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

Borriblecover

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.

July 17, 2017

Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Island at the End of Everything

hargraveWriting about Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first novel, The Girl of Ink and Stars, I said that one problem I had with the book was its inability to establish a baseline reality for its world; the reader had no sense of what was and wasn’t possible in this world, and so moments that might otherwise have been startling or meaningful lost their effect.

Which is why, despite my own genre leanings, I’m very glad that her second book isn’t a fantasy. The Island at the End of Everything is set in a version of our world, in the Philippines at what appears to be the beginning of the twentieth century. The book opens on the island of Culion, an island populated by those “touched” by a disease (that we soon realise is leprosy) and their families. Our narrator and protagonist, Amihan, is one of those untouched–she lives with a mother who is affected by the disease. Unfortunately, the state authorities (or their representatives on the island) have decreed that harsher rules of segregation are needed if the disease is to be isolated and wiped out. People from all across the Philippines who are affected are to be brought to the island, while those adults who do not have it can still choose to live on Culion but only in areas designated “clean”. All children who do not have the disease are to be shipped off the island and sent to orphanages.

One of my favourite short stories is Karen Joy Fowler’s “King Rat”, which I’ve never yet managed to make my way through without crying. “King Rat” is about the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and more broadly, the visceral awfulness of stories in which parents and children are forcibly separated.

Shortly after I met Vidkun, I wrote my own book. This was an illustrated collection of short pieces. The protagonists were all baby animals. In these stories a pig or a puppy or a lamb wandered inadvertently away from the family. After a frightening search, the stray was found again; a joyful reunion took place. The stories got progressively shorter as the book went on. My parents thought I was running out of energy for it. In fact, I was less and less able to bear the middle part of the story. In each successive version, I made the period of separation shorter.

I quote Fowler because I can, and because every excuse to do so is a good one; also to explain that I, like the narrator of this story, find this form of separation particularly hard to bear. The opening sections of The Island at the End of Everything are wholly taken up with the ripping apart of this small family, and the more straightforwardly sentimental it is (Ami and her mother calculate the number of letters they’ll have to write if they are to write one a day until Ami is allowed back on Culion again) the more I’m willing to commit to the book entirely. Which is all fine, except that the book is doing other things as well.

At the behest of the authorities, and particularly of Mr Zamora, the horrifying representative of the state, the children are removed from the island. Zamora is (I don’t like this comparison, let us have one conversation this year that’s not about Harry Potter) Umbridgelike, not only in his position as representative of deeply awful state institutions, but in a bigotry and sadism which start out seeming like they’re merely a feature of the institution he represents but that is revealed to be teetering on the brink of of something dark and unbalanced. (I’m forcibly restraining myself from making comparisons to other political leaders of this moment.) He hates and is terrified of the people he has been forced to work among–his obsession with “cleanliness” underlining just how afraid he is of catching the disease. This is not his only flaw–he is a naturalist, obsessed with butterflies (there’s some wordplay around “leprosy” and “lepidopterist” that fortunately isn’t made much of). To Ami, this mostly means that he kills butterflies, poisoning them in a bell jar that he keeps for the purpose. Her nanay (mother) is also fond of butterflies, though she, of course, has taken the opposite approach, planting a butterfly garden in the hope of bringing them to her home. (It hasn’t worked. “‘Not a single butterfly came last summer, Ami’ says Nanay. ‘I don’t think they like it on Culion.’”) The butterflies will turn out to be Significant–the evacuated children will force Zamora to drop his specimens and lose some on their way off the island–and when Amihan returns to say a final farewell, there they are, gloriously.

The butterflies are also the element that destabilises the book’s realism. In most senses this absolutely is historical fiction; the presence of the butterflies is such that we’re forced not to read the book in an entirely realist mode–it’s not magical realism (you could make an argument for The Girl of Ink and Stars being in or adjacent to that genre, though I don’t know that I’d be convinced), but I think it’s probably closest to fabulism.

Other people will probably write at length about this book’s found family, its implicit queer relationship, its evil scientist plot. All of these are handled varying degrees of well, and none of them made a huge impact on me. What stuck with me, I think, was something less tangible. In a dangerous attempt to return to Culion, Ami, Mari and Kidlat risk their lives on the sea, so that we see Ami “[...] think of all the things beneath us, the fish and the coral and the sharks.” There’s some of this sense in the early chapters as well, which feature characters both living with and very carefully not thinking about the thing that is going to kill so many of them and/or their loved ones. Which is to say that the lasting impression of this book for me, reading it in this year and at this time, is one of people giving themselves up to huge, fatal forces, and doing what needs to be done in the knowledge that things are ending, and ending soon. Until its final act, which is a reassuring return to normal operations (though perhaps not for Ami, for whom such a life has never been normal), the main emotive thrust of the book for me was a sort of gentle apocalypse.

July 2, 2017

June Reading

Looking increasingly wild-eyed, I assure you that when this thesis is over I will read some serious important books again. For now, this is what I read in June.

 

Sandhya Menon, When Dimple Met Rishi: This has been getting some positive buzz in the US as a romcom about arranged marriage, and friends and I have been rather side-eyeing it–not because we’re set against the concept per se (some of our best friends and family etc) but because this particular iteration of it seems to involve a) teenagers and b) manipulation by family (and c) being very clearly aimed at a not-Indian audience ["idli cakes"]). Having read it, I don’t think the book ever manages to deal with or explain away the parts of the story that feel inherently unpleasant; which might be fine in some circumstances (a lot of romance fiction does this, and it can be cathartic or have other uses for the reader) but I don’t get the impression that this book is positioning itself that way.  None of this, however, was as hazardous to my experience of the book as my dislike of its male protagonist, who you just know will be posting sanghi memes on facebook about three years into this relationship.

 

Thomas Burnett Swann, The Forest of Forever, The Day of the Minotaur: I went through a period, lasting several years, when I’d forget both author and title but suddenly feel a yearning for a particular story in a particular anthology and have to hunt it down. (It was Swann’s “The Sudden Wings”, in the Tom Shippey-edited Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories.) More recently, I’ve been promising myself that I’d read some of Swann’s work beyond that one story. I did enjoy these two books, but I suspect that was more to do with the novelty of reading a book entirely unconnected to either my thesis or to any current literary conversation. The Day of the Minotaur (which was published first) begins with some of the things that I liked about “The Sudden Wings” (our history, but with ancient remnants of a world of gods and monsters, sexy Other mythological creatures, siblings, generally charged interactions) and peters into something rather more domestic and less exciting, whereas The Forest of Forever, a prequel to the earlier book, doesn’t really add much except the revelation that the Minotaur was previously in love with his eventual girlfriend’s mother, and to make the sexy tree nymph character of the earlier book seen pathetic. I’ve seen commentary on Swann that describes these books as sexually charged, and while there are moments where that is true, the thing that I’m most struck by in these books is how profoundly uncomfortable they are with sex, even as they seem unable to move away from the idea of it. In “The Sudden Wings” these impossible impulses turned into something sharp and lovely; here they just … dwindle into not very much.

 

Victor LaValle, Dietrich Smith, Joana Lafuente, Destroyer #1-2: I’ve been planning for ages to read Victor LaValle, particularly since this great review of The Ballad of Black Tom (full disclosure: I edited the review, so am biased in the matter of its greatness. I’m still right though). I have read Frankenstein, over and over; I love it for its richness, and how much it offers a reader to play with. LaValle’s take on it, planned as a six issue series, is set in the present; the creature comes back among humans just as a (black, woman) scientist has begun to reanimate her child, killed in circumstances the reader hasn’t yet been explicitly shown. It’s probably a reductive way to look at LaValle’s career (he’s written a few novels and a short story collection) to focus on one novella and one comics series, but I get the impression that the two would bounce off one another really well–both repurposing classic works of horror to centre a grief and anger that are specific to an African American context. Thus far, Destroyer is upsetting and uncomfortable in all the best ways, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

 

Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Island at the End of Everything: I was underwhelmed by Millwood Hargrave’s first book, though I seem to have been in a minority in this opinion (it has won several prizes since I read it). Even at the time though, I thought there were things it did well–domestic details and (initially) sense of place, some startlingly good turns of phrase. It just didn’t cohere into one thing, or (this feels more important, because coherence is overrated) make me particularly care about it. It’s at times like this that one notices things like flaws in worldbuilding. This new book is set in our own world, or a version of it, and has a much clearer sense to me of what it wants to be–this version of the Philippines is not miles away from the “real” one, and the tone is fabulist rather than fantastical. Its concerns (families split apart, people waiting to die, found family, stigma) feel contemporary without being allegorical, and there’s a lot about it I like. Still not entirely to my taste–there’s a lot of capitals floating around in phrases like “the Places Outside” and the lyricism of the prose is a bit hit and miss–but that’s me, not it.

 

(I also managed to watch some movies this month. My thoughts on The Mummy are here; and I’m still trying to write about the sort of thesis-relevant Arthur: Legend of the Sword. I doubt I’ll be writing about Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, which seems a pity since it’s the most interesting of the three by some distance.)