The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss

In this metafictional Sherlock Holmes mystery, all the greatest villains of 19th century horror fiction finally give us what we’ve all been waiting for: amazing daughters who kick ass and do things their own way.  But what is the true mystery?  Is it the real reason Mary’s mother sank into illness verging on madness and died, years after the supposed death of Dr. Jekyll himself, or is it the secrets of the Societe des Alchemists, to whom Dr. Jekyll  may have belonged?  Or is it the story of what happened to Hyde, in the end?

The biggest mystery, of course, is why we didn’t get this story sooner.  It’s a madcap dash through Victorian London, from the slums of Whitechapel–home to Jack the Ripper himself–to the manicured gardens of Regent’s Park, all the way to the docks and beyond, chasing after murders and mysteries, with the reader holding on for dear life to follow the disjointed narrative and the zigzagging story at the same time.  The idea that all the classic science fiction and horror “geniuses” of their day might have left a trail of pissed off and capable women in their wake is all too realistic, and the found-family feeling of the novel holds it together long after the initial mystery is solved.

While some readers might be put off by the narrative style and what could be considered derivative use of existing stories, Goss brilliantly captures the feeling of a Holmes mystery, the immersive style of a Dickens drama, the melodrama of Dorian Gray and his ilk, adding a modern sensibility about character and agency that will make many readers feel right at home.  The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter fits in well with other transformational works like Cat Valente’s In the Night Garden and Kij Johnson’s The Dream -Quest of Velitt Boe, in which women are monstrous, or genius, or both, but most importantly they are present.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is a fast-paced read that keeps the story chugging along with significant narrative action sequences connecting stationary chunks of exposition, usually character backstory told by the characters themselves, lending both context and a deeper insight into each woman and the reason for her strong connection to the others.  It’s a satisfying story that at the same time begs a sequel or a series.  The more one learns about these extraordinary women, the more one wants to know.

 

 

 

 

Framed as the newest case for Holmes and Watson, brought to them by Mary Jekyllafter the death of her long-suffering mother, the story is set up as a multi-layered fictional novel being written by Catherine Moreau, long after the case has been solved, but with commentary from Mary and Catherine and all the other women whom they have befriended and are part of the story in their own ways.

Advertisements

The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley

This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with the withering of membrane and tissue, the slow escape of oxygen and heat into the endless abyss of space, the world ship’s last lurching revolution around an artificial star. The worlds may be dying, but they were long ago bereft of civilization. The Stars Are Legion is space opera for the dark night of the soul, when all hope is gone and only humanity remains.

Apart from being an extremely visceral and suspenseful alt-universe science fiction story, The Stars Are Legion is a novel that dares to ask the question, will humans ever be anything but parasites on the worlds they inhabit? Unlike Golden Age space opera that assumes a natural order to the universe, Hurley has created one in which understanding the artificiality of everything is paramount to—not success or survival, these things are never guaranteed in a Hurley novel—but paramount to being a less shitty version of humanity than the average. Zan, an amnesiac warrior who awakens with nothing but a memory of love and death, must go against everything she’s been told she stands for, plunging into the heart of an alien world with only the surety that dying later is better than dying now.

Hurley’s prose is not poetic or flowing, but full of sharp lines and jagged edges that draw blood as easily as they evoke an image. She doesn’t shy away from the horror of human and biological physicality, highlighting the ways in which we usually abject suffering and violence. Birth, injury, death, rebirth, nothing is without pain, without blood, or without fear. It is only in the small moments, when Zan is forced to live within the worlds she has discovered, that something as small as friendship or hope can be kindled.

The Stars Are Legion is not a hopeful novel; it is not a redemption story or a problem in any way solved. It is, simply, a human story. It tells the lives of those for whom happiness is a momentary cessation, or even weakening, of suffering, rather than a neutral state. It is a necessary story though, and deeply satisfying for the universality of experience it represents.

How Have I Loved: Women of Color Who Rock My SFF World

So my last non-review-type post was about women who made me feel I was a lover of SFF, a legitimate reader of SFF, and not just passing through on the way to something else.

And I noticed that the list of three did not contain any women of color (I was just a wee one starting out, with little more reference than the shelves of the Barnes & Noble it took an hour to drive to), so this post shall attempt to rectify the lack with some more writers who happen not to be white, who I have discovered as my SFF-Readerdom has matured.  So.

N.K. Jemisin

It’s pathetic, really, that I’ve only read her Inheritance trilogy so far, but it wasn’t just her fiction that expanded my brain, it was her words in general, and her willingness to say the uncomfortable things that a lot of people might rather turn a blind eye to.  I would say that in reading her fiction and her blog posts, I’ve really internalized the idea that there is no neutral position, when it comes to social issues.  Her novels unapologetically feature characters in a wide range of skin colors and physical features, with no agenda other than to offer a world that is interesting, varied, and believable in its history and mythology.  While I was mostly enthralled with the way Jemisin interpreted known earth mythologies to create a critically aware fictional world, I read an unsettling amount of criticism from people who said she had an “agenda” in creating such diverse peoples.

And the truth is, there is no fiction, no story, no world, no opinion that does not have some sort of agenda at its root.  Making this realization is what really carried me into 21st century SFF readership, as I realized that maybe it was easiest to write about the adventures of white men for most of the modern age, but it still wasn’t right, or true, or even interesting.  And all those authors we’d love to think of as progressive and imaginative and revolutionary but just a little misguided were really the least imaginative and least revolutionary because they let their love of things override the humanity of all people.

Nnedi Okorafor

My first introduction to the idea that non-US histories and mythologies didn’t need to be filtered through a white gaze in order to make good fiction.  That is just as disgusting a position as it sounds, and unfortunately I probably carried that misconception for longer than I should have.  Having read her short story collection Kabu-Kabu, and her novels Who Fears Death and Lagoon (with Book of Phoenix and Akata Witch at the top of my stack), I’ve got a taste for non-US, non “Western” fiction from authentic voices outside of my own realm of experience.  The world is a huge place, and there are so many brilliant people out there writing their own SFF, and we as readers should be pushing for more great stories and great writers, not just sticking to the same few whose names we already know and feel comfortable seeing on the shelves of the big box bookstores and New York Times bestseller lists.  

Nalo Hopkinson

Hopkinson challenges me.  That’s an understatement.  She’s probably the SFF writer I turn to the most who pushes the bounds of horror and truly weird fiction, but still manages to awe me on a regular basis.  I got into SFF because of epic fantasy and space opera–the long sagas and personal journeys that lasted forever, because I never wanted the good story to end, the one I could immerse myself in and forget about the fact that no one likes an introvert who gets better grades than them in high school.

But my reading expanded, and Hopkinson was there to keep pushing those limits.  Besides just the horror elements, she writes with a whimsy and sense of wonder that few SFF writers can match, and is willing to follow her stories down every dark path to see where they lead.  

So, that’s a short list of women of color who have rocked my SFF world.  Here’s a few more writers/anthologies/novels you should check out if you’re looking to move off the beaten path of white SFF:

Jaymee Goh

Joyce Chng

Sofia Samatar

The SEA is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia

Speculative Japan  & Speculative Japan 2

Zen Cho

Mary Anne Mohanraj

Ruth Ozeki (I know she’s more literary than SFF but she’s still awesome)

Octavia Butler

Aliette do Bodard

Silvia Moreno-Garcia

S. L Huang

Of course there are many more that I haven’t yet read, so feel free to reblog with more recommendations.

Angry As I Want to Be

My entire life—but most especially in the past five years or so—I’ve been baffled by people who think that all women are averse to violence, or anger, or any kind of sudden and intense physical action.  Anyone who had a window into my thoughts for an hour or so would quickly be disabused of that notion.  And then they would say something about how I was “different than other women” and I’d kick them in the teeth.

Point made.

It’s very rare, even in books written by women, for women-identifying protagonists to be really violent or angry and not consistently filter it out, or have it pointed out as a character flaw, or in some other way for it to be a bad thing.  In books written by men any violence or anger in a woman is generally a plot device, or is a thing to be “smoothed out” of her before the story is over.  We have our traditional examples in works like The Taming of the Shrew, and then there are fun new examples like Cersei Lannister in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.  

A couple weeks ago I finished God’s War, by Kameron Hurley, first in the Bel Dame Apocrypha series. In it Nyx, the primary protagonist, is consistently violent and often angry.  She’s violent because she exists in a writhing sea of violence and she has no choice but to be violent in order to survive.  She’s angry for the same reasons, and many more that I won’t get into because of spoilers.  The main point is that all of her feelings and actions are generally justified, in one way or another, even if her specific actions are her choice and not always best-considered.  Another character whose name isn’t Nyx might lay down and give up, or try to respond to the violence in their life in another way, and these would all be equally valid choices for whatever those characters construct as their reasoning.  But Nyx doesn’t react that way.

And she’s not punished for it, or fridged, or any other method that authors have of “fixing” a violent woman.

Hurley has written more than once about her decision not to write sexualized violence into her stories.  And until I read God’s War I never realized how much I appreciated knowing that that type of violence would not occur in a novel.  

I am lucky enough to say that I’ve never been a victim of sexual assault.  There are many people who can’t say that.  Until I came into online spaces, I really wasn’t aware that sexual assault was so pandemic, and that the way we as a society treated victims was so horrible.  I never really “played it safe” when I was younger, never thought I ought to change my own behavior in order not to get raped.  I’d always been as abrasive and reckless as I wanted to be.  I always made decisions based upon what I wanted, not what I didn’t want to happen to me.  

Every woman, I suppose, and many people who don’t identify or present as women, know there is always a possibility that they could be sexually assaulted.  Not all of us have the luxury of believing we shouldn’t have to think about it.  Rape is pervasive in media, in nearly every aspect of our culture.  I went to live in Kazakhstan for a year, and though I never really considered it a possibility, many people—people close to me, my own family, even—were intent upon telling me that my rape was going to happen that year.  Nevermind that the only thing people knew about Kazakhstan was that they didn’t really know anything, the simple fact they had a hard time pronouncing it meant that it was a thing I ought to be worried about, that I should just expect it.  When I joined the Navy a few years before that, my boyfriend at the time tried to use the possibility that I might get raped as a reason not to join.  

I’m still baffled as to why those seemed like valid points for them to make.

But then again a lot of authors and creators throw rape around as if it just a thing that happens to women, as if we should expect it, not be surprised and horrified by it.  And I have to wonder, when I read a book like Game of Thrones, if writers are so casual in their treatment of rape in fiction, what are they like when they are presented with rape and sexual assault in real life?  

There are very few stories in which rape is a good thing to include.  Who Fears Death is a notable example, but Okorafor is making a point about how sexualized violence is used as a form of terrorism and control, and her protagonist is righteously angry about the way she is treated because of it.  Using rape as just a “gritty” form of violence to show how evil a character is, is sloppy writing.  Using rape as the way that a man responds to a violent or angry woman, or exercises control over a woman, is often sloppy writing.  Women are not just vessels to receive sexual violence, and men should not be expected to respond to anger in women with sexual violence.  This type of writing dehumanizes women, turns them into objects who are acted upon.  It should not be normalized.

Even more difficult to parse is writers who treat any violence or anger in a woman as evidence of her sexual urges, another way of normalizing sexual violence against women.  No doubt many of us have read the scene in which a woman and man fighting suddenly turns into a man forcing himself on the woman, suddenly turns into the woman willingly having sex with the man, despite evidence previously presented that the woman hates/dislikes/is disgusted by the man.  This depicts women as strange emotional beings who don’t even know their own minds, who are not in control of their emotions or actions. It conveniently elides the fact that women can be emotional and yet deliberate in their actions, even if they are violent actions.

Segue back to Nyx.  

Nyx gets in a lot of fights, is attacked, is tortured.  Sometimes she wins, most of the time not.  But however violent or angry or demanding or even irrational she is, she is never made into a victim, is never punished—by the author, by the narrative—for any of these things.  She is never sexually assaulted as a way to advance her story arc, or to advance the arc of Rhys, the secondary protagonist who traditionally would be expected to “avenge” her dead and mutilated corpse somehow.  And anyway I can’t help but think that if Nyx were raped she would simply take the next opportunity to kill the person who did it to her and move on with her life.  And that would be just as valid as any other reaction to being raped.  But that doesn’t happen, anyway.

Nyx is jailed and tortured for her part in the novel’s plot, because she acts counter to orders or because she has information that others want, but not as a way to smooth out her character traits or because it is expected because she is a woman.  Even when Nyx fights a man with whom she had a relationship, whose mercenary team she had been on before the novel starts, she is never threatened with sexual violence, is never made less human for being a woman who fights.  She is free to win or lose as her skills and the situation allows, as a human who has emotion, who is violent.  

As a man would, some might say.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

           There are books that are affective
for what they say about life, the world, and our place in it.  And then there are books that are affective
for what they don’t say.  At 544 pages in
hardcover Life After Life is an
extremely wordy novel.  And it has a lot
to say about a great number of subjects.
It is the story of Ursula Todd and her many lives.  It is not a time travel novel, nor a parallel
worlds novel, but a meditation on what it would be like if, every time someone
died, they started over, back at the beginning, and did it all again.  If there was in fact life, after life.  The novel imagines what it would be like to
be Ursuala Todd who, through no fault of her own, must experience life after
life after life, with no respite.

           Atkinson is one of the most subtle
wits I have ever read.  Her subject and
setting—England and Europe during first World War I and then World War II—is
not particularly original although it must be said that her narrative of life
in a perpetually bombarded city, or of the feeling of waiting for the worst to
happen, is poignantly rendered.  Her wit,
though, comes through in how she allows characters to react to the world around
them, and how the world reacts to them.
Child Ursula grows in precocity every time she is born, to the point she
practically carries the weight of the world in her later childhoods.  Let us consider that the greatest tragedy
often imagined in society is that of a child experiencing evil and war, and let
us then imagine a child being continually born to experience the same war and
the same death.  As Ursula grows up having
a greater and greater foreboding of that death and of her death, one life after
the other, Life After Life becomes an
astounding work of literary finesse.

           Life
After Life
is inhabited primarily by women, who represent a range of feminine
identities.  Atkinson allows them each
their own nature, to have contradictory reactions to life and to each other, in
fact to be human without any special attention being given to it.  Atkinson’s understated approach to women in
her novel lend a startling poignancy to our view of how society treated those
women who strayed too far from feminine ideals, of how women were taught to
hate themselves, and how the lives of men were given precedence over those of
women.  There are many beautiful moments
in Life After Life, and many
heartbreaking ones.  Many people have no
doubt fantasized about what they would do if they had life to live over, but
that fantasy becomes a nightmare when you don’t have the luxury of choosing
when you live or die.  The most affective
moments were when the reader knows that if Ursula had a choice she would have
died, and yet life forces her to go on.
Death is only an escape when it lets you go.

           Readers interested in life during
the Great Wars will enjoy this novel for its realistic representations of
London and Berlin during the bombings.
Readers who can suspend disbelief and allow a novel to become an
experiment in narrative meant to reveal something about the nature of life,
rather than just being a straightforward story, will enjoy the speculative
aspects of Life After Life.  It is a novel driven by ideas, written with a
delicacy that allows its characters to shine.
Anyone in search of a “great, big book” will find much to love in this
novel.

Where All the Women are Beautiful and all the Men are, Well, Men

I was going to write a post about good dialog being important to a story, which I’ll get to at some point, but right now I want to talk about beautiful women.  

Plenty has been written about the depiction of women in sff, not just physically but also in terms of characterization.  I ran across a great series of posts from Fantasy Faction from last year, you can start with the first one, Your Heroine is Too Beautiful.  It provides a good breakdown of what it means for readers to constantly encounter the perfectly beautiful (Eurocentrically speaking) female protagonist.  Over and over.  I heartily agree.  But what about when every single female character in every single novel is described purely in terms of their outward appearance, and that appearance is even made to stand in for their mental and emotional capacities?  Or not even that, just their emotional state? 

I’ve been reading an ARC by the name of The Falcon Throne, which is due to be published in September of this year, and while I’ve never heard of her (that I can recall), the author has apparently written more than a few sff novels, and has sold “over 500,000 copies of her previous books” (quote from back of ARC).  More about that later.  Now, the book is your basic Eurocentric “medieval” setting, with all that’s strange, incomprehensible, and “magic” coming from the exotic, well, I’m just going to go ahead and call it East, since there’s no map and she doesn’t really make much effort to physically place all the nations in her world-building.  Magic, in this book, is a thing to be feared, practiced by witches, and from the way she seems to be setting up the story will hit these good ignorant white people when and in a way they least expect at some point, much later, if we ever stop talking about fucking and breeding, and get round to advancing the plot.

But I digress.

As I said, all the women are beautiful, and if they’re not we’re told exactly how and why and have their emotional/mental shortcomings described.  And anyway these non-beauties exist to advance the story arcs of male characters so they serve another role.  Then there are the foreign women, the witches and sorcerers.  They are also not really described, other than to be much more highly sexualized, to speak with lisping accents, and just generally to be dark, scary, and weird.  As the story progresses, they only exist to advance the dark plan of Salimbene, introduced and then immediately disappeared at the very beginning, whose mother was a sorcerer and summarily died to advance the arc of Salimbene himself.

So, for the women anyway, outward appearance basically sums up the character, and only highborn women are allowed to in any way approach the ideal of beauty in this world.  My favorite example, by far, is the character Jancis, who is the wife to the sinister bad boy heir Balfre and is, coincidentally, the first woman who is actually introduced and appears in the novel, on page 35.  She is thin and pale, apparently without breasts (because what good is a woman that doesn’t provide something for men to look at?) and unable to get pregnant.  Well, she does have a daughter, but of course that’s not good for anything.  She is in fact only introduced in order to uphold the manliness of her husband, recently accused of murder, by being available to him to beat and rape in a drunken rage, only he makes the choice not to.  Because of some line about how his mother would react (she’s dead, of course), and the fact that real men don’t rape their wives when there are perfectly good servants to whom they can do that sort of thing.  Otherwise, we could probably get through the entire book without Jancis needing to drag herself through her torturous life for our dubious amusement.

So at this point, in my reading, I was trying to slow down and understand: is this novel a portrayal of misogyny, or does the writer actually seem to believe in her tired sexist/misogynist tropes?  I honestly have a hard time deciding between the two, having read so much sff that just treats women the same, but in the last few years, reading many more good, talented sff writers who are women, I’ve come up with some strategies.  Applicable to this book, women are always described through the male gaze.  Always.  Their worth always comes down to how men value them, even in the rare occasions when one woman is looking at and talking about another woman.  Jancis’ counterpoint and sister-in-law, Mazelina, is beautiful and charming and vibrant (and also married to the good brother, Grefin), and even she looks at Jancis as though she were a man.  She considers only how to help Jancis get pregnant, how to please her husband, rather than how to make herself happy in any way.  And when Mazelina looks at Balfre, she is able to see how handsome he is, despite her suspicions over his character and intentions.  

Which brings me to the men.  Are men in the story subject to the same inward/outward appearance requirements?  Men, it turns out, can be pretty much whatever they want to be.  Balfre is extremely good-looking, and also the most sinister character (so far).  Another character, Vidar, of the neighboring duchy, is introduced and immediately described as being horribly disfigured from some battle or other, with a previously shattered hip, missing an eye, and a host of other ailments.  At first, Vidar seems like a bad guy for ordering the death of an infant and heir to the throne, but as the story progresses, we are allowed to sympathise with Vidar, who has had his inheritance taken from him and just generally never gets his way (his way being the ability to choose who he gets to breed with).  Even when he chooses to do something questionable, the reader is privy to all his motives and gets to choose whether to find him good or not.  

And it goes on and on.  

Of course, this is not the only book I’ve ever read, or will read, in which gender tropes are so played-out.  And the thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way.  If this really is a story about far flung sorcery and the motivations of a hastily introduced, dying son of a dead sorcerer who passes on her gifts and expects him to become a great and powerful sorcerer in his own right, fine, that’s an interesting story.  Intrigue and puppetry can be carried out in pretty much any type of society, so long as there are cultural norms to be played upon.  Those norms don’t have to be “medieval” and misogynistic.  It’s lazy storytelling and boringly detracts from otherwise good scene-writing.  Because this book is full of great dialog and the author has an excellent grasp of consistent characterization.  She’s just consistent about the wrong things.  

Oh yeah, I was going to talk about the fact this author has already been published multiple times.  Ok, I’ll talk about that in the next post, the dialogue one, because after all that I just don’t have the energy to break down this trend I see where women sff writers who uphold the patriarchal standard keep getting published, over women who are good writers and choose not to keep that standard.

Stay tuned.