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 War — Wellington’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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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.
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.
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…
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Passing Strange by Ellen Klages. (Tor.com Publishing, January 2017. Ebook $2.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-8951-0. Cover art by Gregory Manchess. Cover design by Christine Foltzer. )
My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, i’ faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange;
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.
She wished she had not heard it; yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man.
– Othello, Act 1, Scene 3
Let’s start with that: wow. Let’s end with it too, because Ellen Klages’ Passing Strange lives up to the intriguing and cryptic promise of its matter-of-fact opening line with verve and vigour and an unexpected generosity and grace.
That first line is: “On the last Monday of her life, Helen Young returned from the doctor’s and made herself a cup of tea.”
Passing Strange isn’t about Helen Young as such, either now at the age of one hundred or seventy-five years earlier, in 1940, when she’s a young Asian-American lawyer making a living through dancing for tourists in San Francisco’s Chinatown — but she’s central to the story in more ways than one.
The emotional core of the story is a circle of women in 1940s San Francisco (although it is bookended by the acts of 100-year-old Helen). Their romantic and carnal inclinations include other women, and in 1940, San Francisco is one place where they can live and love in (relative) freedom, despite the difficulties of police harassment, moral codes, and the fact that the bars where they can be out in public are only allowed to operate because tourists come there to be titillated.
And the core of that story is the love between Loretta Haskel and Emily Netterfield.
Haskel, an artist who does covers for pulp magazines, encounters Emily Netterfield one evening in the company of Franny Travers and her circle, which includes Helen. Franny is an intellectual and something of a magician, and a vein of the wondrous and the strange runs through the heart of Passing Strange — to which I shall return momentarily.
Emily Netterfield fled an old and wealthy East Coast family to avoid repercussions for being caught in flagrante delicto with a girl. Now Emily performs as the dapper, masculine “Spike” at Mona’s, a club for women who like other women. When circumstances and mutual attraction send Emily home from the club with Haskel, the two quickly fall into a deep and meaningful relationship, but their fragile happiness is abruptly threatened when Haskel’s estranged husband returns from sea, angry and demanding money. To preserve their happiness, to write themselves into a different story, Emily consents when Haskel suggests they try magic to take themselves away…
Klages draws San Francisco in 1940 in vivid colours and subtle shades. The sense of place in this story is a vital piece of what makes it work. Here is a real city, vibrant and bustling: and here are its subaltern communities, struggling for acknowledgement as equally human. Passing Strange isn’t a tragedy. Its register remains defiantly hopeful, stubbornly determined about the possibilities for joy and happiness even as it acknowledges that shit happens and sometimes shit really sucks. It centres on a community of women who care about each other and show up for each other, on kindness and the willingness to help each other out, on friendship and — I repeat this word, because it feels so central — on community. On chosen family.
Its focus on women and women’s relationships with each other as family, as well as its 20th-century historical setting and its style, reminds me of Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. Like Valentine’s novel, it feels like a modern fairy-story — though unlike Valentine, Klages here is not drawing directly on the bones of an existing fable. But they share a sense of intimacy, as well characters who are caught between hard places because systems of power are indifferent or hostile to their independent happiness.
And there’s that vein of magic running through it, and the polyvalent implications of the title. Passing: passing for straight, a passing moment, surpassing, passing by. Strange and all the nuances of that word. Passing Strange is passing strange, indeed, and more than passing beautiful: elegantly constructed, elegiac, and hopeful in the face of difficult things.
This is a gorgeous short novel. I came to it vaguely suspicious of its premises, and finished by loving it unreservedly. It’s amazing. Read it.
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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.
This review has been brought to you thanks to my generous Patreon backers.
The Drowning Eyes by Emily Foster
Tor.com Publishing, ISBN 978-1-4668-9193-7, 134pp, E-book, USD$2.99/CAN$2.99. January 2016. Cover art by Cynthia Sheppard.
The Drowning Eyes by Emily Foster is one of Tor.com Publishing’s January 2016 novella offerings. It caught my eye for its amazingly striking cover (seriously, look at how gorgeous that is, I mean, look at that thing), and then Carl Engle-Laird mentioned on Twitter that it had a) ships, b) raiders, c) magic, and d) queer women. I fairly leapt at the opportunity to read an ARC.
Dragon Ships are raiding up and down the islands. They have attacked the Windspeakers’ temple at Tash and taken an important icon. This icon is the centre of the Windspeakers’ abilities to cooperate, and to divert the vast amounts of damage that can be done by a young Windspeaker who hasn’t yet been connected to the icon, and through it, to the other Windspeakers. Shina is the only survivor from the attack at Tash, and she’s determined to stop the Dragon Ships and get the icon back.
Tazir’s the captain of a fishing boat that sometimes carries passengers. She’s seen her share of storms and dangers, but she’s got no respect for Windspeakers who go to the temples — why would you let anyone cut out your eyes and let them tell you what to do with your power? And she’s not too inclined to risk her ship or her neck for anyone. But when Shina shows up masquerading as a rich girl (with money to spend) and wants passage, she’s willing to take the money and not ask too many questions. At least not until Shina brings a storm up from her belly and sets it on the Dragon Ships.
Not once, but twice.
The Drowning Eyes is not, alas, greater than the sum of its parts. On the other hand, it has some pretty great parts. The prose is brisk, tending to elegant at times; the dialogue is vivid and engaging:
“Bad things happen every damn day of my life!” Tazir snapped. “But me and Kodin and the kid down there, we’re prepared when they fucking happen!”
“Oh, so you like Shina now?”
“Yeah,” Tazir said. “I have a tendency to like people who make themselves fucking useful.”
The characters, now. The characterisation here is good damn — or the characters are of a kind that I’m primed to empathise with. They’re compelling. I wanted to see more of Shina, young and desperate, somewhat sheltered, but firm in her determination to recover the idol — a determination only reaffirmed when one of her storms inflicts unintentional destruction. Tazir, irritable, mercenary, absolutely sure of herself — and not always right, as we see from her relationships with her mate, Kodin, and her quartermaster and lover, Chaqal. The worldbuilding is lightly-drawn but fascinating: Windspeakers who can alter the weather, an economy based around sea-transport between islands, the impression of a wider world just visible on the edges of the narrative. (And a BELIEVABLE SHIP: the technical sailorly details feel right.)
But the narrative itself is uneven, oddly balanced. Perhaps it’s that I haven’t read a lot at novella-length, but it feels as though some important things are elided or passed over too lightly. Smash a jar and swallow some storms! Cool, okay. Jump overboard to retrieve an icon somewhere on the bottom of three to ten fathoms of water! …And then — hey waitaminute — we next meet our characters in the final chapter, some years later. Shina is a Windspeaker, long returned to a temple: Tazir is older and crankier, split up with her lover and on the verge of being abandoned by her crew.
I don’t feel the story ends so much as stops: none of the characters have emotional arcs that resolve to my satisfaction. I don’t feel that glorious sensation of stand back, thematic argument being made here, when you might not recognise all the argument but you feel it’s there. When you feel it resonate.
I had higher expectations than perhaps I ought. The Drowning Eyes is a fun quick read, and I don’t regret reading it one whit. (And the cover is still one of the shiniest covers I’ve ever seen.) But it didn’t carry me off into raptures with its excellence — and that makes me more disappointed than the novella deserves.
Good read, though. Still recommend it.
This review comes to you thanks to the generous support of my Patreon backers.
Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea
Titan Books, ISBN 978-1783298990, 350pp, MMPB, USD$7.99/CAN$10.49. June 2015. Cover artist not given.
Koko Takes a Holiday is Kieran Shea’s first novel. And for a first novel? It’s actually not bad.
Ex-corporate mercenary Koko Martstellar is enjoying an easy early retirement as a brothel owner on the Sixty Islands, a resort known for sex, violence, and its management’s homicidal attitude towards discipline problems among their direct employees. Koko’s enjoying the good life, until her old comrade-in-arms (and current rising Sixty Islands management star) Portia Delacompte sends a squad of security personnel to kill her.
Koko, however, is better at violence than the people sent to kill her. She escapes the Sixty Islands to a set of floating habitats known as the Free Zone, where the Sixty Islands aren’t supposed to be allowed to send a bounty hunter after her. If Koko didn’t run into any more trouble, though, this would be a much shorter novel: soon she has not one but three bounty hunters on her tail. Hers and her almost-unwilling accomplice, an ex-cop who had been planning to kill himself until Koko put a gun to his head. And pretty soon after that, she’s got nowhere to run, except right back to the Sixty Islands to confront Delacompte over this peculiar vendetta, and either kill or be killed.
The peculiar part comes from the fact that Delacompte voluntarily had parts of her memory erased, so she can’t remember why she’s trying to have Koko killed. Koko, on the other hand, can remember everything about her association with Delacompte, but she has no idea why Delacompte would wait until now to try to have her done in.
That’s the weakest part of the book, actually, the bit that makes the least sense. The rest is batshit pulp violence in a recovering-from-the-apocalypse landscape, but Delacompte’s tactics for dealing with Koko make no sense if Delacompte’s supposed to be even a little smart — and the narrative says she’s a smart enough sociopath to succeed in her environment.
So what did I think of it?
This is basically Quentin-Tarantino-as-SF-novel. Not that I’ve seen much Tarantino, but the style did seem consistent across my sample set of three. It reads as though it were written by someone who watched Kill Bill, said, “Awesome! But less coma, less weird relationship shit, more SF, and can we make the people who are trying to kill each other all women, no, really all of them?” and went off to make their own orgy of stylised hyperviolence.
This is a novel in which biting people’s eyes out is a thing. A ritual of hand-to-hand combat. Not just random eye-biting! But eye-biting as the trophy-taking mark of a subculture! This is a novel in which depressed folks living in floating habitats high in the atmosphere are encouraged to commit organised mass suicide at regular intervals. This is a novel in which shooting a random civilian barely even moves the morally dubious shit going down here dial, there’s so much else going on in the way of violence and murder.
That should give you some idea of whether or not it’s for you.
My own feeling is that it’s trying too hard. It lays the “life is cheap, death is easy, killing is fun,” on a little too thick: it’s about as deep as a puddle. It’s also trying a little too hard to be… sexy? I guess? I don’t know, there’s one unfortunate “woman examines herself in mirror and remarks on her own breasts” moment. And I have the subliminal impression that the reader is supposed to find these several murderous women fighting and killing each other to be titillating, even if the text doesn’t dwell on their appearance too much. It is, however, entirely possible that I’m reading that in to the text: I might be a jaundiced reader.
But for all its flaws — this is not a novel that wants you to slow down and think too hard about it or its setting — it has a certain gleeful pulp sensibility that’s very appealing. And an energetic approach to pacing.
I didn’t love it. I don’t know that I’d even recommend it, except under very limited circumstances. (Do you like VIOLENCE and LIBERTARIAN POST-APOCALYPSES? Then this is FOR YOU!)
But I’m pretty tempted to read the sequel.
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Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant.
Tor, ISBN 978-0765380722, 384pp, HC, USD$25.99/CAN$29.99. From Tor UK as The Traitor, ISBN 978-1447281146, 400pp, HC & TPB, stg£12.99. September 2015.
UPDATE NOVEMBER 2016: Seth J. Dickinson is not a straight cis man, though I assumed he was when I first wrote this.
This is not a review. For this to be a proper review, I would have had to read The Traitor Baru Cormorant thoroughly, in its entirety, from cover to cover — and for the second time, my will has failed in that regard. (For the second time, I skipped ahead to the end: some part of me hoped that the end had changed in the intervening time. Alas, no.) What this is, then, is an explanation of some of my problems with The Traitor Baru Cormorant: the reasons, as it were, for my intense and visceral dislike of this novel, even as I admire its technical accomplishments.
Look. Not every book is for every reader. And some books that some people will find powerful and moving and important will leave other people cold and alienated, or pissed off, or just unmoved. (Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings is a perfect example of this for me: I can see the ways in which it is assured to be an important and moving book for other people, but I bounced off it within 100 pages.) This is by way of an important preface to the visceral dislike that follows: I’m not arguing that Dickinson’s book is shit and no one should read it. I’m saying that it pissed me off in a very subjective, personal way.
Now, for the book.
Let me enumerate, first, The Traitor Baru Cormorant‘s good points. (It’s important to be fair. I am trying very hard to be fair.) On a technical level, it is really very good: Dickinson’s prose is crisp, he has a good eye for pace and character, and a knack for getting a great deal across with an economy of description. Structurally, too, this is a cunning, clever novel, with a nested series of deceptions and betrayals at its heart, crux, and climax. It’s a story about imperialism, about politics, about colonialism, and its main character is a queer woman (a queer brown woman). I so very much wanted to like it. Hell, I wanted to love it: epic fantasy with more queer women is a theme I occasionally yell upon.
Unfortunately, there’s a difference between stories about amazing queer characters doing awesome epic things, and stories in which amazing queer characters basically exist to SUFFER for BEING QUEER.
As is often the case, Foz Meadows has beaten me to the punch and written something incredibly incisive on the first two chapters of The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Go. Read what she has to say. Then come back.
You’re back? Good.
Warning: this will likely degenerate into ranting. With caps. Also, spoilers.
So, the Masquerade. Dickinson’s Masked Empire, the empire ruled from Falcrest. It annoys me. I am annoyed at it. It is a Very Colonial Empire. And it’s a cop-out on actually interrogating empire and colonialism, because by any reasonable modern standard it’s Pretty Awful. I mean, eugenics, Stasi-like levels of social surveillance and control, really intense homophobic repression, willingness to take advantage of diseases introduced to colonial populations, residential schools — pick two. Or three. All five is beating the really big drum of Bad Empire Is Bad.
Then couple this with an in-universe justification for imperialism that essentially boils down to But Science And Sewers, a justification no one really challenges, making it seem as though the narrative agrees that empire might actually really be okay as long as it’s not that bad?
Hi. My name is Liz. I’m annoyed now.
I’m only going to get more annoyed.
Because in addition, this? This is a straight person’s story about a queer person. The titular Baru’s queerness basically exists in order to give her an axis upon which To Be Oppressed. There are no queer communities, after Baru is removed from her natal community in the first chapter; no portrayed community resistance to queerness as a site of social control and punishment; no connections between queer characters bar Baru and the woman who eventually becomes her lover. It’s all BAD SHIT HAPPENS and also GRAND HIGH QUEER TRAGEDY.
And speaking as someone who’s recently been growing into the realisation that she is in fact pretty queer, I’m really inclined to be pissed when I’m offered the story of an awesome queer character — and it turns out, right, it turns out that this is the ANTITHESIS of the coming-out story. This is the closet or DEATH story. Actually, both.
CLOSET AND DEATH.
So to speak.
Let’s dogleg back to the problem of empire for a moment, on the way to more yelling about the book’s queer stuff.
So, right. I’m Irish. (Bear with me, there’s a point coming.) In many ways this gives me a peculiar view of colonial empires. And of colonialism and imperialism — both beneficiary, and on the other hand, have you looked at Irish history? (And the myths we tell about Irish history, too.) And it seems to me that Dickinson is in some ways writing a message book. A book about how EMPIRE IS BAD and HOMOPHOBIA IS BAD… and not really grasping, on more than a superficial intellectual level, the ways in which people accommodate and resist at the same time and with the same tools. And that this applies as much to social repression as it does to the colonisation of identities.
Dickinson might theoretically get the idea of the “colonisation of the mind” but he misses the doubled vision that’s the eternal gift and legacy of colonial empires to their possessions and the people thereof. That’s the poisoned chalice pressed upon subaltern identities. And you know, he’s trying. He’s definitely trying. That he didn’t get this right for me doesn’t mean he didn’t get it right for someone else!
But. But. The reason this is not a review is because of the middle bit. The middle bit that I’ve twice failed to do more than skim, where Baru leads a rebellion that it turns out was actually a mousetrap, falls in love, betrays the rebellion (because layered mousetrap), tries to save her lover, fails —
I did read the conclusion. The conclusion where Baru and her lover Tain Hu are reunited, Tain Hu a prisoner and Baru walking a political knife’s edge. The conclusion where Baru condemns her lover to death so that the people who’ve been grooming Baru to become one of them (her sometime allies, her employers, the secret inner committee of the Falcrest imperial republic) cannot use either Tain Hu or the fact of Baru’s queerness as leverage against her.
These are grand high tragic scenes, naturally. With mental swearing of ultimate vengeance on the forces that compel, COMPEL I SAY, Baru to do this thing. And Tain Hu? Tain Hu helps manipulate Baru into it, as one last strike against Falcrest — with her death, fighting for Baru’s position on a political battlefield.
Fuck you. Seriously, fuck you.
When I was reading The Traitor Baru Cormorant for the first time, I reached the point where it becomes obvious that Baru and Tain Hu are liable to get involved. And I skipped ahead to the conclusion, because if experience has taught me one thing, it’s that you really can’t trust a mainstream book to not fuck over its queer characters. Especially queer women — and there are so few queer women protagonists in fantasy and science fiction. So damn few.
And I read the conclusion, and my reaction was you did NOT just do that.
And I went back and skimmed, to fill in the gaps. (Skimmed, because I drew the line at getting more emotionally invested than I had to be.) And Tain Hu is awesome. She’s clever and honourable and courageous and true to her word even unto death. And Baru is awesome: she’s clever and tricksy and courageous and layered like a fucking onion (and all the layers have sharp edges), caught between everything she’s already sacrificed to get this far and everything she’s going to have to sacrifice to attain her ultimate goal — which is protect the people she was taken from back in chapter two.
And my visceral reaction? My visceral reaction was to fucking cry at the sheer bloody waste of it, because here, here, you have a mainstream epic fantasy that has two epic queer female characters, and you don’t have the fucking grace to let them both walk away. No. Instead we get another iteration of Queer People Cannot Be Happy. Instead we get:
I will paint you across history in the colour of their blood.
Oh, it’s effective. It’s astonishingly well-written. In a way, that only makes it worse. If it were a badly-constructed novel, ill-written and thoughtless, I would not have formed such hopes in the beginning.
Instead it feels thoughtless in quite a different way.
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Word Horde, TPB, USD$16.99, ISBN 9781939905086. Cover art by Dalton Rose. Cover design by Osiel Gómez. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Molly Tanzer is an award-nominated author of short fiction. With several collections already to her name, Vermillion is her debut novel, and it’s a peculiar book.
Not peculiar bad, mind you. Just peculiar. There’s enough material and sheer badass bizarre worldbuilding in Vermillion to do for any three other novels, and Tanzer sticks in all of it in a single volume. It makes for an odd, off-balance experience, in terms of immersion and structure. And yet it works, somehow: Tanzer has sufficient command of the tools of her craft to make the novel work as a unity.
But I get ahead of myself. Publishers’ Weekly described Vermillion as a mix of “steampunk and ghost story,” but that’s rather misleading. Vermillion reminds me rather more of a modern-day penny dreadful or dime novel, chock full of incidents and events — but with far better characterisation than is typical of either.
Nineteen-year-old Lou Merriweather is a psychopomp. The daughter of an English father and a Chinese mother, she’s inherited her father’s business in 19th century San Francisco, and she’s making a decent living sending ghosts, shades, and geung si on to the afterworld, whether or not they want to go — while passing for a man. That is, until she hears that young men from Chinatown who went away in search of work have gone missing somewhere in Colorado. And until one of them comes home dead in a crate full of patent medicine called “the Elixir of Life,” and well on the way to becoming a geung si.* Lou doesn’t especially want to investigate what’s happened to them, as her skills are more suiting to placating spirits than tracking down the living, but there’s no one else willing and able to go. And with a conspiracy apparently disappearing young Chinese men, her conscience — not to mention her mother — doesn’t leave her much choice.
Her quest into Colorado leads her to a ruthless but friendly young man called Shai and a sanatorium known as the Fountain of Youth. The Fountain of Youth is run by a doctor who’s also a vampire — and Shai’s lover — and who’s just a touch on the megalomaniac side. Not only is Dr. Panacea running the sanatorium to bring him a semi-constant supply of human “food,” but he’s been keeping the Chinese workers prisoner to help build him a flying machine. Lou finds herself in the middle of a pretty sticky situation, and she’s not just risking her own life. Because by coincidence the sanatorium is playing host to her childhood friend Bo Wang, who’s dying of consumption, and with whom she’s been in love for a very long time — even though he loves another man, himself. And another of the sanatorium’s patients, teenaged girl Coriander — who’s been dispatched to the Fountain of Youth by her parents in the hope that the doctor can cure her of her patently unnatural attraction to other women — involves herself in Lou’s investigations.
And everything blows up in their faces. The desperate action of the climax almost belongs in a different book entirely, as allies and enemies square off in open fighting while Dr. Panacea launches his man-made dragon into the sky. Can Lou successfully save herself and friends old and new? And what happens, afterwards?
Vermillion is a hell of a ride. Action interspersed with introspection; conflict with scenery; otherness with belonging. It has talking sealions and tribes of sentient bears whose treaties with the United States forbid the building of railways; it has monster-hunters and psychopomps. And it is interested in outsiders, people caught between communities or pushed outside of them. (It doesn’t shy away from depicting anti-Chinese racism, for example, but it’s just as happy to show friendly relationships that cross race, class, and gender lines: it’s not, for example, a particularly heteronormative book.)
Lou is a fascinating character, whose youth and whose position as the child of immigrants determines how she interacts with the world. Her brashness, combined with her innocence, makes her point of view both interesting and believable. And while Vermillion is unevenly paced, it’s still remarkably compelling. I enjoyed reading it.
And I’m really rather looking forward to seeing what Tanzer does next.
*A sort of Chinese undead.
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The Exile by C.T. Adams Tor US, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher.
C.T. Adams is one-half of prolific urban-fantasy duo C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp, who have also written in tandem as Cat Adams. The Exile is, apparently, C.T. Adams’ first solo novel, and an oddball of a novel it is: it opens looking like a fairly straight variant of urban fantasy, and gradually takes on more of the shape of a portal fantasy. The world on the other side of the portal is called “Faerie,” and — let’s be honest — it’s a spot on the bland and generic side.
Brianna Hai is a moderately successful shopowner in a North American city. She sells curios, magical and otherwise, with the assistance of her employee and friend David. She’s also the daughter of King Leu of Faerie and his late human lover. Brianna’s mother was exiled from Faerie for sealing the veil between the human and fae worlds so that the natives of Faerie can only cross with the help of a human. Brianna has no intentions of returning to her father’s court, where most of her siblings and half the court nobility would be happy to see her dead. But unbeknownst to her, there are forces mobilising in Faerie and the human world against her father, and King Leu has received a prophecy concerning his impending death. When enemies from Faerie raid Brianna’s apartment, she — accompanied by her friend and protector Pug, a gargoyle; David; and David’s cop brother Nick, who has only just learned of the existence of magic — pursues them back to her father’s realm, and ends up right in the middle of a court full of traitors and people who see her human friends as potential toys.
And in conclusion, all hell breaks loose and Faerie goes to war. The Exile is, it seems, only the first novel of a series.
If you don’t mind a certain amount of narrative carelessness, a multiplicity of point-of-view characters to a degree more usually seen in 700-page epic fantasies than in 320-page not-quite-urban-fantasies, and a jarring spot of racism/narrative validation of police violence, The Exile is an undemandingly readable piece of fiction. But should we settle for “undemandingly readable”? I cannot muster more enthusiasm: while the characterisation does succeed in reaching beyond mere bland types, the ways in which the narrative fails to take advantage of its potential undermines my enjoyment to no small extent. The reader has no sense of the conflict and the stakes for which the factions in Faerie are competing until too late — and how closely this conflict will affect Brianna likewise remains opaque until very late. And how this Faerie-driven conflict fits in with the potential threats to Brianna in the human world is hinted at, but never made clear. Nick comes into contact with her because his bosses suspect her of being the mastermind of some unspecified criminal enterprise, but this plot thread is dropped, only to be dragged back up again at the close of play, when Brianna’s position has undergone sufficient change of state that one imagines criminal charges will be the least of her worries.
As for Nick himself… well, what is the point of Nick? He’s one of the (many) point-of-view characters, and seems to be being set up as a romantic interest for Brianna. He’s the good cop who kills a black fourteen-year-old in a justified shooting,* and Exposition Man who needs all of Faerie explained to him. Nick is a combination of boring and annoying.
The more I think about The Exile, it strikes me, the less I like it. It can’t quite make up its mind what kind of book it wants to be — and for all its numerous point of view characters, it gives no space at all to the antagonists who become vitally important in the final 80 pages. The reader never sees who they really are or what they really want, and in consequence they’re a blank space filled up with cliché evil. They have no motivations beyond evil and ambition — none, at least, that the reader is permitted to see.
That’s a pity, because I wanted to be able to recommend this book. But I can’t.
*In a gratuitous section of the novel — what does that even add to the narrative except racism and police violence?
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For those interested in accounting and full disclosure, what follows is a summary of Patreon support and income to date.
So I started a Patreon about a month ago. It’s reached its basic goal already – which is a little startling to me – so as soon as I sort out a couple of things on the paperwork/back-end, it’ll be bringing More Book Reviews to an Internet Near You…
…ahem. Which brings us to the ethics part. It hasn’t escaped my notice that at least half a dozen of my patrons are themselves Publishing Professionals. That’s obviously a potential conflict of interest right there, so clearly I need to set forth a policy, or at least articulate my position on reviewing books that are connected to people who are providing me material support.
The thing is, book reviews are never objective. Responses to art are always personal and subjective, even when we find objective arguments to support our subjective reactions. And that’s even before we move into personal connections. I know – and feel sufficiently friendly towards – enough writers to be aware that how I think of them as people affects how I react to their work. I try my best not to let it affect how I present those arguments and reactions, but let’s be honest: if I tried to pretend it absolutely didn’t, I’d be either deluding myself or a lying hypocrite.
On the other hand, just because someone buys me a drink (or lunch, to take another example, or lets me sleep in their spare room for a couple of nights), it doesn’t mean I owe them anything other than a reciprocal drink or lunch at some future point – or if the opportunity for equivalent reciprocity never arises, to pay it forward.
With Patreon, supporters are paying for the production of reviews. The content? Will reflect my own tastes and biases, as always.