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!

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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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…


This post is brought to you courtesy of my excellent backers at Patreon. If you enjoy my work, please consider supporting me there.

Welcome!

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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.”

RIP Sir Terry Pratchett

“Time is a drug. Too much of it kills you.” – Small Gods.

A great light has gone out of the world of literature. My most sincere condolences to his friends and family.

“HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.” – The Hogfather

Some final thoughts on LonCon3

It is still very weird to me, that I have finally met so many people in person whom I have known or encountered on the internet… and having the conversations in person feel like a completely natural extension of our previous conversations. A mental/intellectual/emotional comfort level translated really smoothly into a physical comfort level: I was hugging people left, right, and centre, because it felt perfectly appropriate. (If it wasn’t, I apologise.)

To be fair, by Sunday my general level of excitement/apprehension/overstimulation/lack-of-sleep turned into a sort of semi-drunken giddiness, without need for any alcohol. So my grasp of the appropriate may have suffered accordingly.

I should mention that I was able to attend the convention because of the generous support of the Dublin 2019 Worldcon bid towards my flights, as an Irish person up for a science fiction award and thus Promoting Science Fiction And Ireland. Think kindly of them: they did me a damned decent favour.

There have been a couple of posts floating around about the “generation gap” between LonCon3 and Nine Worlds, and drawing various different conclusions over which was “better.” For me, I was only at Nine Worlds for one day, and for that day very sleep-deprived, but my observations suggest that there were just more people at LonCon3 overall. I mean, sure, a majority were probably in the 40-60 age bracket, because that’s a demographic group with high odds of disposable income, independent mobility, and spare time, with a long tail off to the octogenarians and a more scattered spread of people from 0 years to 40 years – but that’s pretty much par for the course when you’re talking about doing anything. I saw an awful lot of family groups and quite a few college-aged people, and it was far more diverse than I’d been expecting – my previous experience being with attending a couple of Irish conventions, at which I mostly had far less fun that I have had at academic conferences, Worldcon in Glasgow 2005 (which I almost abandoned in tears because of existential alienation) and World Fantasy in Calgary in 2008 (which I attended as an experiment in trying to figure out how the professional writing/editing world worked when it was talking to itself, and which did drive me to tears of alienated loneliness).

Which is not to say it was a magnificent triumph of social justice and diversity. Just that clearly a lot of people did a shitload of work to reach out, and failed while trying to do better, rather than failing by not trying. This is my impression, anyway.

(And mad props to Programming, for the sheer amount of work that went into having a programme with so many different things going on. The Programme Guide terrified me with All The Things it contained, but also was pretty exciting.)

There’s one difference between the two London conventions that stands out to me, though. What startled me about Nine Worlds was the impression of affluence I got from the majority of people I saw, panellists aside – rightly or wrongly: maybe people were just wearing their Sunday best, I don’t know. But at LonCon3, I felt more comfortable because a lot of the people I encountered were either there to work or because it was their One Big Chance to meet everyone they knew and/or admired from their work.

(And a few Rich Old Entitled White Americans, but shit, you get those playing tourist all over Dublin all the time anyway.)

I’m a working-class sod with middle-class pretensions. The smell of Money makes me uneasy. And LonCon3 had less ritzy surroundings (seriously, the Radisson is always going to stink of the rentier classes, leaching the lifeblood of the working people) and it seemed more people who were there to Do A Thing, rather than Be Entertained.

(This distinction probably explains why I’ve always been more comfortable at academic conferences, where everyone is usually there to Do A Thing.)

Anyway. I don’t have an argument. I had fun. Have a cat picture.

Vladimir says hello.

Vladimir says hello.

Libraries and cats.

I have been working in one lately.

This is the view of the outside of l’ÉFA’s (the French School at Athens) library building:

The French have nice premises.

The French have nice premises.

This is a partial view of the inside of Salle A:

Salle A

Salle A

This is a lovely flowering plant that I wish I could identify:

Anyone know what the pink thing is?

Anyone know what the pink thing is?

And these are two of the three cats I saw in the garden at lunchtime:

White cat.

White cat.

White cat enjoys sunlight.

White cat enjoys sunlight.

Sneaky marmalade.

Sneaky marmalade.

Hiding under bushes.

Hiding under bushes.

Two at once.

Two at once.

This, again?

So Paul Kemp wrote a thing. “Why I Write Masculine Stories.”

Both Sam Sykes and Chuck Wendig responded. Probably other people did too, and I haven’t seen them, because I am writing a thesis and oh god oh god my life is a BLACK HOLE AND EVERYTHING IS DISAPPEARING –

Ahem.

So Kemp has written some books, and he wrote a thing about why they are masculine stories. (And how he’s not anti-woman and why no one should jump down his throat.) But there’s a problem here.* And because I’m cranky, I’m going to add my two cents pointing it out.

Kemp is basically framing the positive attributes of honour culture – among them defence of people less capable of defence than oneself, honesty, loyalty, self-discipline and true friendship – as essentially gendered, and ignoring the problems that creates. Framing it thusly removes women a priori from the category of those expected to participate in (capable of) honourable acts.

That’s prime retrograde bullshit right there, under the guise of “traditional masculinity.”

His comment in reply to Simon Spanton brings this problem a little more clearly into view, where he asserts that what would be cowardly in a man is seen as normal for a woman. Whatever his intentions, that right there reinforces a worldview in which femaleness is lesser than maleness.

I’m tired of treading this ground. I can’t quite express all my inchoate frustrations with it without resorting to expletives, so I’m just going to say:

REND IT WITH THE HANDS. TEAR IT WITH THE TEETH. KILL IT INTO PIECES.

*Quite aside from some apparent confusion over the Roman term virtus, but I’ll leave that to the Latinists.

A brief summation of some books read over the last weeks

I am a very irregular blogger. Well, I never promised otherwise.


Amalie Howard, The Almost Girl. Strange Chemistry, 2014. ARC.

Reviewed at Tor.com. I fear I may have been rather unkind to the poor thing.

David Weber, Like A Mighty Army. Tor, 2014. ARC.

Review forthcoming at Tor.com. Very much following the tone of previous Safehold books: more wargaming than character development.

Marie Brennan, The Tropic of Serpents. Tor, 2014. ARC.

Review forthcoming at Tor.com. Sequel to A Natural History of Dragons. I like it. Lots.

David Drake, The Sea Without A Shore. Baen, 2014. Electronic ARC.

Next in Drake’s entertaining RCN space opera series. And, in the way of that series, very enjoyable.

David Weber and Timothy Zahn, A Call to Duty. Baen, 2014. Electronic ARC.

Set in the early days of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, the setting might be David Weber, but the style, energy, verve, and attention to character is all Zahn. I like Zahn’s work: I tend to like it best when he’s playing with other people’s toys, and whatever one may say about Weber’s latest works, he has an impressive toybox when it comes to Manticore and its navy – and its navy’s history. I liked it a lot, and I’m delighted to hear that it’s only the first in a contracted trilogy.

Courtney Milan, The Countess Conspiracy. Ebook, gift.

Excellent historical romance involving science. I like science.

Faith Hunter, Death’s Rival. Roc, 2012.

Fun violent urban fantasy.

Sharon Shinn, The Shape of Desire and Still Life With Shapeshifter. Ace, 2013.

Not exactly interesting romance with minimal point to the fantastic content.

Libby McGugan, Eidolon. Solaris, 2013.

Reviewed for Vector (forthcoming). Oy, how boring and irritating was this book.

Michelle Sagara, Touch. DAW, 2014. ARC courtesy of DAW.

An excellent sequel to the excellent Silence. I should be reviewing it for Tor.com shortly.

Mary Renault, The King Must Die

As promised. (Although I’ve had to change up the order of things.)

Mary Renault’s The King Must Die is the first novel by Mary Renault I’ve ever read. A re-imagining of the youth of Theseus, it’s a work of stunning power and mythic scope. Renault’s imagining of gods and of sacrifice is vital, present, humane, and full of the power of divine immanence. And I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Renault has influenced many other writers in her time: I was put very much in mind of the tone and some of the thematic resonances – at least with reaction to divinity at work in mortal lives – of Jacqueline Carey’s first Kushiel trilogy as I read. Renault’s language and sense of rhythm is beautiful; her craft is masterful.

Her historical chronology and her ability to write female characters is not so great.

For all that The King Must Die is billed as a historical novel, it is necessary to read it as a fantasy. For once you pause to consider the impossibility of the Cretan elements existing contemporary to the mainland elements, the entire thing falls apart. The mainland – Troezen, the Corinthia, the Isthmus, Attica – has what seems to be the material culture of early Geometric/”Dark Age”/Homeric Greece, but with extra added literacy.

(While Linear B writes the Greek language, it falls out of use with the crisis and destructions at the end of the Bronze Age, and there is a gap of some three hundred years and more before Greek is written again, this time in alphabetic script. “Dark Age” Greece was illiterate. The first examples of writing in the Greek alphabet are from the cup known as the Cup of Nestor from Pithekoussai, Ischia, Italy, and the Dipylon inscription, from the area of the Kerameikos in Athens. Both of these examples date from no earlier than 750 BCE, which makes them Late Geometric in period. At this time, Euboea and Corinth were the economic powerhouses of Greece, with Athens beginning to rise in pre-eminence, and there is evidence for extensive trade with Italy, Phoenicia, and Asia Minor. Although not, contra Renault, with “Hyperborea.” Renault appears to labour under the apprehension that the stone henges were raised contemporary with the Greek “Dark Age.” Rather than being at least 1000 years older…)

I base the assumption of “roughly Geometric” as the intended time period in part from the depicted culture, both material culture and the depiction of the warbands, and in part from Renault’s depiction of Theseus as beginning the synoikismos of Athens and Attica. While Athens is one of the few sites to have evidence for continued settlement across the divide of the collapse/crisis/depopulation/migrations at the end of the Bronze Age into the Geometric period, it did not during the early and middle Geometric periods rival Euboea for economic activity, and it does not appear – to me, at least – that a movement for Attic synoikismos can really be said to take place much before the 8th century itself.

It might be possible to see the culture of the Greek mainland as plausibly Submycenaean, were it not for the fact that, as we know from the Linear B translations, the Mycenaeans spoke Greek (the work of Chadwick, Kober, and Ventris had already proven this by 1956) and Renault’s characters speak of a “Hellene” invasion as having occurred within far fewer generations than it would seem necessary to fit these into an archaeologically-possible chronology. Unless the “Hellene” invasion can be seen as coterminous with the Dorian migrations, but while Classical sources talk about the “Dorian” invasion, it’s been impossible to pin down satisfactorily. However, this wouldn’t square well with the narrative reality implied by Renault’s non-Hellene “indigenous” people, the “Shore People,” which she casts as matriarchal and practically autochthonous, and which she connects strongly to the rituals of the Eleusinian mysteries and to the worship of Demeter…

It’s confusing.

All that aside, the society of the mainland may work as plausibly Homeric, with some handwaving. But it doesn’t work at all as something that could have existed contemporary with “palace”* society on Crete, even in the Late Minoan IIIA-IIIC period, when we have evidence for Mycenaean presence at Knossos and the use of the palace site as a centre for Mycenaean-style administration in the form of Linear B tablets. Bull-leaping (the “Bull Dance,” as Renault terms it) is a significant part of The King Must Die‘s Cretan narrative, but known bull-leaping depictions don’t date from later than LM IIIB. Ca. 1200-1100 BCE, all the remaining major centres of Crete suffered destruction events, the population went into decline, and during the Subminoan period, sites are in the main characterised by their small size and defensibility.

After the Bronze Age destructions, Knossos once again grew into a significant centre in the Cretan Iron Age, but by then most of the cities of Crete laid claim to Dorian Greekness. And the Knossos palace complex was long since destroyed. So chronologically that doesn’t work too well either, unless Theseus is a time-traveller.

Historicity aside, I’m not really hot on the fact that most of the named women are either manipulative and out for power or passive and happy to be led by a man… but that seems to be Renault’s modus operandi. And in characterising “civilised” men as effete and “mincing”… Yeah.

In conclusion: a brilliantly-written Aegean ahistorical fantasy, with a bunch of problematic shit. On the whole, I’m rather glad I read it.

*Several archaeologists prefer the term “court-centred complex” to palace, since it makes fewer assumptions about the function and nature of the structures. But “palace” is the more widespread term.

Further reading on bull-leaping (.pdf):

McInerney
Younger

Jo Fletcher Books, Rod Rees, Sexism, and Systemic Failure. Part II.

Part I.


I thought I was pretty clued up on feminism.

…I belong to a writers’ group which recently perused the opening 10,000 words of a novella I’ve written called ‘Invent-10n’. It’s a near-future story that features a rather feisty twenty-year-old singer with a penchant for jive talk called Jenni-Fur. I thought I’d rendered her as a tough, take-no-prisoners sort of rebel but it seemed that some of her dialogue offended the two female members of the group.

Using the argot of 2030s Britain, Jenni-Fur described herself as ‘a lush thrush with a tight tush’, which was thought to be both unrealistic and borderline ‘pornographic’.

Rod Rees, June 25, 2013.


[H]ere we are again: sexual harassment, SFWA, marginalizing of women writers, the VIDA count…women in genre is the issue of the day. And what is happening at Jo Fletcher Books and with Rod Rees is, in my opinion, nothing more than an attempt to cash in on the outrage and frustration that so many women in this field are feeling.

Tricia Sullivan, June 28, 2013.


The month of June 2013 saw sexism (and bigotry in several forms) bubble to the surface of the SFF genre conversation. Not fictional sexism, but the real-life kind: the Resnick/Malzburg dialogues (liberal fascism! censorship!) were followed by repugnant white supremacist and ex-SFWA presidential candidate Vox Day’s vile rhetorical attack on award-winning author N.K. Jemisin. And then we were faced with the news that Elise Matthesen had made the first formal report against Tor editor James Frenkel, long rumoured to be a man with whom one should avoid getting into an elevator.


I am fed up by the level of sexism and racism in our community and am increasingly of the opinion that remaining silent on the matter provides aid and comfort to those who don’t deserve it.

Hugo-Award-winning author Charles Stross

Though the column argues that Rees is a good writer of female characters, nothing in it bolsters that claim.

– Sherwood Smith (Inda, Coronets and Steel) and writing partner Rachel Manija Brown (All the Fishes Come Home to Roost).


Rees’ article comes at a time when the attitudes of men (and of women) in the SFF community towards women, and particularly the attitudes of male writers and editors, have been highlighted, and not to their advantage.

Nor to ours. Regressive attitudes and willful ignorance make communities unwelcoming and unsafe. And it is not to anyone’s advantage to let harassment, belittlement, and lack of empathy proliferate unchallenged.

And Rees is one of the willfully ignorant, unable or unwilling to make the leap of empathy to seeing women as whole human beings, courageous and persevering in all kinds of adversity, capable of life and hope and change in even the most restricted of circumstances. Rees, you see, sees certain periods of history and certain places as antithetical to women: by which I can only conclude he means in direct and unequivocal opposition to the existence of female-bodied persons.

For example when you put female characters in settings (especially historical ones) which are antithetical to women it becomes difficult to shape a character which is sympathetic to that setting without violating… feminist norms.
Rod Rees, June 25, 2013.

Rees goes on to imply that women are unsuited to writing “visceral” fiction for adults.

It seems to be a fixture at the SF conventions I’ve attended to have a panel discussion debating why there are so few women writing in the adult SF and fantasy genres. Could it be that the success of female writers in YA fantasy fiction is in part attributable to their young female characters being better able to adhere to this [the “feminist”] template of the ideal female? Once female writers venture into the more visceral world of adult fiction they find this stereotype [of an active woman with agency] doesn’t work and hence struggle.


So. Women should stick to writing for children, because it’s less challenging, is that the implication? Less visceral? Rees has obviously never read Elizabeth Wein or Scott Westerfeld.

Karen Healey (The Shattering, When We Wake) finds YA fiction, “as visceral as it gets – racism, suicide, sexuality, love, death, grief and joy are not topics marked ADULTS ONLY,” and pointed out the works of Alaya Dawn Johnson and Sheri L. Smith as treating with particularly visceral events and themes.

According to Sarah Rees Brennan (The Demon’s Lexicon, Unspoken), people are far more likely to hold female characters to impossible standards – “and that’s a product of sexism. Generalising or denigrating YA, a genre which has a lot of female writers and a lot of female protagonists, tends to be a product of sexism as well.”

Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown say they find so many things wrong with Rees’ piece that they don’t have time to call out every single one – but the thing that leaps out at them most, they say, is his claim that women are too smart to be “foolishly” brave. “The actual implication is that an entire segment of human experience and motivation is solely male. In short, he is saying that only men are heroic.”

Charles Stross disagrees with everything Rod Rees says about writing across gender. “Rod Rees’ world view, as he expresses it, appears to be so heavily informed by black and white stereotypes that there is no room in it for shades of grey. All men are ‘this’, all women are ‘that’. All behavior is dictated by assigned gender roles, and gender roles are deterministically nailed to the physical sex of the protagonist. (He also seems unable to distinguish between biological sex and performative gender.)” He adds, “For a lot of men the social conditioning to treat women as different is so strong that they can’t recognize the essential points of similarity that exist: they’re effectively unable to look beyond the gender gap.”

Men with this problem, Stross says, don’t relate to women as people, but rather as either aliens or objects. “Theory of mind, the ability to project consciousness and intentionality on them and model them as ordinary people doesn’t seem to pertain… [and] men who don’t see women as people feel free to chastise women who behave in a manner incompatible with their preconceptions.”


The takeaway from all this is that Rees is, at best, clueless; at worst, deliberately trolling.

But what about Jo Fletcher Books?

Epic List of Epicness Part II: The EPICENING

As I said, Jared and Justin talked me into this. This half of the list reflects more closely my personal preferences, rather than what I see as influences/important works in the field. In rough order of preference. Very rough. Ask me a different day, and I will have a different order.

Also, I am ignoring Rule #2. Because I can. Because I want to bring up many individual works!

Jared.

Tansy.

Justin.

1. Elizabeth Bear, Range of Ghosts. (Tor, 2012)

This is best described as “the epic fantasy I had been waiting to read all my life, unknowing.” I love it. It is amazing.

2. Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls. (Harper Voyager, 2003.)

This is one of the books that changed the way I look at the world, and had a profound, fundamental affect on me. Sometimes, I think it helped save my life.

3. Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion. (Harper Voyager, 2001.)

I don’t love The Curse of Chalion quite as much as I love Paladin of Souls. But it is still one of those books that touched me deeply, in ways difficult to express.

4. Martha Wells, The Wheel of the Infinite. (Eos, 2000.)

I don’t know if I can express how much I love Wells’ The Element of Fire – and after Element, Wheel is the book of Wells’ that I love best.

5. Kari Sperring, The Grass-King’s Concubine. (DAW, 2012.)

Is it epic fantasy? I don’t know. I don’t care, either. It is the best thing to come out of DAW in 2012.

6. Elizabeth Bear, All The Windwracked Stars. (Tor, 2009.)

Peri-apocalyptic fantasy! Epic in scope, amazing, brilliant, I love it.

7. Amanda Downum, The Bone Palace. (Orbit, 2010.)

It is epically amazeballs, even if it doesn’t fit a subgenre definition of epic fantasy. Its sequel, The Kingdoms of Dust (Orbit, 2011), does fit such a definition – and is also amazing.

8. Beth Bernobich, Passion Play. (Tor, 2010.)

Neither its title nor its cover do this excellent novel justice. It and its sequel, Queen’s Hunt (Tor, 2012), are very strong character-centred epic fantasy.

9. Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel’s Dart. (Tor, 2001.)

The first book in a revolutionary epic fantasy trilogy. I’m serious when I call it revolutionary: Carey’s work is distressingly underrated by critics, but its ability to mix sexual desire and grand, sweeping narratives – to combine the personal and the political both so closely and so coherently – is an achievement in itself.

10. Tanya Huff, The Silvered. (DAW, 2012.)

Epic! With shapechangers and pregnant women and war and things going boom and a prophecy and everything: and not only that, it stands alone. (I also love Huff’s Quarters books – Dear DAW Books, please reissue them in an omnibus or two. I want to give them to my friends.)

11. Kate Elliott, Crossroads trilogy. (Spirit Gate, Shadow Gate, Traitor’s Gate, Tor US/Orbit UK, 2006-2009.)

Elliott can always be relied upon to do something interesting in her work. In the Crossroads trilogy, she’s interrogating the assumptions of epic fantasy – and has people who ride griffins. Good stuff.

12. Michele Sagara, Chronicles of Elantra. (Luna, 2005-?)

A long series, at this point. It is an urban fantasy set in an epic fantasy world, and Magical Doom regularly appears in the narrative. Dragons! Elves! Fun stuff! One of the many interesting ways by which epic fantasy can be interrogated.

13. Celine Kiernan, The Poison Throne. (Orbit US/O’Brien, 2010.)

IRELAND REPRESENT! Ahem. With that display of gross nationalistic fervour out of the way, let me say that this book, the first (and best) in a trilogy aimed more into the YA demographic? Is really very essential reading.

14. Sarah Monette, The Doctrine of Labyrinths. (Mélusine, The Virtue, The Mirador, Corambis; Tor, 2005-2009.)

A strange, baroque, not infrequently grotesque entry into the lists of epic fantasy. I have some strong affections for it, despite problematic elements.

15. Sherwood Smith, The Banner of the Damned. (DAW, 2012)

Epic fantasy with a scribe and a scholar as its protagonist. An asexual protagonist. It stands alone well enough, too.

16. Claymore.

I mean the anime series, but I’ve got about five volumes into the manga, too. Shocked it’s not a book? Don’t be: it’s still EPIC.

17. Dragon Age: Origins.

Bioware’s giant RPG has its problems. But it is definitely epic fantasy, and I think despite its problems, it’s still worth looking at – particularly for how it takes epic fantasy elements long familiar to us from literature and adapts them to a new medium.

18. Violette Malan, The Sleeping God. (DAW, 2008.)

Mercenaries. Kicking arse, taking names, killing people in the face and saving the world.

19. Rae Carson, The Girl of Fire and Thorns. (Greenwillow, 2011.)

Aimed at the YA demographic, this is again the first book of a trilogy (better than its sequel, I think). Lovely coming-of-age epicness.

20. Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette, A Companion to Wolves. (Tor, 2007.)

The frozen north. Trolls. Men bonded to intelligent wolves. Trolls.

21. Jacqueline Carey, The Sundering. (Banewreaker, Godslayer; Tor, 2004-2005.)

Epic fantasy. As told from the villains’ point of view – but more complicated than that.

22. Steven Erikson, Deadhouse Gates. (Tor, 2005.)

I’m picking only one novel from Erikson’s opus magnus, The Malazan Book of the Fallen – because, well, I fell off the wagon at book five, and have yet to go back. But Deadhouse Gates would be a stellar entry in any epic series: it certainly is here.

23. Simon R. Green, Deathstalker series.

Epic fantasy in a science fictional horror universe.

24. Ursula Le Guin, Voices. (Harcourt, 2006.)

24. Ursula Le Guin, Lavinia. (Harcourt, 2008.)

Yes, you get two entries for #24. I couldn’t choose between them. I love them both.

25. The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy.

Every adaptation is a fresh recension. LOTR on film brought epic fantasy to a massive audience, and paved the way for epic fantasy to come to the screens again.

A fond mention for Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I don’t think is epic but which is cool nonetheless.

The Odeion of Herodes Atticus

Built by Herodes Atticus, Greek, Roman senator, confidante of the Emperor Hadrian, to the memory of his wife Regilla (whose brother accused Herodes of her murder). Mid 2nd-century CE. Incorporated into the Byzantine and later Ottoman fortification walls of the acropolis.

Entrance to the lower tiers!

The Odeion was quite tall.

And not just tall…

They’re setting up for Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” opera.

The Cats of Athens

Because the internet is for cat pictures.

Cat of the Hill of the Muses

Cat of the top of the Classical Agora

Cat of the Tourist Information Office, Dionysiou Areopagitou

Cat, very pregnant, of beside the Panathenaic Way

Cat of the Athenian Acropolis, shortly before she bellied herself under the leftmost marble block.

Bonus! Unsociable Tortoise of the Pnyx