Archive for ‘romance’

April 20, 2016

Becky Albertalli, Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda

I’ll be blogging the Carnegie shortlist over the next few weeks, and so decided to write about a few other children’s books that came out this year. Some of them, including the one below, were on the Carnegie longlist.

Becky Albertalli’s Simon vshomosapiens. The Homo Sapiens Agenda takes for its starting point a favourite romcom/fanfiction trope–the Daddy-Long-Legs/You’ve Got Mail model of the mysterious anonymous correspondent with whom the protagonist falls in love.*  Simon sees an anonymous post on the school gossip tumblr about being gay and not out, and contacts the writer to let him know he feels the same. Using fake names and email addresses, and being careful not to give away too many clues about their own identities, “Blue” and “Jacques” spend months talking to one another and eventually admit to their feelings.

There are other things going on in Simon’s life; his correspondence with Blue has been discovered by a classmate, Martin, who is using the knowledge to blackmail Simon to help him spend more time with a  girl on whom he has a crush. Simon isn’t out to his friends or family yet, though he expects them to react supportively (too supportively, in some cases) to the news when he tells them. There’s a production of Oliver! to put on, lots of complicated interpersonal relationships–and then Martin outs Simon on the gossip tumblr.

Things are less dramatic than might be expected. Simon does point out that the consequences of being gay and out in his small town are potentially more serious than they might be in other places, but it’s also clear that his personal circumstances (supportive friends, family and teachers) make it possible for this not to be a story about the horrible dangers and persecutions of being queer (and we need those stories too, obviously, but also our fluffy romcoms). There’s some homophobic bullying, but it is quickly shut down. Everyone has problems, but no one has problems that are horrific or insoluble. Martin is not villainised for the awful thing he has done, but the book doesn’t require that he be forgiven for the sake of a tidy ending (though there’s reason to believe that he will be forgiven soon enough). People are occasionally angry and hurt, but in temporary ways. If I have a complaint about the book (and I’m not sure I do) it’s that its politics are a bit too good–everyone has thought their positions through a little too well and is able to articulate them a little too clearly. Perhaps this is an alternative universe where everyone is just better at feelings and thoughts than me. (Perhaps this is true of this universe.)

I find myself talking/thinking/writing about Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda as if it were a particular sort of fanfiction. Because when I go looking for fic often I’m looking for precisely the things that this story provides–the bulk of a full-length novel, gentle, kind, low-stakes romance with characters like these characters. It’s comforting and restorative and accomplished and low-stakes. It is in part because it’s those things that I’m not too bothered by its non-inclusion on the Carnegie shortlist (then again, I’ve seen far less ambitious, and less good, things on that shortlist in the past, so hm).

But there’s one thing that the book does exceptionally well and it is this: looking. I’ll try to explain what I mean by this. We know that “Blue” is someone in Simon’s school. We know, because we know how narrative works, that he must be someone Simon knows, or someone he will meet over the course of the book. We’re primed therefore to treat this as a mystery; to look at every boy mentioned (and perhaps characters who aren’t boys; what if Blue’s lying?) as a suspect (which is not the right word for a prospective love interest, but I’m not sure what would be).

Simon himself says at one point that “Simon means ‘the one who hears’ and Spier means ‘the one who watches.’ Which means I was basically destined to be nosy.” We discover that this is not true at all–Simon has in fact been pretty oblivious to quite a lot of things. And yet the book places him in the position of having to be the watcher–he too is aware that one of the boys he meets might be Blue, he is looking at them, and because we’re in his head (it’s a first person narrative), we get to see him looking.

(We’re also relatively sure, long, long before he is, who he wants to be looking at, but like I said, Simon’s not very observant.)

I’ll be writing about Robin Stevens’ Jolly Foul Play soon, and hopefully will expand on this there, but so much of the attraction of girls’ school stories for me is in the ways characters look at each other, how looking is fascination is attraction. (I like David Ehrlich’s formulation here, that “falling in love is an act of looking” (though he goes on to say that being in love is an act of seeing, and I don’t know that I want to burden these kids who have just met with the weight of that). But the book’s achievement is a sort of active readerly participation in its looking; one that isn’t objectifying, but that serves as a reminder of what the act of being fascinated can be.

 

 

*Disclaimer: I use those as examples of a form, but feel it necessary to explain that a) The correspondence in D-L-L is one-sided, b) both of these examples contain some sort of creepy power difference that is not really in evidence here. But still.

November 26, 2014

Susan Scarlett, Pirouette

Everything relates to my thesis right now, even when Noel Streatfeild is writing ballet stories.

From a recent column.

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 Until quite near the end the most (or possibly only) surprising thing about Susan Scarlett’s Pirouette is that its author is really Noel Streatfeild. The author, who is best known for the children’s classic Ballet Shoes, though her brilliant The Painted Garden has featured in this column before, also wrote fiction for adults – including twelve romances under this pen name.

Ballet Shoes is the story of the Fossil sisters, Posy, Pauline and Petrova. Posy is a naturally talented dancer who is given private lessons by the kindly Madame Fidolia, negotiates poverty, learns not to be insufferable to her sisters, and grows up to bepirouette a successful ballet dancer. Pirouette is very different. It is the story of Judith Nell, a talented young ballet dancer acting out her mother’s thwarted ambitions for her without really thinking about it much (Judith’s lack of thought or personality is as valuable to her employer Madame Tania as her dancing skills), when she meets, and is proposed to by, a friend’s brother and has to choose between marriage and a career. Unsurprisingly, she chooses marriage. Streatfeild is brilliant at character in her children’s books as well as her adult ones, but Judith doesn’t give her much scope. For plot purposes she’s something of a cipher, and that fact makes her romance uninteresting—and makes Paul Conquest’s love for her a bit foolish (what is there to fall in love with?) as well.

Far more interesting is Judith’s mother, flawed and infuriating in the manner of one of the less pleasant L. M. Montgomery characters, and contrasted with her kindly husband in familiar Mr and Mrs Bennet style. Mrs Nell’s neglect of her Judith’s younger brother in favour of her daughter (Mr Nell’s neglect is less of an issue) leads young Tim Nell to act out, lie, and eventually steal. And this is where things possibly get interesting—friends of the family advise the Nells to send him abroad.

“The right place for a boy to make a new start is the Commonwealth; more room for a boy who’s kicked over the traces a bit at home.” This in itself is not unfamiliar—Victorian literature often suggests that the whole of the British empire exists as a sort of reformatory school for British children, there solely to provide an occasion for said children to develop their characters. Adventure novels have their protagonists develop heroism through traversing unchartered terrain; more domestic novels send off the unsatisfactory younger son or the school bully to the colonies to sort them out (the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser do wonderful things with this trope). And that’s not even touching on the real history of penal transportation. What’s interesting to me is that the Nells do not choose to avail of this opportunity. “No, I think the Commonwealth deserves nothing but the best and I’m sorry to say the best is not my Tim, not as he is now.”

Pirouette was published in 1948, well into a number of freedom movements across the empire and after the independence of India. But this idea that Britain owes the Commonwealth a duty of care, rather than the latter existing for the convenience of the former, interests me. It’s far from being an ideal political stance—the comic image it creates is of Britain as nurturing patriarch to a loving global family—but I’m curious as to when and by what degrees this attitude crept into the mainstream. I’ve been reading Nick Harkaway’s 2014 novel Tigerman recently, and that too is struggling with the question (in a very self-aware, 2014 kind of way) of the question of Britain’s relationship with what was once its empire.

In the event, the Nell and Conquest families each send their two eldest children to Rhodesia on the promise that an uncle in that country will find jobs for them. It remains to be seen whether these young people are examples of “the best” that Mr Nell thinks the Commonwealth deserves.

 

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October 12, 2014

Courtney Milan, Talk Sweetly To Me

Because why not write the same piece over two weeks and have one half be about narrative poetry and the other be about romance?

Here is that second part; it’s from last weekend’s column and much of what’s in it will be familiar to anyone who has read this earlier piece on Milan’s series and this one on historical romance in general.

 

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Last week in this column I wrote about Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe, and the ways in which it can be useful to challenge our received understanding of history through competing narratives that focus on the things that those better known accounts tend to gloss over. Evaristo’s novel told (in verse) the story of a young black woman, a member of a minority community in the London of Roman Britain. This week I read a very different piece of historical fiction about another young black woman in London, this time in 1882.

I’ve said in the past that I do not often like politics to be explicitly raised in the historical romances I read. Such books tend to focus on aristocrats, and it’s hard to sympathise with them when reminded of things like slavery and oppressive class and gender constructs, especially when the author is pleading with us to appreciate these characters merely for being slightly less awful than everyone else. If I want to read about handsome dukes in period costume, I need to pretend they exist in a magical universe that does not share a history with our own.

Courtney Milan is one of my exceptions to this rule. Her Brothers Sinister series, concluded recently with the novella Talk Sweetly To Me, is set in a 19th century England full of political agitations, strikes, suffragettes. It’s also populated by, among others, clever women who work, queer people, non-white characters, and people with disabilities. Talk Sweetly To Me has for its protagonist a mathematical genius who happens to be a black woman.

The general narrative of the erasure of non-white people from European history tends to insist that such people simply weren’t there to be represented. It’s harder to make this claim about women, but we’re often told that historical gender roles were so rigid that any narrative of a woman doing something spectacular is simply ahistorical (as opposed to unlikely, which tends to be a feature of stories about heroes). An important feature of Milan’s books are their afterwords which, by providing more historical context and pointing to some of the sources she drew upon for research, validate these characters’ and these stories’ right to exist. There’s data on the presence of black doctors in London, as there is on the erasure of women’s work from the history of science. She’s least successful when she puts this justification of these characters’ presence into the text itself (a Bengali character in the book The Heiress Effect is constantly explaining himself), but it’s easy to forgive this.

Which isn’t to say that the world of the books is in any way the historical truth, whatever that may mean. Milan’s occasional deviations from historical records are flagged up when they occur, and some of them are significant enough to turn the whole into alternate history. What is not flagged up but is no less important is the way in which these books joyously take part in the wish-fulfilment that is a part of every hero story: of course we know that in most cases the social forces against them would break these characters, but sometimes we need stories of success, or simply happiness. Talk Sweetly To Me is lighter on both politics and drama than most of the full-length novels, and is certainly not the best of the series, but there’s something wonderful in reading a romance that we expect to be difficult (well-educated and tenuously-socially-accepted Irish writer of low birth falls in love with genius black female mathematician?), and to have it be joyous and pun-filled instead.

In her afterword Milan points out, pointedly, that while her protagonist Rose’s community was certainly a very small minority, there were “at least as many black doctors as there were dukes”. Milan is writing in a genre where dukes are plentiful (they even show up in her other works); to invoke them here is a reminder that we choose which stories to tell, which stories we allow to frame our understanding of the past.

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February 27, 2014

Two posts about Courtney Milan

I’ve said in the past that I like to think of the regency romance as being set in a sort of fantasy world where things like the slave trade and gross economic inequality don’t exist—because if they do, our protagonists are thoroughly implicated in them. Even if they’re the ‘nice’ ones who think that small poor children should not be forced up chimneys, or that one should be kind to one’s servants, or at least learn their names, or that the slave trade is maybe not that good (standards for ‘nice’ being pretty low here), it’s hard to think of them as sympathetic in any way. Romances that draw our attention to these social realities as part of their elucidation of their protagonists’ characters manage to annoy me far more than ones that don’t mention any of this.

Courtney Milan’s books, though, are in one sense set firmly in the past of the real world. Recently I’ve been reading her Victorian-England-set Brothers Sinister series—I cringe a bit (a lot) at this title, but at least Oliver, Sebastian and Robert (none of whom are actually brothers, though they are related) are left-handed. And also these books are kind of great.

It’s obvious that there’s research involved; specific parliamentary reform acts, medical and scientific developments, social history, all of these are placed at the centre of the various stories in ways that ought to jar with the genre-romance format, but usually don’t. There’s an amusing moment in the afterword to The Duchess War where Milan, describing the radicalisation of workers in 1860s Leicester, admits that they really did not need a pamphlet-writing duke to stir them up, since they were managing quite well on their own. Why is Robert there, then? Because romance novel. It’s a concession I’m willing to grant her (though unlike pretty much every other minor historical change she makes, it doesn’t make 1800s England a better place). Apart from stray moments like this, though, it’s fiction that is solidly grounded in the material reality of its time. More realist than most realist fiction then, despite its basis in a genre one of whose strengths is a frequent departure from reality.

But then there’s the science thing, and I think it might be the most important of all. A minor character in the first few books in the series is Sebastian Malheur, the most reviled scientist in England, a Darwin supporter and a scandalous discusser in public of the sex lives of plants. These minor references are more serious than they might at first seem. As Milan herself says in the afterword to The Duchess War, “[e]very piece of historical fiction alters history in at least some tiny regard”. But this is more than a minor change; putting a geneticist in the same time and place as Darwin (Milan’s drawing on a lot of Mendel’s work, as she explains) could have enormous consequences.

Then in The Countess Conspiracy (spoilers all over this, sorry) we discover that what has been presented as Sebastian’s work so far has been that of his friend Violet Waterfield, who was in no position to publish (or be read, or taken seriously) because she’s a woman. This particular book has Violet discovering the chromosome, considerably earlier than was done in our world. Milan has already suggested, as I say above, that the minor changes she makes in her universe could have larger consequences, and this one is pretty huge.

So that’s where we end the series (I think there is to be one more book, but I’m not sure how far into the future it takes us), with scientific knowledge considerably further advanced than it was at this stage in our own world’s history. And while I’m not convinced that this makes The Countess Conspiracy science fiction (it is definitely fiction about science), I’m willing to argue for it, and I’m pretty sure that any sequel to it would be at least alternate history. Can SF claim Courtney Milan? Probably.

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In The Heiress Effect, we are introduced to Anjan Bhattacharya, an Indian student in England. Particularly in the years since RaceFail, I’ve seen a lot of Writing The Other conversations in my various corners of the internet– why it’s important, how to do it, how to react to criticism of how one is doing it. I don’t know if Milan hangs out in the same parts of the internet as I do, but in many ways she’s done everything right; she’s read first-hand accounts of Indian students in 19th century Britain (including Gandhi’s, but she names a few less obvious ones at the end of the book), the 1857 war is namechecked*, there’s even an almost-reference to the Bengal Renaissance. Anjan isn’t only an angry freedom-fighter, though there’s plenty of anger there, he recognises that his own presence in England, studying law, requires a certain amount of complicity; his relationship with Britain is as tied up in his class position and family (and caste, though the word isn’t mentioned) as it is in the fact of being a brown man in 19th century England.

Here’s the thing, though. When Milan writes about, say, anxiety disorders, as she does with Oliver’s aunt Frederica, she doesn’t feel the need to have the character speechifying about it. I assume that this is in part because none of the characters is in a position to speechify; normally, when the books deal with historical fact that doesn’t commonly show up in romance novels there’s a note in the afterword. Anjan, on the other hand, is constantly explaining himself–to Emily he explains that brown people can have complex feelings towards their colonisers, that the British Empire is kind of bad, and that vegetarians exist; to her uncle Titus he explains that Indians don’t all force their wives to commit sati and that Hindus are generally monogamous. 19th Century English people had a number of fascinating ideas about Indians and I’m well aware of this, but underlying all of these authorial choices is what feels to me like an assumption that Indians in books still need to be explained, that their literary presence is an opportunity for a teaching moment. And I’ve read historical novels whose authors have clearly done no research at all into India (*cough Libba Bray cough*) and as long as that sort of thing is seen as normal and acceptable perhaps we do need to be explained (no wonder Anjan falls in love with the first person who bothers to learn to pronounce his name). And perhaps posts like this are proof that You People Will Never Be Satisfied. I’m not, though.

 

*I know Emily is very sheltered but the only way in which I can account for her not having heard of the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ at all is that her uncle is deliberately keeping the newspapers away from her. Which is plausible, I suppose, but it seems unnecessary unless as an excuse for Anjan to also explain that conflict; another teaching moment.

January 30, 2014

Shoma Narayanan, The One She Was Warned About

Rather scrappy; this feels like notes towards a larger and better piece about desirability in the romance novel and how both names and tropes (the bad boy, the uptight businessman, the … man with unwitting mafia connections trying to make good?) act as signifiers within that framework. Or something. Anyway. This week’s column.

 

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Perhaps the most romance novel-ish of Georgette Heyer’s considerable body of work is The Nonesuch. The title character is as much of a paragon as his nickname implies; he’s fabulously rich, good at sports, attractive, dresses well without looking like he’s trying too hard, has perfect manners and charms everyone around him. Faced with all of this perfection it’s understandable that our heroine (nobly impoverished, clever, attractive) suspects that he has a dreadful secret and that he is out of her league. She turns out to be wrong on both counts—the terrible secret only makes him look even more noble, and he is deeply in love with her. There’s only one drawback- His name is Waldo.

Fashions in names change, of course, as do the traits we assign to particular names. A casual observer of this romance in Regency England might not find Waldo a particularly incongruous name for a romantic hero. And obviously people named Waldo do have romances and find love and hopefully happiness. Our belief that certain kinds of stories happen only to people with certain sorts of names is irrational. Presumably this is partly why early attempts at fiction by Indian schoolchildren so often feature characters with names out of Enid Blyton—we have absorbed the idea that certain sorts of literary adventures only happen to middle-class, mid-twentieth-century British kids.

When major romance publishing houses first broached the idea of books set in India, many people (myself among them) found the idea rather amusing. Romances involving American cowboys, Greek tycoons, various members of minor European nobility and Sheikhs of fictional countries all seemed, if not realistic, at least familiar—the prospect of these plots featuring men and women with names like our own was faintly ridiculous. The first India-set romance novel I read was indeed awful, less because of its protagonists’ names than because the author had decided to imitate the sexual politics of the 1950s.

But in the few years since, things have changed; there’s enough Indian romance that one is able to read individual books on their own merits. My copy of Shoma Narayanan’s The One She Was Warned About proclaims on its cover that the author is an international bestseller.

The One She Was Warned About features Shweta, an engineer-turned-MBA (of course) with an uneventful personal life and dubious taste in clothing. She runs into childhood classmate Nikhil, who since getting expelled from school has started a successful business and hangs out with movie stars. Naturally, romance occurs, though Nikhil’s complicated family affairs must be sorted out before any sort of Happily Ever After can be achieved.

Genre romances often fall back on a finite set of well-worn, yet effective plots: men and women are attracted to one another; there’s some serious obstacle or; everything works out in the end. Narayanan’s book is a bit unusual in that the misunderstanding (and by implication, the romance?) is between Nikhil and his family; the relatively uncomplicated Shweta becomes something of a bystander in her own romance.

Too often the complications of a plot could easily be solved simply by the protagonists actually listening to one another for once. Narayanan goes a step further in just about eliminating conflict altogether. The disapproving prospective father-in-law doesn’t disapprove, the bad boy hero hasn’t actually been a rebel since he was a teenager. In a way this only adds to the wish-fulfillment aspect of the whole thing; no parent would ‘warn’ its child about this wealthy, successful businessman; Nikhil has all the romance-novel appeal of the rebel with none of its considerable disadvantages. In a story that must somehow come to a happy ending no conflict must be too hard to solve. Unfortunately in this instance it results in all plot being squeezed into a chapter or so at the end of the book.

By now it’s a bit of a cliché to suggest that the hero is the most important aspect of the romance. It’s an idea it’s possible to take to extremes—in The One She Was Warned About Shweta is barely present. But at least Narayanan manages to make Nikhil Nair sound like a reasonable hero-name.

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October 9, 2013

Shannon Hale, Austenland

I have mixed feelings about this book, but at least it looks significantly superior to the movie.

 

(From this week’s column)

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Mr Darcy died this week.

Some months ago a giant Mr Darcy rose from the Serpentine like a participant in some bizarre Austen/Godzilla crossover movie (Pride and Pacific Rim?), the alarming sculpture a tribute to that scene in the Pride and Prejudice TV series, where Colin Firth jumps into a lake only so that we may admire his clinging wet shirt. That scene, and Firth’s Darcy, have grown into a phenomenon in themselves. The scene has become a staple of a certain sort of fluffy literature which can make the assumption that most heterosexual adult women have seen it and can identify with its power. One of the earlier examples of this is in Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones books—Bridget is a big fan of Firth’s Darcy, a situation made funnier by the fact that Bridget Jones’ Diary is itself a loose retelling of Pride and Prejudice (and Bridget’s Mark Darcy is also played by Colin Firth in the film adaptation). Fielding’s third Bridget Jones book has just come out, and even those of us who have not yet read it can hardly have missed the big news—Bridget is now a widow, her Mr Darcy dead. Perhaps it was about time.

That’s certainly the impression one gets from Shannon Hale’s Austenland, the movie version of which recently released. Hale’s heroine Jane Hayes is an Austen fan; she’s read the books multiple times, and has managed to enjoy them (except Northanger Abbey, which already makes me suspicious of her taste). But Jane is also a Mr Darcy fan, and is self-reflexive enough to know that those two things aren’t necessarily the same. After a series of unsatisfactory relationships Jane has begun to think her obsession with Mr Darcy is actively hindering her love life. When a relative sends her on a three week holiday to an Austen-themed resort, she determines to face and conquer her Darcy problem.

The resort, it turns out, is an ‘immersive’ regency experience for rich (usually married, usually American) women who want to live like Austen heroines and flirt with beautiful men in period costume. Jane finds herself both attracted and repulsed by the lifestyle—the gorgeous men in breeches on the one hand, the long hours of boredom and class snobbery (one is not permitted to flirt with the sexy gardener) on the other. The toll of keeping up the act—though Jane is certainly luckier here than the actors, who are being paid to be pawed at by rich women. And being seduced by a gorgeous man who says all the right things is very nice, but not when he’s been hired for the role and one can’t tell what is and isn’t real.

Part of the problem is that it’s never clear how far Darcy has affected Jane’s life—of the ex-boyfriends of whom we hear, most are terrible, and a couple are ordinary failed relationships of the sort that happen to anyone. As Jane is reminded on her arrival, in Regency England a woman in her early thirties would be regarded as unmarriageable and (therefore) a failure; in the 2010s that is far from true. Since it’s not clear what Jane is doing wrong, it’s hard to see why she should need to fix it.

But then this also plays into a cultural narrative in which women who like romance novels and movies are somehow incapable of functioning within real world relationships. In the end, I’m not sure whether Austenland challenges that idea by giving Jane a relationship that validates all her fantasies so far, or endorses it by assuming that there’s something wrong with this adult woman who dreams of Colin Firth.

Either way, the problem appears to be Mr Darcy. Mr Darcy and his dripping, wet-shirt-encased torso are somehow sabotaging all our love lives. Mr Darcy had to die, and we can only be thankful to Helen Fielding for killing him off.

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July 30, 2013

Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds

Backstory: I wrote 650-odd words about The Best of All Possible Worlds for my column this weekend (and you can read it here)- then, because I felt I’d spent so much time on the popculture-as-human-artefact aspect of it that I hadn’t talked about the stuff about the book that really annoyed me, expanded the piece with a rant of another 1000+ words. As you do. So here you go.

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Centuries from now, people will still be reading Shakespeare. I know this not because his work is so wonderful (though it is pretty amazing) as to be immortal, but because I have it on the best possible authority: Star Trek. The original series and the movies based upon it contain a number of references to the bard, including a rather wonderful one about reading him “in the original Klingon”

Shakespeare has survived in some form on Cygnus Beta, the planet on which most of the action of Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds takes place. Cygnus Beta is populated by peoples descended from four other planets, of which our own is one. Its popular cultural references are, presumably, inherited from all of these planets as well as some that are the product of its own multicultural history. But most of those mentioned, or the ones the (Terran, or Earth-based) reader notices, are from Earth.

So what aspects of our culture have survived into whatever point in the future this is? The Wizard of Oz (movie, not book)—Delarua, our narrator, describes a character as looking like “a tall, middle-aged Wicked Witch of the West except not, you know, being actually green”. The Indiana Jones movies. Casablanca. A Superman movie, in 3D. Othello. What doesn’t make it is Star Trek, but I’ll come back to that.

The Best of All Possible Worlds takes its title from Voltaire’s Candide and like Candide is something of a picaresque adventure. After the destruction of the planet Sadira, some of the remaining Sadiri seek refuge on Cygnus Beta. In a scientific expedition to assess the potential for the remaining Sadiri to intermarry with Cygnus Beta’s part-Sadiri population, a small group of experts visits each of a number of “taSadiri” colonies. They include Delarua, a woman from Cygnus Beta, and Dllenahkh, a Sadiri councillor. Delarua is our heroine, Dllenahkh is brooding and tragic. Naturally, this is a romance.

As a result it’s rather episodic—each new colony provides a different model of society and a different challenge. But many of these societies are drawn almost directly from (earth) popculture. There are Faeries, for example; Sadiri who have chosen to live entirely by the precepts of Terran folktales about elves and similar creatures. They are organised into the Seelie and Unseelie as in various stories, there’s something of the Eloi/Morlock divide from H.G. Wells, and definite hints of Tolkien. There are secret societies of telekinetic monks. Mysteriously, only aspects of Western pop culture seem to have survived.

And there are the Sadiri themselves. I said earlier that Star Trek no longer seemed to form a part of this world’s pop culture, but perhaps that’s because on a more fundamental level the text itself is a piece of Star Trek fanfiction with the Sadiri being obvious stand-ins for the Vulcans. It’s probably a coincidence that this book should have been published soon after the 2009 reboot Star Trek which destroyed the planet Vulcan, leaving its survivors homeless and trying to establish a new colony, but this is hardly the only parallel between these two fictional races. The emphasis on emotional control, the part-telepathic skills, the arranged marriages that involve mental bonds, the violent rages of which Sadiri men are capable. One taSadiri community calls its treetop platform dwellings (shades of Tolkien’s Lothlorien) “t’bren”, a word that looks cod-Vulcan. In her acknowledgements Lord does not mention Star Trek. She says that the Sadiri were inspired by communities of fishermen affected by the 2004 tsunami, who were relatively safe in their boats as their homes and families (the majority of those killed were women) were destroyed. Yet the connections are impossible to miss, and every reviewer seems to have noticed them. In a different book this playing around with one of our major cultural artefacts could have been engaging, incisive, critical (and Star Trek offers a lot to play with from the critical point of view).

But this obsession with Earth’s popculture is only one of many things that eventually weigh The Best of All Possible Worlds down. These little tributes to earlier works may be fun, but they don’t lead anywhere, and all the resolution we’re offered is a happy ending for its lead couple whose romance, muted throughout, has never felt like the point of the book. Entire potential plots are bypassed or skimmed over—such as information about an abusive relationship in Delarua’s past, or an intergalactic slave trade. There are constant references to the originators of this world but these are never resolved. Which would be fine, if anything else had been.

And those homages mean that this is a science fiction novel obsessed with the past, not the future; which would explain why so many of the things its characters take for granted feel so out of keeping with the liberal, far-future setting. A situation in which most women stay at home while men go out to work or explore might be the norm in some fishing communities in 2004 or in the science fiction of the 1960s, but in science fiction published in 2013 and set further in the future it certainly requires examination. Then there’s the belief of the characters in genetic determination—the extent to which one is empathetic, cerebral or physical is credited entirely to how much of which planetary race one has in one’s genes. At one point it is implied that people from Earth are physically fundamentally superior to those of the other three planets, as they have developed all aspects of the self where the other “races” have each focused on only one. The Sadiri’s hunt for women with whom to mate is based entirely upon their bloodlines, and even though love is an option, there appears to be a government bureau to assess and sanction unions—the existence of this body is treated as a useful convenience. There’s also a widespread acceptance of the idea that (since Sadiri have significantly longer life-spans) the first generation of babies after the tragedy are to be sex-selected as female and then to be raised in order to provide brides for the remaining adult Sadiri—no one seems to find this creepy at all. Moreover, the models we’re given for relationships are strictly limited; polyamoury is a weird sexual thing only those strange city people do, and homosexuality isn’t even mentioned as an option till close to the end of the book. At least Star Trek fanfiction has traditionally had queer people in it.

The romance is one of the areas in which The Best of All Possible Worlds allows itself to play. Delarua’s first-person narrative sometimes knowingly parodies the language of the romance text; “I was quite sure at this point that my bosom was heaving in maidenly confusion”. As L. Timmel Duchamp points out here, Dllehnakh is very clearly the desired object of the romance, and it’s unsurprising that Delarua’s sections of the narrative are in the first person while his are in the third. But it’s in the resolution of the romance plot that we discover what is perhaps the novel’s most bizarre moment. Having discovered her love for Dllehnakh and convinced him that kissing is not icky, Delarua chooses to quote one of the most recognisable lines in the western canon. “Reader, I married him”.

Jane Eyre. What is going on here?

So Lord has chosen at the end of this book to evoke a book which is terribly concerned with miscegenation and racial purity (Rochester’s first wife, the “madwoman in the attic” Bertha Mason, is mixed-race, and Rochester seems to find this horrifying), and in which the violent, lying man tries to trick the impoverished governess into a wedding that would be legally invalid. Dllehnakh also has a former spouse, we’re told; she fell for someone else, “arranged” for Dllehnakh to find her cheating on him (as with Jane Eyre we only have the husband’s word for the extent of the wife’s culpability) and in a murderous rage he broke his rival’s jaw. We’re told that the Sadiri have different laws for crimes of passion, so this is okay. If Karen Lord is signalling that Jane Eyre is one of this book’s intertexts, another one seems to be the Star Trek: TOS episode “Amok Time”; the one in which Spock’s betrothal is cancelled just as he is entering pon farr (in Star Trek the “fuck or die” meme is canon) and he goes into a state of bloodlust in which he almost kills (and thinks he has killed) Kirk. We’ve already been warned that Sadiri men are incredibly strong when enraged, and towards the end of the book Delarua sees for herself just what that entails.

I mentioned earlier that Delarua had been in an abusive relationship. Her former parter was Ioan, a man with incredible psychic powers, who has, since Delarua left him, been married to her sister Maria with whom he has had two children. It’s inexplicable that Delarua should not have warned her sister about this man, unless his powers continued to operate on her even then. That seems to be the case; at the end of a tense visit with her sister’s family Delarua runs away and Dllehnakh seems to mend the damage to her mind that Ioan has caused—damage more extensive than Delarua herself had realised. Ioan is caught, Maria and her children require therapy; Delarua opts out of this, as she presumably did the first time she left Ioan. What this means is that up to that point (relatively early in the novel) Delarua has been an unreliable narrator. The most redemptive reading for this book that I can come up with then, is this: that years of psychic torture by Ioan have taken their toll on Delarua and we’re meant to see her as an unreliable narrator, meant to question her romantic choices (soon after the encounter with Ioan she expresses interest in a young man because “what he didn’t have in looks he made up for in self-confidence”) and, particularly since Dllehnakh also has psychic powers and she has  let him into her head, meant to see that relationship as fundamentally sinister. “Reader, [he was a creepy, powerful man who messed with my head and] I married him”.

But the relationship is a relatively small part of the plot, and if this is a book about sinister mind-controlling men it’s a terribly unfocused one. I suspect I was right in my first assessment, and this is merely a set of charming references with little to tie it together and almost no engagement with the tropes that it endlessly invokes. It’s a mess.

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April 23, 2013

Zen Cho, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo

In case anyone on the internet hasn’t seen it (how have you managed to miss it?), the spoken word piece I refer to is this one: To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang

From this weekend’s column:

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Over the past week, multiple people have directed me to a video of a spoken word poetry performance. The poem in question is “To J.K. Rowling, From Cho Chang” by Rachel Rostad and, as the title indicates, is an indictment of Rowling’s portrayal of that character in the Harry Potter books. Rostad lays out a number of criticisms here- including the very low number of students of colour in Rowling’s Hogwarts and the likelihood or otherwise of Cho Chang’s name (though since the video went viral a number of Chinese readers have defended Rowling on this count). But most interesting of her arguments is that Rowling has placed the character in a tradition of stereotyped East Asian women, who fall in love with a white, male hero and then are either killed off or spend the rest of the plot (and their lives, presumably) pining for him. Rostad mentions Madame Butterfly and Memoirs of a Geisha as examples of stories that perpetuate this trend, but it’s far too easy to think of others.

A good antidote to that particular narrative is The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Author Zen Cho is better known for her science fiction writing (she figured on the recently-announced list of John W. Campbell Award nominees for best new writer). But The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo is a romance set in early twentieth century London and centering itself around the literary and artistic life of Bloomsbury. Jade Yeo (or Geok Huay) is a Malaysian-Chinese woman who lives in London and makes a (tiny) living writing – mostly about books but occasionally fluff pieces, because hey, money. Most of her literary reviews are carried in the relatively obscure Oriental Literary Review, run by a young Indian man named Ravi. But both Jade and the OLR achieve fame when the journal carries her scathing review of a book by literary society darling Sebastian Hardie. Hardie’s attention is arrested; he and Jade have a whirlwind romance (note: this is not the usual outcome of writing a negative review). But though Hardie may look like a Romantic poet, Jade is not that smitten. Or only temporarily. (“I see the source of all my problems: a Bronte was completely the wrong thing to be reading unless it were an Anne. I should have been reading George Eliot.”)

In the past, this column has talked about E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady and Joyce Dennys’ Henrietta books, both examples of how the intimacy of the diary or epistolatory forms can make a book funny and engaging. Jade has a wonderful voice; enthusiastic, curious, cutting, original. This is the sort of character who complains that “all I have done as an unaccompanied maiden in London is read and write and cook. This is hardly tasting the delights of debauchery in the immoral West”. She exposes us to the full absurdity of people who ask if they have tea in China. She dismisses Hardie’s attempts at seduction by complaining that he has “the heavy-lidded gaze of a romantic tapir”. She is glorious.

For many of us who grew up on a steady diet of very light ‘English’ fluff, the lack of non-white people is something we very carefully do not think about—I’d rather not know what P.G. Wodehouse or Georgette Heyer would make of someone like me. But with this novella, Cho writes us into the period in ways that are politically astute, affirmative, and above all joyous. It’s clear she’s having as much fun paying tribute to books she likes (Wodehouse fans will be pleased to know that Jade has an article in Milady’s Boudoir) as she is undercutting those works and placing herself at their centre, rendering them feminist, anti-racist, political, and still lighthearted and funny. It’s short and never particularly deep, but The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo is the happiest thing I’ve read in a long time.

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April 10, 2013

Bet Me, choice and body horror

About halfway through Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me, the protagonists have decided that they want to stay away from one another. Neither of them particularly wants a relationship with the other person (though they are attracted to one another), and (naturally) a series of increasingly unsubtle signs that they are destined for one another makes them uncomfortable.

Bet Me was recommended to me as a funny, fat-positive romance novel. It’s certainly the first, and to some extent the second–though I take issue with some aspects of it. It’s also a book that bases its plot on a well-worn trope of the genre, only to completely to undo it. Because the bet plot is a staple one. Our hero (or in at least one book I’ve read, our heroine) bets he can seduce our heroine (or our hero, presumably), but finds himself falling in love with her; heroine finds out about the bet at the worst possible time and will not believe he really cares for her; true love prevails and our hero is forgiven because men will be men or something. In Crusie’s book this is all a misunderstanding– it’s Min’s evil ex-boyfriend who tries to make the bet with Cal, and though Cal doesn’t accept it, Min, overhearing, thinks he has (we’re not told if she is a romance reader).

But as these characters struggle to deal with their increasing tolerance for one another,it seems fate has other things planned for them. A childhood treasure lost by Min turns up again after she has joked about loving Cal forever if he’ll get it back for her. Attempts by both parties to avoid one another result in their sitting next to one another in a movie theatre. As Min’s friend Bonnie complains, “True love is beating you over the head to get your attention”.

A lot of the romance I’ve read (and I can’t claim to be an expert) is in dialogue with the idea of love as irresistable, overpowering force that overrides the free will of its protagonists and gives them no choice but to be together. Characters seen as resisting this (because who wants to lose the ability to choose?) have to learn to trust in whatever higher power is in this case seen as being in charge of things – destiny becomes an external, supernatural force that a) cannot be countermanded b) knows what’s best for us all anyway.The supernatural force that, at multiple points in the book, is literally yelling “THIS ONE” in Min’s or Cal’s ears. If Bet Me bases its plot on the undoing of one of the genre’s tropes, it also literalises one of its most enduring metaphors.

And so I don’t think the violence of Bonnie’s “beating you over the head” metaphor is accidental, particularly when it turns out to be less metaphorical and more violent than you’d expect.

 

“She said yes,” Cal said, reaching for his toast. “However, I cannot bring her because I will not be seeing her ever aga—” His fingers brushed the metal top of the toaster and he burned himself and dropped the phone. “Damn it,” he said and put his scorched fingertips in his mouth.

“Calvin?” his mother said from the phone.

He picked up the receiver. “I burned myself on the toaster. Sorry.” Cal turned on the cold water and stuck his fingers underneath the stream. “Anyway, I will not be seeing Minerva Dobbs again.” He stepped away from the sink onto something hard and his foot slipped out from under him and smacked into the cabinets. “Ouch.”

“Calvin?” his mother said.

“I stepped on a knife.” Cal bent to pick up the peanut butter knife and smacked his head into the counter. “Hell.”

 

Cal and Min will [spoiler alert! except not really] get together, of course, and the book suggests they will be very happy. But you have to wonder to what lengths destiny would have gone had they not succumbed exhausted to its machinations. From the middle of the book onwards Cal and Min are hostages, not protagonists, of the romance plot–a supernatural entity that they cannot see or control is forcing them together and inflicting physical violence upon them when they do not immediately go along with it. Imagine destiny as a child playing with dolls, smashing their faces together and making kissing noises. Now imagine those dolls are sentient.

 

March 12, 2013

While on the subject of Angria/ Gondal (Ankaret Wells, Firebrand)

It occurs to me that while I’ve read a lot about the Brontës’ magical worlds, I’ve read very few of the stories set in them. I’m working my way through this book at the moment, and these stories are very … very. Their veryness is their chief characteristic. I’m charmed, but also I’m so glad you moved on to other things, Charlotte.

The Tiptree Award for 2012 was announced earlier this week, along with its regular Honour List. Winners and honour listees are here, and I’m intrigued by many of them. But I was particularly interested in Ankaret Wells’ Firebrand. I’ve loved her fanfiction in the past (she’s one of a very small number of people who sometimes writes Antonia Forest fic and does it well), and this looked excellent. I’d managed not to read any reviews other than the bit on the Tiptree list, so it came as a complete surprise that the story was set in a version of the Angria universe. But with steampunk.

[There may be spoilers]

Firebrand is a romance novel in a steampunk, fantasy setting (is this gaslamp fantasy? I’m never sure). Which means that its focus is those elements of the story that are pertinent to the romance. So we take for granted the existence of the weird, magical creatures known as the warplings, and the particular negotiations with them that Kadia makes- in a different genre this, not her relationship with the Duke, would be at the centre of things. What are the consequences of Micah Ellrington’s theft? How does religion work in this setting? How vast is Zashera’s spy network in Cordoza, and is it used for purposes other than to split up the Duke and his new fiancée? In a fantasy novel these could be failures of worldbuilding and I’m not entirely sure they aren’t here. But it makes sense for Kadia as a character (she’s not particularly observant, either of the people around her or the mechanics of the world) to drift through this setting without telling us much. Plus, it makes sense for the romance novel to focus on the two people at its centre without much regard for the world around them. Particularly when the whole thing is told in first person.

It doesn’t always work, of course. There’s a kind of suspension of judgement I think a lot of us commit when we’re reading certain parts of a romance novel; outside that very specific reading experience such things as intense sex scenes are often just really funny. Wells writes them better than many other authors. But the first person narrative means we’re also being forced to reconcile romance-novel-narrator Kadia with the Kadia of the rest of the book, who is funny and caustic and never mawkish.And Kadia’s voice is the best thing about Firebrand. I laughed out loud in public places.

Since this book is on the Tiptree honours list, it’s probably worth talking about how it deals with gender. One of the things that Firebrand does is to present us with a world in which it isn’t surprising (despite the semi-historical setting) for women to be engineers, traders or lawyers. It’s also a book that allows for relationships between women: at least as sisters, friends and stepmothers-in-law, though the stepmother-stepdaughter relationships aren’t all one could hope for. And it’s a book that takes for its heroine an adult woman who has lived through two unhappy marriages; though I don’t think we’re ever told Kadia’s age.

But it’s still a world in which gender inequalities exist, and are perpetuated even by the  “good” men whom we’re presented with. Zashera, the Emperor, takes raping women as his right. But he has a good side! I’m not sure if I loved this section for tearing that particular argument apart, or was disappointed in it for spelling it out:

“But — my God, Kadia, he saved my life. Is that supposed to count for nothing?”

A spattering rain-shower starts to blow past us, striking the battlements and turning the granite slick and wet. “I’m sure it would make me feel better about him, if I wasn’t a woman. Or if I had never cared about a woman. Or never met a woman. Or if I wasn’t born of a woman, but made of bones dipped in flesh in some kind of experimental furnace.”

[...]

“I think he’d take you gambling and throw a parade for you in the streets of New Trinovantium, and when he tried to steal your airship he’d argue to himself that all’s fair when you’re fighting a worthy equal.” My eyes feel hot and itchy with tears, but I’m too angry to cry. “Whereas he calls me my sweet delight and threatens me.”

 

If Firebrand is mostly good on gender, I have mixed feelings about how well it deals with race. There are certainly people of other races present in the two states– including a “copper-skinned lady with angular eyes” and a General with a bevy of beautiful daughters including one with “tight dark curls held back with a ribbon from her ebony brow”. What it doesn’t do (and am I contradicting myself, after offering excuses for the book’s not fleshing out its own world?) is give us more on the subject of its Empire, its colonies, — anything about this history of colonisation that doesn’t consist of bemoaning being regarded as wild colonials by the Home Archipelago.

And there are the Warplings, or ingenii, who do stand in to some extent as an Other race. We’re told very little about the warplings. Their physical appearance is strange but seems to be individually so; we’re not given particular physical markers that are common to the entire race. Everything around them is mysterious, except that somehow they or the warplands themselves seem to have the power to change humans as well.

“Some places the Home Islanders went to, and either enslaved the people who already owned the place or got outsmarted by them. Here, they fell asleep in the warplands and woke up to discover that some of their companions had changed in the night.”

I’ve written before of my discomfort with aliens as nonwhite race stand-ins. And the power imbalances here don’t make sense to me; apparently most of the human characters think it is completely acceptable to cheat the ingenii in financial transactions, to rob their graves, and to banish them from their houses– yet the ingenii appear to have supernatural powers that these human characters cannot comprehend. It’s the X-Men problem; in giving your supposedly oppressed class superpowers you justify and validate the fear in which the majority who is oppressing them holds them. Equally, I can’t help thinking (because they’re one of my pet subjects) of all those magical colonial monsters (mummies! The Beetle! She!) that popular 19th Century literature was so obsessed with. Which makes this particular plot element appropriate for the steampunk-ish setting as well as for the Brontës.

I’m also not sure what I think of Kadia’s cousin Isabel, who is part-warpling, particularly after Aliette de Bodard’s recent excellent post about mixed-race/half-human characters in fantasy. Certainly Isabel can (mostly) “pass” and the ability of some part-warpling people to pass is important to the plot. And she has mysterious powers inherited from the warpling side of her family, and uses them to faithfully defend her fully-human relative.

Having said all of which, I mostly loved Firebrand, enough that I’ll be reading Wells’ science-fiction duology soon. And I’d love to read more of her writing set in this world, possibly fleshing it out and tackling some of the trickier parts.