Twilight Robbery, by Frances Hardinge

1405055391.LZZZZZZZ

(In 2012 I arranged with a site to review the books up for the Fantasy Clarke. Plans changed and the coverage got scrapped, but I still have the reviews, so I’ll put them up.)

In Twilight Robbery Mosca Mye, a young urchin attached as a ‘secretary’ and partner in crime to writer-cum-conman Eponymous Clent, finds opportunities for making a dubiously-honest living drying up in her corner of the world. This is partly due to general hard times, and partly due to Mye and Clent’s propensity to cause trouble and bend the law to earn their crust. They decide to cross to what they presume will be greener pastures via Toll, a provincial town perched on the one sure crossing between chunks of their continent. But Toll is more complex and sinister than it appears. Mye and Clent’s relatively simple goal is frustrated by financial difficulties, a man who plans to kidnap the Mayor’s daughter, and a powerful Guildmaster with little love for Mye and Clent, who has plans of his own for Toll.

In the world of Twilight Robbery, every chunk of a few hours of the year is sacred to one of a huge pantheon of ‘Beloved’. These small gods can be invoked for their special properties, and people ‘born under them’ are named for them and supposedly take on something of their character. In a lot of faux-medieval Europeanish fantasy, religion, when it’s remembered at all, is worn as an affected afterthought, like a silly hat. It can provide some plot-business for religious-establishment-flavoured villains, give female characters a job and some mobility, or serve as a means of marking characters as pious. People occasionally remember to think about its impact on their lives much the way I occasionally remember overdue library books–i.e. in a vague, guilty way, when I actually see them sitting there or the specific subject of ‘overdue library books’ comes up.

This doesn’t really reflect the way belief systems of all kinds shape people’s entire conception of their world, historically and today. Intelligence and cynicism weren’t ‘sure barriers’ against the medieval church, they simply affected how you related to aspects of faith, because faith and the structures surrounding it were huge components of everyone’s lived experience. In fact intelligence and cynicism might be as easily harnessed to the service of faith. In Twilight Robbery, belief in the Beloved seriously affects characters’ lives and the plot. This perhaps reckons more honestly with the way religion made the Medieval world and everything in it inherently non-secular. Hardinge’s setting isn’t window dressing, it’s a vital component of everything that happens.*

Twilight Robbery is an enjoyable book in and of itself, but perhaps more importantly its writer shows she could well develop both this series and her craft into something really astounding. This sounds patronizing–she’s a grown woman and a proficient writer, and I must admit, this is all I’ve read of hers. But we’re always developing as writers, aren’t we? Dickens circa Old Curiosity Shop, four novels in, is nowhere near the writer he’ll be by David Copperfield, and then again by Our Mutual Friend. He becomes both quite a different writer and a much better writer (unless you adhere to G.K. Chesterton’s sanguine assessment of the early picaresques). Three things, I think, are keeping Twilight Robbery from being truly great at the moment–and I see them all as skills that Hardinge will probably build on as she writes more books.

First, this book probably needs to drop 150 pages. Possibly 200. I’m not fussed about exact numbers, but something in this area. That sounds madly draconian and drastic, but not enough goes on herein to justify the book’s 522 pages, which seem exceptionally excessive both given the novel’s structure and for a YA novel. Everything that happens or needs to happen could be condensed without sacrificing charm of manner. We go on too many side-jaunts, to the extent that it feels like I’m playing Fable. I wouldn’t lose any of the characters, but some of the stray plot thickener could go. It’s not just a length issue: there’s a connected pacing problem. The novel made me feel restless after twenty page chunks, and on top of the length the book seemed to take me a frustratingly long time to finish due to its pace. Russian epic novels, the world’s most compelling thing-around-the-house-that-can-be-used-as-a-door-stop, tend to flip between characters/arcs and have a lot of plot-business, coupled with a strong sense of momentum. They thus justify their length and don’t necessarily feel it. Twilight Robbery might benefit from adopting these strategies.

Secondly, the Sense of Sequel is distracting. There are well-worked-in references to the events of the previous book, and these references show the characters haven’t just forgotten their earlier adventures. That’s good, because that amnesiac quality is always irksome in serialized genre fiction and denies characters a sense of psychological realism and interior life. It strips the causality from their earlier adventures and makes them less meaningful. It also denies readers the pleasures afforded by a larger arc unfolding in the background. However Hardinge hasn’t developed the light touch employed by Terry Pratchett, which ensures that almost any Discworld book can be picked up, read and enjoyed in any order, without leaving the reader feeling half-informed, like they’re missing out and not properly enjoying characters who were introduced and developed in another book. Since Twilight Robbery is marketed not as a sequel but as one of a loose confederacy of Mosca Mye adventures, this form of responsibility, different from that involved in writing an explicit sequel, is incumbent upon Hardinge.

We’re working with a world where the atomic substance of the plot and setting is, due to the Beloveds, typology, character and characterization. Given this, the characters aren’t as good as they could–no, as they need to be. They’re all there in their basic components: they have solid, conflicting, comprehensible motivations, interesting but not twee over-weaning competencies, and positions that prompt them to interact with each other in engaging ways. They just need more wow-factor. To make this sort of fun romp *pop*, the full cast needs to be sharply characterized. And *popping* is what this sort of book must do to work–that’s not an optional extra. This isn’t an argument for idiot-proof broad-strokes good-and-evil genre caricatures. It’s for more searingly accurately observed secondary characters, where despite the fantasy setting distancing you from them, you groan just reading their descriptions because you so know that guy and that’s such an astute observation.

Eponymous Clent is a bit limp in this book. We’re told he tells fabulous stories, but we don’t hear his moments of great rhetorical triumph (which are presumably greater than can be rendered here, etc.), and so an important component of the character is lost to us. He should be an amoral sort of early Doctor (as in Who) figure: semi-squirrely, self-interested and pathetic, but also engaging and clever, scraping through dangerous situations in thoroughly compelling style. The dynamic between him and his companion should be rich and enjoyable. Instead Clent’s something of an ‘also ran’ in the wily/fun/morally-dubious itinerant adventuring protagonist race, and his friendship with Mosca falls flat. And what goes for Clent goes for the whole cast. Clent and Mosca’s old acquaintance Jennifer Bessel has a strong voice, but (based on this book alone), she doesn’t have much of an ‘I must go home and write all the fanfic about this fascinating and well-drawn character’ factor. The sinister guild-leader Aramai Goshawk has what would be sexual tension with Mosca, if Mosca were about six years older, but otherwise he’s a relatively generic Vetinari-ish figure.

These are things which, based on the strength of her current work, I think Hardinge is capable of achieving. Despite the pacing issue, her writing is vigorous, occasionally breaking into flits of sprightly comic joy–a tendency which should be encouraged and expanded upon, as Hardinge manages these moments well. The world she builds is creepy, elaborate, conceptually intriguing, and fun despite its grimness. Her characters could do more, but they’re soundly devised on a fundamental level, and Hardinge establishes distinct and strong voices for each of them. This book isn’t all it could be, but it’s enjoyable, and there’s a lot to be said for its appealing ordinary-and-extraordinary scrappy young female protagonist. Twilight Robbery is very readable in its own right, and a good base to build on.

* This actually makes Mye’s father’s skeptical turn feel more earned. For a bad example of the need to make Characters from the Past believe like modern Western secular people to prove they’re clever and worthy, see what Big Finish does to make Erimem a fit traveling companion for Five in her introductory serial,“Eye of the Scorpion”. The ACTUAL LIVING GODDESS of Egypt is all ‘I dig science, religion isn’t all that’ and doesn’t… worry this blasphemy will affect the inundation and harm her magical connection to the land, which sustains the fragile balance of the entire nation?

They don’t even have the guts to:
1. do this consistently if they’re going to do it,
2. work out what her relationship to faith is, if it’s indeed multifaceted,
3. tie her skepticism to Egypt’s long history of power-wrangling between the monarchy and the priesthood, or
4. tie her skepticism to her ENORMOUS role in the religion and her lived experience (sometimes she gets sick and doesn’t feel like the incarnation of gods on earth etc.).

This introduction unintentionally comes off as a Dawkins-ish condemnation of silly brown people and their failure to fall in: Erimem is okay because she’s Like Us, modern and secular. People who aren’t Like Us, who don’t think and believe as we do–they shouldn’t be a part of the narrative. Which… is the opposite of the point of Doctor Who, at its best.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

Lon Cake

(In 2012 I arranged with a site to review the books up for the Fantasy Clarke. Plans changed and the coverage got scrapped, but I still have the reviews, so I’ll put them up.)

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a coming of age narrative with fantastic elements. The central character, a young girl called Rose, gains the ability to taste the origins of the food she eats, and, in particular, the emotional state of the cook. To a degree, this functions as a metaphor for her perhaps over-developed ‘mundane’ sense of empathy, and provides us with a window into the emotional lives of her troubled mother, staid father, and enigmatic brother Joseph, all of whom have secrets of their own.

The writing isn’t experimental. It doesn’t come with bells and whistles. It’s not a particularly excellent example of relatively straightforward prose, studded with transcendently true and affecting moments. There’s a tendency to commend any book that’s not poorly written for its good prose, but that collapses the substantial middle ground occupied by books with pleasantly decent writing, such as Lemon Cake. The only real issue I have with the novel on this score is that Bender’s choice to omit quotation marks in a dialogue-heavy book doesn’t give the writing a satisfying immediacy, or stretch the dialogue into the prose in an enriching way. It just grates a bit. Typographical conventions should only be abandoned to achieve particular, generative effects. 

The novel is competent. It uses workmanlike prose to briskly evoke quite good characters, a strong setting and atmosphere, and a network of underlying tensions. It constructs promising conflicts between its characters premised on their fundamentally different natures. But the novel is also frustrating and unsatisfying. Despite its fertile set-up, remarkably little happens in Lemon Cake’s three-hundred pages. The slow pace might be used to unfold characters and relationships of great depth and interest, but the novel’s world is strangely static, and its characters undergo few dynamic changes. Reading it feels like being stuck renting a room from the Prufrock family. In a story so premised around emotion, the book feels sucked clean of it. Maybe life is like this for many people: small existences with sad families, few friends, inadequate and listless responses to problems, little exterior direction or interest, no particularly compelling inner life. Points for a certain flat middle class realism. But is anything in the novel stageworthy? In a story where no one cares passionately about anything, does anything matter?

The setting is both ungrounded and unhelpfully precise. A specific sense of place–restaurants and streets in LA, university options in California–juxtaposes strangely with the timelessness of the novel. It’s difficult to tell when the book’s set. It could be almost any time in the last several decades. A telephone booth is described as outdated, but no one has a cell phone. Joseph is a remote science genius who disdains touch and has trouble relating to people, and despite a surfeit of discussion about why he is the way he is, no one mentions the possibility that he might fall within the autism spectrum. It feels as though Rose’s entire child- and young adulthood takes place, both emotionally for the characters and in terms of the broader setting, in the same vague year, rather than over the course of more than a decade. This arrested quality is especially strange as bildungsromans (stories of a protagonist’s journey into adulthood) often, by their nature, deeply engage with concepts of change and time.

In the same vein, Rose’s coping strategies a month after her problem arises/her fantastic ability presents itself are very similar to her coping strategies over a decade later. A serious food aversion amounting to a disability might prompt one to explore a raw food diet, especially in LA, home of wacky dietary possibility, just to cut down on the amount of information overload one’s subjected to. Yet Rose miserably masticates her mom’s cooking and awaits the occasional salvation of a Dorito, for years.

No one in the book responds to the story’s fantastic elements with anything other than a sort of dreamy incompetence. Effectuality is said to be Rose’s father’s defining characteristic, yet he bumbles along with the rest of them. No one follows up on things. If your parent has a problem, and you feel you also have the same problem, then surely you could extrapolate that this apparently familial issue might well affect your own children. Yet the characters, despite caring about each other, never discuss this, save for one short conversation near the book’s end that doesn’t greatly affect the narrative. The scientifically-minded characters never seek to explore the cause of Rose’s abnormal experience, nor does Rose herself. Obviously these sorts of empirical processes aren’t really at home in a magic realist text, and they might be superfluous to, or lessen the metaphorical power of, the character’s strange abilities. But again, the fantastic juxtaposition with mundane, real-world elements, homework and marital problems, makes the absence of realistic coping mechanisms strange, and makes characters who don’t chafe at their situations or adapt to them less believable.

The fantastic elements–intriguing in their potential–don’t really go anywhere or mean anything. We have a protagonist who can taste the feelings that have gone into making food, but the conceit isn’t pressed. The problem always remains About Rose. Given the unsavory agribusiness industry and the involvement of animals in the food Rose eats, Lemon Cake could easily be Fast Food Nation: the Novel, and/or a 300 page advertisement for PETA. I don’t know that it should be, but sidelining those issues entirely seems a glaring omission. 

Furthermore, if Rose’s problem and ability is one of empathy (for her family, if not for cows and poor people), we don’t learn anything fresh and interesting about empathy’s burdens via this atypical means of accessing them. If Joseph’s problem is about, somewhat similarly, feeling assaulted by the world, his issues are dealt with too coyly, and at too much distance, to really have the chance to function as a means for communicating with the reader. It’s significant that Joseph presents as possibly-autistic in a world that doesn’t appear to have autism, and Rose has debilitating food aversions in a world without eating disorders, celiacs, etc. What does it mean to be a novel about empathy with no strong sense of the social world beyond the Family Romance? Is there, embedded in that, a quite politicized curtailing of empathy, despite the character’s relationship with food production automatically tying her into large, stratified socioeconomic networks?

At one point Rose tells her father a fabricated story about one of her classmates. He responds by saying “I know you’re trying to tell me something, but I have no idea what it is. Okay? I don’t think like that. What are you trying to tell me?” (pg. 173) I feel similarly about the entire novel, except I don’t think it’s a problem of not being willing or able to think in the fluid, associative ways magical realism and urban fantasy demand. I’m game, but ultimately, Lemon Cake isn’t.

On Being Undone by a Light Breeze, by Vajra Chandrasekera

Picture 1

(Above is a tiny clip of the art that accompanies this piece, which can be found in full at the link below.)

If you’re looking for a story that will engage with you on open ground, that you can (no dirty words!) understand and interpolate, Vajra Chandrasekera’s “On Being Undone by a Light Breeze” will richly disappoint you. “On Being Undone by a Light Breeze” unfolds itself, both on the page in its sections and in its presentation of its content. Its elements don’t build so much as lap up against each other, and their untidy cohesion forms what we must clumsily call the story’s narrative. “On Being Undone” is communicative in that it speaks to you, yet it’s difficult to grasp and locate. You can’t call it back to have your say–you never get its number.

People tend to forget that the amalgamation of ambiguity, terseness and writerly reticence (a legacy of modernism that is too readily credited, unexamined, with craftsmanship and depth) is only one ‘good’ stylistic mode among many. Stephen Wright incisively cataloged the mode’s unpleasant origins and connotations in his essay “Don’t Kill Your Darlings.” Much of the time, I worry that the Emperor is naked. That short, stripped-down, ambiguous stories are not mysterious brooding tortured souls (which, in and of themselves, I question the need for) but Jordan Catalanos, silent because they haven’t anything to say.

“On Being Undone” should rub me wrong, because oh look, a studied and artful disorienting, out-of-sequence existential unraveling, how fresh. But it’s obvious that, rather than being vague because it’s trying to disguise a lacunae where its heart should be, the story is ambiguous because it has far, far too much to tell you. Perhaps more than words can say. This is true of both the story’s palpable post-colonial and feminist threads, and of its SFFnal possibilities. People in this world can remove their public faces, literally. The world is probably ending (again). Our narrator exists in a state of quantum fluctuation.

Perhaps the narrator’s instability, and that of their life, is, in part, a reflection of their mental state:

“Outside your house, you forget to cohere. Every time you leave your house, you begin to scatter in the wind. Even a light breeze is dangerous when it’s tugging away at you, smearing you into the world. When you pull yourself together you’re not sure how much of yourself you’ve lost.”

But then hard questions (does or doesn’t the narrator have babies?) and the story’s SFFnal context challenge that ‘unreliable female Gothic narrator’ template, familiar from The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting, et al. Does or doesn’t the narrator slip between universes, inhabiting various lives? Is the sun indeed exploding? Is the singularity that explosion might create, will create, has created, influencing the narrator, perhaps causing the ‘shifts’?

I keep wanting to call the narrator a woman. The story is in second person, and the narrator’s gender is never specified. Yet the absent mother, who the narrator evaluates theirself against, and the way whether or not the narrator has children is raised as a key aspect of the narrator’s identity and lifestyle, are of course both traditional markers of feminine identity as it is coded in narrative. A friend, however, pointed out that a Hindu funeral pyre the story speaks of is traditionally (though there are exceptions) lit by men.

It’s worth pointing out that while the story reads as explicitly engaging with discourses on postcolonial subjectivity to me, that may be a facet of my own subject position as a white woman for whom these questions are outside my ‘normal’ personal relationship to literature and the world. For others, what I see as foreground may simply be background. I might, in my evaluation of the narrator’s mental state, be giving undue attention to conditions that are, for the narrator, unremarkable. For me, however, the story’s post-colonial discourse is mingled with questions of class, and comes in strongly in the discussion of the narrator’s removable face.

“Your unfair face makes you uncomfortable. When you come home you take off your face and put it on a shelf with your wallet and your keys. You like to relax with no face” …“your mother wanted you to be as fair as possible. Fairness is the virtue you are charged to cultivate because you were born with a peasant face and unfair disposition. You were born to the purity of manure and oiled engines but you could never stand that shit.”

The narrator’s subjectivity is rent not just by your garden-variety Prufrockosity, and not quite just by the possibility of a more particular mental unease, but by the tensions of inhabiting a shifting, disempowered ethnic and class position under regimes of racial and class stratification. Chandrasekera’s removable faces are kith and kin to Fair and Lovely cream. The narrator’s attempt to hold theirself together in the space of the world, to present theirself well and be Appropriate, is always already undercut by their “unfair face”.

The story’s details are crisp without trying too hard–the substance of ‘detail’, not the brand names:

“Inside your house you can cry and have babies and dinners with the food laid out in so many dishes, in a bubble of clean oxygen where the entropy of the world does not penetrate. The beans are an electric, radioactive green. The rice is white, because white is the colour of wealth.”

If the story risks becoming over-pretty, it seems to sense the danger. Quirky, quotidian turns of phrase like “ you are afraid only because you have things you don’t want to lose, like babies and stuff” pick up the dropped stitch and balance the story out.

It’s difficult to conclude a discussion of a story that resists such resolutions, resists an arc full-stop. “On Being Undone” leaves me restless. Sections like this:

“If you could, you would leave the house with no face. You would take more risks with no face. You would face the sun with no face. You would lose face with grace, with no face.

But when you leave the house, you always check the shelf for your wallet and your keys and your face, and you take them up and put them in their place.”

and the apocalyptic release of the ending needle at your complacency, provoking a desire to live better, live differently. But if anything, this is anti-heroic fantasy: a story about how difficult the mere act of holding yourself together is, and, short of apocalypse, how difficult it can be to imagine anything beyond getting home, where there are “cool regular tiles and you can lie down on them, press your face to them,” and coping.

Film Review: The Witch Who Came From the Sea (Dir. Matt Cimber, 1976)

The_Witch_Who_Came_From_the_Sea_FilmPoster

 

The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976) is one of 72 titles that featured on the Department of Public Prosecutions’ (DPP) 1983 list of ‘Video Nasties’. Of those 72, 33 were unsuccessfully prosecuted and dropped from the list—The Witch (released uncut in the UK on DVD in 2006) is among them. Interestingly, the VHS cover art that originally attracted the DPP’s attention is ultimately more salacious than the film’s content. While rich in ideas, Matt Climber’s film is frustratingly uneven in its execution.

Full article here

 

Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall

MarsEvacuees

Mars Evacuees takes place in the wake of a more conventional fix-it SF novel gone wrong. An alien species, the Morrors, has moved into our mostly uninhabited, unneeded polar regions and reversed global warming! So far, so environmentally-conscious can’t-we-all-just-get-along Pertwee-era Doctor Who story. But oh no, the aliens turn out to want way more space than they said, and to be able to reverse global warming too effectively, creating a creeping ice-age! It’s every gumtree/craigslist roommate drama ever, on a global scale.

Full review here

Fringe 2014, part 2

sleepingtreeology-27857

 

[This is the second part of Erin Horáková’s report from the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Part 1 can be found here.]

Sleeping Trees’s Treelogy consists of three comedy shows, all of which are adaptations: Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree, Treasure Island, and The Odyssey. We saw the last of these offerings. Without costumes, props, lighting more complex than a (lit) bulb, or a set, using only physical comedy and human-produced sounds (think Bjork’s Medulla), the three-man company manages to deliver a cinematic epic, with cyclops battles, ships and all. Their take on the text is loose, so if it’s going to bother you that the hero’s kid is not called Telemachus, maybe skip this one.

Low-fi Fringe shows are either excellent or utterly embarrassing. Odyssey featured a good script, great delivery, genuinely welcome repeated gags, and crisp character work. In terms of sheer skill and polish, we’re definitely in the former camp here. The production, which here consists of sheer prep work, is slick as hell.

Full review here

Short Fiction Snapshot #10: “Dagon’s Bargain” by Gehayi

AO3logo3-02

 

There were ten versions of Hamlet at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This figure included traditionalist productions as well as adaptations further afield—Hamlet and Ophelia Go Swimming, Hamlet Private Eye, etc. Hamlet the Musical was missing this year, which is a damn shame. Meanwhile, at Innsmouth Free Press, “She Walks in Shadows, the first all-woman Lovecraft anthology, will hold an open submissions period from November 15, 2014 to December 15, 2014.” Many are, apparently, still taking the calls of Cthulhu!

This serves to illustrate that Gehayi’s “Dagon’s Bargain” is, in many ways, a traditionalist’s pick for discussion. “Dagon’s Bargain” skillfully interweaves the world and questions of Hamlet with the Lovecraft mythos—the ur-canonical text hooking up with the ur-SFnal collaborative mythology.

Read full review here