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Sleeping With Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy, a collection of my reviews and nonfiction, is published by the good people at Aqueduct Press in July. It is currently available to order in paperback from Amazon.com, although electronic versions will be forthcoming. I’ll update with other vendors as I have them.

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Much Ado

Last night I went to a play.

It is the second play I have been to lately. The first, The Elephant Girls, I saw on the recommendation of Amal El-Mohtar while it was showing in Dublin, and that was excellent. This was a showing of Much Ado About Nothing at the Lir Theatre: a friend had got tickets through work and couldn’t go, so she passed the tickets along. So my girlfriend and I stroll along last night up by Grand Canal Dock at the hottest day (so far) of the year, to see the young people of the Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art DO SHAKESPEARE.

Wow. What a show.

It was a modern staging and a very high-energy one, at that: Much Ado About Nothing reimagined as the eighties/disco house party from hell, complete with high heels, shirtless men in hot print shorts and fur coats, Claudio lathering Don Pedro in sunscreen, and Beatrice reading Caitlin Moran. It was a small cast: Beatrice, Hero, Leonato (cross-cast as Leonata), Don Pedro, Claudio, Don John, Margaret, and Barachio, whose actor also played the Friar. There was some compression of characters and scenes but it did not detract from the play.

There were musical numbers. Scene changes were signalled by the lights going down and a couple of bars of thematically-appropriate pop music. Leonato cross-cast as Leonata is a change that works really well, and allowed the play to play with the idea of Leonata and Don Pedro having an understanding.

Beatrice delivered her lines amazingly well. She and Margaret, I think, were the best performers in the cast, though I suspect when they have a little more age and experience, the actors who were playing Leonata and Benedick and Don Pedro will be able to bring more presence to their performances. (Leonata leapt in presence once she had some pathos, rather than comedy, to play with.) Don John had little enough to do, but did it really well. And the stage business, the physical comedy, was exceptionally well done.

This staging of the play understood the misogyny that is at the heart of Much Ado About Nothing, and did not seek to minimise it: there is drinking and drug-use shown during the play, and this, juxtaposed against Claudio and Don Pedro’s vile over-reaction to aspersions cast on Hero’s sexual virtue, plays with the hypocrisy that is at the heart of the play. And at the scene break immediately after Claudio and Hero are agreed to be married the first time, members of the cast handed out invitations to the wedding.

Wedding invitation of Hero and Claudio

The text inside the cover?

“Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”

Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them

There is also a particularly telling bit of business at the very end of the play. All the cast are celebrating – with the exception of a hooded and bound Margaret. The cast exits, all bar Margaret, who is left in the middle of the stage, saying plaintively into the silence, “Hello?”

And then the lights go down.

They understood their Shakespeare enough to stage it well and faithfully and hilariously — and also critique its attitudes at the same time. An excellent play.

Space Opera and the Question of Empire: From David Weber to Yoon Ha Lee

A new post over at Tor.com!

When I set out to write this piece, I had a grand vision for what I was going to say. Then I realised that in order to achieve that vision, I’d need to write myself a book’s worth of words. So instead of having an incisive and cutting post looking at approaches to imperialism and gender in space opera, you’re getting the shorter version: a sketch towards an argument comparing the space opera novels of Ann Leckie, Yoon Ha Lee, David Drake, and David Weber, and how they treat empire.

PAWN by Timothy Zahn

Reviewed over at Tor.com:

I’ve read quite a lot of Zahn’s work, and I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s at his best when he can play in other people’s sandboxes. His original work often feels shallow by comparison, the details of the worldbuilding barely sketched, and the characters not so much shaped by their environments as floating through them.

This is unfortunately true of Pawn, too

Nonfiction Reviews In Brief: bell hooks, African queens, and ivory Vikings

bell hooks, Outlaw Culture. Routledge Classics, 2006. (Originally published 1994.)

I’d never really grasped the ways in which bell hooks is a foundational thinker for intersectional feminism before picking up this collection of essays. It is an uneven essay collection, and its referents are now nearly a quarter-century out of date, but much of what she has to say doesn’t seem radical to me – in part because over those two and a half decades, they became part of the approaches to feminism that predominate among the people from whom I learned about feminist theory and praxis. (They are still radical, mind you.)

Reading this collection has made me want to read more of bell hooks’ work, which is an excellent thing for any collection.

 

 Linda M. Heywood, Njinga of Angola: Africa’s Warrior Queen. Harvard University Press, 2017.

I want to write more about this biography of a 17th-century African queen who just did not quit and seems to have been immensely astute as a war-leader, as a diplomat, and as a politician overall (except possibly in arranging the inheritance of her kingdom, but one cannot blame someone for not keeping things in order after they’re dead). But in brief, it is a fascinating examination of a woman who the Portuguese colonisers saw as a “devil queen,” and of her context.

 

Nancy Marie Brown, Ivory Vikings. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016. (Originally published 2015.)

Brown uses the Lewis chessmen, famous pieces found on the island of Lewis in Scotland in the early 19th century, as a lens through which to examine the late medieval Scandinavian world, its trade connections, and its culture. Brown is interested in the origins of the Lewis chessmen, and sets forth the arguments for where they might have been made, although it is clear her sympathies lie with the theory which ascribes them to Iceland in the late 12th or very early 13th century. (Brown makes a persuasive stab at ascribing them to the hand of an individual ivory-carver, a women named as Margaret the Adroit in the Saga of Bishop Pall – not a saga that has been translated into English.)

Brown is a careful historian, nuanced in her treatment of the evidence, and cautiously qualifying any sweeping claims. But she is also an imaginative historian, and an evocative one. Her knowledge of the Scandinavian world and the Icelandic sagas shines through, and her ability to write both clearly and entertainingly about matters of which yr. humble correspondent knows very little is a rare gift among historians. This is fun history. I approve of it.

Sleeps With Monsters: Tanya Huff’s A PEACE DIVIDED

A new column over at Tor.com:

Tanya Huff’s A Peace Divided is the second novel in her new space opera series, set in the same universe as her Valor novels, and starring former Marine Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr. The war is over, but that’s just released a lot of well-trained, battle-scarred survivors back into the general population. Someone with the appropriate training and mindset to deal with violence needs to be part of civilian law enforcement, and as it turns out, Torin Kerr and her crew of (mostly) former Marine misfits are reasonably well-suited to the demands of the job.

Alison Glazebrook and Madeleine M. Henry, eds., GREEK PROSTITUTES IN THE ANCIENT MEDITERRANEAN 800BCE – 200CE

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GREEK PROSTITUTES IN THE ANCIENT MEDITERRANEAN

Alison Glazebrook and Madeleine M. Henry, eds., Greek Prostitutes in the Ancient Mediterranean 800BCE – 200CE. University  of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI, 2011.

This is a really, really interesting book. It’s a collection of papers, all discussing in some fashion ideas around prostitution in the ancient world, the evidence for it, and the history of how scholarship has treated the topic of prostitution in antiquity. Scholarship, the editors argue (as do many but not all of the contributors), has long fallaciously considered that the ancient Greeks believed the hetaira (literally, “female companion”) and the porne (best translation probably “whore”) to be distinct classes where it comes to selling one’s sexual labour. Greek Prostitutes in the Ancient Mediterranean contains several papers which engage critically with this view, as well as several which engage with the evidence for prostitution in the archaeological record, and with the image of women and of prostitutes.

The papers in this volume provide, in fact, a fascinating range of opinions on, and approaches to, (Greek) prostitution in the ancient world: the volume is engaged in an ongoing argument — a fruitful and productive one, and a lively one too — about the study of prostitution in the ancient Mediterranean. Not including the introduction and conclusion, the volume is composed of ten papers.

It opens with Madeleine M. Henry’s “The Traffic in Women: From Homer to Hipponax, from War to Commerce,” a paper which feels a little old-fashioned to me in its use of feminist theory (“the first contract is the sexual-social contract of male sex right,” after Catherine MacKinnon) to analyse the depictions of women in early epic and early lyric poetry. Prostitution, Henry appears to argue, is a logical development with the rise of the polis and the city-state economy from a world which sees women as the property of men, as gifts or valuable objects rather than people in their own right. (I take issue with Henry’s theoretical underpinnings, but her discussion of this worldview is illuminating.)

Alison Glazebrook’s “Porneion: Prostitution in Athenian Civic Space” is the second paper in this volume and attempts from archaeological (less from literary) evidence to locate places of prostitution within the city of Athens. Glazebrook concludes that places of prostitution may not be purpose-built buildings, and that the sale of sex may be carried out alongside other forms of market-oriented labour.

I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by Sean Corner in “Bringing the Outside In: the Andrōn as Brothel and the Symposium’s Civic Sexuality,” wherein the role of the andrōn as an outward-facing part of the oikos is discussed, and where Corner concludes that the andrōn functioned as part of egalitarian civic life, by bringing symposiatic homosociality within the home, and the symposium “integrated a man into the reciprocity of an egalitarian non-kin community of liberal pleasures” (79), but it is an interesting read.

Clare Kelly Blazeby discusses the portrayal of drinking women in on vases in “Woman + Wine = Prostitute in Classical Athens?” This paper examines the evidence in detail, although I think more analysis of the curse tablet evidence would have been great, and discusses the class-related aspects of women and alcohol in ancient Athens. (Is the portrayal of a woman drinking a portrayal of a woman who’s, to use an old-fashioned phrase, no better than she should be? Opinions divide.)

Helene A. Coccagna in “Embodying Sympotic Pleasure: A Visual Pun on the Body of an Aulētris” discusses a vase in which a female flautist is shown being vaginally penetrated by the mouth of an amphora. It’s a fascinating examination of the idea of mouths and wombs in ancient Greece, and how this comes to play into sex, wine, appetite, and penetration.

Nancy S. Rabinowitz’s “Sex for Sale? Interpreting Erotica in the Havana Collection” doesn’t really stand out in my memory, apart from her discussion of the value of painted vases (many found not in Greece, but in Etruria) for direct evidence of the society in which they were made. But T. Davina McClain and Nicholas K. Rauh’s paper, “The Brothels at Delos: The Evidence for Prostitution in the Maritime World,” is a fascinating example of looking at the archaeological evidence and carefully using it to suggest the presence of brothels (or places where sexual labour was sold in an organised way) in an area near the port at Delos. It is also an interesting example looking at space as it might have been lived in.

Judith P. Hallett in “Ballio’s Brothel, Phoenicium’s Letter, and the Literary Education of Greco- Roman Prostitutes: The Evidence of Plautus’s Pseudolus,” discusses the evidence for, and the portrayal of, the education of prostitutes as provided by a Plautus play. I think one cannot necessarily draw wider conclusions from Hallett’s discussion here, but the questions she raises are interesting in and of themselves.

Nicholas K. Rauh’s solo contribution, “Prostitutes, Pimps, and Political Conspiracies during the Late Roman Republic,” discusses conspiracy theory as it applies to the portrayal of higher-class prostitutes and their involvement in Roman Republican politics. It is an interesting paper, but a little slight, I think.

Konstantinos K. Kapparis’s “The Terminology of Prostitution in the Ancient Greek World,” the final paper in this volume, is not slight in the least. It’s a fascinating examination of the words and terminology used to talk about prostitution from the early periods up to the Byzantine lexicographers. It’s very revealing of attitudes towards male and female prostitution.

As a whole, this is a fascinating collection. It may not be entirely welcoming to the lay reader, but the interested amateur will find a great deal here to chew on.

 


 

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Sleeps With Monsters: Roses and Portals

A new column over at Tor.com:

One of the delightful things about Kingfisher’s protagonists is just how practical they are. Bryony and Roses is the story of a very practical gardener, the titular Bryony, who stumbles into a magical manor house in the middle of an unexpected snowstorm. This brings her face to face with its Beast, labouring—though Bryony doesn’t yet know it—under a curse. Matters proceed in fairytale fashion from there, albeit with Kingfisher’s own unique twists on fairytale matters.

 

THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER by Theodora Goss

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

 

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss.

June 2017, Saga Press, HC, 416pp. ISBN 978-1-4814-6650-9. $24.99 US/$33.99 CAN. Cover illustration by Kate Forrester. Art direction by Krista Vossen.

Theodora Goss is an award-winning writer of short stories. It should not be surprising, then, that her debut novel, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, is an enormously accomplished delight of a book. Playful, serious, possessed of great affection for the works with which it is in dialogue even as it critiques them, its deft prose and amused self-awareness of itself as a narrative — its meta-narrative properties — create an extraordinary reading experience.

(I suppose this is as good a place as any to admit I was pretty much blown away.)

The novel opens with Mary Jekyll, daughter of the (supposed) late Dr. Jekyll, at the funeral of her recently-deceased mother, her last surviving parent. With Mary’s mother’s death, Mary is left without income, and must not only let her servants go, but try to figure out how to earn some money. When an item among her mother’s papers leads her to believe she might be able to find the location of Hyde — wanted as a murderer, for whom a significant reward was once offered — she sets out to discover him, and instead finds herself in the middle of a set of interlocking mysteries, and in the orbit of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. Who is murdering prostitutes in London and taking their bodyparts? What is the mysterious SA? What did become of Hyde, and did Jekyll really die?

In the course of her quest, she discovers a younger half-sister, the unself-conscious, rude, and strangely endearing Diana Hyde. She also finds more women, all of whose “fathers” were involved in experimenting upon them: Beatrice Rappaccini, a young woman whose very breath is poison; Catherine Moreau, a young woman who is part cat, created by Dr. Moreau’s experiments; and Justine Frankenstein, a woman who looks young but who, reanimated after her first death by Dr. Frankenstein, has lived for nearly a century without ageing. Together, they learn that their putative fathers all belonged to an organisation calling itself the Société des Alchimistes, an organisation devoted to the transmutation of human life into more “advanced” forms. Members of the Société des Alchimistes are involved in the London murders. And their investigations bring danger to their doorstep…

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter really loves its inspirations. It is delightedly invested in playing with, reworking and re-interpreting, the fantastic literature of the 19th century, and interested in 19th-century London and rookeries. Its murders echo the most infamous unsolved murders of history, and it’s easy to see that Goss is playing with ideas of memory and narrative, myth and monstrousness. This concern with memory and narrative is brought to the fore in the device that makes the novel an innovative delight: the novel is being written by one of the characters as a novelisation of “true events,” while every so often others interject to correct her. Thus the narrative’s reliability (or lack of it) and objectivity (or lack of it) is constantly before the reader’s attention. Goss is playing with constructed nature of narrative, with the idea of narrator as agent. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is directly in dialogue with its inspirations in both structural terms as well as in terms of the characters that Goss is reworking here.

And what characters they are! Goss gives each a vivid life and personality, vivid histories: they are all complete individuals, distinct in themselves, from devoutly religious Justine to relatively amoral Diana, and from practical Mary to Catherine, who has a flair for the dramatic. (I think my favourite may be the very pragmatic housekeeper Mrs Poole, whose concern for the proprieties stops short entirely when the proprieties get in the way of something important, like a rescue.)

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is an energetic book, elegantly written, with a twisty structure that is nonetheless easy to follow. It’s also a novel that makes me want to chew on its themes, and to read the works by which it has been directly influenced — I feel as though I missed at least half the references. But despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed myself: it’s a brilliant novel. You should definitely read it.

 


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Sleeps With Monsters: Thorns and Wings and Dragons

A new column over at Tor.com:

Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Binding Thorns and Michelle Sagara’s Cast in Flight don’t, on the surface, have much in common. One is a gothic, atmospheric novel of treachery and politics set in a decaying Paris, deeply interested in the politics of family and community and colonialism; while the other is a second-world urban fantasy novel starring a beat cop whose fun, light voice conceals some deeper thematic concerns with class and privilege, growing up and belonging.

WITHIN THE SANCTUARY OF WINGS by Marie Brennan

A new review over at Tor.com:

Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the fifth and final novel in Marie Brennan’s acclaimed Memoirs of Lady Trent series, following last year’s Labyrinth of Drakes. And if you thought Labyrinth of Drakes was good, Within the Sanctuary of Wings is a pure treat: I think I can say that at least as far as I’m concerned, Brennan definitely saved the best till last.

Testimonial

 

My first research client seems to have been satisfied!

Sleeps With Monsters: Katabasis and Anabasis

A new column over at Tor.com:

Katabasis and anabasis are the words that come to mind when it comes to Zoraida Cordova’s Labyrinth Lost and Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules, books which I read back-to-back. They share some similarities—they are both about young bisexual women discovering the truth of their worlds and learning to claim and use their power, political or otherwise, and they’re both marketed as YA—but they are very different books.

Sleeps With Monsters: Thoughts on the 2017 Hugo Awards Ballot

A new column over at Tor.com:

This year is a historic one for the Hugo Awards in more ways than one. In addition to the changes to the awards process, this is the first year in which the Best Novel nominees have been so completely devoid in white men. It may also be the first year in which more than one out trans author received a Best Novel nomination for their work.

Matthew Wright, THE LOST PLAYS OF GREEK TRAGEDY: VOLUME 1: NEGLECTED AUTHORS

THE LOST PLAYS OF GREEK TRAGEDY VOLUME 1

The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy: Volume 1: Neglected Authors, by Matthew Wright. Bloomsbury Academic. London 2016.

I came across Matthew Wright’s The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy as a result of an article in The Guardian back in November of last year. It sounded both accessible and really interesting as a treatment of tragedy that spent a lot more time on the context of the texts and fragments we have left than is usual for treatments of Greek literature — especially treatments that might appeal to a non-specialist. In consequence, I treated myself to a copy in the gift-giving season of the year. Fortunately, it turns out that it really is both accessible and interesting.

There are thirty-two surviving complete plays of Greek tragedy, written by the three “classic” tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. This classic trio also comprise the majority of the extant fragments. These playwrights were active in Athens in the 5th century BCE, but they were far from the only tragedians to be at work in this period. There were dozens active from the late sixth down into the fourth centuries, who wrote hundreds of plays — perhaps more than a thousand — and saw them performed in front of Athenian audiences. But of these hundreds, only a handful of fragments survives.

This is in part because the canonisation of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides began in the fourth century BCE, when it is recorded that an Athenian politician, Lycurgus son of Lycophron, basically arranged that this trio should be commemorated as the Athenian state tragedians, with bronze statues, official texts preserved in the state archives, and a ban on deviating from the standard texts in any performance of an Aeschylian, Sophoclean, or Euripidean tragedy. It might be in part for other reasons, too.

Wright is interested in the process by which texts become lost, and by which some texts become more lost than others. He’s interested in what kinds of evidence exist for the lost tragedies, and how that evidence can be used to illuminate ancient Greek tragedy as a genre that extended beyond the canonical trio of authors. He’s also interested in examining the evidence for the development of tragedy as a genre over the course of roughly two centuries, from its inception down to the start of the Hellenistic period.

The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy: Volume 1 is divided into six chapters, plus a prologue and an epilogue. In the prologue, Wright sets out his methodological approach very clearly, outlining the caution with which he’s approaching the gaps between the evidence, and describes what he’s setting out to do in very accessible language. (This striking readability is a continuing feature of this volume, and an extremely welcome one.)

The first chapter is devoted to the earliest tragedians, playwrights whose work, in some cases, was lost almost as soon as it was performed. Wright is careful with his arguments, and clear in discussing the evidence and the flaws with the evidence.

The sixth chapter, which I will take here out of order, discusses the “very lost” — tragedians and works of whom nothing is known but their names, and sometimes not even that; names that might be the names of tragedians, fragmentary inscriptions, and so on.

The other chapters discuss playwrights of whom, at worst, something can be said. The second chapter deals with fifth-century tragedians; the fifth chapter, with fourth-century ones (including Dionysus, the ruler of fourth-century Syracuse). The third chapter discusses Agathon, who shows up as a character in Plato’s Symposium, and who might be the best-known non-canonical tragedian, while the fourth chapter is concerned with tragedians who are related to other tragedians, since there seems to have been something of a tradition of theatre as a family business.

Wright concludes with a brief epilogue in which he discusses the apparent continuities in tragedy as a genre on down into the late fourth century, followed by an appendix which collects all the fragments of the non-canonical tragedians in English translation.

This is a really solid and engaging piece of work on ancient Greek tragedy. I found it fascinating, and I think it might have wide appeal.


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