Archive for ‘Mint’

August 19, 2013

Samantha Shannon, The Bone Season

I don’t understand this book.

I understand why a lot of bad books exist–they may not be original or show any writerly skill, but they’re still frequently joyful, interested in their own story, convinced of their own worth.

There isn’t even that much to criticise about The Bone Season–it’s utterly predictable and its characters are undeveloped, but that’s true of lots of books. But its by-the-numbers-ness and sheer lack of conviction just wore me down and made me so unhappy.

This review appeared in Mint, and is on their website here.


Somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century, things changed. Certain human beings developed the power of clairvoyance, enabling them to commune in various ways with the spirit world. Samantha Shannon’s debut novel, The Bone Season, is set two hundred years into this alternative timeline. In the London of 2059, clairvoyance can get you arrested and it’s in your best interests to hide it as best as possible. The city is under the control of a security force called Scion and members of the criminal underworld, like nineteen year old Paige Mahoney, are in constant danger. Then Paige is captured, and learns just what has been happening to those clairvoyants who have been arrested over the past two centuries.

Shannon’s novel has been greeted with a certain amount of hype—as a seven book fantasy series by a new author (and published by Bloomsbury, no less), the Harry Potter comparisons were all but inevitable and the publicity around The Bone Season has taken full advantage of this. But the comparison was invalid from the moment it was made. The debut author of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone would never have presented the world with a close to five-hundred page tome (the superstar writer of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix could, but that’s a different matter). Shannon clearly has plenty to say, but the thought of wading through six more books of this size is more alarming than enticing.

Worldbuilding is a sometimes-contested aspect of fantasy literature. It’s one thing to create a substantial and fully realised setting in which your story is to take place—but how much your reader needs to know about the world is a separate question. Do we need notes on the grammar of its fictional languages, family trees for its major characters, and detailed maps? Sometimes we do, and sometimes these genealogies and grammars can be as absorbing, or more so, than the stories themselves. But sometimes these additions merely seem an easy alternative to thinking about and fleshing out a setting. Shannon begins her book with a chart of the various types of clairvoyant and a map of her fictional Oxford and ends it with a glossary, but none of these add much to the text itself. Despite all this information, often served up in long sections completely separate from the plot around them, the whole thing feels curiously sparse. There’s little sense of the past two centuries’ history that makes this world so different to our own, or of characters’ complex feelings towards their own powers. Perhaps all this extraneous information will come in useful in later volumes in the series. I’m particularly intrigued to learn whether Shannon’s use of Hebrew words (“rephai”, “sheol”) will have greater significance., but to dedicate a first volume entirely to set-up seems rather ill-judged.

In the absence of a particularly interesting setting, we’re forced to pay attention to character and plot. And there’s plenty here that could be potentially absorbing—we have shades of dystopian fiction, revolution, slavery, romance, a powerful and terrifying government. But Shannon’s characters, like her setting, all lack depth. Early on, Paige is faced with a difficult choice between betraying a friend and her own survival. The choice is quickly taken away from her, leaving her morally untainted. Our heroine is brave and kind, defiant and possessed of amazing powers (even in this world of people with supernatural powers). Our villain is entirely evil (if she had a moustache she would doubtless be twirling it). When Paige is given into the care of “a Rephaite creature with dark honey skin and heavy-lidded yellow eyes. He is her master. Her trainer. Her natural enemy” we know exactly where this is going. Can she trust this beautiful man or not? (You already know the answer.)

Fiction doesn’t necessarily have to be original to be satisfying. A well-worn plot populated with interesting characters can often make for a great read. But once the setting has been put into place, The Bone Season slips into a sort of by the numbers samey-ness that it never manages to break out of. There’s no joy here, little to absorb or fascinate or terrify. It is almost oppressively predictable.


November 25, 2012

Alan Garner, Boneland

I struggled with this piece on Alan Garner’s Boneland, and even with the benefits of Mint’s excellent editors I’m not entirely happy with it. In part because so much of what fascinated me about Boneland had to do with where it stands within Garner’s career, something that’s impossible to convey to anyone who has not read the rest of his work. And in part because where Garner is concerned I have, since this is on the internet, Many Feels.

A version of this piece was published in Mint Lounge this weekend.



2010 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Alan Garner’s first novel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. This and its 1963 sequel The Moon of Gomrath followed the adventures of two siblings, Colin and Susan, and their encounters with the legends around Alderly Edge in Cheshire.  It’s in the atmospheric writing and descriptions of the Edge that most of the power of these books lies. Garner would later experiment with the form of the children’s fantasy novel (most notably in 1965’s Elidor); but in most respects The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath are ordinary, if high-quality, adventure stories.

One of the ways in which Garner deviates from the usual is in providing no easy resolution. The Moon of Gomrath ends on an uncomfortable note as the Daughters of the Moon whom Susan so desperately wants to join disappear, leaving her alone and desolate. Children’s fantasy rarely deals with the question of return; can it ever really be so easy to come back to ordinary life?

Almost half a century later, Garner has written a sequel to the earlier two novels. Boneland is set in or around the present and focuses on Colin, now an adult and an astronomer, with no memory of his childhood before the age of thirteen. Susan has disappeared; Colin can’t be sure that she ever existed, yet he is haunted by the spectre of his sister. At the beginning of the book he is slowly unravelling, and seeks the help of Meg, a rather unorthodox psychoanalyst.  Interwoven with Colin’s story is that of a prehistoric man whose own arcane rituals (connected to his own search for a particular woman) appear crucial to keep the world going.

What is one to make then, of an oblique, allusive book for adults that is meant to follow two reasonably straightforward books for children; a sequel separated from its predecessors by not just time and audience, but by genre as well? If we understand a sequel to be a continuation of the original story, Boneland functions only partly as one. Even at the end the details of Susan’s disappearance (her name is never mentioned in this book) and of Colin’s loss of memory are tenuous.  Yet through its allusions to the earlier books  –Colin’s fear of crows and fascination with the Pleiades, Meg’s house shrouded in rhododendrons–  it not only draws on their significance to deepen its own, but acts as a sort of meditation upon those books as well.

Garner has hinted that Boneland is likely to be his last book. It’s possible to read this not just as the final volume of a trilogy but as the culmination of his career. References to his earlier works are scattered through this one; including the sacred axe-head and flashes of “blue silver” of Red Shift and the “Who-whoop! Wo-whoop! Wo-o-o-o!” refrain of The Stone Book Quartet.

Over and over in his writing Garner has returned to the history and myths of this part of England. The legend of the sleeping knights under Alderley Edge forms a significant part of his first book.  Red Shift moved in time between Roman and Civil War Britain but in place stayed firmly in Cheshire. The Stone Book Quartet was a collection of interlinked stories spread over four generations of a family, possibly Garner’s own. In Boneland this concern with history is stretched to the geological. Colin, who is something of a savant, is able to give erudite lectures on Permo-Triassic rock even as he refuses to leave the Edge at night because he believes that he must watch it. The mythic and the scientific sit together in uneasy companionship here.

Questions of myth versus science are frequently raised. In a sense this difference between the truth of science and the truth of myth is roughly analogous to the difference between Boneland and its prequels. Colin admits that his mistake all along has been to mix the two, “using the telescope to find a myth, an object to trace a metaphor”, while Meg compares this endeavour to “chasing love with a scalpel”. There’s the suggestion that the truth, whatever it is, may be as a metaphor here and narrative an object, so that we are doomed to frustration. But the book’s cryptic first lines, in which someone is reassuring Colin that it is “just a scratch” also suggest that he has been unconscious in a hospital throughout, and the whole of the narrative is only a metaphor for the processes of his brain. And the book’s use of psychology occasionally serves as a reminder that this is a discipline in which science is arrived at in part through metaphor.

Boneland shows all the lyricism (“He cut the veil of the rock; the hooves clattered the bellowing waters below him in the dark. The lamp brought the moon from the blade, and the blade the bull from the rock. The ice rang”) of which Garner is capable, and is resonant with echoes of his own and other works. It is by parts frustrating, emotionally exhausting and beautiful. And it is a resolution of sorts to Colin and Susan’s story, if not quite the one we might have expected.


August 28, 2012

Anne Carson, Antigonick

I had a short review of Anne Carson’s translation in Mint about a week ago. A slightly longer version (with illustrations) below.



Besides the minor change in the title, there’s little about Anne Carson’s translation of Sophokles’ Antigone to indicate that anything unusual is going on. Then on the first page of Antigonick, Antigone and her sister Ismene argue over whether a quote comes from Beckett or Hegel.

Antigone is the daughter of Oidipus, who is dead when the play opens. Also dead are her brothers, Polyneikes who died attacking the city of Thebes and Eteokles who fell defending it. Kreon, ruler of Thebes, has ordered that Eteokles receive a proper burial while the traitor Polyneikes’ body should be left to rot. Kreon’s civil statutes, meant to maintain order in the city, are antithetical to Antigone’s stance on behalf of the importance of kinship. She defies the law, claiming her moral duty to bury her dead, and is sentenced in her turn to death. As is so often the case in Greek tragedy this sets off a series of deaths.

The German philosopher Hegel saw Antigone as a collision between the two extreme positions, neither particularly wrong in itself, taken by Kreon and Antigone.  The tragedy arises from the fact that the two simply cannot co-exist.

It’s obvious from the beginning that this is not a word-for-word translation. Carson strips the dialogue of most of its punctuation and adds large blank spaces of silence, turning the whole into poetry. “SHE WAS THE CHILD IN HER BIRDGRIEF THE BIRD IN HER CHILDREFTGRAVECRY HOWLING AND CURSING SHE POURED DUST ONTO THE BODY WITH BOTH HANDS SHE POURED WATER ONTO THE BODY WITH BOTH HANDS I SEIZED HER”, says the usually flippant guard who catches Antigone.  “YOUR SOUL IS BLOWING APART”, says the chorus, a single line in the centre of an otherwise blank page.

Kreon arrives in a motor boat and there are anachronistic references to later writers (Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf among them). There is even a new character; the mute “Nick” remains on the stage for the entire duration of the play, but is only mentioned once, in the stage directions. Yet Carson is only ever credited as the translator, rather than the adaptor or re-interpreter of Antigonick. In a way, there is nothing here that is not in the original, but we are not reading this in Sophokles’ Athens. A reader of the Antigone in 2012 will come to the play with the history of the last few centuries behind her; our reading of the play cannot but include Hegel’s as well.

Frequently it seems that the characters are all aware of this. Ismene reminds Antigone of Brecht’s adaptation which had Antigone carrying a door strapped to her back. Antigone prompts Kreon (“ANTIGONE:  NEXT WORD IS DEATH   KREON: DEATH”). Eurydike, Kreon’s wife, is barely given a few lines in Sophokles; here in an extended monologue she ponders the lack of space given to her character and even spoofs her own stage directions.

Eurydike is the only character to raise the question of “Nick”. “HAVE YOU HEARD THIS EXPRESSION THE NICK OF TIME WHAT IS A NICK”. In tragedy there is no nick of time, there is no last minute aversion of disaster. There’s a rueful inevitability about all the characters (except Kreon, who sometimes seems to have lost the script). They have lived out this story before, through all of its many adaptations. They know they’re going to die.

Bianca Stone’s illustrations, printed on transparent vellum to overlay the text, are full of a sense of opposing, irreconcilable forces. Cosy domestic scenes are juxtaposed with wild, uncontrollable ones –a horse knocks over a dining table and is later hobbled by a spool of ordinary thread; a human body bursts, Alice in Wonderland-like, out of a house too small for it; wedding cakes and staircases sit incongruously in wild landscapes. Here too we find the anachronisms of the text – the very twentieth century houses and furniture – and is that a Star Trek uniform?


Look, I just really like looking at QuintoSpock, okay

Stone’s illustrations and the hand-lettered text make Antigonick a beautiful object, and it’s easy to forget that it is a play, and meant to be performed. But it’s also clear that the play is not lacking in dramatic power, with the perfect comic timing of some of the exchanges, the lyricism of the prose and the silent figure of Nick measuring in the background. Is Antigonick then the synthesis of Nick, who measures, and Antigone who is immeasurable? I’m not sure.


For a far better, deeper analysis of the play I’d suggest Pierce Penniless’ essay here.

May 3, 2012

Some fantastic voyages

Last weekend’s Mint Lounge was a travel special, and I was asked to talk about some of my favourite journeys in fantasy. Hopefully I don’t need to clarify that I wouldn’t necessarily want to be on all of these journeys; but they’re lovely, and they’ve stuck with me.

A link to the Lounge version here, or a slightly edited piece below.


It’s a cliché of the genre that most works of fantasy begin with a map; from Tolkien’s beautiful depiction of the route to the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit to the steampunk-inspired beginning of HBO’s Game of Thrones. A big part of the joy of secondary world fantasy is in exploring the worlds created; world-building may often serve as an excuse for shoddy writing, but it can also be a joyful thing in itself.

Many works of fantasy are built around a quest of some sort. The quest is one of the most basic forms of narrative there is, but it also provides an excuse to further explore these worlds. There are people who complain that, for example, the bulk of The Lord of the Rings is basically a long walk through Middle-Earth. This is absolutely true, and it’s wonderful if you like that sort of thing (most of the time, I do). But the fantasy journey can contain scenes of genuine wonder even for the unbeliever, and I think the examples below achieve just that.


Ged’s Pursuit of the Shadow:

In Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea a young wizard, unleashes a terrifying shadow that haunts him for long after. Eventually he comes to the realisation that he must face the thing that he has released into the world, and he follows it into unchartered realms of the ocean. Many fantastic journeys are made memorable by an undercurrent of fear. Characters are pursued by enemies, or face the knowledge that there is danger all around them. Ged’s pursuit of his shadow is completely different. The hunted becomes the hunter, and a sense of triumph colours the whole venture.

With hand and spell Ged turned his boat, and it leaped like a dolphin from the water, rolling, in that quick turn. Faster than before he followed, but the shadow grew ever fainter to his eyes. Rain, mixed with sleet and snow, came stinging across his back and his left cheek, and he could not see more than a hundred yards ahead. Before long, as the storm grew heavier, the shadow was lost to sight. Yet Ged was sure of its track as if he followed a beast’s track over snow, instead of a wraith fleeing over water. Though the wind blew his way now he held the singing magewind in the sail, and flake-foam shot from the boat’s blunt prow, and she slapped the water as she went.


Arthur Gordon Pym goes South:

The voyage documented in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is not one that a sensible reader would wish to be on, replete as it is with shipwrecks, cannibalism, and ghost ships. Eventually most of the ship’s crew is slaughtered by a tribe of savages.

This is all very unpleasant, but the book’s most memorable journey is the small section after this litany of horrors has come to an end. Pym, Peters, and the ‘native’ they have taken captive drift further towards the Antarctic in a canoe. As they travel South the narrative takes on a numb, detached quality. Yet “we were entering upon a region of novelty and wonder”; the water turns white and warm, and white ash occasionally rains down upon the travellers. And then, in a sudden burst of activity, the boat rushes towards a cataract, a chasm opens, and Pym sees “a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow”. And on this weird, ambiguous note, the book abruptly ends. Pym’s journey is no one’s idea of a dream vacation, but it’s impossible to forget.


…and Caspian goes East:

C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian embarks upon a quest to find the seven lords who remained faithful to his father. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is most people’s favourite Narnia book. There are echoes here of The Odyssey, with its perilous seas and series of strange and magical islands, and of Coleridge in a nightmarish episode in which an albatross figures strongly.

Yet the best part of the voyage comes after all islands have been left behind. In a way this is the reverse of Pym’s journey above. In both cases the sea becomes warmer and calmer, but where Poe’s book speaks of drowsiness, Lewis gives the impression of extreme clarity. The sun becomes bigger and brighter; where Poe’s ocean turns milky, here the water is so clear that entire civilisations of mer-people can be observed fathoms below. And when the water does turn white, it is because it is covered in flowers.

We never find out what is at the utter East; we are left with the image of Reepicheep the mouse paddling his coracle over the wave at the end of the world, “very black against the lilies”. It is enough.


Dhrun in the Forest of the Tantravalles:

About half of the plots in Jack Vance’s Lyonesse books involve people travelling on one quest or another. And yet Dhrun’s journey in the first book, Suldrun’s Garden, stands out.

The eldest child of princess Suldrun, Dhrun is fated to rule the Elder Isles. But he is kidnapped by the fairies, and a changeling left in his place. After a childhood spent among the fairies of Thripsey Shee, Dhrun is cast out to make his own way in the world. To help him he has a magic purse and a sword that comes when called. But he is also cursed to carry seven years of bad luck.

There’s something of the fairytale to Dhrun’s story (as he insouciantly defrauds trolls and defeats ogres before joining a medicine show), and Vance makes use of a droll, courtly style that is reminiscent of Perrault. But the real wonder here is in Vance’s ability to tell a genuinely dark story full of things like slavery and sexual abuse and still infuse the whole with the luminousity of something remembered from early childhood.

My God, it’s full of elephants:

An elderly hero is on his way to the city of the Gods, which he plans to blow up. What he doesn’t realise is that if he succeeds it will mean the end of the world. Someone has to stop him, but he already has a massive head start.

This is the problem that confronts the characters in Terry Pratchett and Paul Kidby’s Discworld graphic novel The Last Hero. The solution, naturally, is to build a spaceship powered by specially-fed dragons, fly off the edge of the world, and count on gravity (or whatever the equivalent of gravity is for a flat world on the back of four elephants on the back of a turtle) to make sure that ‘down’ eventually turns into ‘up’.  Needless to say, things go horribly wrong. This is expected when you have a mad genius, a cowardly wizard and a simian (“Ankh-Morpork, we have an orangutan…”) on board. There’s a moon landing, all sorts of shenanigans involving flatulent lunar dragons, and somehow it all ends happily enough.



September 19, 2011

Annie Zaidi and Smriti Ravindra, The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl


A version of this short review appeared in Mint Lounge this weekend, here.



The goodness of the good Indian girl is a badge of sorts. Or, as the cover of Annie Zaidi and Smriti Ravindra’s The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl suggests, a rather tacky sparkly medallion. As the authors emphasise in their introduction, ‘good’ here “does not mean the opposite of bad”; merely the set of behaviours considered desirable in an Indian girl.

What Zaidi and Ravindra explore in this collection of loosely connected (several characters and names appear in more than one) stories is not the oppressive nature of this set of desirable qualities, but the ways in which women can transgress them and still retain the Good Indian Girl (or GIG) tag. The result is a book of surprisingly subversive tales in which girls interact with men, climb down rope ladders(“BIG Girls”) , flirt and draw back (“Strangers”), cut themselves (“Out of Here”) are nervous and afraid around men but simultaneously willing to play along (“Finger Play”), manipulate their perceived goodness to their own ends (“Daddy’s Girls”). They are less about emphasising the restrictions placed on Indian women than they are about how women use and test them. The “GIG”s in these stories have agency, and they use it.

The stories are interspersed with short segments addressed directly to the reader. These are something of a weak point – they are rather arch in tone, and often attempt to ‘explain’ the previous story or to draw a connection with the next one. It’s unnecessary and intrusive; we don’t need to be told that Gaurangini (“Panty Lines”) suffered, but lightly, or that the next story will require us to think about what happens when we confront a girl with her own lust. Sometimes these sections are merely trying too hard: “Seems far out? Can’t believe it? Think we’re exaggerating? Trust us: it happened!” Thankfully, as the book progresses these sections become less self-conscious and more like chatty asides.

The inter-connectedness of the stories ties the book together. When done well the related chapters are delightful read against one another, with the same situation reflected in many perspectives. Occasionally it is done clumsily (as with the paired stories “Tiger Balm” and “Stop Press”). Sometimes it is brilliant, as with the lovely “Rain” and its sequel-of-sorts, “Words”. However, a consequence of these recurring characters is also to highlight the fact that these characters are a specific subset of Indian girls. It’s possible that Good Indian Girl-hood is so universal as to make no difference, but the authors themselves admit towards the end that “[g]eneration to generation, state to state, notions of GIGdom vary”. Yet besides this one acknowledgement, there’s no exploration of this idea at all.

The title of the book is a mystery– what “bad boys” have to do with anything is beyond me. But though The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl feels rather less than the sum of its parts (the excellence of some individual stories is rather let down by their sameness) it manages to be a likeable, if one-note collection. 


July 24, 2011

George R. R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons

I become a serious Song of Ice and Fire fan whenever there is a new book out (so not very often) and manage to push it to the back of my mind the rest of the time. When I do remember it, it’s with impatience; this is the only fat fantasy series I’m still reading and I would like to get it over with. Martin’s plot is convoluted enough that I’m genuinely interested in knowing how he plans to bring it all together, and as I’ve said before, at this point I will even accept a bullet-point version of what is to happen.

The latest book in the series doesn’t do much to advance the plot. But it has reminded me of the other reasons I began to read Martin in the first place. So at least there’s that?

A version of the review below was published in yesterday’s Mint Lounge. I think it’s as spoiler-free as the header claims: unless the very fact that some characters are still alive counts as a spoiler. In Martin’s world it probably does.



This is a good year to be a George R. R. Martin fan. Game of Thrones, a tv series based on the first book of his epic fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire, aired on HBO earlier this summer. This week the fifth book in the series, A Dance With Dragons, finally came out after fans had waited six years.

The history of A Dance With Dragons is a strange one. Between the third and fourth books in the series there had been another long gap. This was in part because A Feast For Crows, the fourth book, had grown so long that the publishers suggested splitting it into two books. Martin’s story is told from the perspectives of multiple characters, and rather than simply split the book in the middle, the author decided to divide it according to the many subplots the make up this sprawling epic.

This meant considerable rewriting, and several delays for both books. As a result A Dance With Dragons is oddly placed within the series timeline – while the first half overlaps the previous book chronologically, the second moves ahead, and towards the end continues subplots from A Feast For Crows.

This is sometimes disorienting, but dividing the books in this manner may have been a good artistic choice. After the cataclysmic events of the third book (A Storm of Swords), A Feast For Crows was something of a dénouement, with plot threads being wound up and rounded off. A Dance With Dragons, on the other hand, seems to be setting things up. There are a number of characters journeying toward the centre of action, and many scenes of people preparing for war. On the Wall in the North, Jon Snow is rallying forces to face the threat posed by undead creatures known only as the Others. South of the wall the great house of Winterfell has been taken over by a deranged sadist. In the East, Daenerys Targaryen struggles to keep control of a city she has conquered. Daenerys, Jon and Tyrion Lannister, Martin’s three most prominent characters (all notable exclusions from the last book) each receive a number of contemplative viewpoint chapters. And fans will be optimistic about all the setting up for future action –great events are clearly set to take place in the next book. The sense of anticipation is heightened by the author’s apparent addiction to the cliffhanger.  But none of this can change the fact that hardly anything happens in this book. At over a thousand pages it feels like the world’s longest prologue.

Yet this book also contains some of the finest writing in the series. The chapters documenting the trauma and the subsequent mental and physical collapse of one character are powerful and difficult to read. Martin’s habit of giving characters a particular phrase that is repeated throughout their chapters sometimes feels affected, but here it is startlingly effective.

Fans of the series often praise its ‘grittiness’; this is a fantasy world where characters are morally ambiguous, war is more messy than glorious, and people occasionally use the toilet. While this is true, it is not the whole truth. For a set of books so often praised for its realism, A Song of Ice and Fire deals rather well with the surreal. There is a marvellous, nightmarish sequence in this book in which a character sails down a cursed river that never seems to end, and whose dangers are physical as well as psychological.  Another subplot has a character ‘dreaming’ disconnected scenes from the distant past. And there are touches of the absurd and the gloriously over-the-top; a banker in a ridiculous purple hat occasionally shows up as a most unlikely bystander and at one point there’s a sly nod towards a Titus Andronicus-like situation. With a plot as huge as the one he has saddled himself with there was always the risk that Martin would abandon these fine aspects of his work in order to focus on the plot. If he’s strayed too far in the opposite direction (and he has), at least he has erred on the side of good writing.

Martin’s fans also frequently praise his unpredictability. I don’t know where this plot is going, and I don’t know if the planned final two books in the series will be enough to provide a resolution. Today I can declare A Dance With Dragons an enjoyable book. Faced with another six-year wait for the next; or worse, the dreaded announcement that the series is to be extended to eight books, I might still change my mind.





While on the subject of Martin’s “apparent addiction to the cliffhanger” I feel I should add that he rather cruelly chooses not to address one of the biggest cliffhangers in the series, from all the way back in A Storm of Swords (I fail at keeping track of what is in which book. Someone has just informed me that said cliffhanger is in A Feast For Crows – I bow to his superior memory!) I was not amused.
April 24, 2011

Karen Russell, Swamplandia!

My review of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! appeared in Saturday’s Mint Lounge.

There are all sorts of interesting things about Swamplandia! that couldn’t really be addressed in a review. I’m not generally that concerned about plot spoilers in a book. In this case, however, being spoiler-free was essential to my reading of the book. I think Swamplandia! allows for some very intelligent playing around with perspective and fantasy and reality – and it is very frustrating not to be able to discuss these aspects of the book when I think that (along with the fine prose) they’re some of its biggest strengths.

As ever, an edited version appears below.


Karen Russell’s 2006 collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was as notable for its odd, often fantastic take on growing up as it was for its memorable title. Last year Russell, who is now 29, appeared on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list of promising young writers who the magazine believed would be significant in the years to come. Swamplandia! is her first novel, and it recently achieved a place on this year’s Orange prize longlist.

Swamplandia! is an extension of one of the stories in St. Lucy’s Home… , “Ava Wrestles the Alligator”. As in many of her short stories Russell adopts the voice of the adolescent. The narrator of most of Swamplandia! is a teenaged girl named Ava Bigtree, daughter of Hilola Bigtree, the famous alligator wrestler. Hilola dies of cancer and Big Chief, Ava’s father, finds it difficult to keep up the family’s alligator-theme park, Swamplandia!, located in the Everglades of Florida. Matters are worsened by the advent of a big hell-themed amusement park not far away.
Ava and her sister Ossie are left alone on the resort. Ossie falls in love with a ghost and first she, then Ava, must embark upon a journey to the Underworld. Meanwhile, their brother Kiwi must deal with an underworld of his own; life on the mainland at the World of Darkness theme park. Once Kiwi has left Swamplandia! the book is divided in two – the chapters that follow Kiwi are alternated with Ava’s point of view sections. Kiwi’s journey parallels Ava’s own, yet the contrast between the two worlds is always clear. Where Ava must dive into the water with the alligators to prove herself, Kiwi must rescue a swimmer from a pool where the water is dyed red. Russell emphasises the contrast with her prose; the utilitarian language of Kiwi’s sections of the book could not be more different from the startling, lush account of Ava’s journey through the swamp.

Stands of pond-apple trees were adorned with long nets of golden moss and shadowed a kind of briary sapling I didn’t recognize. Air plants hung like hairy stars. We poled through forests. Twinkling lakes. Estuaries, where freshwater and salt water mixed and you could sometimes spot small dolphins. A rotten-egg smell rose off the pools of water that collected beneath the mangroves’ stilted roots.

The division of the book into ‘Ava’ and ‘Kiwi’ sections has its drawbacks, however. The contrast between the sterile World of Darkness and the Everglades may make sense, but compared to the over-the-top loveliness of Ava’s sections, the ones focusing on Kiwi fall rather flat. The middle child, Osceola, never gets a voice and is never a fully realised part of the story. In the central sections of the book, where Ossie’s relationship with the ghost develops, the pace slackens considerably. A long chapter giving the ghost a background story feels rather orphaned in the middle of the text, though it is a fine piece of writing in its own right.

Russell makes the question of whether this is fantasy or magical realism (or simply the characters’ own imagination) irrelevant. The writing shifts easily between the mythic and the real. Ava is in many ways still a child, and her age allows for this constant moving between registers. On at least one occasion this shift leads to a devastating revelation. The fantasy elements of the story are intangible and unsettling, but fit perfectly.

[T]hings can be over in horizontal time and just beginning in your body, I’m learning. Sometimes the memory of that summer feels like a spore in me, a seed falling through me.

I think something more mysterious might be happening, less articulable than any of the captioned and numeraled drawings in The Spiritist’s Telegraph. Mothers burning inside the risen suns of their children.

For all its strangeness, Swamplandia! is also the account of a family’s coming of age after a huge loss. As a family drama it is honest and moving and funny.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she told me that night. But until we are old ladies—a cypress age, a Sawtooth age—I will continue to link arms with her, in public, in private, in a panic of love.

Russell never quite manages to keep up the brilliance that shows for long stretches of this first novel. But these heights, when they are reached, are truly extraordinary. While Swamplandia! is very far from being a perfect book, it is the sort of book that makes you truly glad that the author is still at the beginning of her career.