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

4102_d008_01314_rv4_crop-h_2017

 

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.

 


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Sleeps With Monsters: The Weird West of Wynonna Earp

A new column over at Tor.com:

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

THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS, US cover art.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It really is an utterly magnificent achievement.

 

THE HOUSE OF BINDING THORNS, UK cover

 


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

WELLINGTON’S ENGINEERS book cover.

 

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

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

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

I will confess to a little disappointment.

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

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

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

This is not that book.

 


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DISHONORED 2: First Mission Reactions (A Long Day in Dunwall)

  

This is not a review. Well, not exactly.

I’ve had Dishonored 2 for a couple of months — more like four, actually — but I only recently cracked the box and loaded it up. I enjoyed Dishonored‘s worldbuilding, design, and (for the most part) storyline, and I’ve had a weakness for stealth-murder (or stealth-sneaky) games for a very long time.

My main issues with Dishonored were the lack of options with regard to the protagonist’s gender, and its lack of a realistic diversity (everyone was white) given that it took place in a port city.

Dishonored 2?

So far, Dishonored 2 is everything I loved about Dishonored with so very many fewer of the issues I had with it. I am DELIGHTED that one of the protagonist options is Emily Kaldwin, Empress of Dunwall — who apparently spends her limited time away from empress-ing learning the skills of stealth assassin-ing from Corvo Attano, her father and chief bodyguard. (Everybody needs a hobby.) Emily, alas, is not a very fortunate empress: fifteen years to the day after her mother’s assassination, a coup (backed by magic) unseats her from her throne. (At this point, you can choose to play as either Corvo or Emily — Corvo is BORING. Of course I went with Emily.)

With her father transformed into a statue and her friend the guard captain cut down in front of her, you-as-Emily must escape the palace, make your way across the city, and set out on a quest to identify and bring down your enemies. First, though, you need to make your way to the harbour, where there’s a ship whose captain might prove to be an ally…

This first mission is called “A Long Day in Dunwall,” and yes. It is. Especially if you’re trying to get the complete stealth and no-killing achievements. But it’s visually stunning, and Emily comes across, in those occasional moments when she has something to say, as a much more complex and snarkier character than Corvo ever seemed in the course of Dishonored. Creeping up behind soldiers from the shadows, I felt much more intensely invested in Emily’s inner world and her (understandable) desire for revenge. Traitors! I should just stab them.

Dunwall_in_Dishonored_2

But then you reach the harbour, where the ship Dreadful Wale [sic] awaits you. Its captain is one Meagan Foster, and I was… really pretty happy to see that the first ally you encounter is a black female ship captain with one arm. She seems like a badass. 

As far as I’m concerned, Dishonored 2 is already doing better on several fronts than its predecessor. It’s prettier! Its characters are more interesting, and have more character! And it’s much better at not being all about the men.

I’m looking forward to starting mission #2…


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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.

Anyway.

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):

McInerney
Younger

Ben Aaronovitch’s Broken Homes

A review over at Tor.com:

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.

G.W. Bowersock, The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam

The order in which I’m approaching the things I said I’d do in this post has changed. I have to push the timeframe out by a month, so the last promised thing will be appearing in mid-October. And I’m switching the order of Lucian and Bowersock around, so Bowersock comes first.

G.W. Bowersock, The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam: a longer-than-500-word review.

This was not the book its title led me to expect. With a title like The Throne of Adulis and a subtitle of the Eve of Islam, one expects a contextualised discussion of kingship around the Red Sea within a relatively short timeframe. But in its 150 pages – this is not a long book – Bowersock ranges from the first to the sixth centuries CE and beyond, leaving one rather with the impression that The Throne of Adulis is not so much a coherent monograph in its own right, but rather the sketched outline of a longer work.

I’m not accustomed to finding academic works lacking in depth of field. In this case, the lack of depth which I perceive may be in part my lack of familiarity with the details of the Late Antique Red Sea, with which Bowersock may in fact be assuming that his readers are already familiar. If so, Oxford University Press have chosen poorly in how to present The Throne of Adulis to the public, for it is not presented in its cover copy or press release as a scholarly monograph appealing to a specialist audience, but rather as a book which “vividly recreates the Red Sea world of Late Antiquity, transporting readers back to a remote but pivotal epoch in ancient history, one that sheds light on the collapse of the Persian Empire as well as the rise of Islam.”

Nota bene, friends: it doesn’t do that. And, it fact, this piece of puffery is contradicted by Bowersock’s stated goal in his own preface. For Bowersock is not so much concerned with the wider Red Sea world, with its social and archaeological context – and let me say that I find the use of archaeological evidence in this book to be both limited and unconcerned with discussing the problems and benefits of said evidence for shedding light on people. Inscriptional evidence for important people, yes – but everyday persons, not so much.

Bowersock is interested in only one thing: an inscribed throne from the Red Sea port of Adulis, described by the sixth-century Christian writer known as Cosmas Indicopleustes. From here, he ranges outward to discuss the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum, the Jewish Himyarite kingdom on the Arabian peninsula, and – briefly and in no great detail – the involvement of Byzantine and Persian interests in Axum’s wars in Arabia. When it comes to discussing the throne – the “throne of Adulis” of the title – and Axum’s situation in Ethiopia, it is a very straightforward, useful piece of research, comparing the description of the throne at Adulis with other inscribed thrones from the history of the Axumite kingdom and doing so in ways that I, as someone who knows little of Axum, can follow very well.

When he moves on to discuss Axum’s involvement in Arabia, and the Himyarite kingdom, his work stops being something that I can follow well at all. The discussion of the socio-historical context of the Arabian peninsula up to this time is lacking. Bowersock’s discussion of the Himyarite kingdom is seriously hampered by the fact that he does not take the time to lay out and examine the evidence literary and archaeological in a methodological fashion, so I am left not knowing if the lack of detail is Bowersock’s choice or a result of lack of data. The through-line of his narrative/argument is confusing, therefore, to follow, and he sketches a very limited picture of Byzantine and Persian involvement. Furthermore, he has next-to-nothing significant to say about Axum and Himyar’s impact on the rise of Islam.

And I’m left with a very odd feeling about the way in which Bowersock refers to Jewishness and Arabness. There seems to be an underlying subconscious strain of moral judgement there – not something one can easily put a finger on, but the choice of adjectives and adverbs strikes me very uneven at times. The discussion of the Christian kingdom of Axum’s interests in Arabia, and the Jewish Himyarite kingdom’s suppression of Christians, never rises to an acknowledgement that there are reasons other than pure religious sentiment to suppress adherents of a different creed: that religion is intimately political. That adherents of the creed of one’s belligerent neighbours can also be seen as Fifth Columnists.

Anyway. The Throne of Adulis is a book of interest to people fascinated by inscribed thrones, and of very limited use in explaining the social and political context of the Red Sea in the century before the rise of the Prophet.

A review of Charles Stross’ Neptune’s Brood

Over at Tor.com.

Neptune’s Brood, the latest science fiction novel from multiple award winner Charles Stross, could be subtitled a novel of adventure and accountancy. I’ve read what seems to me a lot of fiction, and a lot of science fiction: I don’t think I’ve ever before read a novel so closely involved with financial theory and the workings of money and debt. Stross has written a novel that works as both science fiction thriller and an exploration of how interstellar banking—interstellar economics—could work in a universe without FTL travel but with interstellar mobility.

Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds

The summer issue of Ideomancer is up, in which I have a review of Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds:

The Best of All Possible Worlds is not a domestic work. It doesn’t centre around a domicile, around social interiors. But it is concerned with emotional interiority in a manner not often see in the wider SF field, a novel immensely – one might even say intensely – personal in scope and concerned with small-scale actions, despite the world-destroying tragedy lurking in the story’s near past and looming over its shoulder. This concern with the personal combines with a gentle nod at SF’s mythic furniture to create a thematic, tonal continuity with Lord’s first novel, Redemption in Indigo, although the two books are otherwise very different animals.

Tor.com review: The Gist. Written by Michael Marshall Smith, Translated by Benoît Domis, Re-Translated by Nicholas Royle

And you all can read it here.

The Gist, a novelette by Michael Marshall Smith, is the latest offering from Subterranean Press’s limited but honourable catalogue. To say it is by Marshall Smith—or at least, by Marshall Smith alone—is, however, something of a misnomer. Between The Gist’s covers are three novelettes and one novelette: Marshall Smith’s original, translated once into the French by Benoît Domis, translated again (without access to the original text) back into the English by Nicholas Royle. Two further recensions of the first text: three recensions of a single work.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s The Exiled Blade: a confession of unprofessional shirking

I was supposed to review this book. I wanted to review this book. (I really enjoyed the previous volume in the series.) JCG’s Orbit US publicist, a very personable person, sent me a review copy of The Exiled Blade

And, well.

There are some books that come along at the worst possible time for you to read them. Some books, regardless of their talent and ability – sometimes because of the directions in which talent and ability is bent – you can’t read then. Or sometimes ever.

I lasted eight chapters. I didn’t stop because Jon Courtenay Grimwood is a bad writer. I stopped because This should have been when we were happy [p50]; because JCG is in fact very good, and the level of pain and grief and despair he managed to evoke, the cold sense of lowering doom, heartbreak, incipient dread, made my teeth hurt. I stopped because this is a Hamlet, isn’t it? Nobody comes out intact, everyone comes out broken…

…And right now I need sweet little hopeful happy-ending lies in my life. I need stories that focus on joy as well as pain. Because I need to escape from hurting for a while, me, not face the world’s cruelty condensed and intensified in JCG’s viscerally-rendered courtly shadows, his dark and glittering Renaissance Venice.

One day I’ll be able to read this book without bile backing up in my throat. One day I’ll want a dash of bleak horror in my literary cocktail again. But not this month. Maybe not this year.

Until then, cheers. I’ll drink something sweet and sticky, and leave dry bitters to other folks.

Books in brief

Reading has been decidedly difficult for me lately: I lack some level of emotional energy necessary to involve myself in demanding texts at the same rate as heretofore.

Anyway.

Melissa Scott, Star Trek DS9: Proud Helios. Ebook.

Jean Lorrah, Star Trek Next Generation: Survivors. Ebook.

Diane Duane, Star Trek: Sand and Stars. Ebook.

So, these are all actually pretty good light entertainment, although Lorrah’s is a bit squicky and problematic.

Katherine V. Forrest, Amateur City & Murder at the Nightwood Bar. Ebooks.

Murder mysteries from the 1980s, starring a lesbian detective with the LAPD. Pretty excellent stuff, actually: I’d really like to get my hands on the other books in the series. I MEAN IT. THESE BOOKS ARE AWESOME. ACE. GIVE THEM TO ME I NEED THEM.

(I know their names, even if I don’t know what order they go in or WHERE TO GET HOLD OF THEM. Liberty Square. The Beverly Malibu. Apparition Alley. Sleeping Bones. Hancock Park. Murder By Tradition. GIVE ME THEM! LET ME FIND EBOOK (non-Amazon) EDITIONS OR SOMETHING.)

Ahem. This is because of a certain someone Who Knows Who She Is. Who sent me a box of delightful books (which I am slowly working my way through), but among them was Daughters of a Coral Dawn, which reminded me that Forrest had written murder mysteries, which led me to the discovery I could get the first two as ebooks.

(OH GOD I WANT THEM ALL.)

Claire McNab, Death by Death & Murder at Random. Gifts.

Lesbians. Spies. Whee? Whee!

(Everything’s better with lesbians.)

Ali Vali, Blues Skies. Ebook.

Lesbian fighter pilots. Rah military is boring. But everything is better with lesbians.

Sara Marx, Decoded. Ebook.

Serial killer thrillers are usually boring. But everything is better with lesbians.

Kim Baldwin and Xenia Alexiou, The Gemini Deception. Ebook.

Lesbian romance with espionage/thriller entanglements. Unbelievable setup! But – sing it with me now – EVERYTHING IS BETTER WITH LESBIANS.

Lauren Beukes, The Shining Girls. ARC.

Reviewed for Tor.com. I did not like it.

China Miéville, Railsea. Review copy.

Reviewed for Vector. I LOVED IT.