Annihilation – Jeff VanderMeer

51lbtse5qulA recommendation from rather a while ago that I’ve finally got round to (thanks Tea!). Something many ways outside my normal reading – I may or may not be a bit of a wuss about creepy things – but absolutely brilliant, and so so worth the read.

VanderMeer was definitely a name I’d heard before, but I don’t think I could have told you what he’d written, just that he was genre and possibly good? So I was coming into this without much in the way of foreknowledge or expectation (though I did really really like the cover art when I found it to buy online). And, as I’ve said before, I kinda like that. Just knowing someone I know liked it and thought it was good, and having no idea what it is but going for it anyway. Sure, it doesn’t always work. There will always be people with different taste to me, or books which are in many ways good but with which I just don’t get on. But it works surprisingly often, and I like the mystery.

Which is good, because this book comes with mystery by the bucketful.

The premise is that there’s a mystery piece of land that has been affected by some sort of natural occurrence (unspecified or unknown), and teams have been being sent in to investigate for some time. Our narrator is a biologist and member of the twelfth such expedition, sent into Area X to investigate, and is telling the story of the experiences of herself and the other team members, the surveyor, the psychologist and the anthropologist.

And we never get names for them. I like that. I like too that they all happen to be women, and no matter is really made of it. They’re still all known by their jobs, and are assessed by that as the major metric, or by how well they deal with all the shenanigans that befall inside Area X.

I don’t want to go into too much more detail on the premise, because it is very much a mystery novel, where the fun is in the slow unravelling of details and events, to build up a picture of what’s going on. To give much away beyond the first few pages would somewhat spoil that, so I shan’t. Instead, I want to talk about how it works as a creepy mystery, when most other stuff like this really really doesn’t cut it for me.

Primarily, this is because I am a wuss.

I am, I am sorry to admit, entirely too easy to creep out. This is the main reason I can’t deal with zombie media of any kind. Or jump scares. Or things where people get infested by nefarious beings. Or anything kinda sinister and likely to lurk in the night to come get me*. And so I tend to avoid books and films and such about creepy things, because I end up wanting the light on at night like I’m five, and that’s not a great feeling.

But there are occasionally exceptions. Stranger Things, for instance, which was amazing. But really damn creepy. And then this. It managed to have a quality I often find lacking in the creepy, which is compulsive readability. I could not put it down at all. It never felt like it was going to get any less creepy if I kept on going, but I still wanted to keep on going because of the mystery, and of wanting to know what happened next, and of being so involved inside the mind of the viewpoint character that I couldn’t quite bear to put her away.

And I think that’s what this book does best. It puts you inside the head of a complex and compelling character – who reveals herself to be unreliable, every now and then, only to tell you what she was hiding and once again place herself in your trust – and you really get a sense of her confusion and growing awareness throughout. But you also get a sense of her as a person – as a really complex, not entirely nice, regretful person, who has left some things behind and has her doubts and fears and resentments, and they all build up to form part of her… while at the same time, she keeps her language distant, cold and abstract. It’s a brilliant combination, and blurs the feeling of journal with the feeling of just first person viewpoint. I find particularly endearing her irrational dislike of some of the other people in the book, and her twists of whim and fancy that seem improbable but then make sense. She feels human, essentially. You don’t like her, and I don’t think you are meant to, but you get her.

The prose is also excellent, which helps. It very much has a character, a voice, and I’ll be very interested to see if that voice is different in the second book in the series, to see the extent to which it was a deliberate choice and part of the characterisation of the biologist.

But the descriptive passages really are excellent. You can really see the scenes he describes – even the ones that are deeply peculiar – and feel the atmosphere and the tension and drama. Which very much builds into the creepy thing. But it’s done so well that I forgive it. You hear the night-time noises of the natural world around the biologist, and certainly in my case, I had an extremely clear mental feel for the place described, however weird it was.

His pacing is also excellent, keeping it slow and measured for most of the book, revealing things as they need revealing but giving away no more than necessary. You get kept in the good sort of confusion all the way to the point where you aren’t, if that makes sense?

Essentially, I loved it. It was brilliantly written and completely enthralling, and I shall be intending to read the sequel once I’ve demolished some of my tower of book.

Next up, either the Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood (good writing and Classics references? Of course I’m interested) or The Bear and the Nightingale for book club. Which will it be? There, have your own, slightly rubbish mystery…

 

*Except vampires**. No, I don’t know why.
**Apart from the one time I had an adverse reaction to medication and wouldn’t leave my room because I was convinced the vampires were coming to get me. That was a weird hour.

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The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor

25461013A very short book now, to get me back into the swing of things, since I’ve been so lax about reading and posting. I was recommended this without a huge amount of blurb, so didn’t entirely know what I was being handed. And to some extent, I’m glad of that, because unexpected books can be some of the best books. And it was interesting all on its own too, of course.

The Book of Phoenix is a sort of prequel, sort of not (the author calls it a sister book) to Who Fears Death, a story of a girl with powers in a post-apocalyptic future Africa. I haven’t read this, but was aware of it before I read The Book of Phoenix, and so had some amount of context to connect the two. I doubt it was necessary, but it was interesting, and I think it may help when I (soon) get around to reading Who Fears Death.

The Book of Phoenix follows a woman who was created to be more than human, then kept locked up as a science experiment in a tower block full of fellow test subjects in New York, in a grim, semi-realistic near future. Technology has leapt ahead, as has global warming, but the world is not a happy one, and there are a lot of problems. Phoenix is only two years old but has the body of a mature woman in her forties. She has never left her tower. We follow her as a dramatic event changes how she thinks about the place she’s lived her whole life and her relationship with people and the world around her. It’s a combination of a coming of age story, a grim near future SF and something else that’s kind of just itself.

One of the things I actually found quite so interesting about the book is that fact that Phoenix is so chronologically young. She’s been given access to books and information, and has grown at an accelerated rate, but there are moments when there does seem to be a naivety about her that can only come from having just two years of lived experience – and a restricted, trapped and guided two years at that. This partially comes through in her speech and actions, but I think is most prominently visible in the way the story is narrated and structured, because the narrative bookending of it is that it is Phoenix herself telling her story to someone in the distant future, via a recorded speech saved on a computer. And the way the story flows follows both the meandering way that stories told orally often do, but also a… not childishness, because Phoenix is anything but, but an immaturity of some aspects of her relation with the world that betray her in her storytelling. I spent a lot of the book unsure how deliberate this was as a decision, but when I got to the end, I was pretty damn sure the author had been rather clever about it all. This naivety makes Phoenix a surprisingly compelling character to read – I’d have expected the reverse – especially when combined with the emotional depth she has in other directions. Her perception of herself is complex and developed, while her her view of the world is hampered, and it leads to a richness and irrationality of characterisation that really does make her feel… well… real.

But, because the story is presented as something she’s telling orally, this has a sort of downside, in that the presentation, pacing and direction of the narrative form part of her characterisation, and suffer slightly for this. One of the things I struggled with for most of the book was trying to decide whether this was a deliberate choice and part of that characterisation, or just slightly iffy story-telling – I came down firmly on “deliberate and successful choice” by the time I got to the end, but it does mean that the flow of the story is… a little odd. It does very much feel like the flow of a story told by a normal person – it takes turns in odd places, because it’s about how they think and feel about the things that happened to them, not how a story ought best to be constructed. You get asides, and information presented not quite at the point you’d expect it. It mostly works, I can see what she’s doing, and it really does feed into giving us a sense of Phoenix as a person… but I didn’t fully enjoy it as it did detract from the coherence of the storytelling.

The book is also really rather short, and this leaves you with the feeling of a lot of different threads and ideas being set up – really interesting ones that I want to know more about – but then never being resolved, or not resolved fully, because there just wasn’t enough space. It makes me keener to read Who Fears Death, because I imagine some of them will get picked up there, but it left an amount of dissatisfaction when putting the book down – that feeling of “but what about…?”.

That being said, it’s still a story I had no difficulty throwing myself into, and I didn’t really want to put the book down as I was reading. For all that I have some qualms with the construction, the heart of the story is a good one, and one told in a slightly unusual but mostly successful way, with characters I care about and, in the case of the main character, have a complex self that doesn’t pin itself just to a particular trope. Phoenix isn’t totally sure who she is herself, and that exploration is really interesting, and does work to make a character you both care about and want to read more of.

There’s one other thing that makes this book both compelling and frankly just good for me, and it’s something that bleeds through on every single page… and something I should probably read more of, truth be told. On top of everything else happening, all the other emotions going on through each character and each thread and each event, there is a constant, present and palpable sense of anger, sometimes visceral, seething and violent, sometimes quieter and resentful, but always there, and much of the time right up front and centre.

Nearly everyone in this story is either from Africa themselves, or with a recent African descent or (since some characters have been genetically constructed) a strong DNA link. And many of them have been taken directly from Africa, many in their childhood, to the US, denied any sort of autonomy, even bodily autonomy, and been treated as less than human. There’s even, in the science tower, treated much the same as all the other “experiments”, a group of monkeys. The message being sent there is not a subtle one. But it’s slightly more complex than that – the scientist we have a name and a face for is also from Africa, born in Nigeria and come to the US, hoping that the work she does in the tower will get her her citizenship. I don’t think at any point we have a named white character (or if we do, the fact I can’t remember them suggests they’re not exactly important*), though some exist in the periphery, more concept than person, driving what goes on behind the scenes to create the circumstances of the story. And so you have these two themes – the one about the dehumanisation of Africans, with explicit, spoken links to the slave trade within the novel, and then the one about the complexity of oppression, where Bumi, the Nigerian scientist, is part of the machinery of oppression and dehumanisation (with no remorse or complexity given on her own part – she fully supports what she’s doing and pursues it with zeal – but with an unspoken complexity that assumes that her fervour comes from the position she has been put in by her situation, and her need for US citizenship).

I think this, in many ways, is the most successful part of the book (as well as the characterisation of Phoenix herself, but the two go very closely hand in hand). It brings a raw emotionality to the story that… I don’t think I’ve encountered in many places, but it’s a raw emotionality overlaid with a cold, hard determination. This is not emotion the irrational, this is emotion that drives action, and it really really works in terms of how it sets the tone for every action. Because I said sometimes Phoenix’s story telling took odd turns? Part of this is that she takes actions that don’t seem, initially, to make a huge amount of sense. But in the context of that all-driving anger, in the context of a woman suffering hugely and with the power to push back against that, her actions make so, so much sense, and that I think is what Okorafor does so well – she embraces emotional rationale ahead of necessarily detached logic, and so everything just feels… so much more real. Because that’s how people really do think.

That all being said, the book as a whole fell into a tricky gap for me in terms of rating. It’s one of those ones where I see and appreciate what it’s doing, and know it’s good… but also don’t think it’s massively for me? I enjoyed it, but not with the mad passion I enjoyed say… All the Birds in the Sky, or Ninefox Gambit. I think, had it been a longer book, that would have changed, but the unresolved threads niggle at me a lot, and I want to know what happens to so many people and things that I can’t settle. And so for me, it’s in the gap between three and four stars on Goodreads, with the potential to sit solidly in four if, when I read Who Fears Death, I get some resolution on those. Because I know this one was written second, so I can’t totally blame it for not filling me in on context that would have already existed if I’d read them in the other order. That being said, the more I reflect on it, the higher the rating I want to give it, so this may change in a week or so without any outside help anyway. Opinions are weird.

Next up, I should try to finish The Vorrh, but I may abandon it for the huge stack of other things threatening to fall off my desk. We’ll see.

 

*The only white characters I can recall, and I don’t think they are actually named, are a group of men who come to a village in Ghana and are generally self-important and awful about the place until stuff happens. It’s a bit more than that, but spoilers. They’re not fleshed out people, they’re villains, and rightly so. There’s a lot of not-at-all-subtle colonialist echoing going on in that bit of the book, and it is absolutely deliberate about the lack of subtlety. Which… really works well within the tone of the rest of the book.

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The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

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Definitely a pretty edition, so glad I got this not the tv cover

So I didn’t manage to finish The Vorrh in enough time to ensure I’d get through The Handmaid’s Tale in enough time for book club, so I’ll be going back to it*. I’m far enough in that I know it’s going to be an interesting post, for sure.

I’ll admit it, I haven’t actually read The Handmaid’s Tale before. I know, I know, I really ought to have. Seminal work of feminist dystopia and all that. Booker nominated speculative fiction! Multi-award winning! So many reasons I should have got round to this, rather than have it lurking on my To Read list. So, probably spurred on by the current tv show (which I wouldn’t watch without having read the book), I decided to nominate it for this month’s book club meeting, and I am so, so pleased it won. Not because I’ve ticked it off my list. But because it turns out it is probably one of the best books I have ever read.

I think part of that is I got to it in a good week. I started reading it on a Monday, mid-way through a book I suspect of being… iffy on gender stuff, and just after having reacted very very positively to a film for feministy reasons. I was in the right headspace for this. But I think I’d have loved it, if not quite as ridiculously much, whenever I came to it. Because it strikes the perfect balance of horror and realism, creating a dystopia thoroughly rooted in things one can relate to. Atwood is particularly good at grounding her world in history, creating images of the future with echoes of the past, making it so much easier to visualise things ever so clearly. Likewise, the style of the narration, the humanity of it brings it closer to something you can easily feel and imagine. It’s not a dispassionate, third person narrative, watching from a distance. It’s a person right there, feeling those feelings and seeing those things, with all the attendant confusion, unreliability and lack of detail that brings. It’s not explaining every single tiny cause and effect and grand scheme and overarching theme. It’s more human than that, and that’s what makes it so wonderful.

More than anything, though, it is Atwood’s prose that sells it. I forget, sometimes, when I’ve been reading a lot of books with good stories and writing that… gets out of the way… that I really really value decent prose. For all that I love the SFF genre, and I do (I mean, I have a blog dedicated to talking about it and everything), one of the ways I feel it lets itself down is that, on the whole, the standard of writing required for something to be considered good is much, much lower than you might get in other genres. Not all the time, and I’m not saying there’s no well written SFF (I mean, China Miéville exists). But it’s not the norm. So when I do get to some SFF with properly glorious, beautiful writing (thank you David Mitchell, for instance), it stands out as the joy it is to read. And The Handmaid’s Tale is exactly that. Atwood uses her prose to create a vivid, personal and very real sense of a person, as well as subtly crafting her as an unreliable narrator in her own unreliable words. But the thing which truly stood out to me more than all of that was how Atwood describes a scene. My memories of the book are the vivid mental pictures of the landscapes she describes. The weather particularly – the weather which feeds into the tone and themes and which becomes such a subtle but integrated part of the narrative – sticks firmly in my mind. I could see so clearly the empty blue skies of summer she called up, and the sharp edges of the headdresses, the stark colours of the clothing. Colour and sensation are massive focal points in how she creates her world, and it is this more than anything which sticks with me, because it creates a palpable atmosphere. It’s not just that you can imagine her summer, but you can feel and see it. And that’s just so, so rare in SFF that I read… and it’s not like I’m rereading comfort-trash all the time. I generally try to read well-written things, for the standards of the genre, because I do really like good writing… but there’s a step-change between most of that and this, and it’s something that stands out so strongly when I get it.

And then of course there’s the world she describes.

One of the most chilling… but in a weird way almost comforting… things about the book is how real it seems. How… detached from its own time. Like, I know when the book was written, and if I really really pay attention, I can get some sense of that when reading it. But otherwise, it feels sort of timeless. It could happen now. And for all that current events definitely are nudging it more towards realism than anyone wants, part of me feels like that might have been true in the entire intervening time between the writing and now. It feels far more universally applicable than… say… Animal Farm, as well as, frankly, being a better book. It hasn’t (yet? I hope this changes) got the sense of absurdity and unreality that Animal Farm has that really undercuts the seriousness of its message. This… feels so real. And the reactions of the women – the way that not everyone is good, and many of them are their own oppressors – the way there are people all the way down the spectrum of morality particularly emphasise this. It’s not a simple story. It accepts that people are complex, and not everyone follows the same logics, and it still manages to come out of that with a coherent narrative drive.

But somehow, this complex narrative about many people being absolutely horrible is a comfort. And I think part of that is solidarity. My general impression has been that the women who’ve read it and expressed opinions are not… shocked by it. It feels real in a way it doesn’t to the men. And I feel like part of that might be a feeling of, however much the scale is different, not feeling alone. Because this is grown out of a reality many women experience – expanded and overgrown as it may be – and so there’s a sense of understanding and… feeling like you’re believed? I’m not sure how to articulate it.

Mainly, it feels like a very very relevant story, and one that is deeply personal and human. Because the main beauty of it is the narrator, in all her unreliable glory. She’s torn between resentment and horror at her situation and acceptance, almost gratefulness. She’s not a fighter. She’s not a glorious rebel facing up to the evil regime. And that’s why she matters so much. She’s a survivor. She’s someone who puts down her head and gets by. Yes, she hates what her world is. But she lives. Yes, she takes the freedoms she’s given and enjoys them. But she hides them, quietly, sensibly and carefully. She’s who many of us would be, in a way we wouldn’t be the outspoken, strident fighter, consequences go hang. The book gives us her too, in Moira, but she’s someone to be admired, sometimes close and sometimes from a distance, not the voice that speaks directly to us. We’re not meant to identify with Moira, just wonder at her. And for all that sounds a somewhat grim indication of the mindset of most people… to me, at least, it felt real. And that felt so much more worthwhile than a story of noble and… unrealistic, in most people’s cases… dramatic fight and rebellion and turmoil and drama. Because most things aren’t like that.

I’m rambling now, so I’ll get to the point. Much like Wonder Woman, but in a very different direction, The Handmaid’s Tale  is a book I found emotionally important, as well as objectively good. There is much to recommend it in the abstract – it is painfully well-written, moving, clever, insightful, horrifying and plausible – but where it really succeeds is the emotional. It feels real, and it feels important. And that’s… a very difficult thing pulled off beautifully. I felt no hesitation giving it five stars on Goodreads, and I honestly think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I am definitely going to seek out more of Atwood’s work because this was just too… yeah.

Next up, a break towards something slightly lighter, ish, maybe – I’m currently reading The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okarofor, and so far it’s really really readable.

 

*This is still technically true, but I’ve now started reading something else that isn’t creeping me out with male gaze/sexist/casual racism swan stuff.

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[Digression] Wonder Woman!

We interrupt your scheduled programming to bring you (totally not spoiler safe) news that I just saw Wonder Woman and LOVED IT.

I do not think I have ever been so gleefully, earnestly and unself-consciously invested in a film as I was with this. On an intellectual level, I will happily grant that there were definite flaws that could have been addressed and that detracted from it overall as a film. On an emotional level though… IT WAS JUST FANTASTIC. That’s it. Nothing more. Just absolutely wonderful on many many levels.

So we often talk about representation, and I’ve definitely always agreed on a reasoning level that seeing yourself (in whatever axes of selfhood you wish to choose) in media is a really affirming and satisfying feeling, especially when you (whatever group you’re using) don’t get portrayed in the media very often, or don’t get portrayed in particular roles or types of media, or if those portrayals have fundamental flaws and biases. And I have definitely got it, to an extent, both emotionally and rationally – as anyone who saw me reacting to Ginger Linguist Protagonist in Arrival will agree – but not… totally. And definitely not as much as I did while watching Wonder Woman. Because we’re getting a woman who is being a Strong Female Protagonist… but without having to abandon the fact she’s also a woman. She’s not abandoned femininity to become a male protagonist with boobs. And when does that happen?

There are two scenes that really spell this out for me, and there’s no way to do this spoiler-safe, so my apologies guys if you’ve not seen it (seriously, go see it).

Firstly, and for me more prominently, there is a scene in which the Amazons fight 20th century soldiers on a beach. Now, what really makes this for me is the context I have around it. I read an article telling me that a fair portion of the women playing Amazons are not actresses, but in fact professional athletes and other sporty types. These are women who really look like this. It’s just who they are and what they do. And they have scars and normal faces and for all they are wearing make up it’s toned down… and they look like just, real women. Amazing women, sure. But real ones. And they are led by women who have been allowed to be old on screen! When does that even happen either? And then… and then… they get attacked by a load of soldiers. Who have guns, when the Amazons have bows and arrows or swords or whatever. Surely they will be outmatched by th- NOPE. You get the sort of overblown, gloriously dramatic action scene that women never get, and never women older than… what, 25? 30? Certainly not ones allowed to look in their forties. The actress playing the Amazon general* is over fifty! We get slow-mo shots of them taking out multiple enemies each in ridiculously dramatic ways. We get the leader of the Amazons** getting off her horse and just being the most badass… there was some top cloak-swooping action going on there, there really was. It was the sort of scene I am generally totally in favour of in most films… and yet when all of the people doing it are women… sure, let’s just turn the happiness dial up to 11.

The second scene, for similar but slightly different reasons, is one that I happen to have read is the director’s favourite. Diana and the menfolk are in the trenches, and a women is crying and saying that her village is being attacked and terrible things are happening there. Diana is obviously distraught, as is her way, and wants to go help. The menfolk are all “no, we must continue our mission, it is sad but such is war”, because they’d have to cross no-man’s land. And no man can do that. Hint, hint. Diana… is not taking this. She sheds her modern costume, puts on her diadem of Amazon-ness and slow-mo steps out onto the field. She deflects bullets with her cuffs. She starts to run across the field, inspiring the menfolk to follow after her, while the soldiers in the trench provide covering fire. The enemy breaks out the machine gun, and she withstands it with her shield. The menfolk manage to catch up and distract, allowing her to leap ridiculously into the air and destroy the machine gun, spurring the soldiers on into no man’s land etc. etc. glorious victory lies ahead. Like the previous scene, it’s the sort of overblown drama you get in a lot of male-centred hero movies. It’s the scene the director has said she

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You can’t deny, it was a good line.

considers to be the one in which Diana “becomes Wonder Woman”. And it’s that focus of personal development, that allowance for her to have that space to Become… it was a beautiful scene, beautifully done, with bonus “I AM NO MAN” undertones. It’s the point at which all the men travelling along with her accept that she’s just… something more than they are, for all that they’ve seen her fight a little before and allowed that she’s competent. But she’s not just “competent”. They leave the trench and she says she’ll go on ahead, they should wait, then runs off. And there’s a moment of them all looking at one another, of “a woman just told us to stay behind… what”. And then they all decide… you know what, yeah, she’s probably got this.

They’re both scenes that in some way take something tropey and familiar, and by making it female, make it much more meaningful to me as the viewer. And the second one specifically plays with that inversion. The characters see it… and they accept it.

I will admit, there are flaws. The use of disfigurement as shorthand for the female chemist being a baddie is lazy and insulting. There’s definitely a struggle after the no man’s land scene to keep up the pace toward the finale (the scene was just too good). And the finale itself is somewhat undermined by the return to the old “love is the solution to all” schtick. But even in that there’s some joy. In order for Diana to have her epiphany that allows her to go from losing her final battle to becoming her true and strongest self etc. etc… well, they fridged the male love interest. And for all that fridging is lazy, lazy writing, I’ll allow it this time, again, just for the inversion. And while the big battle at the end was very CGI and not particularly choreography (not that I’m hugely complaining, I quite enjoy the OTT CGI god battle thing, as a rule), to have a female protagonist of equal status fighting on equal terms with a male bad guy… eh, it can be cheesey and badly choreographed and I just don’t care. I was 100% invested, and it made me hugely happy when she won.

Overall, if I’m being sensible about it, it wasn’t the perfect film. There were definite issues*** and some of them were quite iffy. But at the same time, I have honestly never felt so fully invested in a film, and I can’t quite get on board with being critical while I’m sat here loving it so much. On a feminist glee level, it scores very very highly indeed. I loved it, and I don’t think that is just the “I JUST GOT OUT OF DARK ROOM” hyperactivity talking, so I am going to carry on loving it. I will buy it for my iPad, I suspect. And I will commit to watching Justice League for the sake of more Diana. It was everything I wanted it to be, and it did it harder and more gloriously than I’d expected or hoped.

Also, at one point, she solves something because she can read Sumerian. And what was written there legit looked like Sumerian.

What more could a hyperactive linguist want?

 

*Robin Wright. I really liked her as Antiope.
**Connie Nielsen, also over fifty, also fantastic.
***There’s a scene supposedly in the Louvre, and we definitely start in the Louvre… then we get a shot that is DEFINITELY FROM THE BRITISH MUSEUM. I know those wingéd bulls, I tells ya. And the BM is listed in the credits. So either one of her powers is teleportation or somebody decided there weren’t any good old statues in the Louvre to frame a shot. For literally a second. GUYS. COME ON.

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Pretty Deadly Vol. 2 – Deconnick, Rios, Bellaire and Cowles

71igzcrwk6lI am definitely not trying to bump my stats in my reading challenge by reading a graphic novel next, especially as I’m behind my target. That’s not a thing I would do.

And I mean, I’m not really. I would have read this in any case because the first volume was so beautiful and excellent. Spoilers: so is this one. It might even be more beautiful. I’ve only not got around to it sooner because I don’t read graphic novels at work or on the tube (size to reading time ratio not optimal for travelling). But I was always going to get there when I had a moment.

Surprising precisely no one, it was so worth it. It made me want to go back and read the first one again to compare, because I genuinely think the art in this one is better. It’s more fluid, more unreal, and I feel like it did more of the full page spreads, especially the kind drifting toward the abstract. And I was 100% there for that. Sure, the art was in service to telling a story, but I was very much enjoying the art on its own merits too, because it is entirely worthwhile. The colour palette too really helps with this. Like the previous volume, there’s a purple-and-brown-ness to everything, and it really helps cement the atmosphere (and makes anything that doesn’t closely conform to it really stand out).

And, much like the art, the plot remains sort of drifting and unreal too. There are the interludes that frame the narrative as a story between Butterfly and Bunny (yes, I still enjoy skeletal Bunny), which do give some scaffolding, but on the whole, the story we follow feels like it’s given a bit of a rude gesture to sticking to a quick pace and a firm narrative. And I like it? Things definitely happen, but they happen in their own sweet time and possibly with a detour over here and a mildly incomprehensible full page spread, which, while undeniably gorgeous, isn’t actually really pushing the narrative on in any meaningful way. And I’m ok with that too.

Much like Ody-CPretty Deadly achieves what some comics don’t and forces me to still still, calm the fuck down, and actually take the time to appreciate the art for its own sake. In less… dramatically stylised comics – Rat QueensPaper GirlsLucifer – I read them like I read books, powering on through as quickly as I can because I want all of the story and I want it now. And this ends up with my main problem with graphic novels – the cost to enjoyment time ratio just doesn’t work for me. I read very very quickly, and they are quick reading, and they’re quite expensive. But when I get to ones where I just have to sit myself down and actually look, well, then it all works out. Because if I powered through Ody-C, I would miss so much of what was happening and what they were doing. And Pretty Deadly is the same. It’s too pretty, too multi-layered (visually) for you to skim it. And that’s probably the best thing about it, because it means it really is achieving something a normal book medium couldn’t.

And that’s really all I have to say about it? It remains great as a series, and I will continue to follow it. As a related point to my last, I kind of don’t have much to say, because they don’t pack a lot of plot in – too busy being pretty as fuck – but it means that there isn’t much ground to cover when discussing what’s actually happened. So it’s fine for reading, but a bit rubbish for ‘blogging.

Next up – I am still reading The Vorrh, but I keep doing things like going to the theatre or Paris (woo!) so I’m not being great at actually getting much reading done. Will hopefully power through once I get back to the UK and get back into the habit of reading properly again.

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Borderline – Mishell Baker

25692886And the last of the Nebulas, admittedly somewhat late. Especially given that I now know who won. I got somewhat bogged down in reading The Dark Forest, and so managed to get about a month behind. But I’ve been looking forward to reading Borderline pretty much since the beginning of the whole award nominee reading thing, so it was fantastic to finally get to it, however late.

And, I’m glad to say, I enjoyed it.

In many ways, it’s a good book. It does things I think need doing, and it does them with a decent pace and real characters, in an urban fantasy setting that isn’t London. Which, I mean, come on. That being said, it’s not an amazing book, and the writing can’t quite keep up with the ideas. It’s not bad enough that it stopped me enjoying it in any way, but it wasn’t quite good enough that I’d have wanted it as a contender for the top spot. It sort of occupies the same zone as Uprooted did last year, in that I enjoyed it a lot, but it’s an enjoyment of something that’s fun and easy-reading… not trash, because it’s still actually pretty good, but not quite “I want this to win all the awards”.

But hey, it didn’t win. And I still enjoyed it, so I’m going to focus on that.

The story is about fairies in LA, told from the viewpoint of an ex-director with BPD and some physical disabilities, and fully acknowledging the difficulties that arise from those, and weaving them into the story and how she interacts with the magical world she soon discovers.

If we left out the BPD and physical disabilities, it would still be a cool book. I like fairies, I like fairies-but-with-the-real-world-and-also-modern, and it does that pretty damn well. It’s not quite Mike Shevdon, but we’re getting there. But then you add in the other stuff, and it becomes a much more special thing. Especially because the author also suffers from BPD, so we get not just the inside-the-head view of the character on all of this, but knowing that we can fully trust the author to represent it faithfully. And that was fantastic. It’s rare to see mental health (or physical) represented in SFF, and rarer like this, so sympathetically. Yes, it affects how she functions. Yes, sometimes things go badly. But it’s part of her and we see how she thinks about it and how she works with and around it, and it’s brilliant.

Less nicely, but just as valuably, we see how others treat her, and how unreasonable the world’s expectations of her can be under her circumstances, and the balance she has to strike between her (entirely reasonable) anger and the responses that she needs to give to get by. Other characters in the book don’t accommodate her wheelchair, they don’t accept that she needs pain medication, they don’t allow that some issues are difficult to discuss… and her navigation of this, always honest, sometimes painful, sometimes vindicating, is something I think we really need to see more of in fiction.

Whether or not the rest of the writing is fantastic, the thing that Baker really excels at here is her writing of a sympathetic, plausible character inside whose head we can live. Millie feels very very real, and the way she almost tries to cast herself as an unreliable narrator (even as we double down on trusting her) is a wonderful bit of self-deprecation. No, she doesn’t believe in herself. She has so many doubts. And they’re real doubts, grounded in real problems, and a thorough sense of self-awareness. It’s not the sort of airy doubts one often has in the young aspiring hero, where… well, they make sense, because it’s a story, but it’s a doubt of “can I really save the world?” not “is it really possible that I won’t fuck up these work relationships?”.

I suppose that’s what urban fantasy does that other genres don’t. It adds realism not just to the setting, but the way people think and behave. They’re not as credulous, not as confident, not as stereotyped, clichéd and grand. They have real, trivial problems and don’t always shower when they should. And that’s charming, in its way. It’s why I like the genre, certainly. Yes, I am the sort of person who goes “but what if they needed to go to the loo?” in long, dramatic scenes in traditional fantasy. And urban fantasy caters to that particular shade of pedantry. And then this book goes one step further, and it’s brilliant.

Because, minor spoilers, one of the major points in the book is that the protagonist has a lot of steel inside her, after reconstructive surgery. And because iron/steel + fairy magic = uh oh… well, it turns out quite interestingly.

So Baker is taking what urban fantasy does – remembering the bits of reality that seem to slip outside of the rest of fantasy – and committing to it, and then combining that with a wonderful viewpoint character, who is definitely flawed and who nonetheless gets our complete sympathy pretty damn quickly, and hangs onto it even when she messes up.

It’s a story where lots goes wrong, and there isn’t a happy ending, but it’s a story that’s full of reality sitting comfortably alongside magic, and combining in odd but fully satisfying ways. And it’s a story that makes you want to keep reading, not put the book down until you finish, and then pick up the next one. Which I will be buying ASAP. It got 4 stars on Goodreads without a pause for thought, and it was a beautiful antidote to the crappy SF of the Hugos.

And this is me done with the award season this year!

Final Nebula table:

1. All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders
2. Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
3. Borderline – Mishell Baker
3. Everfair – Nisi Shawl
4. The Obelisk Gate N. K. Jemisin

As it happens, All the Birds in the Sky won, so I feel quite smug about this. And very pleased, because it totally deserved that win.

All in all, I’m still glad I’ve been doing the award reading, but by god the Hugos were a chore. The Nebulas were much more fun, and I think if I ever cut down to one award, I’ll be sticking with panel-judged over public-voted (possibly considering the British Fantasy Awards).

But this does mean I can go back to reading whatever the heck I like, so it’s The Vorrh by Brian Catling next. I’m really looking forward to it.

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Death’s End – Cixin Liu

25451264Finally, we finish The Three-Body Problem series. And thank fuck for that. Because for all this was better than the rampant horrendousness of The Dark ForestDeath’s End is still a shitty, awful, horrible book. There’s misogyny (and gender essentialism) and some really not ok stuff about ASD people. And for some reason, in the distant space future, everyone is heterosexual. And, to be honest, even if you leave aside the ways in which I think this book is actually objectionable, it’s also just… not very good.

So, to keep it brief, we deal with a lot of the same issues as in the previous two books. The sexism et al. is a bit toned down compared to The Dark Forest, but worse than in The Three-Body Problem. It’s still awkward, still stilted, and some of that is probably still because it’s been translated (even though it’s better than TDF, and clearly benefitting from Ken Liu’s input). None of the people read like real people. No one talks like a human. Humanity still behaves as one predictable mass, and never deviates from that, even across huge spans of history. It still makes terrible assumptions about things that aren’t science, and still treats “romance” in a way that I would find creepy at best and downright problematic and unacceptable at worst. Men are still in charge and best at everything. Everything can still be generalised. Everything is still stretched out of way too long a time period and loses any cohesion it might have had…

I could go on, but if you read my post on The Dark Forest, you’ll get the gist.

The things I want to talk about now are just the following: the weird-ass obsession with maternal instinct, why the future is heterosexual, why men are still basically in charge of everything and how the series fits together as a whole.

So, point one, and my chief source of anger throughout the book, is the maternal instinct bollocks. Our main character is a woman, and gets put into a position of power… and somehow, by the magic of holding a baby, she finds the strength to do it because she puts herself into the position of the world’s mother. She does what she does through LOVE. And she keeps getting cast into this role throughout the book, for no… real reason that I can see. It doesn’t fit with what little characterisation she otherwise gets. It just seems to be “oh, a woman has to protect the world but it’s hard… MUST BE MATERNAL SHIT”. And it’s meant to be the future… surely in times ahead we can drag ourselves awa-… no? Apparently not.

Because apparently everyone in the future is also heterosexual. And men are in charge of everything too.

What I’m basically saying is that for all the logistical and scientific changes the author writes about, he in no way accepts that society might change too. That things may be different for people. I don’t know what China is like for gender stereotypes and LGTB+ acceptance right now, so I don’t know if his future represents their past or their present, but it does not tally even with our Western present right now, and that seems weird to me. Most of the books I read these days at least accept that in our distant space future, maybe women will be awesome and in charge too. Maybe we’ll even have women *gasp* in the military. Gosh. Wouldn’t that be remarkable? But this has just thrown it out of the window and gone “eh, whatever”. And I’m sorry, but you can’t write distant space future without any sort of acceptance that people and people as a mass change, as well as technology. It just doesn’t bear out. If you’re going to be a misogynist prick, at least come up with a justification for it. But no.

Now, the series as a whole. Frankly, I think it gets worse as we go on. TDF is the low point, in many ways, but I think that’s because Ken Liu has done a lot of work as translator to get things to a place where a Western reader can get on with it. If I try to account for that, I do think DE is the worst book of the lot. We get progressively shitter morally, socially and story-wise, and by the end of the book it all just falls apart. You don’t get decent resolution, or an ending that fits emotionally to good or bad. I struggled to connect with it to begin with, and that only got harder as I carried on reading. It’s not even story at the service of science. It’s science clinging to a vague idea that story is a thing, then giving up and not even engaging that deeply with the science.

As such, I think this goes to the bottom of my pile for the Hugos, leaving the table thus:

Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders
The Obelisk Gate – N. K. Jemisin
A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers
Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer
Death’s End – Cixin Liu

For all that I found Too Like the Lightning deeply objectionable in many ways, it at least had the decency to try to have an interesting setting. The world building wasn’t enough to save it as a book, but there’s something there worth having. Whereas, honestly, I don’t think I can find anything worthwhile here at all. There is nothing that he’s doing that I think is of any value. Which is a shame, because at least The Three-Body Problem managed to be a bit interesting.

But that’s me done on the Hugos! FREEDOM. I’ll be happy if either of my first two win, and I’ll sigh but accept if the next two do. Be prepared for ranting otherwise.

Just one more Nebula nominee left – Borderline by Mishell Baker – and I’ve already started reading. It’s definitely more enjoyable than this.

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