December 8, 2016

Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Girl of Ink and Stars / The Cartographer’s daughter

I read this as The Girl of Ink and Stars, got to the acknowledgements page and saw the author thanking Victo Ngai for the cover art, and was briefly very confused (I’m sure I can recognise Ngai’s art when I see it)–but it’s here, on the US edition of the book, titled The Cartographer’s Daughter. I’m not enamoured by either title–the UK one is a bit too twee, and the US one too much in the Man-With-Job’s Female Relation pattern: though that is a scheme I associate with tastefully muted dramas rather than children’s adventure stories. The cartographer in question is absent for much of this particular story, and Isabella is only really defined by that relationship insofar as she too is good at (and passionate about) maps.

The plot: Isabella lives on a corner of the island of Joya, run by a dictatorial local governor. Much of the island has been cut off–there’s a forest around the village of Gromera, and beyond it live The Banished. We’re told very little about how this state of affairs came into being, and none of the adult characters seems to have been around when it happened. (This gives an impression that things have been this way for much longer than the later events of the book would suggest, but I’ll come back to that.) Isabella’s best friend is Lupe, the Governor’s daughter who somehow manages to ignore the oppressive nature of her dad’s society and the literal prison literally under her house. Until she sends a servant (Cata, a girl who goes to school with Lupe and Isabella) into the orchard to get her some fruit–and the girl’s mangled body is found the next day. Finally aware of some of the horrors of the world in which she lives, and of her own complicity in them, Lupe runs away, into the forbidden parts of the island, to find the creature/s that killed Cata, and her father, Isabella (disguised as her own brother, Gabo), and a group of men must go after her.

Reading fantasy, one is often placed in a position of working out how reality functions in this new setting–what is and is not plausible, how myths have developed (or how they are supposed to have developed, since the world is a construct), the relationship between fantasy, myth, history, magic, etc. in this world. Interspersed with the current-day plot of The Girl of Ink and Stars are stories of the island’s past, told to Isabella by her father: stories of the time when the island floated free across the waves, stories of her grandfather and his ship of glowing wood, and of the island’s legendary heroine, Arinta, who saved the island from a fire demon who wished to consume it, but was lost in an underground labyrinth, chased by the fire demon’s demonic dogs. It’s clear that these fantastical stories, dismissed by Isabella’s friends, are going to have something to do with the mystery of Cata’s death (that there are claw marks around her body is something of a clue), but we’re still expecting to have to puzzle this out; still expecting that if Joya’s mythic past is in some sense true, it’s the truth told slant.

It is not.

The early sections of the book work well. The island setting feels a bit generic, but the governor’s power and the powerlessness of the people Isabella knows, the bewilderment of Isabella and Lupe at a curfew that no one is willing to explain to them, the simmering resentment of Gromera’s inhabitants and the sense that it’s all about to come to a head, all these feel right to me. It’s the point at which Isabella leaves Gromera and begins to explore the interior of the island, as well as its history, where to me it begins to feel disappointing. We travel through burnt forests, waterfalls with hidden caves behind them, deserted villages, underground labyrinths filled with fire, heat enough to turn the sand of the beach above into a river of glass, and somehow none of these are memorable. It’s doubly disappointing because The Girl of Ink and Stars is such a slight book, and these images, had they been half as evocative as they ought to (how do you make liquid glass dull?*) might themselves have been reason enough to read it.

I’ve been rebelling, recently, against overly neatly-constructed narrative where we know exactly what we need to know and no more, every incident or piece of information becomes significant later and every object is Chekhov’s gun. There were times when I appreciated that TGoIaS didn’t do this–there’s no neatly wrapped up romance, for example; there’s no reason why the governor should write a full confession of his crimes and hide it in a locket for his teenage daughter, other than because that is something this person does (what does this say about what Lupe considers believable information though?); there’s no reason for the glowing stick subplot except that it’s a nice image. This refusal of traditional narrative structure extends in some part to the ending–Lupe, rather than Isabella, is the one who acts out Arinta’s role and completes her task; Isabella shifts from the position of protagonist (of the story of the island’s salvation, if not of this book) to that of observer and chronicler. (It reminded me, weirdly enough, of a Rider Haggard story–with Isabella as a Holly/Quatermain figure to Lupe’s Leo/Curtis.)

I wondered, briefly, how it was possible for so much information about the rest of the island to be lost in what can’t have been that great a stretch of time (I’m hazy on time and history in this book/on Joya), and then remembered how many illustrations of just this we’ve been able to witness in the recent past. I wondered how Isabella’s mother had come into possession of a map that also showed, when soaked with the right sort of water**, a detailed plan of an underground labyrinth that had apparently only ever been entered by a mythical hero who never returned. I had several questions, but didn’t particularly mind their lack of answers.

I said, above, that we’re expecting the truth told slant; that the myth is true, but true in the way that myths are; that Arinta did save the island, from a demon or from a natural phenomenon, but that the myth is the distilled form. It is not. Isabella and Lupe follow her underground, confront the creatures below, use the sword Arinta left down there to vanquish the demon. It’s hard to understand how mythic knowledge can be dismissed by the characters in this world when it’s more accurate, at the most mundane level, than even Gromera’s understanding of its recent past. We even discover that the story that the island was once free-floating is true–at the end, it’s on its way to “Amrica”. I should be charmed, but I’m not.

 

 

 

*(I’m aware that the question of the solidity of “solid” glass is itself a Thing.)

** In a thesis chapter on The Hobbit, I have a section on the map in that book, and the fact that it has on it hidden information that can only be read in the moonlight on one day of the year, and what this might say about mapping and knowledge and adventure stories and space. Some of that probably applies here, somehow.

December 5, 2016

November Reading

Well this was a fun and not at all distracting month to read in. Some notes on the things I did manage to finish:

 

Martin Stewart, Riverkeep: I took a while to get into Riverkeep. The first chapter in particular is claustrophobic (deliberately so) and gross about bodies (deliberately so)–I felt the sort of nausea I felt at a particular section of Jesse Bullington’s Sad Tale of the Brother’s Grossbart (also concerned with sea creatures and flesh) and I considered not reading on at all. This is not a criticism, particularly–that first section is brilliant, and accomplished. But then the tone shifts to something less oppressive, and we’re in an easier (for me) children’s adventure, and it’s a bit The Wizard of Oz and a bit Terry Pratchett and a bit Moby Dick and a bit Gormenghast. The language is stunning, the world is weird, it’s very good. I’m told there’s going to be a sequel and I’m not sure how I feel about that–interesting characters were left in interesting places at the end of this book, but I’m not sure that the things I liked about it really reward longer narrative arcs. But I definitely want more of this sort of thing in the world.

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, A Head Girl’s Difficulties, The Maids of La Rochelle, Seven Scamps: One of the reasons I avoid series fiction is that I’m a series completionist and it’s inconvenient and gets in the way of other things. I’ve read some of the La Rochelle series before, but to have never read three books in a seven book series feels like a huge gap; I’m never sure who anyone is or what their place in this ecosystem is. Having read the whole series now, I still find it scrappy and full of gaps. A Head Girl’s Difficulties is probably the oddest (I enjoyed how a diptheria epidemic that kills multiple students and an outbreak of sentimentality are treated as equally severe crises), but also everyone in Seven Scamps is weird and unlikeable. Having said all of which, I’m glad I at least know who the characters are now, vaguely.

Amandla Stenberg, Sebastian A. Jones, Ashley A. Woods, Darrell May Niobe: She Is Life #3: I am beginning to think I should just read these in one go when there are more of them (as I did with Monstress earlier this year)–I’m finding comics as a form rather unsatisfactory at the moment as chunks of narrative. This series is growing outwards though, and giving glimpses of a fuller world, and Woods’s art continues to be beautiful.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Girl of Ink and Stars: I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere. The prose is often lovely, the book contains maps and islands and fire underground, all things I have strong feelings about, and yet it did very little for me. It’s short, but I’m a little puzzled by how lightweight it feels.

 

November 27, 2016

Of Interest (27 November, 2016)

Recovery, Escape, Consolation:

Via Shailja Patel, a curriculum for men to challenge male supremacy.

This intervention and deescalation resource list.

Christina Sharp on the uses of kinship and (putting them together because I read them together, and I think reading them together was good) Muna Mire on resisting (and fearing) Trump’s Islamophobia.

Space Crone on the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero” (via JR).

Kanishk Tharoor in Kill Screen on the Civilization series (via Aaron Bady).

Patricks Blanchfield and Iber on America/Banana Republic comparisons.

Bettina Judd’s “The Break”, via Nicole Chung.

Ndinda Kioko and Phoebe Boswell in conversation.

Interview with several Canadian spec-fic authors of colour (inc. Hopkinson, Goto, Moreno-Garcia).

Poundstoremike on Harry Potter everywhere and the drifting away from real politics (and real consequences) of political commentary. (I still have unarticulated quibbles with this piece, but I like most of it very much.)

Rudo Mudiwa on Zimbabwe’s bond notes, crisis, and resistance. (Not to make it all about us, but Indian readers might find this particularly pertinent right now.)

Usha Ramanathan on India’s demonetisation mess.

Elissa Washuta on words, and whiteness, and apocalypse (via Kate Schapira).

Janelle Monae, interviewed by Tyler Young, on (among other things) Hidden Figures, i.e. probably the only reason to hope 2017 happens at all.

This interview/profile of Alex Wheatle by Homa Khaleeli did things to my heart and I’m so glad he won the children’s fiction prize, and I’m so glad of his black and purple socks.

P.E. Garcia on poetry after the American election (via Kip Manley). Mainly for this:

I feel as though I’ve been saying I love you a lot lately, but maybe that’s not true. Maybe I simply feel it more acutely when I say it now, as though each time I say it to someone I love, I mean it desperately; my love is clawing at the air as it sinks into quicksand.

Hilton Als reviews Loving.

This important cat story.

This small story from Beard and Hopkins’s The Colosseum (via Vajra Chandrasekera)

 

 

 

November 24, 2016

Adventuring

Back in July, I wrote a short thing for Scroll.in, based on some thoughts I had after Keisha McKenzie’s really great set of tweets about Pokémon Go. At the time, I was also sorting through some of the thoughts that would become this review, and I’m not sure if reading them together might be instructive, or if I’m likely to repeat myself quite a bit. Anyway, the published version of this piece is linked above; here is a slightly edited (or slightly less edited) version:

 

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Amidst the flood of Pokémon Go stories that have dominated the news in the last week or so (to whatever extent a single story can be said to have dominated this week’s news) one recurring theme has been that of the game’s straying into the real world in unfortunate ways. This is unsurprising—the very aspect of the game that is newsworthy is the relationship between its virtual space and the tangible, material space that we all exist in. Exhorting its users to “step outside and explore the world”, the game turns travelling through mundane urban landscapes (more rural areas haven’t been quite as well catered for) into an adventure, making you the protagonist of your own fantastic quest.

There is both joy and genuine radical potential in this sort of transformation of space—as anyone who has ever been a child ought to recognise. Children turn environments made for people not them into different spaces all the time, layering fiction over fact to create a space for play. Other groups also perform versions of this reimagining of space—some practitioners of parkour, for example, describe the practice as a subversive way of reclaiming urban spaces by using them in unconventional and disruptive ways. In a sense, Pokémon Go might be said to be performing the sort of “re-enchantment” of the world that Michael Saler describes in As If, his study of fantasy and virtual reality as responses to modernity. Which is all (as far as it goes) wonderful.

Yet the subversive potential of reimagining the world depends largely on who is doing this reimagining.

Keisha E. McKenzie, an academic, technical communicator and consultant, compares Pokémon Go’s overlaying of real and virtual terrain to the mapping of the world by European explorers in the age of Empire. “Wherever their maps showed the fountain of youth or the city of gold, even if those locations overlaid entire nations and peoples, they claimed the right to go, explore, discover, and capture, and people’s lives became their gamespace.”

It’s hardly surprising that much of modern fantasy, and its associated virtual reality, grows directly out of the genre sometimes called imperial romance—in these adventure stories, the strange terrain through which our heroes must travel in order to complete the quest is that of Asia, or Africa, or South America. They return home wiser, better (and often richer) men. Considered through this body of literature, the vast majority of the globe sometimes appears to exist purely so that British men will have somewhere to have adventures. This would all be very charming, but obviously it’s no coincidence that the genre’s heyday coincided with that of European imperialism. Explorers were romanticised in popular culture, with “real” accounts of their doings proving as popular as adventure novels, and there was an open understanding that the readers of these stories, both real and fictional, would grow up to participate in the protection and governance of the empire. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, however, explorers were running out of “blank space[s] of delightful mystery” (as Conrad describes them in Heart of Darkness) to map, explore and claim. Again, it’s no coincidence that the beginning of the twentieth century should see a flowering of fantasy and science fiction, providing heroes with new worlds (and planets) in which to go questing. Spaces in which, essentially, to be imperialists.

The colonisers had had a vested interest in ridding the land, as far as possible, of competing histories and significances, discounting existing, indigenous cultural and geographical understandings of the space (at this point the author goes off into a separate monologue about the historical uses to which Terra nullius was put). The effect of this in narrative was to rid the territory of any purpose other than the protagonist’s personal or material quest. In fantasy, of course, this is literally true—the fantasy world only exists for the purposes of the quest narrative. Diana Wynne Jones begins her brilliant Tough Guide to Fantasyland (a tourist’s guidebook that takes on practically every cliché of the genre) with the injunction to “find the MAP … if you take this Tour, you are going to have to visit every single place on this Map, whether it is marked or not. This is a Rule.” Local landmarks, where they appear, figure as stages of a sort of obstacle course on the protagonist’s journey to collect (or destroy) the magical object. Or they are reduced to a form of scenery–as Farah Mendlesohn notes (in Rhetorics of Fantasy), the fact that the hero moves through the space has the effect of rendering the world itself static. (The local population is similarly mostly absent, though it sometimes presents another obstacle in the form of a faceless barbarian horde.)

To be able to treat a space as something inherently designed for one’s own personal material or spiritual benefit is to be in a position of power, and these particular spatial power relations continue into the real world and into other genres of writing—at one level, King Solomon’s Mines, Eat, Pray, Love and The Hobbit are all versions of the same story. That this power, this assumption of the fundamental availability of spaces and of one’s own welcome within them, are not available to everyone has become clear over the weeks since the popularity of Pokémon Go has risen—see, for example, Omari Akil’s piece on the potential danger of playing the game as a black man in America, or the conversation initiated by Ana Mardoll, among others, around the difficulties of playing the game for people with disabilities.

The fantasy cannot re-enchant the world without being fundamentally connected to the world, and in the past few days we’ve been reminded of this several times when the demands of the real and virtual spaces have collided—such as the appearance of Pokémon at Auschwitz, at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and at the 9/11 memorial, spaces with too much cultural significance (and specifically, places of mourning) to be easily subsumed into the landscape of the quest (and there’s an important conversation to be had about which are understood to be sacred ). There have also been gruesome stories of people coming across corpses while playing the game.

The possibility of stumbling across a (real) dead body is remote, but there are plenty of good reasons to be wary of Pokémon Go, and other people have already articulated them. It’s unlikely that it will make much of a difference (and sources of joy are few enough in the world at the moment that it’s hard to judge anyone who chooses to ignore the dire warnings). But many of those who play the game will find themselves inevitably negotiating the obstacles that are part of the real world; constant reminders of who does, or does not, have power over the space, and who fantasy quests are really for.

 

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November 13, 2016

Of Interest (13 November, 2016)

Not dividing these by category this week–think of them as miscellaneous things that are not entirely about the American election (it’s not escapism if we cannot escape it, and anyway some of these kind of are about the American election).

 

Misc.:

A new Kuzhali Manickavel story in The Forge.

Anne Boyer in The White Review.

Via Kate Schapira, Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters.

A chapter of Christina Sharpe’s In The Wake: “On The Violent Language of the Refugee Crisis”.

Hannah Black in The Towner on Brexit and British racism.

Hannah Black (again) interviews Mariame Kaba here.

I’ve linked to it before, but (about three quarters of the way down the page) Angela Carter’s “Anger in a Black Landscape” has been helpful today.

Via Bhuvi Gupta, this, by Baidurya Chakrabarti, on this week’s demonetization mess.

Amit Kumar and Arif Ayaz Parrey on Kashmir, and not being India.

 

And this.

November 6, 2016

Of Interest (6 November, 2016)

After a couple of weeks’ absence I return with some links about books:

 

Via Rohan Venkat, Hugh Ryan on Michelle Tea’s Black Wave and ending, adulthood, apocalypse, etc.

I’ve loved Anita Roy’s recent columns for BLInk, and this, on a particular school of nature writing, is particularly great.

Irenosen Okojie (in an interview by Kit Caless) on “sly” narratives, genre, travel, gunk, and Speak Gigantular.

Via Christina Sharpe on twitter, M. Milks here reviews (and thinks with, and around) Sarah Schulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse:

In her introduction, she invites us to encounter Conflict Is Not Abuse as a dialogic text: “This is not a book to be agreed with, an exhibition of evidence or display of proof. It is instead designed for engaged and dynamic interactive collective thinking.” On these grounds, she succeeds. I talked to the book while reading it; I have been talking about it with everyone I know.

Alexander Chee on Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia.

Charles Finch on Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia.

Kai Ashante Wilson on writing dialect as a person of colour. (“In other words, this essay could consider the needs of white or POC writers, but not of both and still be brief.” <3)

Ken Liu on the Chineseness of Chinese SF.

Jonathan Sturgeon returns to Quentin Anderson’s The Imperial Self in the time of Franzen.

Anoud on the Iraq + 100 anthology and writing SFF.

Via Vajra Chandrasekera, Amy De’ath on Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue.

 

November 2, 2016

October Reading

In October I had a birthday, wrote a few thousand words, spent a lot of time on the beach. I didn’t read very much–though in addition to the books here, I’ve also been (slowly) reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, the new Alice Oswald collection, and several short stories on (shameless plug alert) the beautiful new Strange Horizons site.

 

Malorie Blackman, Chasing The Stars: I’ll be reviewing this properly elsewhere. For now, I’m a bit underwhelmed. For much of the book I thought perhaps conceptually its Shakespeare-in-Space plot wasn’t working for me; having finished it I feel that the Shakespearean core worked fine, whereas the space setting was where it fell down–sometimes in the ways that much classic space-y SF fails, and sometimes in … other ways. Still interesting and ambitious, and I did get tear-y, but I’d have liked this book to be so much more.

Joyce Chng and Kim Miranda, Sundragon’s Song Vol.1 No. 1: A mini review identical to almost every other mini review I’ve ever written about the first volume of a comic series; i.e. I have no idea what’s happening yet, and can’t judge till there’s considerably more of this to work with. At the moment, the art is rather nice, there are dragons, and a small child whose arc I suspect will involve Proving Oneself in some capacity. I like it enough to continue, which is good enough for now.

Evelyn Smith, Nicky of the Lower Fourth: I really like the few Evelyn Smith books I’ve read–more than many of the school stories I’m familiar with, these are interior, good on character and enjoy their own prose. This particular book feels a bit lightweight, and I was a bit disappointed, but it was an enjoying afternoon.

Robin Stevens, Mistletoe and Murder: At the time of writing (this is always liable to change) I think this and Arsenic for Tea may be my favourite Wells and Wong mysteries (see comment below re. emotional narrative). A Christmas murder set in Cambridge, it’s already deliciously trope-y, and then you get: twins, unrequited love, spinster aunts possibly named after Chalet School characters, teenage feelings in several directions, surprise(!) Bengalis (about whom I’m tempted to write much more, but perhaps that can wait). Of these, it’s the teenage feelings I’m particularly into (the emotional narrative that this series manages to present and not talk about is really quite special), but there was also one particular murder that a (detective fiction-loving) friend and I have jokingly wished for in our literature in the past, and there it was.

October 16, 2016

Of Interest (16 October, 2016)

After a hiatus of a couple of weeks, I return to you older (I had a birthday! It was okay), sadder, and bearing several links about books, a couple about other things, and no Bob Dylan thinkpieces.

 

Books:

Carmen Maria Machado on Joanna Russ, women’s writing, and a Neil Gaiman blurb.

Safiya Sinclair on being/claiming Caliban. (Via Maureen Kincaid Speller.)

Sharanya on Ferrante. (Via Hena Mehta.)

Daisy Rockwell on the poetry of Shubham Shree. “Hindi mein likhne ke liye Hindi se bachna jaruri hai aur likhte reh paane ke liye likhne ki duniya se.”

Anne Chisholm approves of Edmund Gordon’s new Angela Carter biography; Rachel Cooke is underwhelmed.

Anna Carey on the Juvenalia podcast, on girls’ comics.

Peter Moskowitz’s interview with/profile of Tommy Pico.

Jed Hartman’s history of SF prozines on the internet. (Incidentally, you have a couple of days to contribute to the Strange Horizons fund drive! Please do.)

Floella Benjamin on Coming To England‘s 20th anniversary. (Via Karen Sands-O’Connor.)

Aarthi Parthasarthy and Mira Malhotra on being a woman who reads things on the internet.

Hena Mehta, Shashi Mike and Samira Nadkarni discuss Manjula Padmanabhan’s gender dystopias.

It feels important that you read Dario Fo’s Nobel lecture.

Marian and James Womack on translating science fiction. (Via Vajra Chandrasekera.)

 

Beverages:

Annie Zaidi on tea.

Rahel Aima explains Madras filter coffee.

 

Music:

Solange Knowles in conversation with Tavi Gevinson. (Via Anna Carey.)

Sonal Giani on the queerness of Falguni Pathak. (Contains a link to “Meri Chunar Udd Udd Jaye”, the least heterosexual thing I have ever seen on tv) (Via Shruti Ravi.)

Anu Kumar on the life and work of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji.

Uday Kapur on the classist gatekeeping around Indian hip-hop. (Via Supriya Nair.)

October 14, 2016

Alex Wheatle, Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights

Liccle Bit, the first of this series (trilogy?) was on the Carnegie nominee list this year, but never made it to the shortlist. Crongton Knights, I suspect, will be eligible next year, and I’ll be interested to see whether it is short (or long)-listed. It’s on the Guardian Children’s Fiction longlist–the shortlist is not out yet. (This is mostly a post about Crongton Knights.)

“Liccle Bit” is the nickname of teenaged Lemar, the second shortest boy in his class. His height, as his friends McKay and Jonah constantly remind him, is one reason he’s unlikely ever to be in a relationship with Venetia King, the hottest girl in school. Bit lives with his mother, grandmother, his sister Elaine and baby nephew Jerome; his mother’s the only member of the family with a job, and there isn’t much money for cool haircuts and the other minor luxuries that he thinks might make a popular girl notice him. As it happens, Venetia has noticed him; Bit is a talented artist with work in a forthcoming exhibition, and Venetia needs someone to draw a portrait of her. The two become friends, even as Bit learns that the portrait is to be a gift for Venetia’s boyfriend.

Meanwhile, Bit has gotten tangled up in events of which he really wants no part. Elaine’s ex boyfriend (and Jerome’s father) is local gang leader Manjaro. As a result, Manjaro knows Bit, and calls upon him to run various errands- and Bit is too afraid to say no. Things come to a head when he’s asked to conceal a gun for Manjaro for a few days.

If this feels rather heavy on character summary, it’s because characters and relationships were central to my experience of the book. Liccle Bit is fundamentally kind to its characters–it makes room for Bit’s mother’s anger at his father and his father’s current happy marriage, Manjaro’s ruthlessness and violence and the possibility that he might want to be a good dad, and even finds space for us to step back and notice Bit’s own biases. Everyone makes sense as a complex, real person (except perhaps the wise, kind grandmother; but presumably those do exist outside literary cliche).

I liked Liccle Bit, though I took a while to warm to it. Crongton Knights, though, I fell into straight away.

Crongton Knights is told from the perspective of Bit’s friend McKay, and is set a few months after the events of the earlier book. Life in Crongton has been tense ever since, though things are returning to normal. Venetia and Bit have continued to be friends, which is why when she breaks up with her boyfriend and discovers that he has pictures of her naked on his phone, she asks Bit for help. Venetia, Bit, McKay and Jonah, along with a couple of friends they’ve picked up on the way, have to make the long journey across Crongton to find Sergio, get hold of his phone, and delete the pictures, on the way becoming entangled with enemies of McKay’s brother, Nesta.

This is a quest narrative. For some reason, my Kindle edition of the book skipped straight to the prologue of the book and so I missed the map at the beginning on my first read though. But: there’s a map! There’s a small but determined fellowship of friends and allies, walking though dangerous territory to complete a quest, and there’s a map.

crong

Early in my first read through Crongton Knights, I was already aware that I had sunk comfortably into it much more quickly than with the earlier book. I assumed that my rapid involvement in the narrative was simply a byproduct of reading series fiction–that I recognised character and setting and was thus able to find my bearings immediately (pause to consider what it means that that metaphor is cartographical). That’s probably true, but it’s also true that I’ve grown up on fantasy quests. The shape of this story made sense to me in ways that Liccle Bit could not (and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that LB is drawing on genres and/or narrative traditions that I don’t know as well), even before I found the map.

It makes sense to McKay as well. McKay likes the Lord of the Rings movies and Arthuriana; it seems perfectly plausible that he’d conceive of  this mission as a heroic quest. Bit would not have told this story in this way. It’s hard to express why this is impressive writing without running the risk of sounding very trite (perhaps I am sounding very trite now); it’s to talk of the sort of fundamentals that surely we all take for granted by now (of course the shape of the story is a result of who’s supposed to be doing the telling) except that taking things for granted can mean not thinking about them at all, and they should be thought about. To shift between the rhythms of different genres with the same set of characters and relationships isn’t just a matter of skill (though it is skillful), it feels important to what the text does, and how it conceives of itself.

There are other reasons why I think this is great. One of them is purely personal–in the week before I read Crongton Knights I was in Dublin, doing some work with the Michael de Larrabeiti archives, and so ended up rereading large swathes of Across The Dark Metropolis, which is another beloved story about a band of loyal young heroes travelling across a dangerous London. After that, this book felt like coming home.

It also, I think, has something to do with language. Apparently Wheatle has invented much of the language used by the characters in the Crongton books, bringing together “elements of US Hip-Hop, Jamaican dancehall, old school reggae and every other sub-culture I thought could supplement my concoction.” I’m very obviously not in a position to suggest that the result feels “authentic”, whatever that would mean; Crongton is far enough from any of the cultures I inhabit that I’m not sure I can tell the South London bits from Wheatle’s additions. But I have, inevitably, been reading the books in the context of the discussions around e.E Charlton-Trujillo’s When We Was Fierce.

A couple of paragraphs above I mention fundamentals that too often are taken for granted in writing–perhaps the most basic of them is the idea that things can be represented in any meaningful way at all. To invent a fictional language (and I’m speaking here of languages that are supposed to feel “plausible” within their frames of reference; nonsense verse and deliberately silly dialects are doing other things entirely) is to suggest, implicitly, that languages are inventable; that this big, interconnected, evolving thing is actually basic enough that a convincing imitation can be produced in the head of just some guy. But fine, all representation is suspect, the word is not the thing, language is inherently reductive, life goes on.

In a recent article, Lili Loofbourow discusses the powerful and reductive nature of naming, before noting that:

We have shown the same proficiency when it comes to labeling behavioral patterns in minorities and members of other cultures. One of anthropology’s early problems as a field was the worrying ease with which white people could label behaviors and systems that weren’t their own. Ethnocentrism makes it simple to diagnose the peculiar habits of others while you, the implied (white male) observer, remain gloriously exempt. Science plays a huge and important role in the world, but the fantasy of scientific objectivity can bleed dangerously into other areas: that fantasy being that you, as the detached observer, are the one capable of universality, of transcendence. Of objectivity. Of naming.

It’s possible that I’m flattening the author’s point here in extending this from naming and the creation of particular vocabularies to all language ever (sorry Lili, if you read this), but it’s reasonable to suggest that, even if All Representation Is Suspect, questions of who gets to represent what and who gets to present what as real are tied to specific histories and power dynamics. One of the many good posts on When We Was Fierce is this one, by Jennifer Baker, which has a useful section on the ways in which Charlton-Trujillo’s constructed AAVE doesn’t work. Baker notes, crucially, that it is “perceived (and current reviews from White reviewers see it) as ‘real.’” Here, the power to simplify and misrepresent is inherently bound up in race*–the author, who is (afaik) not African-American, writes a book presenting a community in a particular way, and an overwhelmingly white publishing industry endorses it as Truth.

In the interview I link to above Wheatle places his own linguistic innovations in the same tradition as Tolkien’s, and I think that framing is important. Not only because it positions them as something akin to fantasy (and therefore frees them of some of that burden of representation, possibly? Though only if one came to the book as I did, after having read that interview), but that Tolkien’s labour in inventing languages, whatever one may think of the utility of such an exercise, is presented as Work. Whether you think of him as a philologist doing philologisty things or as a massive nerd wasting far too much time and energy on making stuff up, language is positioned as difficult, requiring effort, not just something you can casually create. Wheatle’s invocation of Tolkien, then, helps us to frame his books within that tradition of innovative language, rather than the one where creating “believable” dialogue can so easily lead to a mass of lazy stereotypes.

(On the other hand, one of the functions of secondary world fantasy of the sort Tolkien gave rise to is as an outlet for the sort of colonialist anthropology that deems Other societies and systems and languages eminently classifiable/categorisable; what does one do with that?

I’m not sure. But Crongton Knights has a character who “wrapped untold ice cubes in my flannel” and that “untold” is so good, and pleased me so much.)

 

 

* Whereas Wheatle is a Black British writer from South London, writing about black and brown kids in a fictional/ised South London.

October 3, 2016

September Reading

 

Alex Wheatle, Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights: Liccle Bit was on the Carnegie longlist and didn’t make the shortlist; Crongton Knights, which follows it, is on the Guardian children’s longlistlist. I’ve written at greater length about these two books elsewhere–here I’ll only note that Wheatle’s invented district of London, and his invented slang for it, lead to some gorgeous prose (I’m not in a position to judge how “authentic” it feels, but it feels respectful and loving and playful in ways that other examples of making up slang often have not), that characters and the relationships between them are complicated and interesting, and that I liked both books a lot.

Chimène Suleyman, Outside Looking On: I’ve been torn about reading this for ages. On the one hand, I like what I’ve read by Suleyman in the past, and I love architecture and personal relationships with buildings; on the other, as an Indian living in Newcastle, I have both postcolonial and Northern reasons to be very tired of books about London. I didn’t love the book for the reasons I thought I might, but I suppose if people must write London-y books this is a pretty good one.

Robin Stevens, The Case of the Deepdean Vampire: This has become a tragic cycle; I buy the Wells and Wong mini-mystery, it ends too quickly, the bulk of the ebook is the first chapter of the next book, and then I have to wait months for the rest. This is a very halloween-y story (ideally it’d have been published around then, but Stevens’s christmas book is out at the end of October), and the Carmilla references are fun, but it’d be nice if there’d been more of it.

Katherine Woodfine (ed.), Mystery and Mayhem: Contains takes on various classic mystery plots by various children’s authors (all women, and I think all white)–naturally it’s a bit uneven. The Frances Hardinge (historical, murder in a hot air balloon!) was good, the Robin Stevens (contemporary, murder in a hotel) disappointing; I genuinely liked Susie Day’s locked room murder, and found Clementine Beauvais’s (also a locked room) to be too easily solved, but delighting in its prose more than the other stories did. On the whole, though, not a very satisfying collection–classic crime is inherently comforting, so it feels unfair to criticise it for doing that, and yet the whole felt lightweight.