The Tuesday List: American Heart

No, this isn’t about that horrible-sounding YA novel built on white guilt and Islamaphobia, it’s about books that really get to the heart of “America,” America being the United States and what it was built upon.

  1. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

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2. Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

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3. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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4. Welcome to Braggsville, by T. Geronimo Johnson

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5. Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

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Bonus # 6!

An Extraordinary Union, by Alyssa Cole

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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.

Crosstalk, by Connie Willis

What
if you could get simple outpatient surgery and be able to know just how
committed your partner was, to feel their feelings and experience the intensity
of their devotion to you?  And what
if every person in your life, besides your partner, had a stake in your choice,
and felt no compunction about telling you just what you ought to be doing? 

Briddey
Flanigan just wants to do her job and enjoy her relationship with Trent Worth,
whose focus on advancing at Commspan is rivaled only by his commitment to send
Briddey flowers for every romantic occasion, including getting an EED—an
implant that is supposed to allow bonded couples the ability to feel each
other’s emotions.  But everyone at
work, and in her incredibly Irish family, has an opinion on whether she ought
to get it, and the grapevine at Commspan seems to know what she’s doing before
she even thinks about it.  Almost
like they can read her mind.

Willis’
brand of cozy speculative fiction is in top form in Crosstalk.  The
constant bombardment of communication, relationships, and work ramps up the
frantic pace of the novel right from the beginning, creating suspense and
obfuscating the secondary plot to allow a slow build-up that the reader can
savor.  Willis’ talent for
description and scene building shine in Crosstalk,
bringing Briddey, her friends, and family to life in a way that the reader
won’t want to leave.

Readers
who enjoy speculative fiction not tethered to hard science fiction or dystopia
settings will enjoy the questions Willis asks in Crosstalk while staying anchored in the human story of the novel.  Chance and chaos are prominent
motivators in this novel and it will appeal to those looking for a story that
feels real.  Anyone who has enjoyed
Willis’ work in the past should definitely check out this novel, as well as
those looking to dip their toes in the science fiction and fantasy genre.

Bring Your Ladies Down to Camelot

“Beautiful women rarely work strong magic.” In the Night Garden, Cat Valente

They cross’d themselves, their stars they blest,
Knight, minstrel, abbot, squire, and guest.
There lay a parchment on her breast,
That puzzled more than all the rest,
      The wellfed wits at Camelot.
‘The web was woven curiously,
The charm is broken utterly,
Draw near and fear not,—this is I,
      The Lady of Shalott.’

The Lady of Shalott, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

This is going to be an odd one, so just bear with me.

Two things happened recently: I’ve been reading Cat Valente’s In the Night Garden and I watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (MBFGW2).

MBFGW2 was nothing to get excited over.  I laughed at the funny stuff, cringed a bit at the overly gendered stuff, and was suitably heart-warmed at the revelation that one of the over-masculine male cousins is gay and has a long-term partner and his family is totally cool with it (and kinda knew all along but were waiting for him to feel comfortable telling them).  

As you might expect, it’s the cringe-y stuff I’m going to talk about today, mostly because all the gendered stuff was really, ridiculously focused on female gender expression and the idea that all women want, and ought to want, to be considered pretty.  One of the things I enjoyed about the first film was the fact that Toula’s “transformation” was as much an emotional, intellectual journey as it had anything to do with her changing how she looked.  

So let’s go ahead and talk about that in terms of something completely unrelated–two things, actually–Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott and Cat Valente’s In the Night Garden.  My Big Fat Greek Wedding had a bunch of stuff about how women ought to present themselves, but it also had a lot of women with different interests and roles within their own lives and families.  Toula was the odd one because she had no particular role; she was merely a follower, going along with whatever her parents said because the idea of pushing her own agenda was too… let’s just go with too much, at this point.

So, the Lady of Shalott lives up in a tower, Rapunzel-style, except there isn’t a prince to rescue her.  There is no rescue at all, in fact, because there is a curse that keeps her locked up in this tower, looking down on Camelot and everything it represents.  It is a beautiful tower, to be sure, but the Lady of Shalott has no real time to dwell on it, or enjoy it, because she has a web she must weave, never stopping, all her life, lest the curse fall on her.

Of course, there are numerous ways that this poem may be interpreted, but juxtaposed with the freedom and unadulterated beauty of Lancelot, one possible way to look at this is from the angle of female beauty, and expressions of female gender.  The Lady of Shalott is trapped in a tower she can never leave because she is doomed to weave a web–a maze of misdirection used to trap the unwary–for her entire life and giving up on it is life-ending for a Lady.

Many people like to look on the legends of Camelot–and, later, Robin Hood–as whimsical fantasy stories.  The Once and Future King is a notable example of this, not necessarily because the novel itself is whimsical–it can be read as extremely foreboding and pessimistic at times, in fact–but because our collective memory of it is influenced by Disney animated films and Richard Gere and all manner of modern stories based on those old tales.  

The Morte d’Arthur would seem to say it all though.  The Death of Arthur.  The story of how a great king comes to be and then dies, and the treachery that can be wrought because of so many uncrossable boundaries and unknowable truths.  The stories of Arthur may have been accepted as taking place in the distance past–to the Medieval poets who wrote them–but the stories were mired in the mores of the time, particularly the rules of the court and the demands of chivalry–by which I don’t mean simply holding open doors occasionally when you want to get brownie points for being not all men.

Men and women both, in Medieval France and England, were constrained by gender norms, but men at least could go out into the world.  Their expression was active; women’s was passive, could be no more than that.  The Lady of Shalott was a thing in a tower to be looked at, whose appearance in a boat at the foot of Camelot was so perplexing to the brightest of the court because she was not sitting, stationary, performing her feminine deceptions.  She was only herself, unadorned.  She had crossed an inscrutable boundary, and was in turn punished.

Toula, when the audience first meets her in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, is in a different sort of tower, and one of her own making.  She lacks the confidence–for reasons that won’t be discussed here–to participate in the world around her.  Toula is the unknown quantity that the Lady of Shalott becomes when she has left her tower, she is presented as a monstrous woman, untouchable and alien to everyone, including other women.  This is where fantasy and fiction diverge.  Toula is part of a fictional world that can only mirror the world of the audience.  Her transformation, her decision to transform, is what gives her the power to become.

In Valente’s In the Night Garden, an astounding work of fantasy, it is the monstrous women, the ugly women, the women who don’t participate in the mores of feminine beauty, who have power.  Toula is intelligent and quick no matter what she looks like, but in the world of the film, she can’t find her power until she takes the step to interrogate beauty and its norms.  Until she confronts the monster in the mirror, the rest of the world isn’t able to see her either.  

I’ve always seen Toula’s transformation as more empowering than conforming, however there are plenty of issues inherent in the Cinderella story.  At the very least, Toula is shown experimenting with expressions of femaleness, rather than simply buying wholesale into the form she’s been familiar with her entire life.  She finds a level of expression with which she’s comfortable, and that meets her needs.  The web she weaves begins to free her from her lack of agency, instead of keeping her imprisoned.  But like all transformation stories, it can’t help but expose the fact that women are not seen until they look like women, that identity is still conflated with expression, and that the only power one has is in conforming.

The women of In the Night Garden often live outside society, sometimes come to violent ends, or are imprisoned by those who wish to take their powers, but in all of the tales, these monstrous, ugly, unfeminine women have agency, have a story to tell, and are an integral part of the greater tale.  The payoff of reading In the Night Garden is not the tiny stories that make up the greater whole–which never resolve themselves without outside help from other stories–but getting to the end and finding out how the lives of the many women carry through like bright lines to the end of the tale, how they interconnect, how they burn more brightly the more the reader dips into the world of the novel.

Then there’s MBFGW2, in which the lives of Toula and her extended family are revisited 20 years after the first film.  Everyone is older, except Paris who wasn’t born yet and is now a bright young–pretty–woman getting ready to leave her parents and go off to college.  And great care is taken in the film to emphasize how old the women are, how much they have changed, and how little they want to admit it.  

This time, Toula is ugly because she is participating too much.  She has forgotten how to perform womanhood because she is too busy being a mother–to both her daughter and to her parents.  It was an interesting concept at first, until the constant emphasis on how Toula looked overwhelmed whatever other sentiments the film may have been trying to express.  Her husband was pulling away from her, her daughter wouldn’t trust her, until she magically brushed her hair, and put on makeup and a fancy dress.  Then Toula somehow became assertive, confident, and with that gained a new desirability to society that allowed her to have stronger relationships with people.  

The juxtaposition of these stories raises compelling questions not only about the demands of beauty and societal expectations of gender expression, but about the nature of engaging with those questions at all.  How close should a work of fiction mirror the real world, especially if it intends to interrogate questions like how women are controlled through gendered behavior?  And how does one engage in discussions such as these with those so baffled by woman’s free expression that she would prove wholly inscrutable to their own inestimable wit?  

Masks & Shadows, by Stephanie Burgis

In
a world where alchemy is real and mesmerism more than just simple hypnosis,
widowed Baroness Charlotte von Steinbeck has gone to stay with her sister at
the rural Austrian palace of Prince Nikolaus Eszterhazy in order to find some
peace and quiet, and learns that there is perhaps more to life than always
doing what is expected of her.  In
Stephanie Burgis’s first adult fantasy novel, opera brings everyone, great and
small, together, but it may also tear a nation apart in one terrible
conflagration.

The
lines of this novel are as gallant and polished as the nobility who dash across
the marble ballrooms and manicured lawns of Ezsterhaza in pursuit of their own
fortunes and favors.  A shy widow
meets a beautiful castrato and sparks fly amid scenes of intrigue and betrayal,
with just enough fantasy to keep things unpredictable.  The descriptions of costume and
operatic performance are lovingly crafted, and the romance Burgis creates
between her two protagonists builds deliciously, climaxing with the novel’s
final scenes in an impressive display of plot development, the pacing never
feeling out of time.

Though
Burgis borrows her characters from many known types—the somewhat spoiled  younger sister, the philandering
prince, the down-and-out young noble, the princess icy in the face of her
husband’s infidelity—the novel doesn’t feel flat, but instead carries the
reader along like a well-known play punctuated by each character’s own
idiosyncrasies and motivations. 
For readers of romance novels Masks
and Shadows
will be comforting in its circularity of plot, all ends neatly
tied up, a satisfying read from beginning to end.  If the narration and dialogue occasionally feel a little
overdone, it only adds to the performative air of the novel, and its strong
roots in opera and the performance of nobility.

Readers
who like their fantasy to lean more towards alternate history than epic will
enjoy the subtle additions of alchemy, mesmerism, and spirit summoning that
drive the ultimate plot of the novel. 
Those who like period pieces, particularly of 18th to 19th-century
Europe, will find much to love in Burgis’ use of Habsburg Austria.  This novel will appeal to anyone who
likes a good romance with some unexpected twists.