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.)