The Tuesday List: Imperialism, Boo

So this week is that favorite of holidays in the  U.S., Thanksgiving.  I say favorite because, of course, it’s predicated on the successful colonization of the North American Continent by mainly Puritan immigrants from the U.K., and therefore kind of a shitty thing to be celebrating.  Nevertheless, it persists.

In response, I’m going to try to put together a Tuesday List of books in which colonialism and imperialism are critically examined and generally come out the worse for it.  So here goes:

  1. Dominion of the Fallen books – House of Shattered Wings, House of Binding Thorns, by Aliette de Bodard

 

The setting is Paris after a magical war that all but shatters the city, and one of the main characters is a young man brought to France from Vietnam, a victim of former French colonization of Southeast Asia.  Cultures clash in these two books, between the fallen angels of the European religious landscape and the dragons of Southeast Asia and beyond.  These books deal with many topics, from intrigue and trust, to pain and resilience, to the ways in which humans use and exploit each other.

2. Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho

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Cho’s debut novel deals not only with imperialism, but with race-based slavery, as Zacharias is a former African slave, freed by his mentor when his magical abilities are revealed and held up as a superior example of his race.  On the other hand, Prunella Gentleman is the daughter of a woman of color most likely from Southeast Asia or the Pacific islands, and a white man from Europe.  Prunella’s journey deals with finding her history, while Zacharias’ is about dealing with the past that put him where he is and the present racism that keeps him from doing his job.

3. Imperial Radch series, by Ann Leckie

 

In a far future universe in which humans have solved long distance space travel and invented artificial intelligence, an empire exists whose sole purpose is to concur as many human systems as it can and bring justice, propriety, and benefit to all.  Of course, to do this the Radch must assimilate, force natives to change and accept the rule of a government far away, and above all defend its interests everywhere.  Though there are some benefits to being part of the Radch, such as an end to poverty, the loss of familiar traditions and beliefs, as well as the ways in which newly conquered systems are exploited, are at the heart of the trilogy, and among the motivations for Breq, a former ancillary in a human body who must learn to function now that she is no longer part of the massive AI of her ship.

4. A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

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Samatar’s debut novel deals with the conflicting vicissitudes of imperialism, beginning with the story of Jevick, son of a rich pepper merchant on the Tea Islands.  Jevick’s life, by colonial standards, is good, as he has access to wealth and learning, as long as he plays by rules laid out long before he was born.  But when Jevick desires to move beyond the small scope of his home islands, he learns that all the education and goodwill in the world can’t protect him from xenophobia and exploitation by powerful forces on the Olondrian mainland.  Jevick must learn to see through the glamour of knowledge and power and make his own decisions.

5. The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

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My favorite part of this novel is the steampunk workers’ revolt, where Maia, the half-goblin child of the dead emperor, finds out that the reason he ascended the throne was because a group of engineers tried to blow up the entire royal family and Maia just happened not to be on the air ship.  This novel is a well-written fantasy of manners about an outsider, half-goblin half-elf, trying to learn how to be the ruler of an empire of elves.  There’s plenty more going on, though, to make you want it to be part of a series.

 

 

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The Tuesday List: Parallelisms

What if you could step out of this world, the “real” world, and into another?  All the books on this list imagine just that, in their own way.

1. Roses and Rot, Kat Howard

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At a retreat for artists, where other worlds are explored through visual art, music, writing, Imogen discovers that there is another world waiting just beyond the borders of the property, and is confronted by the question of what she would do, when offered the chance at not only a glimpse of this world, but success beyond her dreams.

2. A Daughter of No Nation, A.M. Dellamonica

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This one is actually the second in a series, but somehow managed to slip past my orderly reading practices.  Sophie returns to the world of Stormwrack, made up of brief archipelagos of land among the wilds of the oceans.  Magic is involved, and a lot of nautical journeying.

3. A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E.Schwab

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Follow Kell and his magical coat as he moves between red, gray, and white London, smuggling magical items between worlds, until he meets with Lila in grey London and is confronted by true darkness.

4. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

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This isn’t really a novel about slipping between parallel worlds, but about the parallelisms that happen when artifacts of one life bleed into another’s, when life in one’s personal world becomes more than they can bear and only slipping into someone else’s life offers and succor.

5. Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho

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Cho moves the faery story into the 21st century with this novel of magic and sorcery in early empire Great Britain, in which a new Sorcerer Royal, former African slave Zacharias Wythe, is tasked with finding the reason for the decline of magic in Britain who runs head on into a young woman, Prunella Gentleman, determined to make her way in the world and learn the true story of her parentage and magical inheritance.

Fast Fiction: Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience, by Rebecca Roanhorse

From Issue 99 of Apex Magazine, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” is a story about settlers, written for Natives.  But also the kind of story that settlers need to read.  I say written for Natives because although it’s a story, with a beginning, middle, end, climax, etc, it’s also an experience in itself, and probably cathartic in a “finally someone gets it” way.  But of course Roanhorse would, being that it’s part of an own voices “special” issue.

Written from the point of view of an Indian (using this terminology because the story does), but in second person present, it walks the reader through a metaphorical (and yet all-too-real) journey through appropriation–not only of cultural accouterments, but of land, life, peace of mind, happiness.  It’s a story of what happens when those outside a culture get to define that culture, and is written with the world-weary feeling that accompanies knowing it’s happened over and over, for so many, and will go on happening.

Personally, I look forward to reading the rest of the stories in Apex 99 and wish they’d go out of their way to publish more like it.  But being the kind of magazine that attracts submissions like this might be something Apex isn’t up to.  I don’t know yet, as I’ve only had a subscription for a few months.  But we’ll see.

 

The Girl From Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig

Where would you go if all you needed was a map to get there? Nix knows exactly where she would go, but has a hard time believing she’ll ever have the opportunity. Tied to her father’s consuming search for one specific map, Nix can only collect fantastical creatures and fairy tale wonders along with a prodigious knowledge of history, while always knowing that every person she’ll meet will eventually be left behind.

Everyone leaves eventually, Nix’s father says, which could be felt as a little on the nose, considering he’s been leading his crew on a wild goose chase for Nyx’s entire life, but Heilig’s measured drawing of Captain Slate’s character instead adds to the pathos of Nix’s constant emotional reserve. Nix may have worlds of possibility open before her, but what she lacks is an anchor, a deep connection to a place. She attempts to find this anchor in the people who have been a part of her life for many years, but nothing can take the place of a real home—time and place.

Tales of resourceful orphans abound, but what sets The Girl from Everywhere apart are the cunning ways Heilig approaches going home, with time travel paradoxes and the concept of the mapmaker’s intentions controlling the world’s realities, as well as Nix’s found family—think a more diverse and interesting version of Pan’s Lost Boys, people who have made their way aboard Slate’s ship from real and fairy tale worlds of the past—good people with haunting experiences of their own who look after Nix but whose characterization doesn’t push too far into the surrogate parent role that many orphan stories rely upon.

Readers who love a good time travel yarn will find the twists and turns of The Girl from Everywhere compelling and entertaining. Those who enjoy character-driven stories with a strong sense of self will love Nyx’s slow, delicious journey through fear and bitterness to confidence and a powerful ability to accept people for who they are. Anyone who ever wanted a fairy tale to come true will appreciate the many journeys Nyx has made and her vast store of treasures and lore.

The House of Binding Thorns, by Aliette de Bodard

Beneath
the waters of Paris, there be dragons. 
After her discovery in The House
of Shattered Wings
, Madeleine is forced to confront the existence of the
Viet dragon kingdom beneath the waters of the Seine, and comes face-to-face
with what it really means to be a member of a House, having returned to
Hawthorn after twenty years of purgatory in House Silverspires.  Magic rules Paris, more completely than
even the Fallen could imagine, but intrigue is the most powerful force of all.

With
the events that brought House Silverspires low behind them but not forgotten,
Madeleine and Philippe have little in common—she as a dependent of Hawthorne
again, he houseless and living in a community of other Viet people—but they
find themselves on the trail of another mystery.  People are disappearing with no discernible reason, and
someone is sabotaging the dragon kingdom. 
De Bodard has crafted another gothic mystery with diverse and colorful
threads, a page-turner full of unforgettable characters who spring from all
walks of life—human and divine—and demand the reader’s full attention.

De
Bodard’s writing is character-centered, her language eliciting the sights,
sounds, and feelings of a Paris ravaged by magical warfare, unsafe for anyone,
especially those not protected by a House, but somehow safer than leaving the
city.  Though the story twists and
turns like a gothic mystery, it is also satisfyingly well-packaged, all the
pieces falling into place in a way that keeps the reader interested while
tantalizing them further into the puzzle. 

Readers
who fell under the spell of The House of
Shattered Wings
will need no enticement to dive into The House of Binding Thorns, keen to know what happens to Madeleine
and Philippe next.  This novel
imagines worlds within and upon worlds, a quality sure to appeal to those who
love fantasy based on fairytales, folklore, and legend.  Anyone looking for alternate history
with angels and demons aplenty need look no further than the Dominion series,
and though it’s possible to jump straight in with this volume, even more
satisfaction comes from starting at the beginning.

The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard

In
the aftermath of a world war fought by fallen angels and other magical beings, Paris
is a place of gangs, Houses, and the lonely dead.  Though every House leader has made dark choices in order to
protect themselves and their dependents, is all darkness created equal?  Or is there something worse at work in
the foundations of the system, eating away until everything is ready to fall?

Phillippe
has no choice in coming to House Silverspires, founded by Morningstar, greatest
of those who fell from Heaven, but he can see the darkness eating away at its
roots, even before stories of mysterious deaths begin to filter in.  Can Selene, who has taking on
leadership of the house since Morningstar left, keep the other Houses at bay
long enough to root out the problem? 
Phillippe tries not to care, but can’t deny the connections he’s made in
the House, can’t deny the humanity he tried to forget, so many years ago.

The House of Shattered Wings follows the
gothic tradition of dark secrets buried, coming to the surface to haunt those
within, but with a twist.  Instead
of the claustrophobia of a country house, she has all of Paris in which to wind
her mystery, a Paris wrecked by magic and civil war between powerful
Houses.  Her alternative history,
though full of embellishments, seeks a deeper truth in its representation of
the colonialism and wars of empire Europe participated in.  The novel’s pace, while not frenetic,
never stops, pulling the reader along on the points of view of Phillippe and
members of House Silverspires, none of whom fully trust each other, but who
want the mysterious deaths to stop.

Those
who enjoy gothic fiction full of dark secrets are encouraged to explore de
Bodard’s novel, part of a larger series. 
Readers looking for creative world building in an alternate history
setting will surely enjoy The House of
Shattered Wings
.  This novel is
a brooding look at history and religion that is guaranteed to intrigue.

The Book of Phoenix, by Nnedi Okorafor

The
future and the past collide in The Book
of Phoenix
, a prologue to Okorafor’s Who
Fears Death
, as an old man finds a cave full of old computers out in the
desert and stumbles upon a story from the distant past—and the future.  Our future, that is.  When that old man begins to listen to
the story of Phoenix, we come face to face with the present taken to its
logical extreme.  With aliens,
wings, and a bit of magical realism, the reader is taken on a turbulent ride
through the life of Phoenix Okore.

The Book of Phoenix, unlike many future
dystopia novels, lives purely in a fantasy realm of its own making, like a
world in which matter is not subject to the usual forces of gravity.  Okorafor writes a brand of fantasy that
builds on Western African and other folklores, using the validity of those
beliefs and magics to interrogate the commonly held assumptions most American
whites make every day about those they other in order to define their own
identities.  Okorafor’s use of
estrangement is an affective tool in building a narrative that relies on the
‘found footage’ trope to tell a story of the world’s apocalypse.  Her rare blend of escapism and bleak
futurism provide a compelling story that keeps the reader hooked.

The
novel uses first-person narration to tell how Phoenix was born in a corporate
research tower, a created human with strange powers that the people who made
her hope to use as a weapon, most likely against the colonized peoples they are
already oppressing.  The use of
first-person often relies on exposition, which may have the effect of pushing
readers out of the future world that Phoenix lives in, and stretching the
suspension of disbelief at the wonders achieved even by those least qualified
to be stewards for the world.  Having
Phoenix tell her own story, though, is important to the narrative, and helps to
portray Phoenix as both powerful and fallible, able to achieve impossible
things while also a victim of her own strong emotions and the ignorance of her
own history in which she has been raised.

Readers
interested in dystopia that remembers the rest of the world—not just North
America or Europe—will enjoy traveling with Phoenix as she seeks asylum and
acceptance across continents and oceans. 
Those who like their fantasy to stray more towards magical realism or
the supernatural will enjoy Okorafor’s use of myth and folklore to build a
world in which nearly anything is possible.  Readers looking for a novel that is part of a connected
world of stories should check out The
Book of Phoenix
and its sister novel Who
Fears Death,
with a further stop at Kabu
Kabu
, Okorafor’s collection of short stories which was published between
the two.