So I wrote an email chasing some of these (because I am supposed to review some of them for deadlines) only to find them arriving the next day. EMBARRASS ME POST WHY DON’T YOU.
That’s Cassandra Rose Clarke’s OUR LADY OF THE ICE (Saga Press), Laura Anne Gilman’s SILVER ON THE ROAD (Saga Press), Kai Ashante Wilson’s SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS (Tor.com Publishing), and Carrie Vaughn’s KITTY SAVES THE WORLD (Tor Books).
And this is Stephanie Saulter’s REGENERATION (Jo Fletcher Books) and Jay Posey’s DAWNBREAKER (Angry Robot). Although I don’t know why anyone would send me the third book in a trilogy where I haven’t ever seen the first two… still, it has a pretty cover?
Robert Brockway, The Unnoticeables. Tor US/Titan UK, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publishers.
I’m surprised, now I come to read the publicity material, to find The Unnoticeables described in part as horror. Perhaps I shouldn’t be. It does remind me, in its split-timeline narrative and engagement with a particular vein of literary Americana, in its tone and in the intrusion of the inexplicable into the relentless quotidian, of Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls. And that, too, found itself described as horror.
Neither are particularly to my taste, although I find myself with rather more affection towards The Unnoticeables: it has two main viewpoint characters, a bloke called Carey in the 1970s and a stuntwoman in her early twenties in the modern day, Kaitlyn. In their various times, they encounter things that turn people into hollow shells of themselves, or consume them.
I enjoyed Kaitlyn’s point of view chapters. Carey’s… not so much. Carey is a sexist asshole surrounded by other assholes, none of whom appear to do anything with their lives besides drink, fight, fuck, and make fart jokes: I found myself really rather rooting for the angels who wanted to “solve” the problem, or the monsters who wanted to eat them. I’m not entirely sure that’s what the author was going for.
On the other hand, it has good voice, distinctive characterisation, rapid-fire pacing and an interesting conceit. Even if I’m not convinced, in the end, that it made any sense at all.
Erika Johansen, The Invasion of the Tearling. Bantam Press, 2015.
Right. So I found Johansen’s first book, The Queen of the Tearling overhyped but generally enjoyable. Its characterisation was engaging, even where its worldbuilding failed to be anything but confusing (and seriously lacking in representation: hi, fantasy, stop writing as though white people are the only people).
The Invasion of the Tearling? Lacks that element of engaging characterisation, save in brief snatches. This makes it far more tedious. It also has no clear narrative through-line. The main character is having visions of a near-future Handmaid’s Tale-esque America from her Fantasylandia, and while this vision strand is the most compelling thing about the book, it is inescapably rapey, America-is-the-whole-world, and fairly ridiculously nonsensical, and it fits poorly into the rest of the narrative, which as a whole lacks thematic coherence as well as coherence of plot.
Also, the “invasion” narrative would have made me hurt myself laughing if it weren’t so tedious, because it’s painfully obvious the author has absolutely no idea how combat, warfare, or logistics actually works. (Why are you resettling refugees around a city you expect to be under siege shortly? How the fuck are you going to feed them? For that matter, why is the enemy standing around staring at you when they could roll right over you?)
Anyway. It’s disjointed, and bad, and even less coherent on a thematic level that Queen of the Tearling, which at least had a nice little coming-of-age story to recommend it. (It’s hard to fuck up a traditional coming-of-age story, and there’s a reason they’re popular.)
Abbie Bernstein, The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road. Titan Books, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher.
I’ve read two art-of-the-film books in my life, and this is only the second. The first was The Art of Pacific Rim, and I confess The Art of Mad Max: Fury Road is less impressive, both visually and in terms of discussing the processes and worldbuilding behind putting the worldbuilding together.
I wanted more feminism and more details about filming in a desert, more discussion of stunts and the interrelationship of VFX and SFX. The majority of The Art of Fury Road is character design and cars. It is very pretty, although the layout is kind of crowded, but since I’m only really interested in the cars when they’re on fire, it’s not exactly my ideal delightful thing.
Courtesy of Tor Books: Jo Walton’s THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS, Wesley Chu’s TIME SALVAGER, Robert Brockway’s THE UNNOTICEABLES, Carrie Bebris’ THE SUSPICION AT SANDITON, and Jane Lindskold’s ARTEMIS INVADED.
Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant.
Tor, ISBN 978-0765380722, 384pp, HC, USD$25.99/CAN$29.99. From Tor UK as The Traitor, ISBN 978-1447281146, 400pp, HC & TPB, stg£12.99. September 2015.
UPDATE NOVEMBER 2016: Seth J. Dickinson is not a straight cis man, though I assumed he was when I first wrote this.
This is not a review. For this to be a proper review, I would have had to read The Traitor Baru Cormorant thoroughly, in its entirety, from cover to cover — and for the second time, my will has failed in that regard. (For the second time, I skipped ahead to the end: some part of me hoped that the end had changed in the intervening time. Alas, no.) What this is, then, is an explanation of some of my problems with The Traitor Baru Cormorant: the reasons, as it were, for my intense and visceral dislike of this novel, even as I admire its technical accomplishments.
Look. Not every book is for every reader. And some books that some people will find powerful and moving and important will leave other people cold and alienated, or pissed off, or just unmoved. (Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings is a perfect example of this for me: I can see the ways in which it is assured to be an important and moving book for other people, but I bounced off it within 100 pages.) This is by way of an important preface to the visceral dislike that follows: I’m not arguing that Dickinson’s book is shit and no one should read it. I’m saying that it pissed me off in a very subjective, personal way.
Now, for the book.
Let me enumerate, first, The Traitor Baru Cormorant‘s good points. (It’s important to be fair. I am trying very hard to be fair.) On a technical level, it is really very good: Dickinson’s prose is crisp, he has a good eye for pace and character, and a knack for getting a great deal across with an economy of description. Structurally, too, this is a cunning, clever novel, with a nested series of deceptions and betrayals at its heart, crux, and climax. It’s a story about imperialism, about politics, about colonialism, and its main character is a queer woman (a queer brown woman). I so very much wanted to like it. Hell, I wanted to love it: epic fantasy with more queer women is a theme I occasionally yell upon.
Unfortunately, there’s a difference between stories about amazing queer characters doing awesome epic things, and stories in which amazing queer characters basically exist to SUFFER for BEING QUEER.
As is often the case, Foz Meadows has beaten me to the punch and written something incredibly incisive on the first two chapters of The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Go. Read what she has to say. Then come back.
You’re back? Good.
Warning: this will likely degenerate into ranting. With caps. Also, spoilers.
So, the Masquerade. Dickinson’s Masked Empire, the empire ruled from Falcrest. It annoys me. I am annoyed at it. It is a Very Colonial Empire. And it’s a cop-out on actually interrogating empire and colonialism, because by any reasonable modern standard it’s Pretty Awful. I mean, eugenics, Stasi-like levels of social surveillance and control, really intense homophobic repression, willingness to take advantage of diseases introduced to colonial populations, residential schools — pick two. Or three. All five is beating the really big drum of Bad Empire Is Bad.
Then couple this with an in-universe justification for imperialism that essentially boils down to But Science And Sewers, a justification no one really challenges, making it seem as though the narrative agrees that empire might actually really be okay as long as it’s not that bad?
Hi. My name is Liz. I’m annoyed now.
I’m only going to get more annoyed.
Because in addition, this? This is a straight person’s story about a queer person. The titular Baru’s queerness basically exists in order to give her an axis upon which To Be Oppressed. There are no queer communities, after Baru is removed from her natal community in the first chapter; no portrayed community resistance to queerness as a site of social control and punishment; no connections between queer characters bar Baru and the woman who eventually becomes her lover. It’s all BAD SHIT HAPPENS and also GRAND HIGH QUEER TRAGEDY.
And speaking as someone who’s recently been growing into the realisation that she is in fact pretty queer, I’m really inclined to be pissed when I’m offered the story of an awesome queer character — and it turns out, right, it turns out that this is the ANTITHESIS of the coming-out story. This is the closet or DEATH story. Actually, both.
CLOSET AND DEATH.
So to speak.
Let’s dogleg back to the problem of empire for a moment, on the way to more yelling about the book’s queer stuff.
So, right. I’m Irish. (Bear with me, there’s a point coming.) In many ways this gives me a peculiar view of colonial empires. And of colonialism and imperialism — both beneficiary, and on the other hand, have you looked at Irish history? (And the myths we tell about Irish history, too.) And it seems to me that Dickinson is in some ways writing a message book. A book about how EMPIRE IS BAD and HOMOPHOBIA IS BAD… and not really grasping, on more than a superficial intellectual level, the ways in which people accommodate and resist at the same time and with the same tools. And that this applies as much to social repression as it does to the colonisation of identities.
Dickinson might theoretically get the idea of the “colonisation of the mind” but he misses the doubled vision that’s the eternal gift and legacy of colonial empires to their possessions and the people thereof. That’s the poisoned chalice pressed upon subaltern identities. And you know, he’s trying. He’s definitely trying. That he didn’t get this right for me doesn’t mean he didn’t get it right for someone else!
But. But. The reason this is not a review is because of the middle bit. The middle bit that I’ve twice failed to do more than skim, where Baru leads a rebellion that it turns out was actually a mousetrap, falls in love, betrays the rebellion (because layered mousetrap), tries to save her lover, fails —
I did read the conclusion. The conclusion where Baru and her lover Tain Hu are reunited, Tain Hu a prisoner and Baru walking a political knife’s edge. The conclusion where Baru condemns her lover to death so that the people who’ve been grooming Baru to become one of them (her sometime allies, her employers, the secret inner committee of the Falcrest imperial republic) cannot use either Tain Hu or the fact of Baru’s queerness as leverage against her.
These are grand high tragic scenes, naturally. With mental swearing of ultimate vengeance on the forces that compel, COMPEL I SAY, Baru to do this thing. And Tain Hu? Tain Hu helps manipulate Baru into it, as one last strike against Falcrest — with her death, fighting for Baru’s position on a political battlefield.
Fuck you. Seriously, fuck you.
When I was reading The Traitor Baru Cormorant for the first time, I reached the point where it becomes obvious that Baru and Tain Hu are liable to get involved. And I skipped ahead to the conclusion, because if experience has taught me one thing, it’s that you really can’t trust a mainstream book to not fuck over its queer characters. Especially queer women — and there are so few queer women protagonists in fantasy and science fiction. So damn few.
And I read the conclusion, and my reaction was you did NOT just do that.
And I went back and skimmed, to fill in the gaps. (Skimmed, because I drew the line at getting more emotionally invested than I had to be.) And Tain Hu is awesome. She’s clever and honourable and courageous and true to her word even unto death. And Baru is awesome: she’s clever and tricksy and courageous and layered like a fucking onion (and all the layers have sharp edges), caught between everything she’s already sacrificed to get this far and everything she’s going to have to sacrifice to attain her ultimate goal — which is protect the people she was taken from back in chapter two.
And my visceral reaction? My visceral reaction was to fucking cry at the sheer bloody waste of it, because here, here, you have a mainstream epic fantasy that has two epic queer female characters, and you don’t have the fucking grace to let them both walk away. No. Instead we get another iteration of Queer People Cannot Be Happy. Instead we get:
I will paint you across history in the colour of their blood.
Oh, it’s effective. It’s astonishingly well-written. In a way, that only makes it worse. If it were a badly-constructed novel, ill-written and thoughtless, I would not have formed such hopes in the beginning.
Instead it feels thoughtless in quite a different way.
This review has been brought to you by the generous contributions of my Patreon supporters. As of this writing, my Patreon campaign stands USD$17 in pledges from bringing you a second review every month. If you enjoyed reading, do please consider helping keep me and my cat –
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Courtesy of Gollancz: Bradley Beaulieu’s TWELVE KINGS and ALiette de Bodard’s HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS. Courtesy of Angry Robot Books, Ishbelle Bee’s THE SINGULAR AND EXTRAORDINARY TALE OF MIRROR AND GOLIATH. Courtesy of DAW Books, Seanan McGuire’s A RED-ROSE CHAIN. Courtesy of Henry Holt, Leigh Bardugo’s SIX OF CROWS. Courtesy of Tor Books, Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear’s AN APPRENTICE TO ELVES.
Thanks to certainfriends, I had the opportunity to read Ewing and Garbett’s Loki: Agent of Asgard: Trust Me and the Aaron/Dauterman/Molina Thor: Goddess of Thunder. While I’m conflicted about Marvel in general, these? Are pretty solid work.
Mind you, Loki: Agent of Asgard makes very little sense in retrospect, but it’s an entertaining conceit – young!Loki, reborn in a new, youthful body, is trying to expunge the stories of his older, eviller self, and also trying to make some kind of amends – told with snark and verve, and art that is energetic and distinctive without being confusing. A+, although my brain kept insisting on interpreting young!Loki as Tom Hiddleston.
Thor: Goddess of Thunder is also pretty much one single conceit – Thor Odinson is no longer worthy of Mjolnir, so the hammer finds a new bearer. Shock! The new bearer is a WOMAN. After some friction and battles with frost giants, Old!Thor acknowledges her worthiness, and insists she takes on his name. Odin, on the other hand, is less than pleased. NOW LET’S ALL FIGHT. Plus dark elves. Also, who New!Thor was originally is still a secret at the close of this volume – some contemporary person, presumably, but I don’t know enough about the Marvel universe to even hazard a guess. The art is striking while also making the action easy to follow, and it’s decidedly fun. A+, please make this the next Thor film.
Charles Stross, The Annihilation Score. Orbit, 2015.
This book distracted me from work I should have been doing, and I DO NOT REGRET IT ONE WHIT.
The Annihilation Score is the latest entry in Stross’s long-running Laundry series, and the first not to be told in the voice of Bob Howard. Instead, Dr. Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, part-time lecturer in music, combat epistemologist, Laundry agent and wielder of the white bone violin that eats souls (and kills demons), takes centre stage. Mo is promoted to take charge of the UK’s new policing agency to deal with people who are developing superpowers as CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN continues. Bureaucracy snark! And also policing nightmares. And nightmare police.
The Annihilation Score is darker, tonally, than the previous Laundry books, and a little less humorous – although the Laundry series has grown progressively darker, this installment has a lot more whistling past the graveyard than even the last couple. As a protagonist, Mo is more self-aware than Bob, scarred in different ways, and her voice is a touch more biting. Underneath the cynical jokes, engaging incidents, crises of beginning middle-age, and brisk send-up of the superhero genre, there’s something pretty bleak. That layer of bleakness makes The Annihilation Score stand out from its predecessors in a good way.
Bennett R. Coles, The Virtues of War. Titan Books, 2015. Copy courtesy of Titan Books.
Bennett R. Coles is, according to his bio, a former Canadian naval officer, and Virtues of War is his debut novel. Military SF that starts with what seems like essentially a proxy war between two major powers fought on territory that belongs to a third party, and works its way up to open war.
Although it’s not as human or as nuanced, it reminds me a little of some of David Drake’s earlier work: screwed up humans doing fucked up things under pressure. At the level of fast-paced narrative full of things going boom, this is a pretty good piece of milSF. It has, however, at least a couple of serious flaws.
One is common: the narrative needs to walk the line between depicting atrocity and condoning it, and Virtues of War falters over the line of coming across a little more sympathetic to war crimes when its point of view characters commit them than when “the enemy” do. (In this regard, the fact that all the POV characters wear the same uniform doesn’t help balance the problem.) But I’m willing to give an early novel a little more slack when it comes to getting this right than I might otherwise.
The second issue – more like two issues all rolled in one – however, is one I’m not prepared to cut any slack for at all. There are four point of view characters in Virtues of War, two male, two female: Thomas, Jack, Katja, and Breeze. The former three are reasonably well-rounded characters for a milSF novel. Breeze, however, is a cliché – a misogynist one. She comes straight from central casting: the conniving woman who uses her sexual availability to manipulate the men around her, the REMF who’s both a physical and a moral coward, the woman who’s willing to make a false rape allegation against a fellow officer in order to pressure him into doing things her way, the woman who hates other women as competition.
Do I have to spell out how fucking lazy and clichéd this is? Do I really?
Breeze is also the voice of the novel’s heterosexism/homophobia, perfectly prepared to dismiss other women as “butchy” and “dykes” for not meeting her standards of femininity – and in a novel which does not appear to have any non-heterosexual characters or interactions, I dislike exceedingly the fact that Breeze’s heterosexism is met without comment from any of the other characters. Seriously: maybe we can imagine futures where “dyke” is not a dismissive epithet (when said by an apparently heterosexual woman of another apparently heterosexual woman)?
I like military SF, dammit. I keep hoping for more of it that doesn’t involve having to put up with an unacceptable level of being punched in the face. Coles shows a lot of promise as a milSF writer. But if he can’t up his game and drop the misogynist clichés, next book?
Clearly he’s not the kind of writer who wants my money.
Note to self: do not photograph books with reddish covers against the reddish rug. This is bad strategy.
Courtesy of DAW Books (which reminds me that I must get in touch with the nice person at DAW Books who has been sending me things to thank them, and perhaps make one or two more specific requests), Jacey Bedford’s CROSSWAYS and Phyllis Ames’ FROZEN IN AMBER.
Courtesy of Angry Robot Books, Alyc Helms’ THE DRAGONS OF HEAVEN, Danielle L. Jensen’s HIDDEN HUNTRESS, Ishbelle Bee’s THE CURIOUS TALE OF THE BUTTERFLY GIRL, and Susan Murray’s THE WATERBORNE BLADE and WATERBORNE EXILE.
David Weber, Hell’s Foundations Quiver. Tor, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher.
There’s a level at which I don’t understand why I’m still reading the Safehold books. They are basically pages and pages and pages of technical detail about a) weapons, b) weapons manufacture, c) industrialisation, d) furnaces, e) cold-weather clothing and supplies for an army, and f) other logistics, interspersed with descriptions of battles, and very occasional moments of character development.
If I wanted to read about rifles and furnaces and the problems of winter warfare, I could read a history or three. But somehow there’s just enough character in each volume that I find myself wanting to know what they do next – but really, the interesting bits are less than a quarter of the content. The rest is very skimmable. I keep hoping that one of these days someone will tell Weber, “Less of the expounding on the wonders of steam power/better ways to make things go boom/ironclads, more of the dilemmas of character,” and that Weber will actually listen? But so far, there’s no sign.
But Hell’s Foundations Quiver, while largely readable in between the techsposition, did a thing that pissed me off exceedingly. The Evil Church has set up concentration camps, you see – essentially extermination camps. And Weber does a thing where he briefly focuses on a single family in one of those camps, a sort of SEE HOW AWFUL THIS IS SEE ONE OF THE GUARDS ISN’T COMPLETELY LOST TO COMPASSION OOPS HE’S GOING TO DIE thing, and then one of the main characters – to whit, Merlin – rescues that family from CERTAIN DEATH and even fixes their broken teeth and shit.
And look. This is a questionable narrative decision. Because if a character can save three people in this manner, they can save a hell of a lot more. So what the writer is doing, essentially, is absolving the reader from having to see that “suffering has no limit, and horror no frontier.”* The whole treatment of these kind of camps – concentration camps – gulags – is questionable in its failure to create that bridge of empathy, to stare into the horrors of which humanity is more than capable and refuse to let us look away, refuse to let decline to understand just how human a horror it is. It’s a narrative flinch, a failure of moral courage. And if a writer is not willing or able to force their readers to inhabit that horror as nearly as possible, to confront it in all its human anguish? Then they have no business including such camps in their narrative at all.
And Weber fails on this point. He flinches. He flattens. And it pisses me off no end.
*cf. Charlotte Delbo, “Vous qui savez,” in Aucun de nous ne reviendra, Paris 1965.
Courtesy of Macmillan UK, Zen Cho’s excellent debut SORCERER TO THE CROWN. Courtesy of Night Shade Books, Loren Rhoad’s DANGEROUS TYPE. Courtesy of Henry Holt Books, Leigh Bardugo’s SIX OF CROWS. Courtesy of Tor Books, Howard Andrew Jones’ PATHFINDER TALES: BEYOND THE POOL OF STARS.