Sleeps With Monsters: Katabasis and Anabasis

A new column over at Tor.com:

Katabasis and anabasis are the words that come to mind when it comes to Zoraida Cordova’s Labyrinth Lost and Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules, books which I read back-to-back. They share some similarities—they are both about young bisexual women discovering the truth of their worlds and learning to claim and use their power, political or otherwise, and they’re both marketed as YA—but they are very different books.

THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS by Aliette de Bodard

THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS, US cover art.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It really is an utterly magnificent achievement.

 

THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS, UK cover

 


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

WELLINGTON’S ENGINEERS book cover.

 

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

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

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

I will confess to a little disappointment.

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

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

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

This is not that book.

 


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VISITOR by C.J. Cherryh

A new review up at Tor.com!


So, I have started a new job. I will not be telling you anything about it, except that it is my first ever proper office job, and working office hours is going to be a… difficult transition, let’s say. I expect to be rather scarce in these parts until I acclimate to Mornings and Being Awake All Day again. (I haven’t done this kind of thing five days a week since I was in school. That’s a decade ago.)

THE MASKED CITY by Genevieve Cogman

The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman

ISBN 978-1-4472-5625-0, Tor UK, MMPB, 358pp, UK£7.99. November 2015.

 

The Masked City is the sequel to Genevieve Cogman’s well-received debut The Invisible Library. It is not High Literature.

 High Literature was never this fun.

 Gonzo. Bonkers. Batshit. These are the words that immediately leap to mind when contemplating The Masked City. It’s incredibly, unapologetically pulp: so valiantly determined to have fun, commit property damage, and trade witty banter while engaging in high-stakes peril on the top of, for example, moving magical trains, that it’s impossible not to be utterly charmed by its sheer energy, by its delight in digging out all the genre tropes and the kitchen sink too, and mashing them up together in a delicious stew —

Mmm, stew. My metaphor might have got away from me there. Where was I? Right. The Masked City.

 Irene is a Librarian, an employee of an interdimensional Library. The Library. The Library helps stabilise the multiverse. (Being a library, it does so through collecting books. Or, at least, the Librarians collect books for it.) Across the multiverse, alternate Earths can have magic or technology, or both, or neither: they can be high in order (dragons prefer order) or high in chaos (spread by Fae), or somewhere in between. After the events of The Invisible Library, Irene found herself the Resident Librarian in the Victorianesque London of just such an in-between world, with Kai, a youthful dragon-in-human-form, for an apprentice, a friend in Vale — a Sherlock Holmesian Great Detective — and an occasional adversary in the form of Lord Silver, the most powerful of the local Fae.

 But there are factions and plots afoot. Kai is kidnapped — and it’s quite difficult to kidnap even a young dragon — and Irene’s investigation of how (and by whom, and where they’ve taken him) keeps getting interrupted by someone else’s werewolf thugs. It soon becomes clear that this is a plot by Lord Guantes, an old arch-rival of Lord Silver, and his Lady. They’ve taken Kai to a high-chaos world and intend to auction him off to other powerful Fae, in an attempt to start a war between the dragons and the Fae, and raise themselves up the ranks to Most Powerful in the tumult.

 Irene’s going to get Kai back. If she can. Without orders — or permission — from her superiors in the Library. With Lord Silver — unreliable at the best of times — as her only ally, she has to infiltrate a high-chaos world and rescue Kai from an all-but-impenetrable prison, all the while avoiding the attention of Lord Guantes and the Fae rulers of this alternate.

 And that may be harder than it seems. Because Fae are creatures of story, and in the higher chaos worlds that are the natural habitat of the more powerful of their kind, coincidence warps to form narrative patterns. Is Irene the hero of her own story, the comic relief in another, or the villain in Lord Guantes’ play? In a 1700s-esque Venice where it’s always Carnival and never Lent, where masked black-clad agents of the Council of Ten haunt every shadow, Irene has to be on top of her game if she’s going to escape with her skin, and Kai’s, intact.

 There is so much to like here. The madcap pace of Irene’s rush from caper to caper! The group of young and ambitious Fae she falls in with while undercover, all of whom with complaints about their own patrons and their own ideas about their roles in the unfolding dramas! Arguments about Fae etiquette, which is batshit and hilarious. Zayanna, whom Irene gets drunk as a distraction and who keeps lamenting the fact that she never gets to seduce any heroes — and then makes Irene promise to let her try to seduce her, later. The way in which Cogman has such obvious affection for so much genre furniture, but not so much affection that it gets in the way of breaking convention when that would be more fun.

 The Masked City has a great and pleasing energy. It’s one of the most purely entertaining novels I’ve read this year. I can’t think about it without grinning. It made me very happy, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants a really fun batshit pulpy fantastic ride.

 Good book. A+. Would book again. The world needs more like it.

 


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