It Takes Two: Slavic-Inspired Fantasy

Over the weekend I finished Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale and it was great and full of really interesting women and frost demons and Russian folklore, and maybe it was because I listened to the audiobook version of it but I kept thinking it had a lot in common with Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, which I also listened to on audiobook.

While The Bear and the Nightingale is more historical fantasy and Uprooted is second-world fantasy, they both draw on Slavic history and folklore for their worldbuilding and fantasy elements.  The Bear and the Nightingale is about a boyar’s family in the Russian countryside who live close to the great forest where dwell the frost demon and his brother the bear, along with a host of other nature spirits, and focuses on the life of Vaselisa Petrovna, a  young woman born with her great-grandmother’s gifts to communicate with these spirits, whom many people consider no more than fairy tales.  Vaselisa is called upon not only to fight the bear, who would overrun all human settlements near his forest, but also the religious fervor that is driving the old spirits from the land before the new Christian religion.

Agnieszka, in Uprooted, on the other hand, becomes the assistant to the Dragon, a powerful wizard who has vowed to protect her valley from the forest that constantly threatens it, for as long as he lives.  Agnieszka is chosen as his next assistant because she possesses some magic abilities of her own, and the two develop a relationship because he feels he must teach her to use her power.  Eventually, Agnieszka must face the malice of the forest and try to defeat it.  The secrets of the novel, of course, lie in Novik’s reinterpretation of Slavic fairy tales, including Baba Yaga, and the pseudo-fae history of the forest and the valley in which it lies.  Agnieszka must use the magical knowledge she’s obtained, combined with her village’s old tales, to understand what is really happening in the forest.

Each novel deals with the ramifications of being a powerful woman in a society that distrusts women and magic, as well as the feeling of being trapped or hemmed in–Agnieszka in the Dragon’s tower, and Vaselisa in her family’s house, wrapped about by winter and the stifling presence of her step-mother and the priest who seeks to rid the village of the old spirits.  Both novels also find a way to build strong relationships between women, and show what happens when those relationships are curtailed or threatened.

So if you like Slavic folk tales, forest settings, and strong-willed young women, both of these novels are for you.

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It Takes Two: Socially Critical SFF

Today on It Takes Two we’re going to talk about two recent novels which are, from the outside, very different–one is a second world fantasy with characters who are able to manipulate the mineral makeup of the earth upon which they live, while the other is a near-future science fiction story about clones going forth in a generation ship to investigate a strange, recently-discovered star–but which keep coming back to similar commentaries about the current state of our world, and in particular the United States.

I’m talking, of course, about N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, first in her Broken Earth trilogy, and Marina J. Lostetter’s Noumenon.  Now, I understand that Noumenon is a relatively new release, so spoilers beware and all that.  But that’s pretty much par for the course for this blog series, anyway.

The Fifth Season deals with a society in which certain people, called orogenes, can manipulate the earth–quell earthquakes, move rocks, detect sound and vibrations–and who have been classes as subhuman and made into slaves to the rest of the empire because of it.  Another group, known as the Guardians, have been technologically modified to detect and control orogenes, and they move through the empire seeking out orogenes as children to be trained or hunting down adults who have somehow escaped notice in the past.  The rest of the world goes about life, benefiting from the labor of enslaved orogenes, not even thinking about the mental gymnastics required to justify keeping other humans penned like particularly useful cattle, and generally not wanting to know about the real conditions orogenes must live under.

In Noumenon, on the other hand, a hand-picked crew has left earth aboard a nine-ship convoy, all clones of their originals who had particular aptitude and skill in one area deemed necessary for the success of the mission.  However, halfway to the star–nearly 100 years after setting out in sub-dimensional travel–a small contingent, convinced that using clones who have no choice but to be aboard, and whose lives are artificially constricted by the material needs of the convoy, attempt to stage a mutiny and turn the convoy around.  In the aftermath of the event all the clone lines who participated in the mutiny are discontinued–never brought to adulthood again, until catastrophe strikes and the convoy must stop its homeward journey to mine an asteroid and build a new ship.  Then the discontinued lines are brought back, but this time to be miners–effectively slaves, and held segregated from the rest of the convoy.  Even after the mining is over and the convoy resumes its journey, the discontinued lines are forced to wear different clothing and work in menial jobs like janitorial, never allowed close to power or high-skilled work again.

Both these novels, then, deal with the concept of hereditary slavery based upon particular, recognizable traits used to dehumanize their victims.  While each goes about it somewhat differently, they are each a finger pointed at the chattel slavery system upon which the United States was built, using nothing but skin color to justify enslaving, disenfranchising, and murdering millions of people.  While in the Broken Earth world it’s clearly stated that being an orogene is not an inherited trait, the children of orogenes usually end up enslaved whether or not they share their parents’ ability; known orogenes who have been trained by the Fulcrum–the center of power and effective school for orogenes–are forced to wear a distinctive black uniform that is recognized anywhere in the empire.  The mere fact that people who share this distinctive ability are the only slaves in the empire is enough of a reference to the African slave trade in the Unisted Stetes.

Among the convoy in Noumenon, genetics are everything.  People grow up knowing what line they are part of, what they were grown for, and how they fit into the greater whole.  They also wear colored jumpsuits to denote their specialization, so when the discontinueds are brought back and forced to wear all-white jumpsuit, their second-class status is further enforced, because anyone else can tell at a glance that they are from lines heretofore considered subhuman and a liability to the convoy.  The parts of the novel that deal with asteroid mining are particularly gruesome as well, as all the mine worker lines are given only serial numbers and are overseen by enforcers who whip and threaten them, and even have the power to kill them on a whim.

While neither of these novels is explicitly about slavery and attempting to draw sff parallels, both accomplish incisive critiques of a modern United States that still has yet to reckon with its history of hereditary chattel slavery and the ways in which Africans were dehumanized in order to justify enslaving them.  They are each well-crafted stories in their own right, with fully realized world building and compelling characters.  Come for the awesome SFF, stay for the social critique.

 

It Takes Two: Mind Bending Maths

Thanks to Renay and Ana at Fangirl Happy Hour podcast for reminding me how awesome one of the books I’m going to talk about today is!  I’ve been listening to back episodes of this podcast–you should check them out, you don’t have to start at the beginning like I did–and they were reviewing Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, the first book in what is going to be a trilogy of the kind of science fiction I love: specifically, the kind with science you don’t have to understand completely, you just have to believe in the story really hard and let the characters move you along.

The second book, which is also part of a series, is Zero Sum Game, by S.L. Huang, which is also the first book in a series, this one called Russell’s Attic, named for the main character in the series, Cass Russell.  Both Lee and Huang are very smart people and the SF field is incredibly lucky to have them contributing to the canon right now.

These two books/series are not just about math and how it is used by them main characters to accomplish their goals.  They are about memory and coming to terms with the past in unique ways.  In Ninefox Gambit, Kel Cheris has a troubled history with her chosen faction, the militarized Kel who use a brainwashing technique called formation instinct to extract strict obedience from their members, and ends up with the revenant of a disgraced, and possibly insane, 400 year old general inhabiting her head in order to defeat a faction of heretics who are threatening her alt-universe civilization.

Cass Russell, by contrast, is a retrieval specialist working out of contemporary Los Angeles, who uses her brilliant ability with math and physics to perform what appear to be death-defying and all-bu-impossible feats in order to deliver on her assignments.  The problem is, though, that Cass Russell has a blank spot in her memory as big as most of her life, and issues with morality that she can’t quite explain.  She also has some questionable friends and finds it difficult to trust new people or maintain personal relationships.

Besides the deep mysteries of both series, their other strength lies in the diversity of characterization that both authors employ.  Neither series falls into the trap of scarcity or homogeneity that often troubles big complex works in the science fiction genre.  Cass’s world is full of people of color, diverse genders, and people with disabilities.  The world of Kel Cheris’ hexarchate empire is necessarily diverse, being comprised of possibly thousands of worlds and having been around for countless generations.  We meet people of diverse genders, orientations, and appearances, and women and men share equally in roles of power–perhaps the most important aspect, as power is the name of the game in the hexarchate.

What I love the most about these novels is how heartfelt and genuine they are.  Both Lee an Huang are Asian American, writing the kinds of worlds they want to see (minus, one presumes, the murder and brainwashing), using their strengths as scientists to come up with characters and stories we haven’t seen before, and really just writing plots that consume the reader from beginning to end.  These are the kinds of books I want to see in my science fiction canon.