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Sleeping With Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy, a collection of my reviews and nonfiction, is being published by the good people at Aqueduct Press this summer.

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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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THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS by Aliette de Bodard

THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS, US cover art.

The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard. Gollancz, 2017. (Ace/Roc, 2017.)

The House of Binding Thorns takes the gothic atmospheric politics of The House of Shattered Wings and ramps them up to a pitch of intensity that I really wasn’t expecting. The House of Shattered Wings was an intense novel, a stunning work of art set in a fin-de-siècle Paris. A Paris ruled by Houses competing for resources in the postapocalyptic decay that came in the wake of some vastly destructive war, filled with alchemists and magicians and Fallen angels, ordinary people and immigrant Immortals.

In The House of Shattered Wings, we first met Philippe, an Annamite immortal who was caught up in the affairs of House Silverspires thanks to his affection for a young Fallen called Isabelle. We also first met Madeleine, an alchemist formerly of House Hawthorne with an addiction to angel dust that was killing her, who had fled to House Silverspires after a coup that caused a change in the leadership of House Hawthorne twenty years before; and Asmodeus, the head of House Hawthorne, one of the Fallen with a twisty mind, a sadistic streak, and a firm commitment to protecting his own. We also met the dragon kingdom beneath the Seine, gradually crumbling in the tainted waters — as much of this Paris is gradually sliding into decay. In The House of Binding Thorns, we meet all three again.

Madeleine, cast out by House Silverspires, has returned to House Hawthorne and the overlordship of its terrifying master. Asmodeus has a use for her, although he will do worse than kill her if she takes any more of the drug to which she is addicted, and so she joins an embassy from House Hawthorne to the dragon kingdom beneath the Seine, an embassy that is arranging Asmodeus’s diplomatic marriage to a dragon prince. The dragon kingdom has their own difficulties, and Asmodeus intends to use them for his own ends. But the dragon kingdom is not without its own resources. One of their princes, Thuan, has infiltrated House Hawthorne as a spy. When things go awry with the marriage arrangements, he is recalled and married to Asmodeus himself — and discovers that Asmodeus means his death and the conquest of the dragon kingdom, or would if his leadership of the House were not under threat from within and without.

Meanwhile, Philippe is working as a sort-of doctor in a poor district, among the Houseless. At the end of The House of Shattered Wings, he’d vowed to find a way to restore Isabelle to life, but so far he has not been able to manage to learn how he could accomplish such a thing — although he knows it is possible to bring Fallen back from the dead. When he’s threatened by strange magic, he finds himself aided by Berith, a Houseless Fallen who is Asmodeus’s estranged Fall-sister, and her human partner Françoise, a member of the Annamite community. Berith is crippled, for a Fallen, and slowly dying: Françoise, meanwhile, is expecting their child. Berith wants Philippe to accompany Françoise to bring a message to Asmodeus and plead for a reconciliation. In return, she promises to give him his heart’s desire: the knowledge he needs to restore Isabelle to life. The plots of Hawthorne and dragon kingdom won’t leave Berith and Françoise alone, though: power is the only real currency in Paris, and Berith does not, on her own, have enough to keep her family safe.

This book. This book. If I call it utterly masterful that is still perhaps an insufficient superlative. De Bodard performs a tricky balancing act in keeping all the politics, all the plots and intrigues, aligned and moving forward, never dropping a thread, seeding early chapters with a whole lot of Chekov’s guns that go off like well-timed artillery volleys as matters draw towards a conclusion. Where The House of Shattered Wings was good, The House of Binding Thorns is even better. Wrenchingly tense, suffused with a creeping undercurrent of atmospheric horror, of decline-and-fall, and yet vividly alive.

For all that it partakes of the atmosphere of the gothic horror, thick with mildew and rot, at times deeply claustrophobic, shut-in — Paris is the world in microcosm, and House Hawthorne and the dragon kingdom are each in their own ways very much enclosed — The House of Binding Thorns is not actually horror. Horror is concerned with futility and destruction, but even Asmodeus, however horrifying one might find him as a person, is fundamentally concerned with the preservation and protection of his dependents: with building, or at least maintaining, the life of his House. De Bodard’s characters are all rich and complex, and deeply situated within a network of connections and obligations. The House of Binding Thorns is, as much as anything else, a book about family and community, the ties that bind — the ties you choose, and the ties you don’t. It’s also deeply, fundamentally, interested in the problems, and responsibilities, of power, and connected to that, the (post-colonial and) colonial relationship that this decaying Paris has to the Annamite community in its midst, and that the dragon kingdom has with itself and with Paris and its Houses.

Also, this book? This book is queer as fuck. It has more obvious queer families, and queer relationships, than heterosexual ones. And it treats its queer relationships — its queer families — as utterly normal (well, apart from the part where they involve Fallen angels and dragon princes and such matters) to a degree that’s still unusual enough to make parts of me want to cry with gratitude. It does so much so right, and so well, that I cannot help but love it wholly and entirely.

It really is an utterly magnificent achievement.

 

THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS, UK cover

 


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WELLINGTON’S ENGINEERS: MILITARY ENGINEERING IN THE PENINSULAR WAR 1808-1814 by Mark S. Thompson

WELLINGTON’S ENGINEERS book cover.

 

Mark S. Thompson, Wellington’s Engineers: Military Engineering in the Peninsular War 1808-1814. Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley Yorks., 2015.

The Peninsular War refers to the campaigns in Portugal and Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. (The most prominent generals involved in this conflict were the English general Sir Arthur Wellesley — better known by his later title as Duke of Wellington — and the French Marshal-of-the-Empire Nicolas Jean-de-Dieu Soult. The Spanish and Portuguese military personalities of this period have been less well-remembered by history.) I’ve been vaguely interested in this theatre of the Napoleonic Wars since my childhood fascination with Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, and I’m always interested in historical logistics — the difficulties of transport, the technologies of moving large numbers of people and large amounts of material in a period before the invention of the internal-combustion engine and a modern road system — so I decided to give this book a shot.

Unfortunately, contrary to the implication of its subtitle — Military Engineering in the Peninsular WarWellington’s Engineers is far more concerned with the engineers themselves, their personalities, and their political conflicts among themselves and with the military leadership, than with the logistics and details of the engineering challenges which they faced in the course of their duties. That’s not to say that Thompson doesn’t talk about engineering. He does. But he talks about engineering in terms of who went where, and when they went, and what they built there, and how many guns were employed in the course of a siege, and why the sieges were lifted, rather than talking about actual engineering details. What’s involved in digging a trench in a 19th-century siege? What sort of thing is a Napoleonic redoubt or a gun battery? How do you set a mine, or blow up a bridge, or build and maintain a pontoon bridge? These things are sadly not covered in any detail, although Thompson does offer a brief appendix on pontoon bridges, and one on the education of the Royal Engineers in the British Army of the time.

I will confess to a little disappointment.

Wellington’s Engineers: Military Engineering in the Peninsular War 1808-1814 discusses the employment of Royal Engineers during the Peninsular War chronologically. It comprises nine chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion: seven of the chapters deal with one year of the war, while one chapter (chapter three) discusses the lines of Torres Vedras and the defence of Portugal in greater detail and the final chapter (chapter nine) takes the narrative of events from 1813 to 1814, out of the Iberian Peninsula, and into France itself. Thompson does a good job in general of keeping timelines straight and bringing documentary evidence clearly into the narrative, as well as letting the letters humanise the subjects of this history.

But. (You knew there was a but coming, didn’t you?) Thompson’s really not a great writer. His sentences are at times strained, his narrative has no energy or sense of personality (well, apart from a prosingly dull one), and he has no sense of pacing or tension. At times he confuses the right word for the almost right one, and he has very little interest in discussing anything thematically — or at least, thematically in such a way that I can tell there’s a theme. And the little tables he uses to illustrate siege timelines are annoyingly confusing.

If you have a particular interest in the Royal Engineers as individuals during the Peninsular War, or a timeline and discussion of what sort of engineering works took place, this is a decent book. If you’re interested in the relationships between senior engineers and the military leadership, then it’s actually quite good. If you want something that looks in detail at the technology and techniques of military engineering in this period, though?

This is not that book.

 


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DISHONORED 2: First Mission Reactions (A Long Day in Dunwall)

  

This is not a review. Well, not exactly.

I’ve had Dishonored 2 for a couple of months — more like four, actually — but I only recently cracked the box and loaded it up. I enjoyed Dishonored‘s worldbuilding, design, and (for the most part) storyline, and I’ve had a weakness for stealth-murder (or stealth-sneaky) games for a very long time.

My main issues with Dishonored were the lack of options with regard to the protagonist’s gender, and its lack of a realistic diversity (everyone was white) given that it took place in a port city.

Dishonored 2?

So far, Dishonored 2 is everything I loved about Dishonored with so very many fewer of the issues I had with it. I am DELIGHTED that one of the protagonist options is Emily Kaldwin, Empress of Dunwall — who apparently spends her limited time away from empress-ing learning the skills of stealth assassin-ing from Corvo Attano, her father and chief bodyguard. (Everybody needs a hobby.) Emily, alas, is not a very fortunate empress: fifteen years to the day after her mother’s assassination, a coup (backed by magic) unseats her from her throne. (At this point, you can choose to play as either Corvo or Emily — Corvo is BORING. Of course I went with Emily.)

With her father transformed into a statue and her friend the guard captain cut down in front of her, you-as-Emily must escape the palace, make your way across the city, and set out on a quest to identify and bring down your enemies. First, though, you need to make your way to the harbour, where there’s a ship whose captain might prove to be an ally…

This first mission is called “A Long Day in Dunwall,” and yes. It is. Especially if you’re trying to get the complete stealth and no-killing achievements. But it’s visually stunning, and Emily comes across, in those occasional moments when she has something to say, as a much more complex and snarkier character than Corvo ever seemed in the course of Dishonored. Creeping up behind soldiers from the shadows, I felt much more intensely invested in Emily’s inner world and her (understandable) desire for revenge. Traitors! I should just stab them.

Dunwall_in_Dishonored_2

But then you reach the harbour, where the ship Dreadful Wale [sic] awaits you. Its captain is one Meagan Foster, and I was… really pretty happy to see that the first ally you encounter is a black female ship captain with one arm. She seems like a badass. 

As far as I’m concerned, Dishonored 2 is already doing better on several fronts than its predecessor. It’s prettier! Its characters are more interesting, and have more character! And it’s much better at not being all about the men.

I’m looking forward to starting mission #2…


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Sleeps With Monsters: Wonder, Incident, and Family

A new post over at Tor.com:

The Adventure of the Incognita Countess by Cynthia Ward is a brisk novella from Aqueduct Press’s “Conversation Pieces” line. It’s… I’m missing at least half of the references, because it draws deeply from the well of 19th and early 20th century speculative literature. In that much, it reminds me no small part of Penny Dreadful. It has the same gleeful delight in its own references, the same playfully gothic geekery.

Sleeps With Monsters: The Power of Community in HIDDEN FIGURES

A new post over at Tor.com:

Long after the rest of the world, I’ve finally managed to see Hidden Figures.

As a film, it deserves its accolades. Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Taraji P. Henson deliver extraordinarily powerful performances, ably framed by Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner. It follows some of the conventions of a biopic, but manages to marry biopic with the pacing of an action film for a smooth, elegant and taut narrative that combines to tell a triumphant story about science, courage, and perseverance. And it is beautifully shot.

SEVEN SURRENDERS by Ada Palmer

A new review over at Tor.com:

I called Ada Palmer’s debut Too Like The Lightning “devastatingly accomplished… an arch and playful narrative,” when I reviewed it last summer. Too Like The Lightning was one part of a whole, the first half of a narrative that I expected Seven Surrenders would complete—and back then I said I couldn’t imagine that Palmer would “fail to stick the dismount.”

Breakfast on an ill-omened morning: a text-based adventure

You discover the milk is dead only after you’ve made your porridge with it

– abandon the porridge with curdled milk

In the fridge, there is
a protein bar
cheddar cheese
apple juice.

– open the cheddar cheese

The cheddar cheese smells like feet. Two different colours of mold decorate its surface. Eat the cheddar cheese?

– no

In the fridge, there is
a protein bar
cheddar cheese
apple juice.

– open the apple juice.

The apple juice fizzes slightly as it opens. Drink the apple juice?

– yes

The apple juice is fizzy. The apple juice has become cider. The cider is tasty, but it is not a morning drink. Continue drinking the apple juice?

– no

In the fridge, there is

a protein bar
cheddar cheese
apple juice.

– open the protein bar.

It is a mint chocolate flavoured protein bar. There is nothing wrong with it, except that it is a protein bar. Eat the protein bar?

– yes

The protein bar is breakfast.

Sleeps With Monsters: Desert Planets and Biker Mercenaries

A new column over at Tor.com:

Friends, I bring you good news. Do you find your lives lacking in excitement? Does your reading lack outcast mercenary biker gangs led by one-eyed sorcerers, racing across the trackless deserts of a company-owned mining planet to stick it to The Man and make a profit? Do you feel that science fiction has an insufficiency of (a) weird planets and (b) trains and (c) witchy powers caused by exposure to weird planets? Do you think that science fiction needs more labour organising alongside its daring capers, prison/lab cell breakouts, explosions, subversive political activity, and people with strange powers?

THE DJINN FALLS IN LOVE, edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

A new review over at Tor.com:

I really enjoyed this anthology. It is—here’s that word again—gorgeous. Its individual stories are mostly really good, and it has a strong sense of itself as a whole. This thematic coherence adds an extra element to the anthology as a whole: not just the individual stories, but their arrangement and relation to each other, have something to say.