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: Happy Election Day

Hahaha, gotcha.  No, well, actually yes it is election day in the U.S., but more importantly it’s my birthday!  So this week’s Tuesday list will be books that have really impacted me as a reader, or that I have loved, or that have stuck with me.

  1. Beguilement (The Sharing Knife, Vol. 1), Lois McMaster Bujold

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This novel (and series) is a good introduction to the the idea that in SFF, a female protagonist doesn’t have to be a Strong Female Character.  Fawn is young, inexperience, and running away from home because she’s done something really stupid–but for a good reason, well, not a good reason, but an understandable reason, which is that she’s young and immature and hasn’t been properly educated by the adults in her life.  She’s been let down, but instead of staying and giving in to the tides of culture and society that would force her into marriage with an asshole, she runs away, and learns a lot about herself, and has unexpected and terrifying experiences.  I mean, there’s a happy ending, but there’s a lot in the middle, too.

2. Sorcerer to the Crown (Sorcerer Royal, book 1), Zen Cho

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Besides being a wonderfully written novel about two young people from marginalized backgrounds who do extraordinary things, I just love the way this story tweaks the noses of everyone who’s ever made an ignorant comment about diversity for its own sake, or how anything not from the Anglo-centric canon is hard to understand and needs translation, or that women who are good at things are just MarySues.  Prunella Gentleman is capable and funny and doesn’t give a damn about others’ preconceived notions about what she can do or ought to be doing.  Add to that a page-turning plot about fairy kingdoms, intrigue, and secret dragons, and this is a fun, necessary read in the SFF canon.

3. A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar

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A lot of what I’ve seen written about this novel call it lyrical, and yes, it is, but the thing I like most about it is how multi-faceted it is.  It’s a dense read, and that’s a good thing, because there’s not only a huge history and unknown world built into the story, but also a lot of commentary about colonialism, about the privilege inherent in education and the ability to gather knowledge, about agency even unto extreme disability and even death.  One of the main characters is a young woman who has died, and yet she is still given the chance to tell her story, to be fragile and terrifying, to be smart and yet naive, to be, essentially, herself.  All of the characters in this novel are treated with such care that, once finished, it’s a hard world to wander your way out of.

4. Frog Music, Emma Donoghue

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The complete opposite of Stephen King, who creates a horrific setting that turns out to have some kind of supernatural cause, Emma Donoghue writes the kind of  scenarios that make you wish they had a supernatural cause, because the mundane, human reasons behind them are just too horrific.  (This may not be the case with all her books, but so far it stands up.)  Frog Music is the story of a murder, and it’s the story of two women who are about as different as they can be, and the ways in which the try to navigate a  world in which their bodies, their genders, their existence, can be criminalized.  Historical fiction buffs, this one’s for you.

5. Crime and Punishmen, Fyodr Dostoyevskii

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For a long time this was my avowed favorite novel, and it still holds a special place for me.  It was probably my first experience with an untidy narrative that lived so completely in a character’s head that all of reality seemed warped, unreal even.  It’s also fitting for this list, as today is the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, and Crime and Punishment is nothing if not an exploration of the author’s stormy relationship both with society and with ideas of revolution.

The Tuesday List: Selkie Stories are for SFF Lovers

Bear with me.

I’m not into the kind of paranormal fiction that features werewolves and other shape changers, but for some reason selkies really intrigue me.  So here’s a list of stories with Selkies, some short stories, some not.

  1. “Selkie Stories are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar, as published in The New Voices of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle.

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This quick read takes the familiar mythology of the selkie and gives it a modern twist.

 

2. “Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon, also as published in The New Voices of Fantasy.

This isn’t about actual, named Selkies, but Jackalopes, which also change to human women by shedding their skin.

3. The Story of the Selkie in Cat Valente’s Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden.  Like all the tales in this book, it’s monstrous and wondrous and a little tragic, all rolled into one.

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4. The Promethean Age novels, by Elizabeth Bear, featuring Uisgebaugh, a Kelpie, which is of course not actually a Selkie, but it is a mythical creature that lives in water and can take human form.  But in this case, it’s a horse, not a seal, and it usually becomes a man when it takes human form.  Oh, and also it eats people.  But if you’re into fae-based fantasy with a touch of urban and a lot of people making questionable decisions, this series is for you.

 

5. Song of the Sea, a 2014 animated film from the people who created The Secret of Kells, it’s about Ben and his younger sister Saoirse, who must discover the secret of their mother’s life and death in order to save Saoirse’s life and return to their lighthouse-keeper father.  It’s adorable, and well-animated, and has really neat music and sound effects.

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Short Fiction I’ve Enjoyed Lately, Oct 2017

Hey, this is my semi-regular post where I throw a bunch of short fiction at you, so here goes.

The first few are from the recently released New Voices of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman, which I checked out from my local library.

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“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong
“Selkie Stories are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar
“Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon
“The Cartographer Wasps and Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu
“The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate” by A. C. Wise
“Tiger Baby” by JY Yang

The next few are from Uncanny Magazine (uncannymagazine.com)

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“The Green Knight’s Wife” by Kat Howard (Uncanny Magazine Podcast Ep 13B)
“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Ep 13A)
“The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight” by E. Lily Yu (Uncanny Magazine Podcast Ep 12B)

And the last one is a story I’ve talked about in brief on this blog, originally published by Apex Magazine (apex-magazine.com)

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“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” by Rebecca Roanhorse

It Takes Two: Radiance and A Stranger in Olondria

So I sat here at my computer, staring at tumblr posts as the scrolled by, and thought to myself that I hadn’t done much writing–of any stripe–in quite a while.  I’ve really fallen off the book reviewing wagon. My reading hasn’t dropped off in any significant way, but I just don’t have the mental energy to write reviews, edit them, and then get them out.

So instead, I thought back to a few things I’ve read–recently and not so recently–and tried to come up with a theme-y feeling, or feelings-ish theme that I find weaving through at least two novels.

And lo, a theme post is born.

Here I’m going to talk about Cat Valente’s Radiance, and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, both of which I’ve read and reviewed in the past six months. (You can find those reviews here on or my Goodreads page).  I’m probably going to be too lazy to go back and find links for them.

It Takes Two: Stories of Dead Women

Radiance is (spoilers?) the story of Severin Unck’s final days, her final film, her final journey out among the stars of the alt-Solar System discovered in the Victorian period and subsequently settled all the way out to Pluto itself.  In A Stranger in Olondria, the reader is presented with the coming-of-age story of Jevick, and islander who travels to the mainland nation of Olondria chasing stories and the learning he has glimpsed via a foreign tutor, but his quest for self-fulfillment is subsumed by the story, of a sick young woman he met on ship during the crossing, who revisits him as a ghost and haunts him, prodding him to write her story as she tells it in Jevick’s dreams.

What these two novels have in common is not simply the fact that each is concerned with the story of a woman who is now dead, but that each woman’s story is being told, in some way, by another character–or characters.  Severin’s father, the most famous filmmaker in that version of the solar system, is trying not only to recreate her last days from the memories and speculations of those around her, but to find a proper film medium in which to tell this story.  Jevick’s obsession with the written word is whatt draws the young woman’s ghost to him, an unrelenting commandment to put words to paper, to save her story in a way that her body, her life, could not be saved.

Each novel is a heartbreaking and stunning look at the power of art.  Art creates and drives people to create; stories tell more than their text.  Art is also sinister and dangerous, driving people to the edge, further, making them vulnerable to the manipulations of others.  Severin was driven to understand the murky ends of a small town on Venus, the inhabitants of which were divers for one of the companies who harvested milk from the great, semi-sentient beings living in Venus’s warm seas.  With her documentaries, she pushed limits in ways her father never would with the drama and intrigue he ladled into his fictional films.  Having grown up in a house where nothing was ever really real, having all been caught on film, Severin spent her life documenting instead of creating fiction.  In this way, Valente continues to play with notions of the real–as every documentary is still an interpretation, and is informed by the experiences and opinions of the documentarians.

A Stranger in Olondria pulls from the vast tradition of telling stories with other stories.  It is an astounding piece of worldbuilding, creating not only the people and living culture of Jevick’s home, Olondria, and other nations, but also the stories by which those places know themselves.  Jevick is so caught up in what he thinks is his story of discovery and growing up–almost a sort of ironic “noble savage” narrative, on his part–that he fails to see what is right in front of him.  In the same way, Severin’s father is so caught up in turning everything into fiction that in the end he doesn’t really understand his daughter, and is obsessed with crafting the perfect fiction to describe her real, non-fictional life.

The importance of these two narratives dealing with the stories of dead women is twofold.  First, in pushing each story-writer character to craft the story of the dead woman in each–via their different but equal motivations–the authors are not telling how these women died, but how they lived.  Though one is dead at the beginning of the novel and the other dies at an important turning point for the main character, the reader is fully immersed in the very real and vibrant lives of these women.

The second aspect of importance is not simply that these women had lives which are a strong part of the narrative, but that they did something with those lives.  These women had, and throughout their respective novels continue to have, agency and effect over the course of their lives.  Severing took control of a life she’d grown up feeling she had no control over, and went out amongst the planets to give context and reality to other worlds.  The ghost haunting Jevick belongs to a young woman who grew up illiterate, daughter of two worlds in a bizarrely colonial landscape that left her little room to be herself.  She dies from exposure to a disease she had contracted while on an adventure, and even in her sickness she refuses to be treated as a simple invalid.  In death, she is powerful and takes on a new life, part of which is the telling of her youth, and the other a hunger for literacy and immortality in the stories that Jevick prizes so highly.

The glint of immortality shines strongly through each of these novels, hastened by their meta-textual themes–film in Radiance, and writing in A Stranger in Olondria.  Not only do these novels share a similar theme, but they also share a carefully crafted duality that is both satisfying and challenging to read.  Though these novels are different in voice and style, they are well-matched.

A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

Growing
up the younger son of a rich family, made rich from the pepper trade on the
mainland, Jevick has learned that there is a price for everything.   Living in the Tea Islands to the
south of the great empire of Olondria, Jevick’s life is simple, fed on stories
of such wonder that when he has the opportunity to go, he can’t help but take
it.  He believes he is
prepared.  He has read the great
books, been tutored in the language. 
But there are some things you can’t learn simply from books.

A
coincidental meeting with a young woman, ill of a wasting sickness, going to
Olondria with her mother to seek a cure, reminds Jevick of his home, of and all
he is leaving behind, but it is not enough to stop him from fully immersing
himself in Olondrian culture, buying books wherever he can, and succumbing to
the magic of a place he has dreamed about nearly all his life.  The magic of Olondria has always been
in the books, in their ability to call up stories and people long dead, but in
giving himself over to Olondria, Jevick finds himself drawn into a struggle not
of his making. 

A Stranger in Olondria is, structurally,
a descendant of Tolkien’s works. 
Samatar plants the seeds for her world’s cultures through the stories
they tell, the stories Jevick hears and reads during his travels.  But where Tolkien was hampered by his
pastoralism, Samatar’s novel is a triumph of both storytelling and wonder.  The novel’s use of Jevick as
first-person narrator allows it to position its atmosphere of awe and nostalgia
against the regret and injustice elicited by its plot structure without
becoming too grandiose to be affective. 
The story that Jevick tells is relatively short, but juxtaposed against
the huge history of the world he traverses, the novel has a grand scope that
will make readers feel they are reading a much longer tale.

Those
who enjoy the storytelling devices used by writers like Tolkien will enjoy
Samatar’s mythologizing and the epic scale of A Stranger in Olondria. 
Those who are captivated by “stranger in a strange land” stories will
enjoy following Jevick as he is immersed in a culture he has grown up loving second-hand.  Readers looking for a novel they can
slow down and savour need look now further than A Stranger in Olondria.