Walter Duvall Penrose, Jr., Postcolonial Amazons: Female Masculinity and Courage in Ancient Greek and Sanskrit Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2016.

I watched this book on Oxford University Press’s website for months, before and after its publication, until the point at which I could — barely — justify a purchase. Postcolonial Amazons promises so much: “a ground-breaking re-evaluation of the place of martial women in the ancient world, bridging the gap between myth and historical reality and expanding our conception of the Amazon archetype.” It promises me a treatment of Amazons that uses a postcolonial frame to examine the periphery of the Greek world and the Indian one, a book that employs both Greek and Sanskrit literature to revision notions of “the Amazon” in the ancient world.

Any scholar who attempts such a treatment requires both depth and breadth of knowledge. Most of the archaeological evidence for Scythian and Sarmatian burials — which are two of the cultures most closely associated with the idea of Amazons, and which have provided female warrior burials — has been published in Russian, and some scholars have argued that surviving Central Asia epic cycles from the middle ages and later may preserve some clues about ancient cultures in the trans-Caucasus and the region of Georgia and Armenia. Indian history — especially the Mauryan and Gupta periods, and the time contemporaneous with the Hellenistic kingdoms in Bactria — and Sanskrit literature is its own well-developed field about which I know little (though I have tried to get access to the more recent works on Hellenistic Bactria), while a diachronic survey of Greek and Roman literature concerning not just Amazons but women who have participated in war — or who have accessed some form of masculinity — may require the knowledge of a career’s worth of study, especially if one is to speak of “female masculinity” in the ancient world and counterpoint it with “male femininity” — for it seems to me to make little sense to attempt to understand the one without the other.

Walter Duvall Penrose Jr. has some promising ideas, and connects them with moderate success. But throughout, Postcolonial Amazons feels much slighter than it should be, and much less underpinned by direct engagement with its sources. Let me take an example: Penrose cites Pomeroy on women in Hellenistic Egypt instead of directly engaging with the papyri that would have supported his argument in the early pages of this book, and this approach — cite an author who has already done some of the work, like Adrienne Mayor with The Amazons, which could have used more direct engagement with the Russian archaeological sources, or like Lindoff and Rubinson’s Are All Warriors Male? Gender Roles on the Ancient Eurasian Steppe, without peeling back the layers to make an independent examination of the material on which they base their conclusions, or at least to show that Penrose considered that material on his own — persists throughout. I cannot speak to the whole of Penrose’s work, but where I have some knowledge of the field, the lack of substantial and extended engagement with scholarship in languages other than French and English is notable (and for that matter, Penrose fails to nod to French archaeological work in Central Asia where it might give weight to some of his arguments).

Postcolonial Amazons feels more like a survey sprinkled with theory that, by and large, mystifies rather than illuminates — and I’ve read quite a bit of theory-heavy work in my time. It’s not that difficult to get a feel for when the theory is genuinely integrated with the material and supporting it, and when the material and the theory are a bit like roommates who live mostly separate lives, passing each other with witty asides and sidelong glances but lacking a really unified approach to their household. It’s a decent survey, and one with some interesting ideas (though Penrose is hobbled by the “let me tell you what I’m doing, no let me tell you what I am about to tell you” style of academic writing, which does his work no favours) but one that tantalises with glimpses of what it could have delivered, had it managed to pull off a deeper and more joined-up engagement with both literature and archaeology.  (I cannot help but wonder, here, whether Penrose might have managed a more satisfying book in an academic system that did not put so much pressure on its denizens to publish early and often, or whether he was simply not aiming to produce that kind of work — but failed to communicate that to me in his opening chapters.)

Yet there is food for thought here, in the connections that Penrose sketches but does not draw out in detail. It is a book worth reading — though perhaps not to the extent of paying sixty euro for the privilege — and one whose sketches and preliminary arguments I hope other scholars will use as springboards for their research. And some of the Indian material was an entire revelation to me, since it deals with matters of which I have been entirely ignorant.

Maybe one day, someone will write me a really satisfying work about the idea and the reality of Amazons in the ancient world. I’m going to keep looking.

HAMILTON’S BATTALION, by Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, and Alyssa Cole

Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, and Alyssa Cole, Hamilton’s Battalion. Independently published, 2017. Ebook.

The story of how I got to read Hamilton’s Battalion is actually a little bit of a saga, involving wrestling with Kobo in order to get access to the epub to read in Adobe Digital Editions, ultimately failing, and reading it on my phone. One’s phone is not, I find, an ideal platform on which to read interesting narratives…

That aside, Hamilton’s Battalion is based on an interesting conceit. It consists of three novellas, whose characters are all in some fashion connected with Alexander Hamilton’s troops during the battle of Yorktown — or in the case of the third novella, with Hamilton’s family after his death. These are inclusive romances: the first novella involves an estranged Jewish married couple who — despite Rachel having faked her death and enlisted under a male pseudonym — find each other again in the confusion of war, fall in love (perhaps really for the first time) and negotiate a better relationship; the second is an interracial love story between a rather peculiar white English officer (and deserter) and a black soldier from the colonial forces as they travel together in the aftermath of the battle of Yorktown (it also involves cheese: literal cheese); and the third is a romance between two black women, one of whom acts as secretary/maid to Hamilton’s widow after his death (as she collects material for a hagiographical biography), the other of whom is a dressmaker and small-business-owner.

Much to my disappointment, Alyssa Cole’s “That Could Be Enough” — the romance between two women — is the weakest story of the three. The characters do not feel rooted in their period, and their sexual mores and attitudes feel more modern than my impression of their time should allow. (Heather Rose Jones would know more, though.) But that aside, the pacing is weak, and it is a romance of the kind where if people just fucking talked to each other, there’d be no narrative tension at all.

(Seriously. Romances where people just need to have an honest conversation to solve all their problems are really frustrating. At least give people different goals and worldviews, things they need to negotiate and reconcile in order to be together, right?)

Rose Lerner’s “Promised Land” and Courtney Milan’s “The Pursuit Of…” are each in their own ways utter delights, though. In “Promised Land,” Rachel Mendelsohn has enlisted in the revolutionary army, and is now a corporal under the name of Ezra Jacobs. When she sees her husband, Nathan (who believes she’s dead), she has him arrested as a Loyalist spy — for that’s what she believes he is. But the truth is more complicated than that, and — thrown together by their new circumstance — they come to a new understanding of each other, of the circumstances that led Rachel to find their marriage intolerable, and of what led them each to where they are now. With a lot of mutual hurts and differences in how they viewed life to overcome — and also some of the difficulties of being Jewish with different attitudes towards Jewish dietary and religious practice, and of being Jewish among goyim — their journey towards new romance isn’t smooth. But it is rewarding.

“The Pursuit Of…” features Corporal John Hunter, a black man from Rhode Island, and Henry Latham, an English officer who so desperately does not want to return home that he would rather die than face the prospect. An officer, moreover, who has latched on to the ideas contained in the American Declaration of Independence and who believes in them with the fervour of the freshly-converted. On a journey together from Yorktown to Rhode Island, Henry comes face to face with what his ideals really ought to mean, in practice, and the gap between the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and practice in America. And John realises this white guy isn’t like most other white guys. From different backgrounds and with different experiences of the world, they end up falling in love. Milan’s trademark deftness of character is on full display here — as well as the humour that she’s used to excellent effect before.

The cheese. Good heavens, the cheese.

All in all, I recommend this wee collection. It’s worth a look.

Pretty but broken: MASS EFFECT: ANDROMEDA

Mass Effect: Andromeda is, as most people have probably gathered, the fourth and latest instalment in Bioware’s Mass Effect series, and the first not to star the iconic Commander Shepard. It’s also done a lot less well for Bioware than anticipated, with no further content for the game announced. I’m not surprised that it hasn’t done as well as Bioware might have expected from previous titles in the series: while extremely pretty, as a role-playing game and as a narrative experience, Andromeda is pretty comprehensively broken.

And I say this as an avid consumer of Bioware’s style of character-driven plot-heavy RPGs: I’ve replayed the first three Mass Effect games at least three times each, and invested so many hours into the Dragon Age games that I positively quail at the thought of tallying up the total time.

Andromeda sees a group of at least a hundred thousand people from the Milky Way — the long-lived asari and the equally long-lived krogan, the short-lived salarians, the military-oriented turians, and, as always, humans — take a 600-year cryosleep journey to the galaxy next door, for the sake of adventure, exploring new frontiers, and unconsidered colonialism. (It is unclear whether, or how much, the leaders of the Andromeda Initiative know about the threat the Reapers pose to the Milky Way, which Shepard spends so much time fighting in the original trilogy.) Andromeda opens aboard the human colony ship, or ark, as it arrives in the Andromeda galaxy, immediately encounters a dangerous and mysterious space phenomenon (consistently referred to later as the Scourge), and discovers that the planet they were hoping to settle has had something catastrophic and weird happen to it.

The player-character can be a woman or a man, the daughter or son of the human Pathfinder, Alec Ryder. The Pathfinder’s job is apparently to be the point exploration person and authority on the challenges and opportunities of new planets. The Pathfinder is also linked to an artificial intelligence called SAM, which Alec Ryder himself developed. SAM provides data and analysis to the Pathfinder. On your first mission, you learn your brother (if you play as Female Ryder, which obviously I did) is in a coma due to things going wrong as he was coming out of cryo, and by the time the first mission is over, Alec Ryder is dead, and the younger conscious Ryder has been unexpectedly promoted to the role of Pathfinder.

There are two areas in particular where Andromeda falls down compared to other games both in the franchise and from the parent game developer. One is in its characters. The other is in how it integrates its narrative structure (and available choices) into its open-world sandbox.

Among the attractions of a character-driven RPG are the characters. Andromeda stumbles here from the beginning. I don’t know whether I’d feel more identification with Younger Ryder’s family issues if we’d actually met the brother and the father before the first mission kicks off, or if I’d had a sibling or a father of my own. But something about the initial introduction of Andromeda‘s player-character feels alienating and off, much more so than in Bioware’s other games that gave you a family and a context. In Dragon Age: Origins, for example, you spend a certain amount of time with your family/friends before significant shit kicks off, while in Dragon Age 2, although we open in medias res, this is followed by a period of downtime and adjustment which lets you get familiar with your family and new friend Aveline — and gives you a range of options in how you react to that family and friend. The other Bioware games don’t begin in the same fashion — Mass Effect provides a military officer, Dragon Age Inquisition a sole survivor, and they both in different ways avoid needing to make an immediate emotional connection to the player-character’s nearest and dearest.

Andromeda, on the other hand, presents you with a set of pieces that are supposed to have emotional valence, but doesn’t do the work needed to imbue them with connection and meaning. This is poor writing, especially for a game based on your choices. The game assumes that you, as the player-character, will care about Random Father and Random Brother without investing any real time or depth in those relationships.

This is a failure that continues through Andromeda’s approach towards characterisation, particularly with regard to the characters who become members of your crew and potentially your party. Other Bioware games — notably the first and second Mass Effect games, Dragon Age: Origins, and Dragon Age 2 — made you work to recruit characters. In the case of Dragon Age Origins, you don’t even encounter some characters until you’re about a third of the way through, giving you plenty of time to appreciate them as individuals, while in Dragon Age 2 and the first Mass Effect game, bringing characters on board occurred in the course of the plot, so that your introduction to them provided an impetus for both character and narrative development. In Mass Effect 2, character recruitment was a large part of the plot: something that, together with the excellent character-writing, worked especially well in building emotional investment in these individuals. (Mass Effect 2 and 3 had the advantage of being able to leverage your existing investment in some of these characters, but the writing exploited these pre-existing emotional hooks in extremely effective ways.) Too, previous Bioware games — in particular the Dragon Age ones — made you work to develop a rapport with your party members, making your relationship with them depend on their approval or disapproval of your actions.

In Andromeda, there’s none of this. The characters show up without you needing to do a thing, and their introduction lacks… well, character. I remember vividly Mass Effect‘s introductions to Ashley, Garrus, Tali, Wrex and Liara; ME2’s Miranda, Mordin, Samira, Thane, Garrus, Tali, Grunt, Jack, that moment where you meet Dr. Chakwas again and it’s like a shocking relief; ME3’s re-introductions to Ashley (I only saved Kaiden once), Liara, Grunt, Garrus; Origins‘ first meetings with Alistair, Morrigan, Leliana and Sten; DA2’s introductions of Aveline and Anders, and even Inquisition‘s individual introductions of Cassandra, Varric, Solas, Josephine, the Iron Bull, Vivienne, and Dorian: they stand out. Some more successfully than others, but they’re all individual moments, ones that give a powerful sense of the characters as people with agendas and desires of their own.

Hell, I remember Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and its first introductions to Carth, Bastila, and the Twi’lek and the cat-person whose names I’ve lost to the mists of history but whose initial introductions left me with abiding senses of them as individuals.

Andromeda‘s characters lack these powerful moments. With one or two exceptions — the turian smuggler/fixer Vetra, who’s raising a teenaged sister, and the weary krogan mercenary Drack — they come across as bland ciphers, or worse, annoying ones. (Liam and Peebee, I’m looking at you.) Beyond Drack and Vetra, they lack any real suggestion of wanting connections or emotional lives of their own, any suggestion of a present life outside and beyond their immediate use to Ryder. This lack of depth in the characters and the player-character’s interactions with them provides a corresponding shallowness of emotional investment. Why should I care about these people?

I don’t have an answer. Or rather, the answer is that I really don’t: I kept playing more from hope that things would eventually start coming together to provide an emotionally powerful experience, and growing more and more dissatisfied when they didn’t. I suspect this reaction was exacerbated by the diffusion of narrative tension created by the open-world approach to gameplay: in order to avoid the narrative seeming like an arbitrary series of fetch-quests, open-world gameplay needs to be constructed very carefully, and deep attention needs to be paid to structure and pacing. Without this attention, narrative drive — forward momentum — falls apart.

Dragon Age: Inquisition, Bioware’s other game to use the open-world approach, suffered from some of this diffusion of tension. But there, by and large, the characterisation was strong enough to bridge some of the gaps, and the pacing didn’t fall quite so slack — possibly because Inquisition offers its characters at least one fairly striking reversal, and the binary choices that the narrative ends up providing at fork points feel a little more meaningful. Andromeda — it’s pretty, I grant you. Actually, it’s visually stunning: the environments and the landscapes are utter works of art. But even those gorgeous environments grow tedious when one is engaged in a seemingly-endless series of fetch-quests, and when none of one’s choices as a player-character feel as though they have any particular weight or impact.

Also, as a game, it has a deeply unexamined relationship to colonialism. Its assumptions made me feel uncomfortable, for while the game seemed to feel that the thematic argument it was having was about artificial intelligence, modification to bodies, and life (insofar as it was having a thematic argument), there’s this swathe of hey sure it’s perfectly fine to invite yourself into someone else’s house and mess with their stuff that’s just… floating around.

And yet. And yet I finished the game, grinding my way through the final back-and-forth-and-back-again that was the climax and unsatisfying conclusion. I don’t know whether that says more about my stubbornness or Andromeda‘s ability to compel me to find out what happened next — despite all its many, manifold flaws.

I don’t think I’d recommend it to an existing Mass Effect fan, though. Part of my dissatisfaction with it was the way it reminded me just enough of what I loved about the earlier games to tantalise me with its possibilities, without ever giving me the same narrative fulfilment.

There is more I could say, but it would mostly be repetition upon the same theme. They don’t make ’em like they used to, apparently. Either that, or I’m getting even less easy to please in my old age.

Women Who Love Women: October Dispatches from FF Romance

Ronica Black, Under Her Wing, and Karis Walsh, Set the Stage. Bold Strokes Books, 2017.

Every month, as you may recall, I go to look at the Bold Strokes Books ARCs on Netgalley. Every month I hope to be surprised by something that takes my breath away with its quality.

Most months, I’m what you might describe as hideously disappointed.

For October, most of the offerings weren’t even entertainingly bad. (Though at least one, true to form, opens in transit, and yet more feature women with traditionally masculine names. Not that this is a criterion of badness: it’s just a pattern I’ve been noting.) Most of them are merely boringly bad, with the mediocre lack of any kind of life or competent writing that is pervasive in FF romance — much as I really wish it wasn’t.

However! There are two books that I can commend to your attention. One isn’t what I’d call good — it’s passable, though better than the rest — but the other is actually pretty compelling.

Ronica Black’s Under Her Wing is the book that’s passable. Kassandra is a school librarian — growing increasingly dissatisfied with her job and her life — who’s always thought she’s straight. When her dog goes missing after a break-in, she meets the owner of a no-kill shelter. Jayden, said owner, is a lesbian who plays the field with abandon, and comes on really strong to Kassandra due to a mix-up involving Jayden’s best friend Mel constantly setting her up with other women. After this initial misunderstanding, Kassandra starts volunteering at the shelter, and the two of them grow closer — not without some truly terrible miscommunications and misunderstandings. In the background lurks the Chekov’s gun of Kassandra’s break-in, and the resolution of this plot element is perhaps the weakest part of a not very strong book.

The other book is Karis Walsh’s Set the Stage. After getting out of a toxic relationship where she put her dreams on indefinite hold in order to support her girlfriend, Emilie Danvers finally has a chance to get back into professional acting. With a one-year contract for a place in a company in Oregon that performs plays for a long festival, she’s determined not to let anything get in her way. She’s doubting herself enough without the addition of romance. But romance is exactly what she finds, in the person of Arden Phillips, an employee of the park in and around which a lot of the festival plays take place. Arden has a history of theatre people leaving her: she was raised by her grandparents after her director father and actor mother left to pursue their careers in various cities around the world.

But her attractive to Emilie — and Emilie’s attraction to her — is instant and mutual. Though both of them try to keep things platonic, their friendship swiftly escalates to more. But Emilie’s career goals (and insecurities) and Arden’s background stand between them and any longer-term happiness. They’re each going to work out what they really want, and what they’re willing to give up, if they’re going to stay together.

Walsh’s strongest point is her characters. Set the Stage‘s protagonists feel real and human, and the barriers between them and a lasting relationship aren’t the kind that can simply be cleared up by a single honest conversation. That makes for a pretty decent romance. It’s still not quite my style of thing: I’m not especially fond of contemporaries that don’t have anything else but the romance plot going on. But it’s better than okay.

THE RAJ AT WAR by Yasmin Khan

Yasmin Khan, The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War. Vintage. London, 2016. (First published 2015.)

It hadn’t occurred to me until I heard of The Raj at War that India must have been central, and centrally important, to the Allies’ efforts in World War II — particularly once East Asia became an active theatre of war, with the Japanese attack on Hawaii in 1941 and the invasion of Burma in 1942. Indian regiments and Indian soldiers fought in all major theatres of war, and the fact that their contributions are not strongly remembered is a failure of historiography — almost as great a failure of historiography as the ones which meant I knew about the famines in the Soviet Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s, and in Greece under Nazi occupation, but not about the Bengal famine in India during the war: a famine ignored by Churchill and made worse by the action and inaction of British politicians and civil servants.

The Raj at War tells the story of World War II from an Indian perspective. It’s a relatively short book to cover a continent’s experience of six years of war: 416 pages including the end matter and index. Khan is a careful writer, and a skilled one: her brevity feels efficient, rather than forced, and she moves from grand overview to focusing in on a particular person or detail with great smoothness. This is history writing at its best, and it’s no fault of Khan’s — indeed, it is much to her credit — that my strongest reaction is: but I want to know MORE!

Khan’s account ranges from the start of the war, when the British empire mobilised its Indian regiments, through the changes in Indian society that resulted from the Raj working to put India on a total war footing, to the challenges and changes to the Raj’s traditional class and race systems, the mass mobilisation of labour, the hardship and suffering undergone by many, and the widespread tension between an empire that said it was fighting for “freedom” and the Indian people to whom it refused to listen or engage with on the question of self-rule or independence — tension that would in the end lead to the British withdrawal from India.

This is not a book about Indian regiments on the battlefield, or indeed a book about battles at all. It is more an overview of the social developments that occurred and social conditions that prevailed in India as a consequence of India’s experience of being a British possession during WWII. And, in consequence, some of the political developments during that time.

Yasmin Khan has also written a book about the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 (The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan). With this in mind, it is easy to understand why at times her account of India’s war experience tends towards the teleological, particularly with respect to the changes in Indian nationalism and nationalist feeling during this time. The Raj at War does that thing of so many history books, where because something momentous did happen, the narrative defaults to the assumption that it was unavoidable that it would happen, which is a historiographical tendency that deeply annoys me.

That said, this is a really interesting and compelling piece of history-writing. I learned a great deal from it — so much that even to summarise the highlights could go on for pages. It’s fascinating, and I recommend it highly.

Women Who Love Women: November Dispatches From FF Romance

Gun Brooke, Arrival, and Carsen Taite, A More Perfect Union. Bold Strokes Books, 2017.

This month’s set of offerings (care of the Bold Strokes Books’ Netgalley page) are largely unobjectionably boring. We’re mostly short on the hilariously awful — as far as I can tell from first chapters, and barring Shea Godfrey’s laughably overdramatic opening to King of Thieves — and long on the deeply uninspired prose and tediously poor characterisation.

I’m cruel because I care. Let’s be fair: lesbian romance needs to up its game if it’s going to play for a bigger slice of the romance market pie. It’s not going to manage that without paying a lot more attention to the craft of catching a reader’s attention. Many readers aren’t short of other options.

I finished two novels out of the six (or was it eight? They blur together) that were available this month. One of those was Gun Brooke’s Arrival, the latest novel in a science fiction romance series. The other is Carsen Taite’s A More Perfect Union, a romance between a military officer involved in investigating misconduct at an officers’ training school in Washington, and a political fixer who has no reason to trust the military. Neither of these novels were actually good, mind you — though A More Perfect Union was tolerably okay — but they shared one feature that set them apart from their peers this month. Their characters were interesting and had personality. And not the kind of personality that makes you want to throw them off a cliff, either.

Gun Brooke’s Exodus series, of which Arrival is the latest instalment, is terrible science fiction. The worldbuilding is shoddy and inconsistent, the technology hasn’t been thought through, and the ongoing political situation is of the “throw a bunch of terrorist threats and racism analogies at the ceiling with no particular co-ordination and see what sticks”  sort. There’s a large, well-organised group of people who’ve left their homeworld on a colony ship because they don’t like the fact it’s being taken over by “changers” — mutants, basically, like the X-men, who seem to have been fighting the government for a while. But wait! There are also “good” changers, some of whom have hidden themselves aboard the Exodus vessel. Fortunately, it seems, because the bad changers have been trying to sabotage the project from the get-go.

The worldbuilding’s a hot mess, basically. And Arrival is also a hot mess structurally. But it has a pair of interesting characters.

Lieutenant Pamas Seclan was held captive by hostile changers for years before she escaped. She forged identity documents to get herself aboard the Exodus project, hoping to be able to reconnect with her adult children, Aniwyn and Pherry, at the end of the journey. (Her children were left to grow up under the debatable care of her abusive husband.) Aniwyn is now known as Spinner, and a Commander in the military. But Pamas’s hopes of peaceful reconciliation with her children are dashed when the new colony’s medical facilities are attacked with a virulently dangerous substance.

Darmiya Do Voy is a scientist and a member of the advance team that helped get the colony ready to receive colonists. Her homeworld was destroyed and she’s one of only a handful of survivors. She’s also one of Spinner’s best friends, which makes things awkward when she and Pamas immediately find themselves forging a connection. As the two of them negotiate Pamas’s complicated past and her relationship with her daughter, they find themselves at the forefront of attempts to defend the colony from the antagonistic changers.

The plot as a whole doesn’t make any sense, I should tell you. But the characters and their arc are entertaining and fun.

Meanwhile, Carsen Taite’s A More Perfect Union features Major Zoey Granger, an officer who blew the whistle on fraudulent dealings at her base. A chance meeting with political fixer Rook Daniels as Granger’s en route to testify before Congress results in a fast-growing attraction between the two women. When Granger’s reassigned to work at the Pentagon — and when her first job is investigating some young officers whose potential misdeeds are likely to have political complications — she and Daniels meet again professionally, and this professional relationship is somewhat antagonistic. Both of them are convinced that the other is holding back relevant information, and that the other doesn’t understand the real picture. They also find it difficult to trust each other on a personal, relationship level. When a Pentagon officer commits suicide, things get even more dangerous.

A More Perfect Union is tolerable romantic suspense, but it too is off-balance structurally and pacing-wise, and its characters, apart from its romantic leads, are thin and two-dimensional. But its romantic leads have characters, and their growth from miscommunication and mistrust towards mutuality is treated reasonably well. I wouldn’t say run out and read it now — but of Bold Strokes Books’ available romances this month, this one might well be the best.

“You look different when you tell the truth. Your eyes change.” ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) – Patreon



It is August 2017. I’m tired and overwhelmed by world events (the USA, Iraq, Finland, Malaysia, Catalonia, and of course Australia’s wonderful idea to hold a marriage equality plebiscite), local events, and how much work I have to do in order to get paid.

This is not a review of the news, though, but of Atomic Blonde, the film I went to see in order to distract myself from all of that.

Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City by Sam Hart and Anthony Johnston, directed by David Leitch (in his first feature-length film), and starring Charlize Theron, Atomic Blonde is a spy film set in 1989 Berlin. Claustrophobic, stylish, rooted in its time and place, Atomic Blonde reminded me a little bit of The Sandbaggers, a little bit of The Bourne Identity, and a lot of Greg Rucka’s spy novels and graphic novels (some of which, come to think of it, were published by the same outfit as The Coldest City).

The cinematography is excellent. There’s a recurring motif of shots through doors and windows, of shots in reflections, of mirrors, of things seen at an angle or edgewise-on. Everything is angles, everything is deceptive, nothing you see can be taken at face value. The characters are all angles and smooth surfaces, frictionless except where they’re playing it rough: everything is nested betrayals and triple-crosses.

Theron plays spy/agent Lorraine Broughton with a chill like the ice-bath we see her climbing out of in the opening scenes — bruised, battered, bloody and still somehow entirely collected. Her performance is light on dialogue, in contrast to the ninety-to-the-dozen chatter of James McAvoy’s David Percival (played with a combination of boyish charm, brutal self-interest, and sincerely dangerous competence): instead, her character is given definition through body-language. The physicality of Theron’s performance is intense, at times almost feral, in a way that fits seamlessly with the really good fight choreography.

(The fight choreography is really good: utterly brutal, unforgiving, full of found objects and with occasional appropriate punch-drunk stumbling. It’s visceral in a way that fight choreography seldom manages.)

Atomic Blonde is a spy film in which most of the characters seem to end up dead of Being A Spy.

It also portrays a queer relationship.

Theron’s Broughton is approached by French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella), a younger and rather more innocent spy. Broughton is enthusiastically into it. (An aside: I didn’t know I wanted to see something like this until I did, and I didn’t know Atomic Blonde had a queer relationship in it until I saw it. A queer relationship! Treated just like a straight one! Not marked out in any way, not a giant part of the plot as in Carol or The Handmaiden, just spies being spies in bed.) This relationship is the only place where we see a hint of something that could be considered softness in Broughton, the only place where she’s a little less than perfectly guarded. It seems that she does actually feel something for Delphine — enough, at least, to tell her to get out of Berlin rather than killing her when Broughton thinks that Delphine has double-crossed her.

Of course, Bury Your Gays is a thing. So I knew Delphine was doomed from the moment she and Broughton kissed. And hey, what do you know? I was right. It’s a film that buries its gays, and I don’t want to say, “But at least it has them” (but at least it has them), although having them at all is unusual for a spy film.

But it’s 2017. I wanted to at least to be able to hope for Delphine to walk off alive by the time the credits rolled. I want there to be enough films where that happens that Queer Death becomes unpredictable. Not, “Oh, she’s doomed now, right?” “Oh, maybe NOT DOOMED JUST YET — nope, that was a fakeout. Doomed.” “Sigh.”

The strangulation scene, when Delphine very nearly fights off her murderer, is so annoying wrong. Hollywood has this tendency to show both CPR and garrotting to be very effective within a short timeframe. In reality, if you are going to choke someone to death, even if you crush their windpipe, it’s going to take a while. Even if it is restriction of bloodflow rather than oxygen that’s the root cause. And they’re going to be unconscious for a few minutes first. Like, three-six minutes. This is why, in sport martial arts, you can actually choke someone out without killing them. Their eyes don’t just roll up and go straight to dead!

I knew better than to expect Atomic Blonde to subvert the Buried Gays/Dead Girlfriend tropes, but seriously, GIRL AIN’T DEAD YET USE A BULLET. Bullets are harder to argue with: the part of me that knows how strangulation works kept expecting her to show up later, at odds with the part of me that knows how Hollywood works.

Atomic Blonde is a good film. I’m going to go see it again. It works well. (And it has a really great soundtrack).

But, you know. Fuck the Bury Your Gays trope. It’s boring and predictable and tedious and bad storytelling. Atomic Blonde would have been a better film without it.


This review brought to you thanks to my Patreon backers.

Sleeps With Monsters: The Weird West of Wynonna Earp

A new column over at

I didn’t know I needed a weird modern Western—complete with curses, demons, and complicated family dynamics—in my life. But apparently I didn’t know what I was missing! It turns out that this is exactly what I wanted, when it comes in the form of SEVEN24/IDW Entertainment’s Wynonna Earp, created by Emily Andras, based on the comic by Beau Smith, and starring Melanie Scrofano as the eponymous Wynonna.



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.




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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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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.


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.

Alyc Helms, THE DRAGONS OF HEAVEN: Patreon not-a-review

This post is brought to you by the generous support of my Patreon backers.

If what follows is slightly more incoherent than is good for it, it is because it was written when I’d lost 2.5kg due to illness in five days. (I’m still recovering.) This is meant to explain, not excuse.

Alyc Helms, The Dragons of Heaven. Angry Robot Books, 2015. Copy courtesy of Angry Robot Books.

This is not actually a proper review, because I did not finish the book. As I mentioned in a post on Patreon a while ago, I was finding The Dragons of Heaven tedious and unappealing fare. This is not to say it is a bad book: in a different season, with different pressures on me, and if I were not ill, I might find it entertaining enough (at least entertaining enough to finish). Then again, I might not.

The Dragons of Heaven is, in this copy, 376 pages long. I have read 130 of them, and find that sufficient to declare it really Not For Me.

I didn’t realise, when I cracked its spine, that The Dragons of Heaven involved superhero narratives married to what feels like a classic urban fantasy tone. The voice, too, feels like the voice of an urban fantasy narrator: edging up on hard-boiled and noir-ish, but not quite, and taking itself a little too seriously for me to really take it seriously. But then, I’ve never quite been able to get the appeal of superhero narratives — and superhero stories in which a young woman (and street magician) from San Francisco goes to China in search of the Chinese dragon who trained her grandfather in the powers that led to him taking on a superhero persona, hoping to find training in turn, are an even harder sell.

*loses train of thought*

*finds it again*

Okay. Right. Missy Masters is the granddaughter of superhero Mr. Mystic. He disappeared — dead or missing. She decided to follow in his footsteps and use the powers she’s inherited to be a superhero herself.

The chapters alternate between past and present: present Missy has taken on her grandfather’s superhero persona and has got herself involved in an ongoing conflict with the local branch of organised Chinese crime, headed up by a bloke called Lao Chan. Which also involves magic. Or superpowers. Or both. Then she interrupts Lao Chan in the middle of a ritual involve the “guardians” of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Shortly after this, some kind of mystical barrier goes up around a) China b) lots of Chinatowns across the world, and Missy figures out these barriers are related to the ritual she interrupted. She has to go to China and figure out how to take the barrier back down, before something terrible happens.

Past Missy is a bit of a wannabe superhero. One night she gets in over her head, intervening in a conflict between a rather better-trained superhero and …someone with excellent training who isn’t a hero. She ends up hurt, and having thoroughly screwed up, decides she needs training. So, off to China, to search for the dragon who trained her grandfather. Along the way, she’s travelling with a tour group who end up trapped by a monster in a teahouse. (I’m not entirely sure what was the point of teahouse monster fight, or tour group people.) And then she encounters the dragon, who seems to be in the form of a young, pretty man. And I’m afraid I rather felt my hackles go up. Oh, yes, I spy a love interest! says I to myself. One who’s probably going to come with all sorts of familial and cultural complications, but I don’t see why a dragon would give any uninvited visitor the time of day, to be honest.

I don’t know if I spied a love interest correctly or not. Flicking ahead to the final pages certainly seems to imply some romantic connection between Missy and the dragon bloke. Who seems to have some kind of family connection to the figure behind the organised crime folks. Or something.

But to be honest, the reason I don’t want to read on? Is that I feel absolutely no emotional connection with the characters. Missy falls flat. In 130 pages, there’s not another significant character who comes across as really interesting. The past-present back and forth of the interwoven chapters? They don’t support each other with tension and thematic argument, not in any way that comes across to me. They confuse and drag: there are too many characters, and not enough connection. I can’t feel any reason to care, because it all seems like meaningless rushing about.

Charitably, this might be more to do with me than with the book: illness and pressure does odd things to my brain. On the other hand, it could just be that I really don’t care about any of these people and their rushing-about.

Strange Horizons has a poetry issue

I can’t agree that the Odyssey is speculative, because what reads to us as an exercise in the fantastic was religion and tradition to its original audience, but I can’t agree either that the strategic reworking of those source myths automatically makes for modernism, because the Alexandrian poets were remix artists par excellence and none of them were, thank God, Ezra Pound. If speculative poetry is to be a real genre and not just a tautology (a poem is speculative when published in a market that publishes speculative poetry), I need it to mean something in its own right, not just as reaction or perpetuation. Otherwise we’re all still at the Danish Pastry House in Medford, 2012, wondering if we edit a thing that actually exists.

-Sonya Taaffe, in Defining Speculative Poetry: A Conversation and Three Manifestos.

In this week’s Strange Horizons, I’m reviewing Mythic Delirium #30. I only liked four poems.

How many books have you read this year?

According to my records, I’ve hit 180. Not counting rereads. Yikes.

I know I owe a review of the wonderful giant glossy OUP book about Pompeii. I haven’t forgotten. I’ve just spent six weeks bouncing from one bout of illness to another, which has played merry hell with deadlines and progress of ALL KINDS.

It’s coming. Eventually. In the meanwhile I’ve been reading books that require a little less in the way of intellectual engagement, for the most part.

Glenda Larke, The Last Stormlord. Orbit, 2009.

Epic fantasy. Interesting world-building, but the characterisation is inconsistent or occasionally odd, and the narrative drive and tension are not driving enough to make up for it. It isn’t doing enough with the space it has, which makes it feel slack and rather aimless at times.

Jeannie Lin, The Dragon and the Pearl, The Lotus Palace, Butterfly Swords and My Fair Concubine. Ebooks, various recent years.

These are entertaining romances set mostly in Tang dynasty China. Fun, really good incluing technique – as necessary in historical work as the genres of the fantastic – and the romance did not make me want to stab anyone in the face. Rather the opposite, in fact.

Sophia Kell Hagin, Whatever Gods May Be and Shadows of Something Real. Ebooks, various recent years.

Near-future stories starring a lesbian main character. The first is a war story, and the second less easily categorised. They’re surprisingly good, with real confidence in the prose.

C.S. Friedman, In Conquest Born. DAW, 1986, 2001 reprint.

Science fiction. Empires. Psychics. Space battles. Disturbing, unpleasant; depiction of a culture where male-on-female rape is normal, practically a requirement; characters all on the antihero end of the spectrum. Not My Cup Of Tea At All.

Jacqueline Carey, Dark Currents and Autumn Bones. Roc, 2012 and 2013.

Delightful, entertaining, interesting urban fantasy set in a small American town. More like this, please.

Tamora Pierce, Battle Magic. Scholastic, 2013.

Once again Pierce delivers a grand adventure involving young people. Although her not-Tibet and not-China has me side-eyeing a bit: the strokes are a little too broad, and the war is a little too easily won.

Lesley Davis, Dark Wings Descending and Pale Wings Protecting. Ebooks, recent dates.

Bad lesbian romance, with a side-order of cops and angels and demons.

Mira Grant, Parasite. Orbit, 2013.

Seanan McGuire really likes mad science, biological apocalypses, conspiracies, and simple organisms. I mean, really really really likes.

I’m going to need some time to think about this novel, really. There is a shit-tonne of info-dumping (through various methods, but a lot through excerpts from news sources and autobiographies), and the voice doesn’t seem particularly distinct from the rest of McGuire’s oeuvre, Discount Armageddon and sequel aside. On the other hand, I rather like the soft apocalypse conceit.

It’s not mind-blowing. It’s rather like John Scalzi’s novels – moderately interesting concepts, middle-of-the-road execution – which clearly isn’t exactly a niche market. I would like it to excite me more than it does. But it’s also very… American? It nests itself within – or perhaps it nests within itself – so many assumptions about how the world works, and how central America is to the world, that it creates in me a sense of disconnect and alienation.


Gail Simone, New 52: Batgirl Vol. 1. DC, 2013.

So I am converted to the idea of comics as an interesting medium now. Also Gail Simone is awesome.

Greg Rucka, Private Wars and The Last Run. Bantam, 2005 and 2010.

Rucka writes the best spy thrillers. No, really. The best. And I’m not just saying that because I would kill to see his Queen and Country stuff made into a good television series.

Greg Rucka and various artists, Queen and Country, collected volumes one through three. Oni Press.

I am extra converted to the idea of comics as an interesting medium. Rucka’s facility with writing flawed, ethically compromised, yet immensely compelling characters is brilliantly on display. Fantastic work.

Les femmes de l’ombre (2008) a film by Jean-Paul Salomé.

The English release is known as Female Agents, which is a much less striking title than The Women of Shadow. Starring Sophie Marceau, Julie Depardieu, Marie Gillain, Déborah François, Moritz Bleibtrau, Maya Sansa, and Julien Boisselier, it is the story of a group of women recruited by the SOE and sent in to France to rescue an English agent and assassinate a German SS colonel.

Salomé allegedly took his inspiration in part from the life of Lise de Baissac. The film itself is afflicted by several dozen things which make no sense for history but make rather a lot of sense in the compressed time/space of a film – although it relies on coincidence a little too much on one particular occasion. It is visually striking, although there are one or two shots that lend themselves to confusion/over-emphasis – the director has reached for the most striking, most iconic image, and reached a bit too far. At times it sways towards hackneyed emotional beats, but on the whole it resists them in favour of something much more raw.

(I’d love to see what someone with more critical chops in cinema made of it.)

It is not a perfect film, and its has a lot to do on a moderate budget. (Including some understated but nasty torture scenes.) But it is a damn good one, and I recommend it wholeheartedly – especially to anyone who read and enjoyed Code Name Verity and/or Rose Under Fire.

Lucian of Samosata, True History

Lucian’s True History, as promised.


ψεύσματα ποικίλα πιθανῶς τε καἐναλήθως ἐξενηνόχαμεν

Persuasively and plausibly have I brought forth artful lies.

-Lucian of Samosata, True History I.2



The True History is a very short work. A novelette or perhaps a novella (depending on your definitions), it’s probably the most famous thing to have sprung from the pen of that little-known comic writer, Lucian of Samosata, and the only one of his published works to engage directly with fantastic.


He’s no ordinary science fiction or fantasy writer. True History, in its slender translation from the original Greek, combines a satirical twist on the travelogue – long familiar to us from such writers as Ἰαμβοῦλος (“Islands of the Sun”), Κτησίας the Knidian (“Indian Matters”), Antonius Diogenes (“An Account of the Unbelievable Things Beyond Thule”) and Michael Palin (“New Europe”) – with a lively dose of mythological reference. Are you ready to travel to the kingdom of the Moon? Pass by the edges of Cloud-cuckoo-land? Tread in the footsteps of Herakles and visit the Isles of the Blessed? If so, read on.


Unlike the vast majority of writers in the fantastic vein – Virgil comes to mind, and so does Robert Jordan – Lucian isn’t interested in grand lengthy sagas full of portents and battle-scenes, whose dramatis personae are impossible to keep straight without a scorecard. (At this length he’d be hard-pressed to cram that many in.) Instead, we have the narrator – a fictionalised Lucian himself – who sets out with fifty unnamed companions and a ship to reach the ends of the earth:


αἰτία δέ μοι τῆς ἀποδημίας καὶ ὑπόθεσις… τὸ βούλεσθαι μαθεῖν τί τὸ τέλος ἐστὶν τοῦ ὠκεανοῦ καί τίνες οἱ πέραν κατοικοῦντες ἄνθρωποι.


“And the cause and purpose of my journey… was the desire to learn what was at the end of the ocean, and what were the people who dwelled beyond.”


But it wouldn’t be a story unless our brave narrator ran into trouble first…


I’m not sure the True History is a single story, so much as a loosely-connected series of vignettes. “In which Lucian stumbles onto something else again” could be its subtitle. The island of the plant-people. The whirlwind that picks his ship up and sets it in the heavens, where for seven days and seven nights it’s driven by the wind, until it lands on the Moon. The war between the Moonites and the Sunites. Escaping from the belly of a whale. Being asked to take a letter from the dead Odysseus to Calypso: “Now I am in the Island of the Blessed, bitterly regretting having given up my life with you and your offer of immortality.”


There is a passage of exposition concerning the people of the Moon which I had forgotten, and which brings to heart how very different Lucian is from most of the rest of the genre field. (Although he’s terrible in his portrayal of women – he just doesn’t.) On the Moon, men marry men, and produce children with each other. There’s a lot of man-lovin’ in the True History, but this vision of male pregnancy is an outstanding example of its difference.


In the end, True History ends abruptly, with unfulfilled promises of a sequel. Reading it in light of SFF is a strange, disjointing experience – it is both like and unlike Novellas What I Have Seen – but an oddly rewarding one.

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):


Ben Aaronovitch’s Broken Homes

A review over at

Broken Homes is the fourth instalment in Ben Aaronovitch’s bestselling Peter Grant series, after last year’s Whispers Under Ground. If you’re new to the joy that’s PC Peter Grant and the mysteries he investigates under the supervision of DCI Thomas Nightingale—England’s last officially practising wizard—Broken Homes is not the best place to start. Unlike Moon Over Soho or Whispers Under Ground, it doesn’t give you much time to get your feet under you before it starts setting up its dominos and knocking them down.

The knocking down is, in places, rather literal.