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.

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The Immortal Architects, by Paige Orwin

Let’s get the basics out of the way first, shall we?  The Immortal Architects is the second in a series by Paige Orwin, the first of which was called The Interminables, and is an alt-world fantasy about wizards who destroy the world in order to defeat an evil immortal from the Middle East who is trying to destroy the world.  The main characters are Edmund Templeton and Istvan Czernin who,with help from a few others attempt to keep Shokat Anoushak al-Khalid, ancient Scythian warrior and magician, from rising and once again trying to destroy the world and all in her path.

It’s a workmanlike bit of plot and characterization, all the bits and bobs in the right places to give the reader a good sense of who the characters are and what they want, and with few enough plot holes that everyone arrives in the right order in order to make the final climax happen.  Points for interesting concepts including Edmund’s attempt to attain immortality by stealing time from others and Istvan’s existence as a ghost who literally embodies World War I, and the unlikeliness of the two coming together as allies.

A few years ago I might have glowed about this novel, because it is pretty inventive and imaginative, and has just enough of the unexplained to be interesting without becoming bogged down in explanations, but these days, I can’t help but read it a little differently.

This is a novel about white guilt.

That might seem like an odd thing to say in a fantasy novel.  Let me explain.

This is a novel about a white man born at the beginning of the 20th century, and his best friend, another white man born at the end of the 19th century, and their struggles to come to terms with a world that has changed in ways they can’t keep up with, which is where much of the pathos of the novel comes from: these two, both immortal in their own way, are the wrecking ball and not the flying superhero come to save the day.  One is afraid to die, the other literally can’t because he’s a revenant, and they are the whom this story is about.

The novel contains what, on the surface, is a diverse cast of characters.  As Edmund himself states in one of his guilt-saturated internal tirades, the head of the Twelfth Hour–the wizard cabal that ostensibly runs what’s left of the Eastern seaboard of the U.S.–is a brown woman.  One of the other supporting characters is Grace Wu, a woman engineer with the ability to channel energy.  And, perhaps the most important, then there is Kyra, a young black woman able to create storms, who may be the secret to stopping Shokat Anoushak from coming back to ravage the world once again.

Shokat Anoushak is an ancient immortal, one who only wants to destroy, and also happens to come from the Middle East.  Kyra is a black woman from Rochester, NY, who is Shattered–someone damaged by the magical forces Shokat Anoushak unleashed and now, in the aftermath of the wizard war, dangerous to those around her because of the powers she wields–and also trans.  Barrio Libertad are the community at odds with the Twelfth Hour–coded white–who have a lot of power and are run by, you guessed it, a latino named Diego Espinoza.

All the characters mentioned are antagonistic to Edmund and Istvan in some way, and all of them are othered racially and ethnically.  It’s a white world, the story keeps screaming at the reader, and everyone else keeps taunting our two white male protagonists with their non-whiteness.

Edmund and Istvan are our point of view characters.  Edmund experiences a lot of feelings about things he does, things that happen, things he sees, things other people do.  He locks up Kyra with magical chains, all the while telling himself–in his head, in his feels–that he isn’t a racist and that everyone who will say he is is just being mean and not understanding his intentions.  At a point where Barrio Libertad obtain custody of Kyra, a random black man–never seen before or again after–is trotted out as a spokesperson and leader of Barrio Libertad, solely in order to point out to Edmund–and to the reader–that he is white and she is black, and to reference the history of racial inequality in the United States, which makes Edmund feel bad again.

Edmund repeatedly makes reference to his being “not a racist,” even when not confronted.  Remember, his is the reader’s point of view.   The author of this story made these narrative decisions, and decided to create the unnecessary and, frankly, unrealistic scene of a post-magical-war society living in the corpse of a previously animated city-sized monster who feels it necessary to call out Edmund for the racism of locking up a kid, instead of the hundred other dumb things he did in relation to that event.  That was black tokenism, and did nothing to move the narrative, other than to give Edmund something else to feel guilty about, which the reader then had to experience and is, presumably, expected to sympathize over.

Now let’s move to the other thorny subject.  Kyra is not just a teenaged girl, she’s a trans girl, for all intents and purposes.  When everyone meets her, in the middle of a killer storm she’s created, they all assume she’s a boy.  Both Edmund and Istvan misgender her repeatedly, and it takes a huge crisis in which Edmund and Istvan somehow get their priorities straight and decide that however misguided she is, it’s more convenient to just give her what she wants and use the pronouns she’s chosen.  From the first time Kyra asserts that she is a girl, the reader must slog through another 25% of the novel before Edmund and Istvan finally give in and reliably use her pronouns.  Istvan even goes on a tear, at Kyra, about how unrealistic it is of her to just expect people to get her and not treat her according to the natural order he’s used to.  He–a revenant of the great war capable of literally tearing people apart–screams at her about how she’ll get hurt if she insists on such irrational behavior.

It’s disturbing.  It’s even more disturbing that Edmund and Istvan are the only ones who call each other out for their behavior–unreliable as that is and usually only in relation to ways that they inconvenience each other–and no other part of the narrative really interrogates how they behave and shines a light on how problematic it is.  The narrative provides no other reliable mirror for their whiteness.

Kyra has memories of a happy time–all Shattered are given such memories in order to make them docile and useful to Shokat Anoushak–and Istvan’s referencing that time, in which she was free and happy to make decisions like what her pronouns were, also puts a date to when it ocurred–specifically the beginning of the 21st century, from about 2008 to when the war ended in 2020.  2012 was when the real destruction began, but Kyra has memories of a whole life, and in 2020 is about 15.  Read as a whole, the novel is implying that whatever happy reality Kyra remembers–our actual reality from 2008 on, which also coincides with things like Barack Obama being elected president and eventually passing the ACA–is not only not real, but not realistic, and that anyone who thinks they have a right to expect that kind of life or happiness deserves to get hurt.

I get it: the novel isn’t a manifesto.  And yet, writers bring all kinds of things to the table without realizing it.  Edmund’s arc isn’t really an arc at all.  It’s a straight line from the uncomfortable reality of the way he steals time from others to stay alive, to the way he attempts to lock away his mistakes so he won’t have to be confronted by them, to accepting banishment at the end of the story in order to escape the blame from another disaster he’s caused.

On the other side of the coin, Istvan can’t free himself of his bigotry, which is especially problematized by the fact that not only is he a gay man who was forced to live a lie at the turn of the 20th century, but that he repeatedly displays a hatred, a revulsion for that part of himself, and worries that Edmund will not want to be around him if he ever finds out Istvan loves him.  Sexuality and gender are difficult issues in this novel, to say the least.  For the first half of the story Kyra’s being trans is used as evidence that she is mentally  unstable, then she is punished for the rest of the story by being outcast, not fully trusted, and eventually physically attacked for not conforming to everyone else’s expectations of her.  The reader only ever gets glimpses into her real psyche through the lens of Edmund and Istvan’s gazes.

And through it all the reader is exposed to Edmund’s guilt, and his petty anger at being held accountable for the situation he’d created.  Even after 98% of the story, Edmund throws a tantrum over everything being taken away from him–after he tried to sell everyone out to Shokat Anoushak in exchange for the real secret to immortality–and includes being called racist in the list of wrongs perpetrated against him.  In a world where white accountability is sorely lacking, when being called racist is viewed as being worse than actually being racist, this story of a white man’s guilt is sadly accurate, and yet the way that it is presented is, again, not given the broader context against which to understand Edmund’s and Istvan’s actions as problematic.

For comparison, Mishell Baker’s novel Borderline, about a young woman with borderline personal disorder, has a white woman as its protagonist, and is told by her.  She repeatedly commits racist or ableist actions, sometimes in word, sometimes in deed, sometimes only in her head, and when in a good frame of mind to recognize it, feels guilty.  The difference is the ways in which Baker constructs the scenes.  Either the young woman is called out for behaviors that display overt racism or are racist microaggressions, or she makes a distinction in her own narration between the racism of her actions and the guilt she feels at perpetrating racist actions.  White people can and should feel guilty for being racist, but the story is not the guilty feelings, it’s the racism.  In The Immortal Architects, the reader is subject only to Edmunds experience of his guilt, not his realization of how he may be perpetrating racism and how his actions can be harmful to those around him.

That’s why this novel is a white guilt story and not a redemption narrative, or hero’s journey.  It’s a manifesto for the status quo that should be recommended with caution.

It Takes Two: Magical Women with Manners

This installment of It Takes Two deals with two novels that fall into the fantasy of manners subgenre in a very unique way.  Both Shades of Milk and Honey (SoMaH), by Mary Robinette Kowal, and The Beautiful Ones (BO), forthcoming from Silvia Moreno-Garcia, feature women main characters who practice particular forms of transformative magic within their worlds.  They also feature main characters who align with the “ugly duckling” or “cinderella” trope which is popular in fantasy stories that include romantic relationships as a main plot driver.

Let’s start with the setting.  Though BO is set in an alternate world, it resembles 18th to 19th-century Europe, particularly France, in important ways, including the implied technological timeline, patriarchal values, style of dress, and emphasis on the fashionable “tonne.”  Correspondingly, SoMaH is set in an alternate England, and closely models the 18th-century world of Jane Austen’s novels.  Even though these novels are not set in the same world, they feel as though with a quick train ride, Jane could be in Loisail to visit Nina, and they could talk about art and bugs and societies that don’t value the magical abilities of women in the same way they do with men.

Which brings us to the second, and perhaps most satisfying similarity between the two novels: women using magical abilities as an important plot element.  Not only are both of the main characters magically talented–Jane uses glamour, while Nina is telekinetic–but we have love interests for each main character who are also magic users and whose abilities give them much more social and economic currency than is available to the women.  Jane is lucky enough that modest use of glamour brings her a certain amount of attraction, because glamour falls under the “category of skills and talents that all gentlewomen should have,” however Jane has a markedly higher skill level with glamour and so it becomes a liability at times.  Nina’s telekinetic ability has made her a social pariah since she was a child, and a large motivator for the plot comes in her family’s sending her to the big city of Loisail for the Grand Season in an attempt to marry her off to someone who has never heard of the Witch of Oldhouse, her family’s country estate in Montipourret.  People see her ability, and willingness to use it, as a marker of her childishness, untrustworthiness, and lack of ladylike manners.

To add insult to injury, Jane’s love interest is a man who travels as an artist, using his ability with glamour to successfully support himself and gain fame, while Nina’s love interest, Hector Auvray, is a world-famous performer with his telekinetic ability, who has made enough money in ten years of performing to set himself up comfortably for the rest of his life.  It is not surprising that people with the same talent would be drawn to each other, as friends and lovers, because in straight-laced societies it is nice to have someone who understands the restrictions under which one lives, however what does it mean that magical women end up with men whose practical societal advantages are compounded by their ability to freely and productively use their magical ability, where the women are not?

It is largely a convention of romantic plot building that makes this kind of resolution possible.  Something built into the story makes them an unlikely pair from a conventional standpoint–Jane is a “spinster” at 28 years old, while Nina is an unmannered country girl who is more interested in collecting bugs than collecting suitors and fancy dresses–which calls for a “happy” conclusion involving the social outcasts finding common ground and respect in a society based on having the right connections and conforming to superficial norms.  In both stories, the magical abilities of the characters has the potential to disrupt the mannerly societies in which these characters are mired, and it is almost as if the young women’s choosing to acquiesce to the love plot and form traditional romantic relationships is necessary for the ability of the story to end, in essence for the magic to let go of the characters and allow for the more palatable, more acceptable focus of marriage.  To contrast, Sarah Monette’s The Goblin Emperor doesn’t need the happy resolution of a traditional love plot to find its end.  Instead, it is the main character’s ability to make sense of the rigid society into which he has been thrust, and come to terms with its demands upon himself that wraps up the novel.

Perhaps it’s a function of the strict economies upon which these stories are based, with social capital being so closely tied to personal wealth due to its requirement for appearances, and the potential for magic to circumvent this structure in some way, or maybe it’s something else that drives the resolution.  Either way, both these stories have a unique chemistry that is highly satisfying on a number of levels.

The Beautiful Ones, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The most interesting thing about the fantasy of manners sub-genre is how the world delineates those who belong, and those who don’t, and this is often the center of conflict for the love-interest couple.  Now, of course, not all fantasy of manners stories have a major love interest, but there is an important relationship that is the focus of the story, otherwise we wouldn’t have the sub-genre itself.  In The Beautiful Ones, the haves–in the country of Levrene, and particularly the fashionable city of Loisail–are the Beautiful Ones themselves, those with money and social standing, who decide what is fashionable, what is proper, and what is interesting.

Social customs and societal expectations in this novel are drawn from many European analogs in the 17th through 19th centuries and have at their center both the restrictions of patriarchy and the lure of curiosity that often crop up in Victorian literature.  Hector Auvray, the love interest, is a performer, one who uses his talent with telekinesis to improve his social standing.  He is able to do this in part because he is a man, and his efforts fall under the guise of ambition and vigorous effort prized in the culture of Loisail.

The Beautiful Ones finds its way out from under its own reliance on well-known fantasy romance tropes in its vigorous interrogation of the patriarchal leanings of its society and, in turn, our own.  The growth of its characters, particularly Nina and Valerie, is satisfying, and though much of the plot could be intuited from the set up, the way in which Moreno-Garcia follows through with her characters and doesn’t allow them to sink under their own weight is what makes this novel not just readable, but highly enjoyable, from beginning to end.

The juxtaposition of two main characters who share the same telekinetic talent, but belong to different genders, creates a lens through which to understand just how much the artificiality of society pushes people in one direction or the other for purely arbitrary reasons.  While Nina may be born with admittance to the class of the Beautiful Ones because of her family’s money and position it is, in the end, her willingness to condition herself to the behaviors expected of a woman of that class that arbitrates her belonging to that group.  While Hector is able to use its standard sets of behaviors as a guidebook to entry, where getting a certain number of rules correct gives him a way in, Nina can much more quickly be tossed out for breaking even one rule.  The human desire to belong, as well as to be free, motivates The Beautiful Ones on a deep level, leaving the reader with a lot to think about at the end.

This novel explores the depths of emotion and motivation to which people can sink, while holding onto a foundational joy and love of life that comes across as genuine, rather than sentimental.  Moreno-Garcia’s writing is colorful and evocative of a world in which appearance and display are paramount.  There are some lovely scenes in which old or abandoned places not only contrast beautifully with this magpie culture she’s created, but also create a tension between antiquity and modernity that, rather than being resolved by the end, linger on the palate for a long while after finishing this novel.

 

 

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.

Without Light or Guide, by T. Frohock

Without Light or Guide picks up soon
after the events of In Midnight’s Silence,
after Diago has rescued his son from Moloch, ruler of the daimons, who wishes
to use young Rafael for his own empowerment.  Diago and his husband Miquel begin to put their lives in
order with the addition of Rafael, while trying to get to the bottom of the
conflict between the angels, daimons, and angel-born Nefilim to whom they are
both sworn.

Part
1930’s noir, part urban fantasy, Without
Light or Guide
explores human pain in all its facets, and the many forms
that healing can take.  Diago has
doubted himself for so long after the events of his first life that even though
he looks for mercy for others in their reincarnations, he reserves none for
himself.  This time, he has to deal
with the suspicion and even open hostility of other Nefilim while attempting to
solve a series of murders—and the victims have direct connections to him.  As the clues point towards a greater
game being played than just conflict between angels and daimons, Diago must
learn to trust himself again in order to face the next attack from Moloch, who
has only been weakened, not defeated.

Diago’s
humanity, and indeed that of all the Nefilim the reader encounters, is what
drives this story.  Frohock draws a
definitive line between the mortals and immortals, then skillfully blurs it,
allowing the reader to fall into it headfirst only to be brought up short with
the delightfully horrific realization that, no, these are not humans; though
they may make attempts to spare humans when it’s convenient, the lives of
mortals are not a priority.  Frohock’s
use of music as magic is a perfect example: music is both commonplace and
transcendent as a human endeavor, and yet when the Nefilim use it, it becomes
something more altogether—something that can kill or heal at will, and beguile
mortals to turn them into pawns in a greater game.

Readers
of urban fantasy and magical realism will enjoy the way Frohock blends myth,
reality, and her own blend of magic to create a unique fantasy world.  For those who like a historical,
alt-universe this series firmly places the story within its real-world setting,
all the while hinting at a much more sinister world history than we were taught
in school.  Any reader of fantasy
drawn to character-driven stories, will surely find much to love in Without Light or Guide and its
co-volumes.