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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.

If you’re looking for my columns for Tor.com, you’ll find them here. If you like my work, you can support me on Patreon here.

I now offer editorial services: you can find them here, or by clicking on the link in the header that says “Editing Services.”

SHATTERED MINDS by Laura Lam

Reviewed over at Tor.com:

Shattered Minds is Laura Lam’s second science fiction novel. It’s not a direct sequel to last year’s excellent False Hearts, although it’s set in the same continuity, and in the same region—and I think in many ways, it is a stronger, tighter book than False Hearts anyway.

Or maybe I just liked Shattered Minds protagonists better.

Linda M. Heywood, NJINGA OF ANGOLA: AFRICA’S WARRIOR QUEEN. A Patreon review.

 

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

Linda M. Heywood is a historian at Boston University. (I believe her research focus is on south-central Africa and its relationship with the transAtlantic slave trade, and the cultural transformations that took place as a result of the interactions between the colonisers and indigenous peoples.) In Njinga of Angola, she’s written the biography of a 17th century African queen who came to prominence in the kingdom  of Ndongo (now within modern-day Angola) just as the Portuguese were attempting to establish dominion over the region.

Njinga lived a long and interesting life. She inherited her royal position in her forties, although she had previously been active within the court of her brother, and participated in his diplomatic efforts with the Portuguese. (As an ambassador to the Portuguese authorities in Luanda, she accepted baptism, although during the course of her life she adapted her religious practices to suit her political needs — including a period where she rose to be a war-leader among a cultural/political group whose practices included cannibalism as well as human sacrifice.) She would go on to remain a powerful force in the region until her late seventies, before dying in her — as far as I can tell — early eighties. She was basically a woman who did not quit and appears to have been immensely astute as a war-leader, and very canny as a diplomat and a politician. Well, except perhaps for the matter of arranging the inheritance of her kingdom, but you can’t blame someone for not keeping things in order after they’re dead.

Njinga of Angola divides itself into seven chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue. The introduction, naturally enough, introduces the book, the evidence, and its limitations. The first chapter, “The Ndongo Kingdom and the Portuguese Invasion,” provides context and background for the Ndongo kingdom, its society and culture, and the changes it experienced for approximately a century prior to Njinga’s rise to prominence. The second chapter, “Crisis and the Rise of Njinga,” discusses the political and military crisis of the Ndongo realm, and how Njinga managed to succeed to royal power after her brother’s death.

Subsequent chapters — “A Defiant Queen,” “Treacherous Politics,” “Warfare and Diplomacy,” and “A Balancing Act” — detail the next four decades of Njinga’s life. While the Portuguese succeed in dominating much of the territory  of Ndongo, despite Njinga’s resistance, she never stops fighting to a) hold on to and/or reclaim her royal power and b) retrieve her sisters from the Portuguese, after they are captured. Heywood details Njinga’s political manoeuvres and alliances, including the period of her life when she becomes an Imbangala war-leader, participating in their rites and rituals. She uses the forces, and the reputation, which she develops, in order to take over the region of Matamba and prosecute her war to reclaim her Ndongan royal authority. Heywood details how, at the close of Njinga’s life, she moves towards a more diplomatic and accommodating praxis, using religious diplomacy, utilising certain missionaries to help reframe her relationship with the Portuguese, and making overtures to the Pope in order to have her authority recognised.

This biography of Njinga is a fascinating examination of a woman who the Portuguese colonisers saw as a “devil queen,” and of her context. It brought home to me just how much I don’t know how the history of Atlantic Africa. While the writing is at times a little dry, the contents are anything but: and on the whole, the book is worth the effort involved in reading it.

I want to learn more now.

 


This review is brought to you courtesy of my amazing Patreon backers. Onward to the next milestone, guys!

INTO THE BADLANDS: a weird wire-fu Western. A Patreon review

 The first three episodes of Into the Badlands were requested for review by Fade Manley.

Season 1 Episode 01: “The Fort.”

Season 1 Episode 02: “Fist Like a Bullet.”

Season 1 Episode 03: “White Stork Spreads Wings.”

I’m not sure this is a review, exactly: I’m not recapping any of the events, that’s for sure.

Before we begin, I’d like to note that Into the Badlands has an extremely striking main cast, and the first season counts five female characters in the main credits to four male ones. That, all by itself, was a positive sign.

I’d never heard of it before, but Into the Badlands began airing with a six-episode first season in 2015, and its second season is presently ongoing (and has been renewed, it seems, for a third season).

This show grabbed me a lot faster and harder than I expected. Into the Badlands feels very influenced by Hong King cinema, or by anime, or perhaps some combination of the two. It feels a little as though someone crossed a wire-fu epic with a teenage-focused anime and married the results to a Western.

This makes the experience of watching it both fascinating and weird as fuck. I don’t know which generic conventions it will use from moment to moment, much less which ones it will use for the narrative’s pivotal points. It is nonetheless immensely compelling.

What makes it compelling? Let’s start with how visually stunning it is. It’s saturated in colour (in a way that reminds me of this year’s The Great Wall) and its martial arts are clearly choreographed by people who take superhuman feats of martial arts skill seriously. (It uses wire-fu, but it doesn’t go too far overboard.) The fight sequences express character. Daniel Wu’s character Sunny and Emily Beecham’s character of The Widow (who are the two characters that, so far, I’ve seen fight the most) have different styles and approaches, but not so different as to appear to come from wholly distinct fighting traditions.

Daniel Wu (who is extraordinarily striking, I just want to point that out) plays a role more familiar in Japanese film than in American, that of a loyal and honourable retainer (Sunny by name) who serves a man not really worthy of his loyalty. In this paradox of honour, he’s torn between his loyalties to his Baron, and his loyalty to the woman he loves, who is carrying his child. Veil is a doctor and a maker of replacement limbs for the maimed. Madeleine Mantock, who plays her, has immense presence: she commands every scene she’s in.

Sunny’s Baron, Quinn, is caught up in a rivalry with a neighbouring Baron, the Widow. Quinn controls the production of opium poppy, but the Widow controls the oil which is needed to refine the poppy. Into this picture comes M.K., a boy with strange powers, whom the Widow wants to control and Sunny — sort of — tries to protect. With a cast of characters also including the Widow’s teenage daughter Tilda, the Baron’s wives Lydia and Jade, and the Baron’s ineffective son Ryder, this is very much an ensemble show — an ensemble show about power, loyalty, politics, and family.

The world of Into the Badlands bears mention. We are told at the outset that the Barons brought peace, long ago, and banished weapons like guns. In the narrow confines of the Barons’ holdings, the most common method of transport is by horse or afoot, but the privileged control some motor vehicles, like Sunny’s motorbike, or the car in which we first see the Widow. The houses of the wealthy have electricity, gramophones, other luxury conveniences — a doctor shows a Baron an x-ray image — but the rest of the world gets by with torchlight, candles, gaslamps. M.K. says that he originally comes from outside the world controlled by the Barons, which tells us that this world is bounded, and not by the nothing which various other characters claim. (One has the vague suspicion that the Barons’ lands are some kind of vast social experiment. But that might be a different genre altogether.)

Taken all together, this is a fascinatingly fun show, one that constantly surprises me. I want to see the rest.

 


This review is brought to you courtesy of my amazing Patreon backers. Onward to the next milestone, guys!

LOTUS BLUE by Cat Sparks: a Patreon review

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Lotus Blue by Cat Sparks. Talos Press. March 2017. TPB, 388 pp. ISBN-13: 978-1940456706

Cat Sparks is an award-winning Australian author. With Lotus Blue, her debut novel published by American imprint Talos Press (and with a gorgeous cover by Lauren Saint-Onge), she’s making the leap to international exposure.

Lotus Blue is post-apocalyptic science fiction with a very Australian feel. Seventeen-year-old Star and her ten-years-older sister Nene are part of a caravan of nomadic traders who travel the Sand   Road, a route that cuts through a ravaged landscape, on the edge of a desert where semi-sentient war machines roam. These, half-human soldiers called Templars, and sealed fortress cities, are among the leftovers from a time before the present age.

Deep in the desert, an ancient and mostly mad AI is stirring, one of the generals that prosecuted the war that ruined the world. When a relic satellite falls to Earth, events are set in motion that lead Star very far from her sister and the life she knew, on a journey across a desert sea. Her journey, and her discovery of secrets about herself that she never knew, intersects with the journey of a Templar called Quarrel — half-broken, his memories confused, his people skills non-existent — who is determined to stop the mad AI general before it can destroy the world even further.

In this world, we see through Star’s eyes, through Quarrel’s and through the eyes of a young thief called Grieve. As well, we have the viewpoints of an old Templar called Marianthe, who controls a small community of outcasts on the edge of habitable land; two young men from a fortress city, one of whom really wants to make their mark and doesn’t give a shit about anyone else; and a handful of other people, including the AI general himself. This diffusion of viewpoints at times gives the novel a rather scattered feel, with some initial plot threads that appear important — such as Star’s relationship with her sister, who kept secrets regarding Star’s origin from her; or such as the role of the fortress cities within the landscape and social ecosystem of this particular post-apocalyptic world — not taken up or developed in any significant way. Sparks creates a vivid world with an interesting post-apocalyptic ecology and some very entertaining Cool Shit, but, while Lotus Blue offers a broad canvas and some really striking potential, it ends up sprawling out on its way to its conclusion, and not quite successfully drawing back in to form a unified whole. It finds its thematic arguments late, and does not press them in a way that brings together all the novel’s threads. There is adventure here, and incident; high stakes and intense emotion. But it feels as though Sparks is setting out the opening volume of a longer work — although nowhere on Lotus Blue‘s cover copy is this suggested — in which the threads of this novel might be taken up and developed further.

Lest I mislead you on this point: there is a conclusion, and an explosive one at that. But it leaves several questions still open and unresolved.

Lotus Blue‘s concern with ecological apocalypse and desert wasteland recalls the Mad Max movies. Its oddball concern with hunting strange things — semi-sentient war machines, in this case — from strange vehicles — ships that sail on sand — brings China Miéville’s Railsea a little to mind. And its concern with technology and a civilisation degraded from a former age recalls any number of science fictional post-apocalypses, but for me reminds me rather strikingly of Ankaret Wells’ self-published duology Maker’s Mask and The Hawkwood War. But Lotus Blue is very much its own thing, and working very much to Australian paradigms, I think — structurally, it reminds me of Australian epic fantasy along the lines of Karen Miller and Jennifer Fallon.

It’s engaging and readable. I found it fun, but I don’t feel as though it really did enough right by me to have me find it compelling — or to encourage me to pick up a sequel, if one should emerge.

(I might have felt differently if it had been a bit queerer. I make a lot of exceptions for work that sets out a better welcoming mat in terms of inclusion.)


This review is brought to you courtesy of my amazing Patreon backers. $3 to the next milestone, guys!

Sleeps With Monsters: Science Fictional Democracy in Malka Older’s Infomocracy

A new column over at Tor.com:

I’m really late to the party when it comes to Malka Older’s astonishing debut Infomocracy. It came out last year to no small degree of fanfare and acclaim. It was a finalist on the Locus Best First Novel list as well as featuring in several “Best of 2016” lists.

I can’t believe I missed it. On the other hand, this does mean I don’t have nearly as long to wait for the sequel. (Null States, forthcoming in September.)

Sleeps With Monsters: Teeth and Gods and Hearts

A new column over at Tor.com:

Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods is an interesting debut. Part science fiction, part fantasy, it situates itself in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Its cast involves one teenage boy in love with his best (male) friend, one sort-of demigoddess who wants to rule the world and who feeds on pain and suffering, one child demigoddess whose township tries to lynch her and who (mostly not on purpose) kills them all trying to protect herself, one pop diva with serious issues, one pretty effective mayor who wants to be a performer and whose mother is a bit on the smothering-controlling side of things (but with a magical twist to the controlling element), and one robot/robot collective that’s gained sentience and has a split of opinion on whether or not humans should be preserved or exterminated. Its climax includes giant robots fighting giant genetically-modified animals as part of a battle in which godly powers are involved.

 

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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