I called Ada Palmer’s debut Too Like The Lightning “devastatingly accomplished… an arch and playful narrative,” when I reviewed it last summer. Too Like The Lightning was one part of a whole, the first half of a narrative that I expected Seven Surrenders would complete—and back then I said I couldn’t imagine that Palmer would “fail to stick the dismount.”
ISBN 978-0-7653-7928-3, Tor Teen, HB, 416pp, USD$18.99/CAN$21.99. January 2016. Cover art by Scott Grimando.
I first heard of Truthwitch some five or six months ago, when Kate Elliott mentioned it as a forthcoming YA novel that did interesting things with female friendship and epic fantasy worldbuilding. When I received a review copy, I was vaguely interested — but to tell you the truth, I’ve been rather burned out on reading for a while now: I expected I’d have the same UGH WORK GO AWAY reaction to it that I’ve been having to the vast majority of fiction.
This was, astonishingly, not to be the case.
Truthwitch opens with a caper: a highway robbery about to go horribly wrong. Safiya and Iseult are young women living in Veňaza City, playing in high-stakes card games and getting up to trouble — like committing highway robbery to avenge themselves on the handsome young man who made off with Safiya’s winnings. Unfortunately, they target the wrong carriage and run afoul of a guildmaster and his hired Bloodwitch… and that’s only the start of their problems.
Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to tell truth from lies. (At least, what people believe to be truth.) She keeps her abilities secret, because Truthwitches are rare and much sought-after by rulers, and Safiya, an impoverished noblewoman who doesn’t want the responsibilities of her position, has absolutely no desire to be turned into a useful prisoner. Iseult is a Threadwitch, who can see the threads that bind people together, the patterns in the world — and also a member of a despised social minority, the Nomatsi, a people who have no legal rights. And Iseult’s people have all but officially cast her out.
Iseult and Safiya are inseparable friends, as close as sisters: Iseult’s steadiness compensates for Safiya’s impulsiveness, and Safiya’s class and connections provide protection for Iseult. They have a strong emotional bond, but one that is shortly to be tested by politics and the pursuit of that Bloodwitch — a young man whose ultimate loyalties are something of a open question.
There has been a long peace between three major powers, and now that peace is coming to an end. Safiya’s uncle is engaged in some plot, which involves her betrothal to an emperor and then her escape by way of a ship belonging to Prince Merik, a young man whose nation suffered terribly in the last war and whose people are on the verge of starvation.
It is all caper. Very exciting caper, from then on, including pursuit and politics and sea serpents and some gonzo magical fight sequences. The pace is breakneck, with the characteristic first-novel trick of cramming as much stuff as possible in while rarely slowing down enough to allow its significance to sink in.
Except for the significance of Boyfriend. The narrative definitely pairs Prince Merik off with Safiya, and it is strongly implied that the Bloodwitch (Aeduan is his name) is supposed to be seen in the light of a potential future romantic interest for Iseult — although their relationship consists of just barely not killing each other up until the point where he saves her life.
I’ve been chewing over the problems I have with this book for a few days. It’s fun, and it has solid themes, and it’s not slight, exactly, so much as scattered. It opens with the promise of a caper novel: best friends (female friends), cardsharps and highway robbers, and some of my definite level of irk with it may be a result of how those early expectations were disappointed.
One of my problems with Truthwitch is that it makes unavoidably obvious one of the issues I have with a lot of young adult SFF, which is the centrality of heterosexual romance. There’s nothing wrong with romance. But this is a book where the core established emotional relationship is between two women — friends-like-sisters — and where one of the major themes concerns both of them discovering — owning — their own significance and ability to make choices that affect other people. And the presence of Boyfriend, for me, is a distracting sideshow from the coming-of-age narrative.
It is a sad truth, it seems, than in YA one can have Boys without Girls, but where there is a Girl, the general rule is that there must be a Boy.
Prince Merik is the Responsible One. Aeduan is the Dangerous One Who Might Come Good. But Merik berates Safiya with her irresponsibility, and Aeduan verges on unheathily obsessed with, alternately, Safiya and Iseult (for revenge or politics and eventually, for themselves). Being berated by the handsome prince, it seems, causes Safiya to undergo Personal Growth and make some frankly large sacrifices for Merik and his people.
I might have enjoyed the attraction-plot between Merik and Safiya a lot more if it hadn’t included an incident in which Merik locks Safiya in irons for dealing with the enemy to heal a badly-wounded Iseult. One does not exactly buy Safiya’s attraction and loyalty to Merik after that: the whole bondage thing seems like a large step to overlook.
But all the bits of the novel that don’t have boyfriend in them are really fun. Some excellent magical fight sequences! Epic fantasy worldbuilding that’s actually making an effort to use that epic depth of field! Female friendship! Lots of women around doing interesting things!
I’m just a little disappointed, because the emotional beats of the whole boyfriend plotlines are fairly predictable — and thus not very interesting — while the deep friendship between the two girls, and their relationship to the world, is something that we don’t see a lot in SFF. Their respective social statuses and backgrounds are different to each other, and there’s just enough there to tease me with the story the author’s not interested in telling: how these two, this unbreakable pair, interact with each other and a world that sees one of them as more human than the other.
On the other hand, this is definitely a book that’s easy to read, and easy to enjoy while reading. That’s a significant set of points in its favour, by me.
This post brought to you courtesy of my supporters at Patreon.
Here we have courtesy of Tor: Michael Swanwick, CHASING THE PHOENIX, David Weber, HELL’S FOUNDATIONS QUIVER, Jaime Lee Moyer, AGAINST A BRIGHTENING SKY, and Catherynne M. Valente’s RADIANCE. Courtesy of DAW, we have Jacey Bedford’s WINTERWOOD. And courtesy of Oxford University Press, Nicholas Walton’s GENOA LA SUPERBA: THE RISE AND FALL OF A MERCHANT PIRATE SUPERPOWER.
It’s not just my terrible camerawork: the lettering really *is* like that.
Pamela Sargent’s SEED SEEKER, courtesy of Tor Books. The press release with this one opens “Dear Booklover.” Is this a new standard salutation? Because it makes me want to say, “I swear, I’m not erotically into novels…”
Seven? Seven stars, and seven stones, and one white tree.
I confess myself astonished: Oxford University Press appears to have sent me copies of three volumes of poetry: Eleanor Rees’ BLOOD CHILD, Sarah Corbett’s AND SHE WAS, and Mona Arshi’s SMALL HANDS.
From Titan Books, Jim C. Hines’ FABLE: BLOOD OF HEROES and Kieran Shea’s KOKO THE MIGHTY. From Talos Books, Paul Tassi’s THE EXILED EARTHBORN. From Tor Books, Lawrence M. Schoen’s BARSK: THE ELEPHANTS’ GRAVEYARD.
So I wrote an email chasing some of these (because I am supposed to review some of them for deadlines) only to find them arriving the next day. EMBARRASS ME POST WHY DON’T YOU.
That’s Cassandra Rose Clarke’s OUR LADY OF THE ICE (Saga Press), Laura Anne Gilman’s SILVER ON THE ROAD (Saga Press), Kai Ashante Wilson’s SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS (Tor.com Publishing), and Carrie Vaughn’s KITTY SAVES THE WORLD (Tor Books).
And this is Stephanie Saulter’s REGENERATION (Jo Fletcher Books) and Jay Posey’s DAWNBREAKER (Angry Robot). Although I don’t know why anyone would send me the third book in a trilogy where I haven’t ever seen the first two… still, it has a pretty cover?
Robert Brockway, The Unnoticeables. Tor US/Titan UK, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publishers.
I’m surprised, now I come to read the publicity material, to find The Unnoticeables described in part as horror. Perhaps I shouldn’t be. It does remind me, in its split-timeline narrative and engagement with a particular vein of literary Americana, in its tone and in the intrusion of the inexplicable into the relentless quotidian, of Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls. And that, too, found itself described as horror.
Neither are particularly to my taste, although I find myself with rather more affection towards The Unnoticeables: it has two main viewpoint characters, a bloke called Carey in the 1970s and a stuntwoman in her early twenties in the modern day, Kaitlyn. In their various times, they encounter things that turn people into hollow shells of themselves, or consume them.
I enjoyed Kaitlyn’s point of view chapters. Carey’s… not so much. Carey is a sexist asshole surrounded by other assholes, none of whom appear to do anything with their lives besides drink, fight, fuck, and make fart jokes: I found myself really rather rooting for the angels who wanted to “solve” the problem, or the monsters who wanted to eat them. I’m not entirely sure that’s what the author was going for.
On the other hand, it has good voice, distinctive characterisation, rapid-fire pacing and an interesting conceit. Even if I’m not convinced, in the end, that it made any sense at all.
Courtesy of Tor Books: Jo Walton’s THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS, Wesley Chu’s TIME SALVAGER, Robert Brockway’s THE UNNOTICEABLES, Carrie Bebris’ THE SUSPICION AT SANDITON, and Jane Lindskold’s ARTEMIS INVADED.
Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant.
Tor, ISBN 978-0765380722, 384pp, HC, USD$25.99/CAN$29.99. From Tor UK as The Traitor, ISBN 978-1447281146, 400pp, HC & TPB, stg£12.99. September 2015.
UPDATE NOVEMBER 2016: Seth J. Dickinson is not a straight cis man, though I assumed he was when I first wrote this.
This is not a review. For this to be a proper review, I would have had to read The Traitor Baru Cormorant thoroughly, in its entirety, from cover to cover — and for the second time, my will has failed in that regard. (For the second time, I skipped ahead to the end: some part of me hoped that the end had changed in the intervening time. Alas, no.) What this is, then, is an explanation of some of my problems with The Traitor Baru Cormorant: the reasons, as it were, for my intense and visceral dislike of this novel, even as I admire its technical accomplishments.
Look. Not every book is for every reader. And some books that some people will find powerful and moving and important will leave other people cold and alienated, or pissed off, or just unmoved. (Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings is a perfect example of this for me: I can see the ways in which it is assured to be an important and moving book for other people, but I bounced off it within 100 pages.) This is by way of an important preface to the visceral dislike that follows: I’m not arguing that Dickinson’s book is shit and no one should read it. I’m saying that it pissed me off in a very subjective, personal way.
Now, for the book.
Let me enumerate, first, The Traitor Baru Cormorant‘s good points. (It’s important to be fair. I am trying very hard to be fair.) On a technical level, it is really very good: Dickinson’s prose is crisp, he has a good eye for pace and character, and a knack for getting a great deal across with an economy of description. Structurally, too, this is a cunning, clever novel, with a nested series of deceptions and betrayals at its heart, crux, and climax. It’s a story about imperialism, about politics, about colonialism, and its main character is a queer woman (a queer brown woman). I so very much wanted to like it. Hell, I wanted to love it: epic fantasy with more queer women is a theme I occasionally yell upon.
Unfortunately, there’s a difference between stories about amazing queer characters doing awesome epic things, and stories in which amazing queer characters basically exist to SUFFER for BEING QUEER.
As is often the case, Foz Meadows has beaten me to the punch and written something incredibly incisive on the first two chapters of The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Go. Read what she has to say. Then come back.
You’re back? Good.
Warning: this will likely degenerate into ranting. With caps. Also, spoilers.
So, the Masquerade. Dickinson’s Masked Empire, the empire ruled from Falcrest. It annoys me. I am annoyed at it. It is a Very Colonial Empire. And it’s a cop-out on actually interrogating empire and colonialism, because by any reasonable modern standard it’s Pretty Awful. I mean, eugenics, Stasi-like levels of social surveillance and control, really intense homophobic repression, willingness to take advantage of diseases introduced to colonial populations, residential schools — pick two. Or three. All five is beating the really big drum of Bad Empire Is Bad.
Then couple this with an in-universe justification for imperialism that essentially boils down to But Science And Sewers, a justification no one really challenges, making it seem as though the narrative agrees that empire might actually really be okay as long as it’s not that bad?
Hi. My name is Liz. I’m annoyed now.
I’m only going to get more annoyed.
Because in addition, this? This is a straight person’s story about a queer person. The titular Baru’s queerness basically exists in order to give her an axis upon which To Be Oppressed. There are no queer communities, after Baru is removed from her natal community in the first chapter; no portrayed community resistance to queerness as a site of social control and punishment; no connections between queer characters bar Baru and the woman who eventually becomes her lover. It’s all BAD SHIT HAPPENS and also GRAND HIGH QUEER TRAGEDY.
And speaking as someone who’s recently been growing into the realisation that she is in fact pretty queer, I’m really inclined to be pissed when I’m offered the story of an awesome queer character — and it turns out, right, it turns out that this is the ANTITHESIS of the coming-out story. This is the closet or DEATH story. Actually, both.
CLOSET AND DEATH.
So to speak.
Let’s dogleg back to the problem of empire for a moment, on the way to more yelling about the book’s queer stuff.
So, right. I’m Irish. (Bear with me, there’s a point coming.) In many ways this gives me a peculiar view of colonial empires. And of colonialism and imperialism — both beneficiary, and on the other hand, have you looked at Irish history? (And the myths we tell about Irish history, too.) And it seems to me that Dickinson is in some ways writing a message book. A book about how EMPIRE IS BAD and HOMOPHOBIA IS BAD… and not really grasping, on more than a superficial intellectual level, the ways in which people accommodate and resist at the same time and with the same tools. And that this applies as much to social repression as it does to the colonisation of identities.
Dickinson might theoretically get the idea of the “colonisation of the mind” but he misses the doubled vision that’s the eternal gift and legacy of colonial empires to their possessions and the people thereof. That’s the poisoned chalice pressed upon subaltern identities. And you know, he’s trying. He’s definitely trying. That he didn’t get this right for me doesn’t mean he didn’t get it right for someone else!
But. But. The reason this is not a review is because of the middle bit. The middle bit that I’ve twice failed to do more than skim, where Baru leads a rebellion that it turns out was actually a mousetrap, falls in love, betrays the rebellion (because layered mousetrap), tries to save her lover, fails —
I did read the conclusion. The conclusion where Baru and her lover Tain Hu are reunited, Tain Hu a prisoner and Baru walking a political knife’s edge. The conclusion where Baru condemns her lover to death so that the people who’ve been grooming Baru to become one of them (her sometime allies, her employers, the secret inner committee of the Falcrest imperial republic) cannot use either Tain Hu or the fact of Baru’s queerness as leverage against her.
These are grand high tragic scenes, naturally. With mental swearing of ultimate vengeance on the forces that compel, COMPEL I SAY, Baru to do this thing. And Tain Hu? Tain Hu helps manipulate Baru into it, as one last strike against Falcrest — with her death, fighting for Baru’s position on a political battlefield.
Fuck you. Seriously, fuck you.
When I was reading The Traitor Baru Cormorant for the first time, I reached the point where it becomes obvious that Baru and Tain Hu are liable to get involved. And I skipped ahead to the conclusion, because if experience has taught me one thing, it’s that you really can’t trust a mainstream book to not fuck over its queer characters. Especially queer women — and there are so few queer women protagonists in fantasy and science fiction. So damn few.
And I read the conclusion, and my reaction was you did NOT just do that.
And I went back and skimmed, to fill in the gaps. (Skimmed, because I drew the line at getting more emotionally invested than I had to be.) And Tain Hu is awesome. She’s clever and honourable and courageous and true to her word even unto death. And Baru is awesome: she’s clever and tricksy and courageous and layered like a fucking onion (and all the layers have sharp edges), caught between everything she’s already sacrificed to get this far and everything she’s going to have to sacrifice to attain her ultimate goal — which is protect the people she was taken from back in chapter two.
And my visceral reaction? My visceral reaction was to fucking cry at the sheer bloody waste of it, because here, here, you have a mainstream epic fantasy that has two epic queer female characters, and you don’t have the fucking grace to let them both walk away. No. Instead we get another iteration of Queer People Cannot Be Happy. Instead we get:
I will paint you across history in the colour of their blood.
Oh, it’s effective. It’s astonishingly well-written. In a way, that only makes it worse. If it were a badly-constructed novel, ill-written and thoughtless, I would not have formed such hopes in the beginning.
Instead it feels thoughtless in quite a different way.
This review has been brought to you by the generous contributions of my Patreon supporters. As of this writing, my Patreon campaign stands USD$17 in pledges from bringing you a second review every month. If you enjoyed reading, do please consider helping keep me and my cat –
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Courtesy of Gollancz: Bradley Beaulieu’s TWELVE KINGS and ALiette de Bodard’s HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS. Courtesy of Angry Robot Books, Ishbelle Bee’s THE SINGULAR AND EXTRAORDINARY TALE OF MIRROR AND GOLIATH. Courtesy of DAW Books, Seanan McGuire’s A RED-ROSE CHAIN. Courtesy of Henry Holt, Leigh Bardugo’s SIX OF CROWS. Courtesy of Tor Books, Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear’s AN APPRENTICE TO ELVES.
David Weber, Hell’s Foundations Quiver. Tor, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher.
There’s a level at which I don’t understand why I’m still reading the Safehold books. They are basically pages and pages and pages of technical detail about a) weapons, b) weapons manufacture, c) industrialisation, d) furnaces, e) cold-weather clothing and supplies for an army, and f) other logistics, interspersed with descriptions of battles, and very occasional moments of character development.
If I wanted to read about rifles and furnaces and the problems of winter warfare, I could read a history or three. But somehow there’s just enough character in each volume that I find myself wanting to know what they do next – but really, the interesting bits are less than a quarter of the content. The rest is very skimmable. I keep hoping that one of these days someone will tell Weber, “Less of the expounding on the wonders of steam power/better ways to make things go boom/ironclads, more of the dilemmas of character,” and that Weber will actually listen? But so far, there’s no sign.
But Hell’s Foundations Quiver, while largely readable in between the techsposition, did a thing that pissed me off exceedingly. The Evil Church has set up concentration camps, you see – essentially extermination camps. And Weber does a thing where he briefly focuses on a single family in one of those camps, a sort of SEE HOW AWFUL THIS IS SEE ONE OF THE GUARDS ISN’T COMPLETELY LOST TO COMPASSION OOPS HE’S GOING TO DIE thing, and then one of the main characters – to whit, Merlin – rescues that family from CERTAIN DEATH and even fixes their broken teeth and shit.
And look. This is a questionable narrative decision. Because if a character can save three people in this manner, they can save a hell of a lot more. So what the writer is doing, essentially, is absolving the reader from having to see that “suffering has no limit, and horror no frontier.”* The whole treatment of these kind of camps – concentration camps – gulags – is questionable in its failure to create that bridge of empathy, to stare into the horrors of which humanity is more than capable and refuse to let us look away, refuse to let decline to understand just how human a horror it is. It’s a narrative flinch, a failure of moral courage. And if a writer is not willing or able to force their readers to inhabit that horror as nearly as possible, to confront it in all its human anguish? Then they have no business including such camps in their narrative at all.
And Weber fails on this point. He flinches. He flattens. And it pisses me off no end.
*cf. Charlotte Delbo, “Vous qui savez,” in Aucun de nous ne reviendra, Paris 1965.
Courtesy of Macmillan UK, Zen Cho’s excellent debut SORCERER TO THE CROWN. Courtesy of Night Shade Books, Loren Rhoad’s DANGEROUS TYPE. Courtesy of Henry Holt Books, Leigh Bardugo’s SIX OF CROWS. Courtesy of Tor Books, Howard Andrew Jones’ PATHFINDER TALES: BEYOND THE POOL OF STARS.