinced me it did. Wikipedia suggests that there were at least a few prominent instances.)] Unsurprisingly, we discover that Arthur is inscribed upon the local landscape as well–travelling into the mountains the characters see huge geoglyphs that resemble their companion’s birthmark.

Above I suggest that we’re not really being invited to consider these books through the lens of European imperialism, but Ginevra, this version of Guinevere, is a nightmare colonist. Not only has she showed up and reshaped the entire landscape as well as instilling her own weird religious system, but she is preying upon her subjects in more horrifying ways. It turns out that she is a sort of cannibal, who has stayed alive for these several centuries by murdering and consuming local children. (Again, it’s not immediately obvious how race works in New Cumbria, but the racial politics of the situation also seem striking.) In order to protect them from Ginevra and her minions, local parents send their children to work in the mines underground where, horrific though the conditions are, their chances of survival are marginally better. The princess of the comparatively idyllic neighbouring kingdom of Lyonesse finds the existence of an entire industry based on child labour horrifying, but Dido Twite, Aiken’s London born, working class protagonist is less surprised. “It should not be allowed. It is not so in Lyonesse.” “It is in England.”

It’s possible, then, to read Ginevra not only as individually monstrous (though she is), but representative of much that is monstrous about 19th century Britain, a country known for treating its own working class children badly, as well as for consuming and imposing catastrophic change upon other peoples in other places. There’s also, in the image of the grief-stricken queen mourning her lost husband, more than a hint of Victoria (who of course, in Aiken’s world, is never crowned).

What, then, of Arthur/Atahuallpa/Gwydion/Holystone? “The whole of Roman America apart from that is in a disgraceful condition of tyranny, anarchy, and misrule. Time it was the High King came back; someone who will be accepted by the people and set matters to rights,” says a friend and ally from a neighbouring kingdom. In one sense, Arthur is as much of an import as Ginevra. But he has been reborn here in South America, has an Inca name (not that we’re told that that’s what “Atahuallpa” is); he is even described as having “pale brown” skin. His followers are eager for him to reunite “Roman America”, and this is in keeping with the character’s British roots (as I’ve said, one of the Arthur myth’s functions is to bind Britain into a single territory), but the idea of a single ruler of possibly divine provenance uniting the empire also runs in tandem with our-world stories about Atahuallpa as the last Sapa Inca.

A benevolent combining of the two continents (Europe and South America) and their histories and politics, then? It’d be nice, but neither in our world nor the world of the book is any equal footing ever possible. The need for a king like Arthur is in keeping with the myth, sure, but it’s also framed within a rhetoric that imitates current constructions of South America as lawless:

And as for the things that go on in Biru, you’d never believe–brigandage, cannibalism–I believe they even sacrifice their grandmothers to Sul. Grandmothers! in the streets of Manoa you daren’t go out at night because robbers make off with the silver manhole covers; you could fall straight into the sewers and get washed away.

And there are those shrunken heads. Almost the only instance of Ginevra embracing anything local is in her fondness for these heads as decorative objects–we’re told also that “Foreign travelers buy many of them; they are one of Cumbria’s principal exports”, wording that does at least implicate those tourists (probably North American and European?) in the continuation of the practice. We know that Arthur, an enlightened monarch, plans to concern himself with “Dissident elements in Hy Brasil … abolish practice of head shrinking … joint action to exterminate the aurocs … improved conditions in the silver mines …”; fair enough, I suppose, but the continued invocation of South America as a space of headshrinking and lawlessness is still uncomfortable.

Which is to state the obvious, and say that however much this may be more complex than many British fantasies that unthinkingly appropriate other spaces,  The Stolen Lake‘s charming alternate history is of necessity drawing on an imperial vocabulary that means something.