March 10, 2017

Bulletpoints: The Great Wall

You knew I wasn’t going to let something this silly and this spectacular pass.


  • I’m fascinated by how this film negotiates its multiple audiences and contexts. I’ve (you may have heard!) spent a lot of time with adventure narratives, the genre in which where a white man travels into the unknown East, gets embroiled in a native battle and proves himself the most capable person there, probably romances a hot local girl, and eventually returns to his homeland wiser and better, having done important character development out over there. The Great Wall is this story all over again. It’s also a story about gormless foreigners who show up and gape at everything. It’s more the former, because William (Damon) is the character through whose eyes we see most of the action.
  • We also see some stuff from the perspective of his companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal, a joy forever). There are … two? scenes that I can think of (maybe three if you count one very brief moment) where we see the Chinese characters doing anything without a European observer.
  • (I don’t know enough [or indeed anything] about Chinese cinema’s conventions for representing Europeans in cinema, or whether such conventions are in fact established, so I’m probably missing a lot)
  • Damon’s William is taken out onto the wall by Jing Tian’s Commander Lin. William has already seen Lin and the rest of her Crane Troops bungee jump harnessed from the wall (I know), armed with spears, in order to attack the invading army. Lin invites him to try the harness, even as one of the other women asks if they’ll be able to pull someone so heavy back up (we can see the English subtitles; William can’t). Lin “translates” her companion’s words as something complimentary and completely false; William grins fatuously. The audience giggles, of course this arrogant man thinks everyone’s saying nice things about him. Then: “I don’t think that’s what she said,” says William, still grinning, and we’re wrongfooted, suddenly we’re being laughed at (or, I suppose, have switched allegiance, depending on who the audience is and who they’re already more able to identify with).
  • William refuses to do the bungee jumping thing; Lin berates him for lacking (a word she translates as) faith, a quality which is important for working with other people (and raises the possibility that the Crane troops’ training is a series of corporate trust-building exercises). Later in the film, however, he does risk his life and jump off the wall (ziplining down a chain, so not quite the same extreme sport). When asked why, he throws Lin’s word back at her.
  • Or does he? The subtitles don’t suggest that there’s anything weird going on. I don’t have any faith in my recollection of the sound of a word heard only a couple of times in a language I don’t know to have a clear opinion here–and the two characters obviously have very different accents. But on one viewing I imagined William’s pronunciation sounded off enough to be something else entirely, and if that had been the case (it was probably not!) the film’s choice not to draw attention to it and to have Lin hear it with a straight face would be an interesting one–essentially putting the anglophone viewer in the position that we thought William was occupying in the earlier scene. Even if William has got the word broadly correct, given the number of cinematic traditions in which foreigners mangle language with their funny accents this scene feels notable for … not doing that? (Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Lagaan.)



  • I’ve seen “silkpunk” used to describe China-influenced (usually partly-Western) fantasy, and I have various quibbles with the term. However, this film really does have cause to claim the genre, if it wants it. It begins with Damon and Pedro Pascal’s characters, William and Tovar, on their way to attempt to trade (or steal) “black powder”–though they’re not, as far as I can tell, travelling along any of the silk routes there’s probably still a valid connection to be made re. trade, and it’s as traders that they first appear before the Chinese army. There’s a moment, late in the film, where the invading army are chased via the still-imperfect technology of (silk, presumably) hot air balloons. More than this, though, it’s a film filled with people in lightweight silk cloaks. Now, I’m aware that silk moves differently to the fantasy cloaks you see flapping dismally about in Northern Europe analogues–perhaps it’s because some of said Europeans were present, still in their sad thick cloaks, that I was constantly aware of that difference in movement.
  • I didn’t really know how to date this film, in part because it’s Not My Period, and in part because I suspect its own relationship to chronology is somewhat suspect. Better informed reviews have said it’s set during a version of the Song dynasty– possibly basing this conclusion on the fact that the capital city here is Bianliang and/or the widespread use of gunpowder (you can tell I’m getting all this off wikipedia, can’t you). Matters in Europe seem a bit more murky; William appears to have fought for “Harold versus the Danes” (cue comedy sound effect from a Danish friend to whom I subjected this), against the Franks, but also “for Spain”, which last suggests a rather 19th century understanding of European nationhood. (This is not the only oddly anachronistic thing about these characters–they also appear to have maps you can actually navigate with.) I enjoy this, in a way, because it feels like a way of treating European history with the cavalier, no research required, attitude that is so frequently applied to the rest of the world.
  • The plot: our protagonist and his companions, gormless, as I say, but good at fighting, are off Eastwards to find some of this magical black powder of which they have heard rumour. As they camp one night, a monster of some sort attacks them. They manage to sever an arm–it’s green and scaly. Some days later, they arrive at a (the) Great Wall, where they are imprisoned, and where everyone is alarmed to see the severed arm. It turns out a swarm* of giant telepathic lizards has been attacking North China every 60 years for the last two millennia. The current army has been preparing for this attack for decades, and the wall itself has been an integral part of its defence. William and Tovar have to decide whether to join this army and fight off the threat or steal all the gunpowder they can and get rich in Europe.
  • *We will be discussing my use of “swarm”.
  • Technology on the wall includes: hydraulic lifts, giant earhorns, giant scissors built into the walls.
  • After the first battle, the two Europeans arrive in the hall where lunch is being served freshly bathed, shaved and dressed. The entire room applauds–it’s not clear whether for the men’s prowess in battle or because their guests have discovered hygiene and should be encouraged to continue along this path.
  • At one point during the battle, Tovar (who is from Spain) uses a red cloak like a bullfighter to distract one of the taotei.
  • So, swarms. Early in the film we see the taotei dragging with them the corpses of their fallen companions as they retreat. My first thought, obviously, is “oh right, sentient beings with social structures and bonds.”And perhaps they do have these things. But very soon we learn that the whole army communicates telepathically with its queen, and to kill the queen is to immobilise the whole army. The taotei therefore are presented to us as a vast number of ancillaries to one queen, even though when severed from the link with her they seem to still be alive. I was feeling dubious about this presentation of vast numbers of people as undifferentiated hordes, and then saw that Max Brooks had been credited with some of the writing, and ah, right. Zombies.
  • So: monsters, opportunities for mass slaughter, and the sense that one isn’t killing an independently sentient thing. (Good monsters, though.)
  • Apparently the kingdom has been keeping several centuries of scholarship about the taotei–the scroll which they consult, we’re told, is 900 years old. This is pleasing.
  • The scroll adds further weight to a hypothesis–that magnets affect lizard telepathy. It’s not clear why they’ve waited centuries to try this out. But it’s a useful reminder that of course the writers of the scroll knew what magnets were, because otherwise they’re only mentioned in the context of William’s compassmaking skills. (He has maps, so a mere compass isn’t that impressive.)
    • My standards have been driven absurdly low, but I was pleased that no one in the film seemed in any way surprised when Commander Lin is put in charge of the Nameless Order, following the death of General Shao. I’m not sure how I feel about the movie’s more general treatment of gender–there are women in the army, and no one but Tovar seems particularly surprised to see them there, but they work only in the Crane troops (as killer trapeze artists/bungee jumpers) or as the drummers who communicate military commands along the wall. Only General Lin gets any actual speaking time, as far as I can remember, (apart from the one fellow soldier who speculates about William’s weight) and none of the other women are invited to the important meetings where decisions are made. Lin’s breastplate is, of course, the only one of the commanders’ to be breast-shaped. And yet, and yet. We’re left with the possibility of reading her relationship with William as entirely platonic (only Tovar’s reactions make it otherwise, and frankly I’m more interested in shipping Tovar/William), she’s a good fighter because she’s trained to be, she takes the final shot because she’s best qualified to do so.

great wall boob armour

  • The crane troop seems to be all women, and it’s implied that this is because they’re lighter than men on average. The women who spread information via drums are probably not subjected to this restriction, and it’s nice to know that the film leaves a niche for fat girls and it involves hitting things and making a loud noise.


March 4, 2017

February Reading

I didn’t read very much in February. I spent the first week attempting to read or reread all of Frances Hardinge’s work for this, but for most of the month reading has felt impossible and I’ve only gotten through two books (both short, both kidlit, one of which I’d read before). Still, these are them:


Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Jo To The Rescue: I don’t know that this should count as a book read in 2017, since I probably read it sometime around 1995. My copy (the same Armada edition I now have, with this technically accurate yet otherwise unattractive cover–pay particular attention to the face Margot Maynard (the child with red hair) is making) was lost in a house move at some point and I never found another, even as I managed to gradually re-build my collection of Brent-Dyer books. Recently a friend was selling some of hers, and I swooped in and demanded this one. Twentyish years on I like the holiday setting, in large part because it’s nice to see Frieda, Simone and Marie just hanging out and being adults together. I’m concerned by how amused everyone is about food-wastage (there’s still a war and presumably war rationing on; why is it hilarious that Joey burnt the eggs and spilt the milk and threw bacon at a burglar?). I’m also concerned by the ethics of doctor-patient relationships, and “I’ll introduce you to my pretty sister” as a method for reforming criminal harassers. In short: I have several concerns.


Catherine Johnson, Sawbones: I read this in preparation for reading Blade and Bone, Johnson’s most recent novel (and sequel to this). Sawbones is set (mainly) in late eighteenth century London, with a young apprentice surgeon as its protagonist. It’s a setting that you can do a lot with, and Johnson does–there are bodysnatchers and medical history and debates about ethics and reason (and whether stealing people’s bodies to dissect for Science! is okay) and that really satisfying sense of the interconnectedness of the world that you get from some historical fiction that takes the age of empire as its setting. Loveday, along with the mystery that drives it all, has links with the Ottoman empire; Ezra himself is mixed-race and from Jamaica; the girl he has a crush on has family connections with Holland–these (except the first) seem like relatively minor elements of the plot, but their presence changes the flavour of the narrative in what feel to me like crucial ways. Without being About empire, or About slavery, or About race, or About social history in general, it makes them crucial to its setting; the reader isn’t allowed Georgian London and coffeeshops and Ottoman intrigue unless they’re willing to also take slavery and dissected stolen corpses and empire. There’s a sense, as well, of young adults as actively participating in the intellectual life of their particular historical moment; and Ezra and Anna, his sort-of-girlfriend, have fundamental philosophical disagreements. Too often characters in children’s literature and YA seem to start from a position of political unawareness, which might make for an easy coming of age plot (character discovers injustice, gains knowledge, grows) but it serves to position that initial lack of engagement as normal. Sawbones doesn’t do that, and it doesn’t treat these characters as exceptional for their interest in the world.

Having said all of which, it seems a bit churlish to complain that the plot is rather lightweight and the characters (other than Ezra himself) rather thin, but those things are also true. I’m willing to forgive the book these things because it does so much that I like historical fiction to do (and because the blurb for the next book has the line “Ezra is not persuaded by the controversial theories of his French colleagues”), and I’m quite looking forward to the next.

March 2, 2017

Shalini Srinivasan, Gangamma’s Gharial

gangamma (I spent a good hour or so of today trying to find and link to a completely charming short story by Srinivasan that I’m sure I didn’t imagine. There’s a yali in it. If anyone reading this remembers where it was published and/or can find a link, I would be very happy to read it again.)

There’s a vast, overarching conflict in the background of Gangamma’s Gharial of which we see only a fraction. “A long time ago”, a conflict between a small group of twelve yakshas and the rest of their more ascetic community led to a confrontation on a certain hillside. The twelve were defeated, but achieved at least one of their objects–the blue lotuses that they had cultivated in their palace outside time now had a place to grow. The local landscape suffered somewhat, as did the nearby village. The only part-witness to what had happened was a small girl, now left alone in the world. Clutching an apple seed that she has found at the scene of these events, the small girl travels north, to find it a suitable climate in which to grow. Centuries later, the hillside in question has morphed into the temple town of Giripuram, known for its temple (sacred to twelve gardener gods), and the Giripuram tank which is the only place in the world where these blue lotuses grow.

Other places have other blue lotuses but the finicky and snooty blue lotus of Giripuram grew only in the small Giripuram tank. It was a small bluey-purply lotus with a spicy-sweet smell of cinnamon and pine. It was said that its scent could drive away any grief or sorrow–temporarily, of course, for even magical flowers can only do so much. Just three Giripuram gardeners–three people in the entire world–could grow it.

Gangamma, an old woman who grows flowers to sell, is one of these three gardeners. In mysterious circumstances one morning she comes into the possession of an earring, shaped like a gharial and bearing a suspicious resemblance to a piece of jewellery that we, through the eyes of a young girl over a thousand years ago, have already seen tumbling into the lake. The gharial turns out to have some unexpected powers–when worn, it can instantly transport the wearer anywhere they wish to go. It can, however, only travel to a particular place once–great for travelling, not so good for getting back. Gangamma’s first trip is to the mountains in the north, where it’s considerably colder–and where a young girl, feared by the locals because rumour has it that she’s immortal, tends an apple tree with only the tree itself and a friendly chough for companions. Attempting, in an impulsive moment, to steal the tree and take it back to Giripuram, she finds herself transporting all three, and saddled with a new assistant gardener. “Ondu” (the girl will not give Gangamma her real name) is annoyed at her kidnapping and rude to Gangamma’s friends and colleagues, but she does have a way with flowers.

There are, as I imply above, two stories here. The one that we see most of is this smaller, more domestic one: of gardeners and found families and local community and rivalries. Gangamma and Ondu work well together, despite their major differences–Ondu likes wild flowers, Gangamma likes masala in her dosai–in large part because Ondu is openly rude to all the people Gangamma wants to be rude to (quick, someone do a reading of Ondu as the embodiment of Gangamma’s repressed desires). It’s good; it’s comic and full of sudden, clever observations and broadly-drawn but recognisable characters. (“She had forgotten how annoying Kempu was until you knew him well enough to like him despite it.”)

But there’s also the bigger plot–the one where yakshas purify themselves until they turn into diamonds, where there are palaces under the North Pole, where it’s possible to travel to other planets (or at least moons of planets–Gangamma and the Gharial spend a while hanging out on Ganymede when things on earth get particularly bad). The yaksha plot is correspondingly more elevated and tragic. Jayanti, the yaksha of whom we see the most, has deeply conflicted loyalties, particularly with regard to her brother, one of the twelve rebels and now existing in some residual form in Ondu’s chough. There’s a lot to play with here–the idea that Ondu has been living parasitically off her friends, to what extent the yakshas’ presence in these objects (trees, birds, jewellery) is really them–is the gharial less far gone than Jayant and Mahendra just because it happens to be able to speak? Are all yakshas as brahmanical as the ones we see here, or is this not true of the more liberal groups of yakshas whom the gharial mentions?

I’m a big fan of the ‘small people getting caught up in forces bigger than they can control’ plot, and the shift between the yakshas and the humans (and whatever Ondu has become) works really well for that smaller scale story. I like the reminder that Giripuram–its landscape, its temples, its lotuses, its entire ecosystem–is a mere side-effect of inter-yaksha rivalries across millennia. On the other hand, the deliberate decision to focus on the small scale story works best when we know what those larger forces are. By the end of Gangamma’s Gharial we know about as much as Gangamma and Ondu (which is to say, not very much) and perhaps that’s the point. But it doesn’t feel like the point–it feels like the book could have sustained several chapters of yaksha politics and weird bodies and cloud espionage.

I’m sort of tempted here to compare it to Srinivasan’s previous book, Vanamala and the Cephalopod. Vanamala‘s ending gestures at the possibility of lots more story to come, and there’s a sense throughout of narratives that are big and sweeping but are also tangential to this story–but the book itself still feels complete.

And yet I think I prefer Gangamma’s Gharial precisely for its ambitious messiness and the way in which it spreads its tendrils in several directions at once. (This may be entirely because I haven’t read Vanamala in a couple of years, so please consider this opinion unfixed. It may also be because I share Ondu’s dosai preferences.) Ideally, of course, it’d turn out that Srinivasan is planning several books through which we’ll gradually be able to piece together a sort of superstructure, but even if not, there’s a lot here that I like very much.


February 2, 2017

scarce a rift to be seen in the war-clouds that obscure the day

My access to O. Douglas/ Anna Masterton Buchan has been restricted to what’s in the public domain, and so I’d only read three of her books before. The impression I’ve had of her based on these, and seeing other people discuss her (see also), is of a sort of Scottish L.M. Montgomery. Recently, however, I ended up reading The Setons, about a vicar’s daughter and her family, and members of her father’s church in Glasgow. It is exactly what you expect it to be–the Setons are bookish and generous and religious and Not Vulgar; Elizabeth is beautiful and natural and has a nice singing voice; a young man from London visits and is charmed and falls in love. It’s funny, and comforting, and utterly predictable. Then, just as we’re nearing the end, there’s this:


You know, of course, Gentle Reader, that there can be no end to this little chronicle?

You know that when a story begins in 1913, 1914 will follow, and that in that year certainty came to an end, plans ceased to come to fruition—that, in fact, the lives of all of us cracked across.

Personally, I detest tales that end in the air. I like all the strings gathered up tidily in the last chapter and tied neatly into nuptial knots; so I should have liked to be able to tell you that Elizabeth became a “grateful” wife, and that she and Arthur Townshend lived happily and, in fairy-tale parlance, never drank out of an empty cup; and that Stewart Stevenson ceased to think of Elizabeth (whom he never really approved of) and fell in love with Jessie Thomson, and married her one fine day in “Seton’s kirk,” and that all Jessie’s aspirations after refinement and late dinner were amply fulfilled.

But, alas! as I write (May 1917) the guns still boom continuously out there in France, and there is scarce a rift to be seen in the war-clouds that obscure the day.


The Setons is Douglas/Buchan’s second novel, and she’ll go on, after the war, to write more of the sort of books I associate her with, their strings “gathered up tidily” and happily (in nuptial knots)–reading her years later and out of order, as I’m doing, imposes a false chronology, and perhaps makes this departure from a pattern she hasn’t even set yet seem a bigger deal than it is. And the book will go on to in some measure gather up those strings in any case–characters we’ve known and liked are reported on, and some of them are reported dead. There’s some form of closure, because there has to be, even if the closing image of the book is a family praying before sending another young man off to war. the-seton

Chronology feels significant here– if that “You know, Gentle Reader” is addressed to me, then yes I do know. A century later not only am I aware of the dates of the war, but I’m used to reading fiction that treats the period leading up to it as the last golden summer, I’m used to foreshadowing; from the moment a character in The Setons casually reveals that he’s living in the winter of 1913 I’m on my guard. But I also know when the war ends–my version of this story isn’t “in the air”. The gentle readers of 1917 may not yet be used to having the summer of three years ago turned into myth, or to reading clues to it into their literature; their relationship to the thing that is actually happening to/around them is probably very different. A few years ago I wrote of Penny Plain that the effects of the war were all over the book. But that book too is written after the war. In The Setons the war isn’t merely a tragic event but a genuine shock that tears through the book itself. We know what sort of book this is–until it isn’t. In 1917, with scarce a rift to be seen in the war-clouds etc., the shape of this narrative is impossible. At particular moments, particular sorts of stories become unthinkable.

We know this, we all did a Modernism module at some point. I don’t know, though, that I’ve ever felt it this cataclysmic within the text. I don’t know what I make of the fact that by 1920 (when Penny Plain is written) for Douglas this story has become possible again, and I don’t know if it’s possible to find comfort in that fact.


February 1, 2017

January Reading

This month I attempted to re/read all of Frances Hardinge’s work, for this event, taking place a few days from now. In addition:


Arshia Sattar and Sonali Zohra (and Valmiki, I guess?), The Ramayana: I’ll be writing about this separately, but what really matters is that it’s a very pretty edition with stunning (by Zohra) art.

Sarnath Banerjee, All Quiet in Vikaspuri: I suspect that there are a few overlapping things between this and Banerjee’s The Harappa Files, which I haven’t yet read, and which I’m going to have to. I enjoyed AQiV more than I ever have Banerjee’s work before–it’s a little too keen to explain to you how capitalism and its depredations of the water table work, which is fine if that’s what the book wants to do but it’s not clear to me that it knows what its priorities are, and yet. It feels more of my city than I’d expected–I read it a couple of weeks after a morning (and subsequently an afternoon) at the Bhikaji Cama Place passport office where the book opens, and I live and have worked in the parts of the city that subsequently are the focus of the water wars.

Anushka Kalro, Rajasee Ray, Sankhalina Nath, Shubhangi Goel, Bhoomi’s Story–SPACE: This is part of a “first look science” series from Tulika books that tells the “stories” of particular things in the natural world–others include Boondi, Dhooli, Gitti and Beeji (or WATER, AIR, EARTH and EARTH’S SURFACE). This one, as the title suggests, is about earth-as-planet; its place in the vastness of space. I love Tulika’s children’s books, and the illustrations here are beautiful, with lots of unexpected little effects–the long, swirly lines that depict earth’s oceans, the dotted lines to show you Jupiter’s gases. It’s not clear to me which of the authors credited was responsible for the art; a note at the end mentions that the whole project was developed with Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. I was briefly put out by being told that Bhoomi is “not too cold or too hot to live on” (child!me would have had some serious questions about “life” in this context) but then got to this, close to the end, and was won over:

(If anyone wanted to send me a copy of Dhooli, feel free.)

Chandrakala Jagat, Shakuntala Kushram, (trans) Rinchin, The Magical Fish: I’ve written more about this (gorgeous) book here.

Foz Meadows, An Accident of Stars: I write academically about portal fantasies, among other things, and one of my constant questions when I read modern ones (especially ones, like this one, that are trying so hard) is to what extent the genre can escape its imperial roots. The answer, unfortunately, seems to be not very much–even populating the secondary world with characters with a range of loyalties, races, sexualities, religions (only two religions, but still) doesn’t entirely mitigate the fact that the language with which we describe the fantastic encounter and the language with which we describe the colonial encounter are so inextricably intertwined–and while Meadows’s our-world teenaged protagonist is often confused and terrified by the situations she’s found herself in, there’s a certain amount of “only this person from another world could have seen/done this thing!” which is, again, unfortunate. But this is all, as I say, a genre-related issue rather than one particular to this book; and I do like the interactions between the adult characters and their various conflicting attitudes towards care of the young people who live with them. And there’s an extended sequence involving dragons. A problem that is particular to this book–it is, as I say, trying very hard wrt race and sex and gender and the result is sometimes rather crude, as if someone is explaining in a voiceover somewhere (and that was when Saffron realised the thing she was thinking was racist!). Mixed feelings, then.

Ashwin Pande, Arjuna Susini, Aditya Bidikar, Mistry, P.I #1: (Disclaimer: I know both Pande and Bidikar–the latter for several years–and am disposed to like things they make) This is a supernatural crime series where a pair of detectives (also a thing I’m disposed to like) consisting of a golem and a young man with a Mysterious Past investigate things in Mumbai and in this particular plot rescue some dogs. I’ll probably be reading the rest of the series, because it’s funny and I owe it my loyalty for rescuing the dogs, but as is usually the case when I’ve just read one issue of something, I don’t have deep insights to share.

Ayisha Malik, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged: I only heard of this because of the embarrassing Jenny Colgan review of the book Malik wrote with Nadiya Hussain. So it’s nice that something positive came out of that mess? It’s not a perfect book–I enjoy our protagonist’s frivolity, but when she’s then paired with a much more seriously, very politically aware man there’s an uncomfortable undertone of him educating her about racism and islamophobia (his politics are, however, sometimes undermined and I suspect this is going to be explored a bit further in the sequel); the whole thing does feel overlong, and I’d really enjoy seeing some further recognition of Sofia’s own flaws beyond her seeming obliviousness to men who are in love with her. Having said all of which, Sofia’s frequent angsting about things like tone and stereotype and writing to a British audience within a book which, etc., is great: there’s nothing particularly radical about this sort of metafiction anymore, but it makes possible a particular sort of dwelling on the shape of the fiction that I really enjoy. Plus, it’s a nice, satisfying romantic comedy.

Eloisa James, Seven Minutes In Heaven: I’d almost forgotten that I’d preordered this several months ago, and then it showed up on the last day of the month, mere hours after I’d sent off a biggish piece of writing and really wanted a book to wallow in. I read James because I like series fiction and big, interconnected worlds–this particular book is even more series-y than most series books because it’s the sort of thing where lots of minor characters from the author’s earlier books show up and are married off, in ways that I would object to strenuously (tying up narrative threads is gross and immoral) if they weren’t in a historical romance. A thing I liked: the shifting between Eugenia’s fond memories of her late husband and our more ambivalent sense of him–there’s still an implied sense that we can see more clearly than she can, but it’s far more nuanced than the usual portrayal of this sort of thing. (It slackens a little when she and Our Hero have sex–till now, the book has been refreshingly cliche-free in suggesting that Eugenia’s husband was great in bed, that she’s a woman who has had a fulfilling sex life in the past, but convention demands that the hero of this book must obviously be better. Suddenly she’s the sort of heroine who is amazed by men going down on her, and it’s a shame.) A thing I didn’t like: for much of the book the characters are away from the nice, interconnected community that the series allows us to have, and it feels like a waste. (Also, why doesn’t Reeve have any friends?)

January 26, 2017

Gabby Rivera, Juliet Takes A Breath

juliet-gabby-riveraI got lucky in my feminist education. Sometime in the very early 2000s (I was about the same age as Rivera’s protagonist), I was just beginning to write publicly about gender on the internet–it was new, I was still learning (I’m still learning) and I’m sure I said things that would embarrass me horribly now. Someone I knew a bit from their blog invited me to a super secret mailing list composed in the main of people whose feminism/s had to take into account other forms of marginalisation. I’d never heard the word “intersectional” before, though I knew of course that I was brown and queer. Suddenly I had access to new ways of thinking about gender and race, gender and sexuality, gender and class, gender and sex work, gender and bodies–and a vocabulary with which to seek out those ideas in my day to day life as well (it would make it much easier to think about gender and caste, for example, a few years later).

As an adult I now know that it’s not unusual for women and nonbinary people (and sometimes men) in such communities to make their experience available to callow young feminists, but I still feel like I got exceptionally lucky–much of my ignorance was a result of youth but some of it was also the result of laziness, and I’ve never quite felt I earned the trust that being included in such a community implied. (I don’t dive into new knowledge as Rivera’s protagonist does, risking my heart and dignity in the process. [An incident midway through the book, where Juliet discovers what a Banana Republic is, really brought this home.])

This lengthy introduction is in part just a tribute to some good people and in part a way of framing for myself the ways in which Juliet Takes A Breath did and did not feel familiar to me. The plot: Juliet Milagros Palante is in college, is Puerto Rican, lives in the Bronx with her mother and younger brother, is in a relationship with a rather posh sounding white girl, and has just read something called Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind, by feminist writer Harlowe Brisbane. On the basis of a fan letter to the author, Juliet is offered a holiday internship in Portland, working on a large research project. Arriving in Portland she soon finds herself feeling somewhat out of her depth, surrounded by people whose political jargon is unfamiliar, who all seem to know more than her, and whose knowledge is sometimes relevant to her but is also sometimes off. Juliet cycles through a series of new experiences an ideas–attends an Octavia Butler-inspired SF writing group, discusses the mechanics of poly relationships and argues theology, flirts with a hot librarian, receives a breakup letter from her girlfriend. It can get educational at times–Juliet learns about famous feminists or that she can’t just go around demanding people’s gender identity while other characters patiently explain who and why, nodding encouragingly out at the reader from within the text. (At least these are good things to learn.)

Harlowe herself Juliet finds fascinating and sympathetic, ready with natural remedies to period pains and breakups alike; willing to listen to the feminist mixtapes Juliet had made for her girlfriend Lainie. But almost immediately the cracks begin to show–and when Harlowe publicly does something really awful (I’m not normally cautious about spoilers, but I think the impact of the scene in question would be damaged by foreknowledge), Juliet escapes this environment for one where she can think things through.

(I pause here because it feels like a natural break in the narrative.)

This is a young (or new?) adult book; I’m no longer a young (or new?) adult. I’m reading this book through a lens of “what it was to be young in 2003!”; a lens which, inevitably, places me in a position of knowing more than Juliet about certain things. Readers who are closer to the character’s age may not feel this as strongly, but then the setting of the book in 2003 may play a role there–many of the ideas and much of the jargon that is new to Juliet will be familiar to any queer kid with a tumblr (not to suggest that that information was unavailable in 2003; but possibly harder to find?). I mention this because for me, much of the book was spent waiting for the warning signs in Lainie’s and Harlowe’s behaviour to be proved correct. Everything leading up to the climactic scene when Juliet rushes out of Harlowe’s reading felt inevitable.

There’s a Joan Aiken story I’ve been wanting to write about, titled “Watkyn, Comma.” It’s about a haunted (in the nicest possible way) house and a room that exists in a sense outside of time, where our protagonist can breathe and pause and recalibrate (and obviously one of the things a comma does is to provide a space to breathe in) before reentering the world. (Parentheses do some of this space-for-stepping-out-for-a-moment work as well, incidentally.) I read Juliet Takes a Breath on the kindle and so was able to search for how often “breathe” and “breath” come up in this book–as ways of being, coping, being nourished. There “isn’t enough air to breathe [in the Bronx]. I carry an inhaler for those days when I need more than my allotted share.”; “I hadn’t seen one other Latino. No faces like mine, nowhere to breathe easy.”; “it’s less about there being ‘no white people’ and more of a night for us to breathe easier.” Juliet leaves the Bronx in order to breathe, and then leaves Portland when breathing there becomes difficult as well. Both are temporary moves, both in their way to places of sanctuary; In Miami Juliet finds another community and learns more–this time from an aunt and a cousin who is also figuring these things out.

But this is also the section where Juliet pushes back against her cousin Ava’s dismissal of Harlowe as “some hippie-ass, holier-than-thou white lady preaching her bullshit universal feminism to everyone” (it’s truth though). If the incident that forces Juliet to leave Portland is the climax, the rest is denouement. Juliet returns, able to see Harlowe and her world as flawed and unreliable, but also as people with whom she has to learn to work. Her solutions aren’t mine. But I’m writing this during a week when questions of “universal” feminism and what it erases and what it needs to be forced to acknowledge feel more present than usual (see e.g. these pieces for example), so. This is a coming of age story and this final section has Juliet coming into herself–by the end of it she has tentatively reconciled what she’s learned with what she knows, is able to breathe, is able to say “we were going to be okay”.

January 13, 2017

Chandrakala Jagat and Shakuntala Kushram, The Magical Fish

magical fish

This book was first published in 2013 in Hindi–my copy credits Maheen and Rinchin with writing down the story as they heard it from Chandrakala Jagat, and explains that it had been recreated for a film narrated by Chandrakala herself before the (Hindi) book was brought into the world. Rinchin is credited with the translation. The copy on the back of the book suggests (though it’s not very clear) that it’s based on an older folktale. What it definitely isn’t, then, is a 2016 book, so when it begins with the lines “Once not so very long ago, it so happened that all the happiness started to slowly leak out of the world” I felt, personally, rather attacked. It was all a little too real.

“Everything began to lose colour. Trees turned brown, so did the grass, and nothing grew.”

We’re not given a reason for this state of affairs–the book seems to take for granted the fact that, sometimes, the world is full of weeping; as if this came in seasons rather than being directly attributable to a particular cause. That’s probably true.

“People were always hungry and tired. However much they worked, nothing came of it. No food, no happiness. Everyone was growing sad. So sad, that they started to lose their smiles. Fights would break out every now and then.”

So: we’re at the mercy of an unjust and apparently moody universe; sadness comes in seasons and we don’t understand its cause; “there is nothing to eat, and there is so much sadness all around”. All familiar, along with the sense that this badness is so all pervasive and so senseless that nothing can be done about it–where does one even start, when the hostility of the world seems so large and so lacking in reason? Again, reading this on this side of the last couple of years feels significant–the (for want of a better word) mythologising of 2016 as The Worst Year, however tempting and intuitively true it currently might feel, both relies on and reinforces exactly this sense of everything awful coming out of nowhere, without reason or purpose, as well as creating the impression that there’s nothing one can do–that it’s too big and impossible and confusing and the only realistic response is to give up in defeat now or exhaustion later.

Combating that feeling in the book is an elderly woman, or dukariya, who knows that some action is needed to bring happiness back to the world but doesn’t know what that action might be–until the wind brings her news of a lake behind the mountain and a fish that lives in it and that spreads happiness wherever it goes. Telling her two daughters to “leave your sadness behind or carry it with you,” she takes them with her on a quest to find the fish in its green-green (I love that repeated “green” here, both as translation and for itself) lake. They find the fish, and convince it to leave its safe lake for the sake of a world that needs it–the fish agrees, once the women vow to do their best to protect it.

There’s lots to play with here–the temptation of the quest narrative and the ways in which it casts all problems as solveable (all you need to do is go to the place and collect the thing), the temptation to act individually (though I love that the heroes here are an elderly woman and her daughters), the fish, which actually can save this particular  situation but only by willingly making itself vulnerable; and the community as a whole, who are told what this fish is, how to recognise it (it wears a sparkly nose ring) and what it means, and who must all enter into an implicit pact not to hurt this fish and in doing so fuck this up for everyone. That sense of this new happiness (or at least not unbearable sadness) as fragile and in need of community protection is present on the last page of the book, where we’re reminded that:

That is why you must never catch the magical fish. If by mistake you do, you must let her go. And if you ever meet three women in a boat who tell you this story, you must believe them, for what they say is true.

I’m aware that in reading this book in this way I’m doing it a disservice–for one thing, I haven’t even mentioned Gond artist Shakuntala Kushram’s gorgeous illustrations. But “leave your sadness behind or carry it with you” might be a great motto to carry forward into this year.

January 9, 2017

2016 in books, numbers, and feelings

For the last few years now I’ve been doing this roundup: I talk about what I read and how I read it over the past year, the demographics of the authors I read (adding a disclaimer because obviously these numbers are always going to be inaccurate and these categories too crude) and resolve to do better next year.

So let’s get that over with: I read (as near as I can make out) 81 books in 2016, 60 (see previous parentheses) were by women or other not-cis-male authors, 36 (ditto) were by authors who weren’t white. My PhD thesis has doubtless contributed to this, especially as I haven’t been counting academic criticism; the Carnegie shortlist, once again, turned out to be entirely composed of white authors (and British children’s publishing seems to be determinedly forging ahead on this path)–I may try to read the Jhalak prize longlist this year in order to balance things out.

For the Strange Horizons year in review piece I recommended Wheatle’s Crongton Knights, N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate, Sana Takeda and Marjorie Liu’s Monstress, Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, and Joan Aiken’s The People in the Castle. Non-SF-adjacent things I thought particularly good included both new books in Robin Stevens’s Wells and Wong series, Alice Pung’s Laurinda, and Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone (of which more below).

I also wrote some things this year, though not many. Here’s a review at Strange Horizons, here’s a roundtable on South Asian folklore and myth. All other (nonacademic) writing is on this blog– I was quite pleased with my grumpy Carnegie reviews over the summer.

All that said, it has been a resoundingly shit year, both globally and personally, and it’s been harder than ever to think critically or usefully or non-despairingly about anything.

A good way into The Tidal Zone there’s this:

May we forget. It is a pity that the things we learn in crisis are all to be found on fridge magnets and greetings cards: seize the day, savour the moment, tell your love–May we live long enough to despise the clichés again, may we heal enough to take for granted sky and water and light, because the state of blind gratitude for breath and blood is not a position of intelligence.

The Tidal Zone is almost hilariously on the nose for 2016–had it been less good I’d have rolled my eyes at it a bit. But (despite the fact that we’re both academics of one sort or another I have nothing in common with its protagonist and his situation) this. I’ve struggled to think past the most instinctual feelings this year, and given that the world doesn’t seem like it’s getting better in the near future, that is something I (and many of us) am going to have to learn to negotiate. Last year I said that my struggle for 2016 would be to balance kindness and anger–I underestimated how hard that would be. When everything in the world feels vulnerable it’s hard to feel more than a sort of panicked tenderness, that is conducive neither to good criticism nor to actually making things better.

The struggle continues, I suppose.

January 2, 2017

December Reading

I retreated to Delhi for the end of the year and slept on a decent mattress and could really read for the first time in ages.


O. Douglas, The Setons: A longer post about this currently in my drafts.

N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate: I think The Obelisk Gate may be better than The Fifth Season, which I already thought was very good. It’s still doing great things with the form its narrative takes, it’s revealing more and more about its world, but most of all the network of alliances and love and betrayal between its characters grows increasingly complex and difficult to parse, and that is wonderful. (My quibbles with the series remain, but if I’m going to read a story about special people with special powers, this is a brilliant example of the form.)

Rick Riordan, The Trials of Apollo: Talking to friends about holiday reading and our teetering piles of Significant Books a couple of weeks ago I said “I’ll probably just end up reading the new Rick Riordan,” and had to then explain myself. (The explanation is that this is what happens when you’re a series completionist, and this is why series fiction is dangerous to me.) This is the third … sub-series? about Greek gods in Riordan’s larger, interconnected series about various pantheons; so far I’ve restricted myself to the Greek/Roman books, but I can’t be sure I won’t at some point read the others. I thoroughly enjoyed this book but it is rather amusingly earnest, and clearly trying very hard. So, for example, it has to explain the presence of its gay characters by having the protagonist stress that he doesn’t think it’s a big deal and reminding us that the myths have Apollo attracted to both men and women; the phrases “military-industrial complex” and “mansplaining” show up; rather remarkably, towards the end Riordan appears to be suggesting that the roots of modern capitalism can be traced directly back to the Roman empire. I’m intrigued by what the forthcoming books in the series will do with that last idea.

Chris Haughton, Goodnight Everyone: A friend had a baby; I cooed awkwardly (it is a very cute baby) but knew that my real fond-auntie powers lie in the gifting of children’s books. There’s a new Chris Haughton, it has the loveliest endpapers, and is very gentle and soothing with lots of yawning and stretching. (The baby in question also received a copy of Haughton’s Oh No, George, but that was not new to me.)

Mona Awad, Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Fat Girl: I’m underwhelmed by this– I like the structure (series of vignettes, mostly from Elizabeth’s own perspective but bringing in others too), and the general sense of fat as permanently there, and obsessiveness about bodies colouring everything about how one sees the world so that all these characters become unsympathetic, but much of it is just playing to stereotype, and there’s no room for it to go anywhere. And I’d forgotten much of what I’d read once I finished it.

Sarah Moss, The Tidal Zone: I’ll probably be writing more about this in my end of year reading post (which is really a beginning of year post, since it is now next year and I haven’t started it yet) but this really was the book that felt like my experience of this past year, that tied together personal and public tragedy, precariousness, narrative, questions of how to continue to live in the world in 2016.

Gabby Rivera, Juliet Takes a Breath: I started reading this in the summer, stopped for some reason (I was enjoying the book, so I’m not sure what happened there) and then picked it up again a few months later. I’ll come back to it and write about it at length sometime soon, I hope, but I loved the ways in which it thinks about hero-worship (and the uses thereof) and respectability politics and race, particularly in its later sections. Would I have felt a bit preached to if I’d read it when younger? I’m not sure.

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: It’s frustrating (and probably an indictment of me and the criticism I read) that most of the critical engagement with this book I’ve seen has been of the Does Ghosh Belittle Genre? school, when in fact its thoughts on realism, on empire, on the bourgeois novel are all both more interesting and more fun to quibble with (I mean, he describes Frankenstein as the First SF Novel, and I know you all know to at least be suspicious at this point). I’ll be coming back to it, in large part because it offers a potential frame through which to consider books (both genre and not) that are doing some of the work Ghosh thinks of as necessary.

Shalini Srinivasan, Gangamma’s Gharial: This will merit a longer post at some point in the near future; it’s a story about how a rebellion among a community of weirdly puritanical Yakshas affects the history of a small hillside community over a period of a thousand-and-a-bit years. I wish there’d been a lot more of it, because the yaksha sections still seem incomplete (fair enough, they are immortal) but it’s fun and satisfying, involves a random trip to one of Jupiter’s moons, and I like Srinivasan’s preoccupation with (going by Vanamala and the Cephalopod) literature’s need for stompy, grumpy little girls. Plus, I suspect that Ondu’s perfectly reasonable distrust of masala dosai is one that the author shares, and it is one I share also.

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.