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.

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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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.

Recently arrived review copies

Six of them! I think this is the second picture of the the Bardugo book.

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.

Links of interest

Sonya Taaffe is running a Patreon for her discussion of films, among other things. One encourages supporting her.

Aliette de Bodard writes moving on “The stories I wanted to read:”

When someone who does look or sound familiar appears; when someone seems like they’re going to respect their ancestors and value their families–they’re the aliens. They’re the funny guys with odd customs colonists meet, the ones they try to commerce with or understand or (in the worst cases) subjugate. They’re the invaders that have to be fought back for the sake of civilisation.

And I think “what civilisation?”

Tansy Rayner Roberts writes about “All The Musketeer Ladies (2015).”

This xkcd might be my favourite.


Hi! I still have a Patreon! Only another $10 until I start producing long reviews JUST FOR YOU. (Well, for you as well.)

Asking to be paid for one’s work is weird. I mean, objectively, I think my labour is worth cash money. (I wish I didn’t have to think in money terms, but we’re not yet living in the post-scarcity socialist paradise.) But actually asking for money is odd. Runs up against all those old inculcated class prejudices about crass commerce and putting oneself forward.

(Alas! Love’s a lovely thing, but it doesn’t keep the lights on.)

Two stories, an essay on depression, and some links

Aliette de Bodard’s short story at Subterranean Press, “The Days of War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile,” is marvellously bitter and affecting.

While at Clarkesworld, Seth Dickinson’s “Morrigan in the Sunglare” makes an interesting counterpoint. Both are stories about war and loss, but they approach their subjects from widely divergent angles.

They’re both pretty good, by the way. Just in case you were wondering.


Libba Bray has a long essay on depression, “Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land”:

Depression is hard to understand, because it is not a consistent state. Depression is rather like a virus, but like a virus, it has its manageable days and its acute, life-threatening flare-ups. You can be in a depression and still laugh at a friend’s joke or have a good night at dinner or manage low-level functioning. You grocery shop and stop to pet a puppy on the corner, talk to friends in a café, maybe write something you don’t hate. When this happens, you might examine your day for clues like reading tea leaves in a cup: Was it the egg for breakfast that made the difference? The three-mile run? You think, well, maybe this thing has moved on now. And you make no sudden moves for fear of attracting its abusive attention again.

But other times…

Other times, it’s as if a hole is opening inside you, wider and wider, pressing against your lungs, pushing your internal organs into unnatural places, and you cannot draw a true breath. You are breaking inside, slowly, and everything that keeps you tethered to your life, all of your normal responses, is being sucked through the hole like an airlock emptying into space. These are the times Holly Golightly called the Mean Reds.

I call it White Knuckling it.

When it’s White Knuckle Time, you will have to remind yourself to stand in the middle of the subway platform, well away from the edge.

Yep. That’s a thing. That’s a thing that’s happened to me.


Jonathan McCalmont has a perspicacious review of Ender’s Game, many of whose arguments are paralleled in Cory Doctorow’s Sunday essay at Locus Online, “Cold Equations and Moral Hazard.”

Mary Beard talks about women’s voices.

Sarah Rees Brennan writes trenchant critique of the ways women are judged for writing fanfiction.

And here is a discussion on the popularity, or lack thereof, of lesbian romance.

Linky is still talking about the Hugos

Jonathan McCalmont, How To Fix (Discussion of) The Hugo Awards:

I know full well that the Hugo Awards will never recognise either my tastes or my values and I realise that, even if they did, I would still feel intensely uncomfortable about the idea of belonging to such a large and cohesive social institution as Worldcon (remember what I said about being torn?). However, as alienated as I feel from both the awards and the convention that supports them, I still recognise their potential and want that potential to be within the grasp of as many people as possible. I want a Hugo Award that is socially, politically and culturally inclusive but I feel that the debate, as it is currently conducted, is not exactly helping anyone to bring this future about.

Renay at Ladybusiness, Hugo Thoughts and Friendly Fan Spaces:

I used the word “silence” to discuss how I was feeling, but after a short discussion and after hearing his definition of the word, I revoked my comment and apologized, because while I used “silenced” on the fly, what I meant was “scared, and therefore afraid to speak”. In this context, “scared” is a better term, because it encompasses silence without all the skeevy power dynamic issues. His tweet made me feel scared and disappointed that a professional author I admired was buying into a trend I find problematic. I wasn’t scared of him in particular, but of the aforementioned trend that this specific tweet allowed me to sort of solidify into a position. It summed up a lot of my fears: to speak on these topics, to have feelings, to be disappointed, to say I’m disappointed, to be told my disappointment doesn’t matter unless I’m also doing X or Y, to be called bitter, or be accused of insulting the opinions of other fans. But most of all, it makes me afraid because I worry about having my expression of disappointment turned into an attack on creators, which is the last thing I want to do.

This is my second year formally involved with the Hugos. Although I’m aware that most people passionate and invested in the Hugos don’t intend to frame this space as one that is very rigidly policed, that’s what it looks like to me, personally, as a new member of this specific fandom, on the outskirts. That it might be better for your safety and reputation to just sit down and be quiet.

Paul Kincaid, A dyspeptic view of awards:

More than that, as the field grows so that no-one can possibly be aware of its entirety, so popular becomes at best a partial term. People will vote for what they know in their own cantonment within the federation of sf, because that is the science fiction they know. But they may be totally unaware of what is happening in the next canton; they may have no interest in those happenings; developments in canton B might be the most exciting things that have ever happened in science fiction to the inhabitants of canton B, but to the inhabitants of canton A they are of no relevance whatsoever. To put it another way, the bigger the voter universe the more likely people are going to feel discontented with the award because it is not addressing their own particular part of the sf spectrum.

On top of all that we have the impact of the internet, which has made it easier for people to promote their own work or to log-roll for others. As the nominating window opens for the Hugo Awards in particular (but for other awards as well), places like Facebook and Twitter become almost impossible to navigate because of people proclaiming: this is what I have done that is eligible. What it indicates, of course, is that the field is so diverse that people are terrified that their own work is going to disappear in the mass. What actually results is that those people with a more dominant web presence are consequently more likely to be noticed and hence attract nominations and votes. This is not a hard and fast rule, there are plenty of examples that count both for and against this suggestion, but it is part of the confusion of what is meant by ‘popular’ in a popular vote award.

Maureen Kincaid Speller, Making an Emotional Investment – surviving the announcement of the Hugo Award shortlists:

Given that I now find myself as part of a loose online community that regularly discusses sf, including topics such as the Hugo awards, I’ve found myself thinking about them again. The arguments go back and forth about the point of the Hugos, especially whether they’re a popular vote for the author rather than a recognition of a story’s intrinsic merit. It is probably impossible to provide empirical data to show that, for the novel at least, it is an author-driven rather than text-driven award, but my sense is that this seems to be so, not least because the same authors so often seem to appear on the shortlists.

…On the other hand, I also have the impression that Hugo nominators are drawing on a very limited set of resources for their nominations (except perhaps in the short story category this year, which is just bizarre) which is why the same names seem to resurface so much, especially in the novel. Last year I noticed one or two people flagging up interesting things that ought to be nominated for Hugos, though less so this year (although I have been rather distracted these last few months so many have missed it this year).

On the other hand most activity of this sort seems to be people drawing attention to the eligibility of their own work, again as Jonathan noted, rather than to that of other people. It seems to me that one thing I can at least do is to flag up material I come across, not just before the nomination process closes, but all through the year, to keep the issue firmly in people’s minds. If there is to be a genuine investment in making the Hugos ‘our’ awards, the way so many people seem to think they should be then this also needs to be part of the process. It may not achieve immediate results, and it’s certainly not enough on its own but it might help to push the argument beyond the usual expressions of horror at this time of year. And frankly, that would be welcome.

I don’t self-identify as a fan in SFF spaces, now. I enjoy being part of the conversation, and I enjoy the sense of community that arises in critical discussion of works of SFF literature and visual media. (I’m a participant in fandoms, perhaps.) But the handful of times I’ve attended conventions have been among the most alienating experiences in my life – and I’ve had a whole bunch of alienating experiences.

I’m happy to talk about the books and works shortlisted for any award, juried or popular. And have an opinion on the selection processes – having an opinion is my stock in trade, almost. But the Hugo awards come out of a particular fan culture that is in the main alien to me, so I do not care to engage with the process.

Aliette de Bodard, On political and value neutral:

I remain puzzled by the assumption that some literature can be value-neutral, as if that were ever possible. It is not. Every single piece of literature/art is embedded in the culture/sub-culture that gave rise to it. I’m not doing cultural existentialism here–it’s not *because* something was produced in, say, France, that it will have X and Y and Z; but something produced in France by a French writer will be infused with *some* degree of French cultural background; same for US productions, etc. Every single piece of literature bears the assumptions and the worldview of its creator, who in turn bears the assumptions of the culture they’re part of (and, to some extent, the work bears the assumptions of its reader, who might interpret it through different filters than the creator).

There is no such thing as meaningless fluff, because even the “shallowest” of fluffs carries an implicit value of what makes fluff; of what doesn’t challenge the majority of readers; of what kinds of escapism are efficient and “don’t engage the brain”

Sleeps With Monsters: Aliette de Bodard Answers Five Questions.

At Tor.com.

Aliette de Bodard’s recent novelette On A Red Station, Drifting, struck me so much to heart that I asked her to join us for a few questions about her work and the genre field. As the author of three novels (Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts, collected as Obsidian and Blood last year) and myriad short stories, a winner of the 2010 BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction, and someone who featured prominently on the Locus 2012 Recommended Reading List, she knows whereof she speaks—and let me just say that if you haven’t read her short fiction (particularly last year’s “Immersion” and “Scattered Along The River Of Heaven,” both online at Clarkesworld), well, what the hell are you waiting for?