An Unkindness of Magicians, by Kat Howard

Recently, I listened to the podcast version of Kat Howard’s story “The Green Knight’s Wife,” based on the early English tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Reading An Unkindness of Magicians made put me in mind of that story.  I’m not sure what it means for a novel to be self-referential, but I think, through her short fiction, Howard has matured as a writer in a significant way since her debut novel Roses and Rot.

An Unkindness of Magicians  is the story of greed, betrayal, and the price of the impossible.  Played out through a magic-controlled contest called The Turning, it encompasses the events before and during a series of duels between magical Houses, the winner of which contest will reign as head of the Unseen World of magic based in contemporary New York City.  The Houses–Merlin, Dee, Prospero–evoke all those fantasy stories on which we as readers have grown up, but magic, in this world, is not the whimsical force of good or mischief one finds in Harry Potter, or even the esoteric alchemy of Dee and Flamel and Shakespeare’s most famous sorcerer.  Magic, in this world, cuts like a knife, and only those most willing to cut will survive.

Miranda Prospero has only recently begun putting her house in order since the death of her husband at the last turning; Laurent Beauchamps hopes to do well enough in the Turning to establish his own house; Ian Merlin switches sides for reasons only he knows.  Into the fray steps a woman of unknown power, an unknown herself to the Unseen World, and yet she is obviously very familiar with it.  Petty grievances will be exorcised, powerful magics unleashed, and beneath it all, trouble brews.  Magicians may hide themselves from the non-magical, but someone is watching, someone knows too much.  The question is, who will crack first.

Though  the novel takes place over a relatively short span of time, the narrative jumps around a lot, through multiple points of view, stopping only for important events.  There is no filler in this novel, which makes the plot feel even more razor sharp, colder, and unfeeling.  That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of feeling, only that they are left to the reader to find, rather than strung along metaphors of sentiment.  Howard’s prose is sparse but, like her short fiction, precise; it evokes exactly the image it means to and is, in that way, satisfying to read.  One knows, while reading this novel, that they are in the presence of an artist.

The denouement, though, leaves this reader somewhat bewildered.  This is a novel of pain, of what selfishness and self-regard reap, and yet at the end of it all one wonders if there should not, in the end, be at least some healing.  That the fate of the Unseen World is left in the hands of one who has suffered most at its beck is fitting, and yet does that person not deserve some amount of happiness?  I suppose it is in the hands of each reader to decide.

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Birthday Books!

So my in-laws gave me a Barnes & Noble gift card for my birthday.  Not bad.  I prefer to buy indie, but I’m not going to complain about free books.  So here’s what I bought.

The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien


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Between Two Thorns (Split Worlds 1), by Emma Newman

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City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty

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The Tuesday List: Not So Medieval

Hurrah, it’s Tuesday again.  This week I’ve got some great SFF that’s alternative world without being based on the usual pseudo-medieval template that so many stories seem to rely on.  Take a look, and let me know what non-medieval fantasy you enjoy!

  1. The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin

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The same could be said of The Fifth Season, the first in the Broken Earth series, as well, however The Obelisk Gate is where the world building really picks up, for me.  This series is a breath of fresh air, when it comes to imagining civilizations, using a form of proto-communism in which, when Season law is declared, every citizen of a community has a specific role, determined by their particular physical and intellectual traits, that is meant to help the community survive the deadly season caused by earthquakes and other tectonic miseries, which are so common on this unsteady continent called the Stillness.  Also the writing is, as always, amazing, and everyone needs to read this series.

2. The Bone Universe (series), by Fran Wilde

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Imagine a city in the sky, consisting of bone towers rising ever above the clouds, and people who move between the towers on wings made of silk.  Then imagine an ancient lore, passed down for generations in song, because the weight of books is dangerous and ephemeral.  Again, this is a story in which community is incredibly important, and is so interesting because of the conflicts that arise when tradition and change collide.

3. The Black Tides of Heaven (novella), by J.Y.  Yang

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Part of a duology, this novella imagines a world that, first of all, is reminiscent more of ancient Chinese or Southeast Asian civilizations and, second of all, is full of a magic called the Slack, which is used to perform many of the technological feats we take for granted today, but differently.  Also, it’s a world in which gender is both fluid and self-determined; people in the Tensorate choose their gender, when they want to, and then have it confirmed by society, rather than the other way around.  The characters and their motivations are compelling, a familiar story of children rebelling against a tyrant parent, but explored in new ways.

4. Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

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Though not explicitly stated, Binti comes from a tribal, semi-desert civilization which is reminiscent of some western African settings.  Of course, this is a future earth, and so it’s just as easy to imagine a post singularity future in which people of African descent are the dominant civilizations as it is people of North American or European descent.  That said, Binti comes from a world of space-farers, people who regularly travel across the galaxy and further for trade, education, and leisure.  Binti is leaving her homeland to go to Oomza University, an entire planet set up for education.  She deals with tribal beliefs that have to do with belonging and leaving, as well as the prejudices of outsiders, and then the added conflict of an alien species attempting to hijack her space ship.  It’s a great beginning to a novella trilogy and entirely refreshing in its world building and point of view.

5. Eternal Sky (trilogy), by Elizabeth Bear

I talk about Elizabeth Bear a fair amount; she’s one of my favorite writers.  This trilogy is both well-written and encompasses a world that, while having many of the same features as more familiar pseudo-medieval settings, is instead based on a Eurasian steppe/Middle East empire civilization.  It holds a particularly close place in my reading heart because it reminds me so much of the year I lived in Astana, Kazakhstan, surrounded by artwork that could practically have sprung from imagery in these novels.  It’s about a young man whose uncle attempts to wrest his birthright from him, and a princess-turned-wizard, who come together in unlikely circumstances to save the world.  Also there are horse, and a species of Cheetah people, and giant eagles.  Every novel needs giant eagles.

Maybe I’ll do a Tuesday List of giant eagle books next.

Happy reading!

Certain Inevitabilities: An Exploration of the Work of Connie Willis

Connie Willis has a large body of work in speculative fiction, particularly stories involving time travel and coincidences.  From her Oxford Time Travel novels, to novellas like “Bellwether” and “Inside Job,” to more standalone works like Passage and Crosstalk, she’s made a habit of portraying the world as a chaotic place, one in which coincidence might mean fate, or something else entirely.

A core of similarity runs through much of the large body of Willis’ work, and though it’s particularly easy to see in her time travel novels, it can be picked out elsewhere as well.  That core is the role that fate plays in the lives of her characters, and the ways–often complex and convoluted–in which they interact with fate and the idea of fate.

Whether or not one believes that Willis is a good writer, a writer whose novels are worthy of the awards they have received, one can at least say that Willis is an optimistic person, one who imagines a world in which love and relationships are not fraught with angst, but clear-cut cause and effect sequences, the idea that if you love someone, they will always love you back.

This can be seen as early as the 1980’s, in short stories like “Blued Moon,” a romance played out against the background of a chemical company’s activation of a waste emissions system that is supposed to reduce harmful emissions into the atmosphere, but instead has the effect of multiplying and magnifying coincidence.  The journey from meet cute to true love takes place within a few pages, the amount of coincidence and misadventure required to get there seems to be implying that there is somehow a strength, an inevitability to the love story that requires such exaggeration of circumstance that it would be wrong for these two to have only lukewarm, not extreme, feelings for each other by the end of this particularly short story.

“The Winds of Marble Arch” provide foreshadowing of what would later become Blackout/All Clear, Willis’ two-part novel about time travel and World War II Britain.  A man becomes fascinated with the emanations he perceives coming from different Tube stations in London, eventually tracing it back to the stations in which people died during the Blitz, but the story doesn’t end there.  These cold or noxious emanations become a metaphor for the doomed marriage of a couple friends, a portent for his own marriage in which he sees himself and his wife drifting slowly apart.  But, he finds, there are happy emanations too, and the story ends with a reassuring scene on an escalator in which the marriage is reaffirmed, instead of ending.  History, it seems, always folds in on itself in Willis’ work, even when the story isn’t explicitly about time travel.  The man and his wife merely need to revisit the past in order to exorcise the demons of their relationship and find the happy times that keep them, inevitably, together.

More recent novellas seem to put romance on the backburner, always simmering while the major conceit of the story gets worked out.  In “Inside Job,” two main characters, a hetero man who reports on frauds and cons in the future-telling world, and a hetero woman who’s secretly rich and famous but decides to work as his secretary, work together to investigate a big-name psychic and, surprise, fall in love at the end.  Likewise, “Bellwether” is the story of a hetero woman and man, both scientists at a corporation with a name but no real presence–a look into the future world of Crosstalk, perhaps–who study fads and chaos theory, respectively, and end up working on a project together in order to get a grant and, of course, fall in love.

Perhaps it speaks to a certain fatalistic outlook on the world, but it also reveals a certain amount of optimism when it comes to the ability of men and women to interact in only non-hostile, non-combative, non-creepy, non-harrassing ways with each other.  Crosstalk received criticism for its somewhat dated use of and view of technology, but also for the superficially creepy ways in which men get into the heads of women and are essentially responsible for saving them from their own frailties.  Someone who had no experience or knowledge of the ways in which predatory men use their positions of power to get what they want from women might see nothing amiss in this story, however anyone who has experienced stalking or harassment from a man would instantly be skeptical, and even triggered by some of the scenes in Crosstalk.

Willis’ stories and novels often require a certain amount of benign ineptitude on the part of their characters to even get the plot and motivation off the ground.  As mentioned before, chaos is a huge motivating factor in many of her novels and novellas, and in order to achieve that chaos people have to be constantly at the ends of their rope, confused, unable to communicate with each other, or otherwise distracted.  Apart from saying a lot about Willis’ view of the real world–whether she views it as such a chaotic place all the time, or whether she thinks things are just more interesting when a little chaos is injected–the successful and happy resolution of these plots comes down to a lot of universal finagling to get all the characters sorted out, and often a bit of unknown or outside influence, such as C.B.’s offstage plotting with Briddey’s aunt in Crosstalk, or the forces of time itself that bring all the characters together at just the right time in Blackout/All Clear.  In essence, Willis not only exhibits a monumentally optimistic mindset while writing these stories that seem so convoluted they’ll never work out, but also a large amount of faith in her readers to stick with her stories through some dicey chapters that could make one throw up their hands and walk away.

An example of this is reviewer Carrie S., at Smart Bitches Trashy Books, highlighting the opening passage of Crosstalk and stating, “I don’t know about you guys, but I already feel a need to go lie down, and that’s only page one. Things only get worse from this point.”  The reader is forced to wonder why the character would let her life reach this point of chaos and exhaustion and, depending on those reasons, why the reader should continue to care.  Often, as Carrie S. goes on to state, Willis’ characters become flattened and one-dimensional in the author’s pursuit of a plot point.  Briddey has to become overwhelmed, because it’s the only way she’ll be in a position to be receptive to C.B., who is shifty at best when described by other characters.  Ana, over at The Booksmugglers, had much the same thing to say: “Unfortunately, Crosstalk is way overlong, frustratingly so. It prolongs the miscommunication for far too long in a way that feels forced and unwarranted. From the start, it’s clear that C.B. is keeping important information from Briddey, and it takes most of the book to find out exactly why and what.”  It should be noted, by the way, that both these reviewers are avowed fans of Willis, and for both of them Crosstalk fell short.

Despite its foibles, though, Willis’ work stands out for the number of awards and nominations by major science fiction and fantasy organizations including the Hugos, the Nebulas, and Locus.  Why, when readers find her work overwrought, overlong, or repetitive, do they elevate it above the work of others who are just as good or just as popular?  Perhaps not suprisingly, it is just those factors which have made her work acceptable to what, in the past, had been a majority of readers who were either part of, or drowned out by, the status quo.

After the past four to five years of Hugo tomfoolery, in which certain white men realized they were beginning to be on the outside looking in of popular SFF fandom, it’s apparent that we are moving beyond a time when white men dominated this genre.  Meaning, of course, that there was a time–a long time–when they did.  And in order for a woman, or someone facing other or coexisting marginalizations like race, ethnicity, or sexuality, among others, to rise above the milky mainstream of SFF, that person has to do what everyone else is doing, but better.

Which is what Willis tends to do.  She takes one thing, be it time travel, or chaos, or the afterlife, and builds a plot that conforms to mainstream tropes, which make the story palatable for a broad audience.   A perfect example is the rom-com where, as Ana at The Booksmugglers states in her review of Crosstalk, “it’s all painted as him ‘always being there for her’ because he is a Nice Guy, part and parcel of the Beauty and the Geek romance. The book really wants you to buy that Briddey is the one with power here: because she is beautiful and smart and completely out of his league (if only he could prove he is better than her boyfriend. Guys, the bar is really low here).”  The same thing, in fact, happened at a more low-key level nearly twenty years before in To Say Nothing of the Dog, when Ned Henry instantly falls in love with Verity Kindle because she is the most beautiful creature he’s ever seen but he decides that she is way out of his league, except if he can help her successfully complete her mission, which is also his mission, which he’d been interrupted in the middle of because he was showing signs of time lag, which happens to people who’ve been sent to too many different temporal locations in too short a time.  Willis doesn’t just overload her plots, she overloads her readers.

What elevates Willis’ novels, which could otherwise fly under the radar in terms of themes and plotting and general writing, though, are the ways she is able to speak to and about whatever particular technology or concept she’s flaying, much like the way in which Heinlein beat the idea of patriarchal communism to death in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  The ability to completely drown one’s reader in detail is, it would seem, an important factor in whether a writer’s work becomes award-eligible.  So perhaps Willis’ work receiving so much glory, despite not being written by a man, was in part nostalgia for the sweeping narratives and major world events that had become the stuff of golden age and “hard” science fiction, as featured in Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear, or the harnessing of scientific and speculative principles as seen in Willis’ short fiction and some of her novellas.

Is Crosstalk, with its nearly 500 pages of contrived miscommunication, itself an allegory for the ways we as a culture continue to lie to ourselves about just much we rely on technology?  Is it saying, in fact, if only the people in this novel could get over the fact that technology is here to stay they could use their knowledge and abilities to create technology that really works for people, all people, and not just those with secretaries and never-ending wifi?  Probably not.  It is, very likely, just another example of how much Willis enjoys researching–World War II, the Titanic, telepathy, chaos theory, psychics, Victorian churches–and then writing novels that incorporate that research.  That, one can say with certainty, is inevitable.

 

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

Every fairy tale has a grain of truth in it.  In Vaselisa Petrovna’s case, everything true about the world has a hint of the magical about it.  Whether it is as she sits at the knee of her nurse Dunya as a small child, listening to tales of Father Frost and the foolish people who try to get the better of him, or as a teenager when she unwittingly meets the spirits of the great forest and learns to speak to them.  Though the world is a dangerous place, Vaselisa finds, it is a manageable danger.  Until something changes.

While there are many very self-conscious Cinderella reinterpretations, The Bear and the Nightingale‘s reliance–not on the Germanic lore many readers are familiar with–on Russian and Slavic tradition, its total immersion in a history, a place, a culture so entwined with the land that gave it rise, makes this more than just one tale, and very much an allegory for an entire world, which is how the folk tradition can really shine.

The competing forces of invasion from the east and south lend urgency to a tale that otherwise could have been much more leisurely, and thus have a lot less at stake.  The Khan’s horde is an everpresent threat for Peotr, who is considered a rich boyar,  but at the same time the push of Christianity and its influence on the southern city of Moscow, still little more than a jumped up trading post but striving for imperial greatness, draws a narrow line for him and his people to walk.  Add in the demands of nature, the shifting threats of seasons and snows, and it would take very little to tip this community over the edge.

In the sub-arctic climates of eastern Russia, it is little surprise that Frost would be personified, but it is Arden’s use of the small spirits–those who inhabit the house and stable, the spirits of wood and water–that really bring a feeling of place to the story, and establish the stakes.  It is the risk not to a great many people if the horde are not satisfied with the year’s tribute, but the risk to Vaselisa, her brothers, her nurse, her father, and those who have lived in the village for generations if the tenuous balance between human and nature spirit is not kept.  But in a time of uncertainty, alliances and beliefs begin to shift, and what used to be lore comes to be seen as harmful superstition.

Vaselisa’s strength will be tested, but also her ability to reconcile her desires and her duty, and her ability to work with her people, instead of isolating herself.  For lovers of folklore inspired fantasy with well-drawn characters, The Bear and the Nightingale is  sure bet.

The Tuesday List: PotterNoMore

Yes, that’s right, I am not really a big fan (or much of a fan at all) of Harry Potter.  This is not to say that it’s poorly written, and not perfectly capable of being beloved by millions, it’s just not my thing.  So this is an attempt at a list of magical schools, or worlds, or people, etc, that are great alternatives to Harry Potter and the general magical Rowling world.

Disclaimer, these books are written for adults, with possible ya crossover interest, so adjust expectations accordingly.

  1. Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard

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Probably I’ve put this in a Tuesday List before, but whatever.  It’s magical, it’s a school, it’s got really interesting characters with a whole bunch of motivations, and just as much creepiness as you want to read into it.  Also Kat Howard is a really excellent writer with a new novel out (An Unkindness of Magicians), and some very compelling short fiction including “Translatio Corporis” and “The Green Knight’s Wife.”

2. The Beautiful Ones, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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This is a fantasy of manners novel in which magical abilities are something that can help and hinder, and that really play off gender and class structures in a way that is just as interesting as the unfolding drama of the story itself.  A young woman grows up with both an interest in science and telekinetic abilities, neither of which conform to the expectations of her family, which is for her to go to the city, come out, meet an eligible man, and marry.  But when the demons of the past, in the form of a telekinetic magician and former lover of her imperious aunt come to town, everything changes and Antonina must learn to trust herself.

3. Los Nefilim (trilogy), by T. Frohock

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Comprising three novellas (In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, The Second Death), Los Nefilim has one of the most interesting magic systems I’ve ever encountered.  The two magical races who inhabit the world are the Nefilim–angels– and Daimons, who have been at odds since the beginning of existence.  Music and light are how they make magic, and Diago Alvarez is a gifted musician who wants none of the war between the two races.  The only problem is, in 1930s Spain, war is brewing in both the human and magical worlds, and Diago may be the only one who can do anything about it.

4. Finishing School, (4-book series), by Gail Carriger

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What’s better than a school set in a magical world?  A school set in a magical world with steampunk.  This series also takes itself (and the fate of the world) a lot less seriously, while really spinning the alternate victorian thing.  And it’s still got its basic dose of colonizer, majority white except in cases where it’s really “warranted” logic down, so you won’t miss that if you read this instead of Harry Potter.

I jest.  But not really.  I loved the jokes about clothing and food and manners, but holy god you’ve really got to have a good gag reflex to set anything in Victorian England (and the empire) these days.

5. Spiritwalker (trilogy), by Kate Elliott

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Hey, I had to get my Kate Elliott endorsement in there somewhere, didn’t I?  So this a series in which a young woman discovers a birthright that she never could have expected, and also has to deal with the  usual societal expectations, and also a war, and also it’s an alt-history in which the countries and empires we expect to see by the Victorian period never exist, because the Roman Empire didn’t fall out quite the way we remember it, and also there are elemental magics and magical families and it’s a pre-industrial revolution gaslamp fantasy setting somewhere along the lines of His Dark Materials and yet completely unique at the same time.  A lot of fun, with a great narrative voice and a really good jumping off point for someone who wants to get into fantasy but doesn’t know what they like yet.

October Library Checkouts, 2017

The best part about October is not, as some would argue, getting to Halloween at the end, but getting to my birthday in November!

But first, let’s talk about what I checked out from my local library this October, 2017.

The New Voices of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle.  I was very pleased to peruse my library’s  new books shelves and find this title.  I’d seen it fly by on Twitter multiple times, and there are many authors in it that I’ve either enjoyed in the past or am interested in.

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The Prey of  Gods, by Nicky Drayden.  A South African setting with AI and post-apocalyptic aspects made this novel intriguing.  Drayden is an author I’ve never encountered before, so I’m excited to get to know her work.

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An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon.  A generation ship, exploration, social issues! Of course I was going to pick this up.  It’s also highly recommended by publications like Publisher’s Weekly.

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