The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

17645Well. This was very very interesting indeed.

No, really. I’m using “interesting” honestly here. And I think it’s the best adjective for the book… far more than “gripping” or any of the adjectives I might usually go for. Oh, and it’s very very good. I should say that now too. But, well, I am/was a Classicist, and some things never go away. And at the point when I’ve read nearly all the works she lists in the Notes as being her inspiration/research (including Trickster Makes This World, which I really feel I ought to reread at some point), I feel like maybe I am very much the target audience here. My interests – 100% catered for.

That being said, I’m still trying to decide what to say about it… beyond that it was good and interesting. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all – I thought it would just be a straight retelling of the story of the Odyssey but from Penelope’s perspective, seeing things from her side, maybe undercutting the grandeur of the story with the realism of the world of women at the time. And… it partly is that. But at times it doesn’t feel like Penelope’s story at all. Because it has a flip side as well, and that is the tale of the twelve maids hanged after the massacre of the suitors for their “disloyalty”. And it’s the two stories sewn together, sometimes undercutting one another and sometimes reinforcing, giving you two sets of unreliable narration, one from a self-confessed liar and the other from a group who change their story from chapter to chapter. It’s subtle masterpiece of giving you no idea who to believe, and not leaving you with any clearer narrative of the Odyssey than you started out with, even if you take into account all the variant narratives which exist.

But that’s one of the things I love about it. Because Penelope never actually settles on one narrative to say “yes, this is what happened”, especially when discussing Odysseus’ exploits. She absolutely says there are variants, from the noble to the base, the fantastic to the mundane, but at no point does she give any sort of hint of believing any particular one in favour of the other. She talks as though she believes the gods are real and present, but hints at their absence in the way she presents some of the stories of Odysseus’ journey. Nothing is settled or set.

In some sense, she brings this in right from the beginning. Atwood focusses on Penelope’s heritage including Naiad, and talks about what that might mean in terms of who she was. She draws heavily on watery imagery in terms of flexibility and fluidity, of personality, of truth, and I think this more than anything is the underlying theme of the whole story. You have Penelope, Odysseus and the maids, all giving flexible, changeable narratives, and never letting on anything more – cold, inscrutable, completely fluid. And the format of the book supports that too. It’s not just told in simple narrative, but switches between prose, poetry, play-script format and court-room transcript. The twelve maids form a chorus of sorts, but not one constrained to the classical format – they embrace all sorts of metres, rhythms and styles to convey their bleak message, sometimes slipping into anger, sometimes cold melancholy, sometimes dark humour, but always in a fitting and fitted style. It makes for a book that I don’t think I can completely appreciate in one reading – I will find more with every reading to pick apart, finding this particular bit of verse so very interesting. And if that’s not the mark of a great book, I don’t know what is.

That being said, and much like The Handmaid’s Tale, I find the characterisation of the Penelopiad a little remote. This isn’t a criticism, exactly, because it absolutely fits the tone of what Atwood is trying to do, but there’s that dissatisfaction at never quite actually knowing the character. You feel like Penelope is putting up a front – she talks about how often she bursts into floods of tears but you never get anything other than calm thoughtfulness from her in her dialogue/narration – and you want to get past it. But of course you never will. It’s a very successful bit of utter frustration, and I think partially because it does make her a fitting equal of Odysseus. She sets herself up as a deceiver on par with him, just operating within a different sphere, and like Odysseus, you never feel like you know what’s really real (I’m talking Odysseus as commonly portrayed, not just in the Homeric texts). While I don’t think Penelope’s characterisation is necessarily the most interesting thread Atwood has created (the maids’ story is just so well and varyingly told), the way she has chosen to do it is probably about the best way it could have been done. It is better than I was expecting of it, and better than most reinterpretation of Classics I’ve seen more broadly.

And then there’s just the prose. Atwood remains thoroughly, thoroughly excellent with a turn of phrase, and pulls you in immediately and lastingly. If I had to call it, I’d say the writing of The Handmaid’s Tale is slightly better, but we’re splitting hairs here. The trick she mainly pulls off here is managing to take that diversity of form and still creating a coherent whole. She’s got various viewpoints, opinion and versions of the truth, but it still feels like one story, and that is really something to praise.

I’m just going to get repetitive, at this point. It was an excellent book that I vastly enjoyed, and sure, some of that was the fact that I was very much the target audience, but some of it was just… Atwood can really, really write. She’s got the spirit of the works she’s invoking just so, and it manages to differ from them while treating them respectfully and honestly. She gives a realistic voice to characters I am deeply familiar with, and I don’t at any point feel like she’s overstepped the lines of what existed there all along. Which is what I want, as a fussy Classics pedant.

This is definitely encouraging me to seek out more Atwood in future, but next up, we’re back to Banks, with Surface Detail.

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Raven Stratagem – Yoon Ha Lee

30691976I am so pleased the sequel to Ninefox Gambit came out as quickly as it did. I mean, it’s out in the same year as the first one is being considered for Nebula and Hugo*… I fully support Yoon Ha Lee’s dedication to not letting me fret about what happens next (incidentally, when’s the next one out? The internet doesn’t seem to be telling me, alas). And, shockingly for someone who wrote something quite so good as Ninefox Gambit, the sequel is excellent.

On balance, overall, I prefer the first book to the second, but I only say that after considerable thought, because Raven Stratagem is a pretty damn good book, and an excellent sequel. It avoids a lot of awkward middle book syndrome, and balances out really well with Ninefox Gambit, giving you a lot (but not all) of the information you missed out on in the first one and were kind of wanting.

Essentially, one of the key features (for me) of Ninefox Gambit is how it skims over a LOT of possible exposition. The real charm is not knowing how the science/magic works, and the story still functioning brilliantly around it. However, you also don’t get a huge amount of knowledge of how the political system works, beyond what is key to the plot, and because the whole world and political system are kind of important, I definitely felt a desire to get more information there. Raven Stratagem definitely covers that issue. It manages to do so, however, without feeling the need to cover the same ground again in case you’ve forgotten, and without wandering off from the plot of its own story. Everything you get feels entirely natural and sensible… it just happens to fill some of the gaps left by the first book. Which I’m very, very happy with. We get, for instance, a lot more insight into the Shuos faction, and a bit more into the Andan.

And so, for all it’s not an awkward second book of trilogy, it is doing the work of picking up after the first book and laying the ground work for the third. Just… not awkwardly.

The reason, however, that I ultimately settled on it being less good than Ninefox Gambit, is simply that it follows different characters. Or rather, the viewpoint characters are different. I absolutely loved being inside Cheris’ head/Jedao’s head, and their interactions were some of the things that made the first book so wonderful, and so I really missed them in their absence as viewpoint. There’s nothing wrong with the ones we get – Mikodez especially, as the head of the Shuos faction, is not an uninteresting narrator – but he just hasn’t quite got that dynamic with anyone that you got from Cheris and Jedao. Likewise, Brezan, our Kel person just… he’s not that interesting a person. I can see why he was chosen, and how the role he plays in the story makes him a good choice… he just doesn’t have a great character. We do also have a Kel general, though, who is pretty fun, so we get 1/3… Khiruev is by far my favourite, mainly because you get a lot of her internal conflict and thoughts about the government, in a way you miss out on with the others. It forms part of the exposition, and does it in a very neat, seamless way.

Speaking of the exposition, and… I guess slightly spoilery-ly? One of the things I really did like about this one, especially in complement to the first book, is that it shows you that not everyone is happy with the way things are run in the hexarchate. In Ninefox Gambit, it often felt like Jedao/Cheris vs. EVERYONE ELSE because somehow literally no one else inside the system thought the system was less than perfect. Sure, there were heretics, but they were so… othered… that they didn’t feel relevant or real? No one with a personality and a character and written so we cared about them objected to how things were. But not so here. We get to see that the dissatisfaction is wider than we originally thought… just no one felt, given how heresies are dealt with so effectively and often, that it was ever possible to do anything about it.

Which kind of leads me onto something else that I love about the series as a whole. I think possibly the cleverest thing Lee’s come up with is the Kel system of discipline – formation instinct. To have a soldier class who have been somehow infected with an inability to disobey orders is really cool. And Raven Stratagem explores that idea a bit further, the repercussions of it, and how it might not always work the way you want it to. It feels like such a small part of the worldbuilding in many ways – why would I look at that when I have no idea how any of the science works but it’s all so cool and kind of creepy – but it is just so… neat. And well thought out. Which characterises what I think of the series as a whole, to be honest. There’s been a lot of thinking clearly done not just on the worldbuilding – and it is a beautiful, original, interesting world that Lee builds – but on how to present and reveal that worldbuilding to show just how each thing does really connect and interact with the others, to build up a holistic view of something so utterly alien that nevertheless feels totally, plausibly real. The details pull it all together, habits and foods and bits of speech or fashion or childhood memories that feed into one another and tie the whole thing up.

That and the fact that Lee can really write and pace a story very well indeed.

Pretty much everything I loved about the writing in Ninefox Gambit remains true, and I do think Lee knows how to turn a phrase in a way many other current authors in SFF don’t. He just has the writing knack, and I love it. I’m sad his book hasn’t won any awards this year**, but I really hope this will change in future, and he’ll keep writing worlds and stories as fantastic as this. It is properly good, readable, well-written, modern SF, and it is something I need in my life.

 

*Part way through me writing this post, I found out the Hugo results, and alas, Ninefox Gambit did not win. Oh well.
**I’m probably going to post about my feelings on the Hugos soon.

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The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

61gomnxrd2bl-_sx325_bo1204203200_Another book club book, though one that had been vaguely on my radar for a while anyway. It’s not made it to any of the awards I’m reading or anything, but it just… kept cropping up. All over the place. This is usually a sign that something is worth reading, if not because I’ll enjoy it for itself, then because when everyone else starts discussing it I’ll have some opinions ready… which is nearly as important. So I was really glad when it got nominated for this month, and even gladder when it won.

And then I read it in like, two days, which says a lot of good things.

That being said, it’s not really charting as one of my favourite books of the year. Not because I didn’t enjoy it – I did, it was very readable, and I didn’t really want to put it down at any point – but because it wasn’t really… special, I guess? I’m struggling to explain, so let’s hope several thousand words of rambling will help me clear it up.

Oh, and there will be minor spoilers in here (though pretty damn minor) because one of the things I want to talk about kind of requires hinting at stuff that happens later on in the book. Sorry.

So, first impressions of it (apart from “well that was a slightly odd author’s note at the start”*) were very much that it was like Uprooted, but much less tight and focused and directed. And this feeling persisted, I think, for slightly more than half of the book. And that’s a long time to be comparing something unfavourably to another book. Which is a little mean, because Uprooted was pretty damn good, and so most things are going to pale in comparison, but they felt very much like they were aiming at a similar vein (not just in the sense of doing mythology stuff, but also in the way they shaped their protagonists). And, well… comparisons are just going to happen.

But by the time you get to the end of the book, it becomes fairly clear that The Bear and the Nightingale is aiming at something different. It just takes a very long time to get you there.

And I suppose that’s my main issue with it. The book is incredibly groundwork heavy – you get years and years of semi-involved build-up to get to the protagonist being the right age and all the actual action of the novel happening. And I’m not entirely saying that was unnecessary, because it wasn’t really… but at the same time, you end up feeling like you might never actually get to the story. Because it definitely feels like scene-setting all that time. Sure, things happen, but with a heavy layer of forboding and awareness of stuff to come, so you never feel like you’ve actually got to the point until pretty late on. Once you do get to the story, it’s pretty great, and the work that’s gone into it does, in many ways, pay off… but it’s a lot of a trade, page for page, to get there. I’m not sure if it was totally worth it. It’s not a long book, so maybe the answer would have been a longer period of story, rather than a cropping of the lead-in.

What I did like was the heavy layering of the mythology – and that’s something I think it actually did better than Uprooted. I’m not really familiar with Russian myths, beyond “Baba Yaga is a thing?”, so it was really enjoyable getting that presented quite prominently. There’s also a story-teller character and, while a lot of what she does is just really really obvious foreshadowing, if the stories being told aren’t familiar to you, that’s a really useful device to have, especially if you keep those stories fairly short, which Arden does. Presenting the mythology in a fairly historical setting, and having it in opposition with Christianity but in a realistic way… that was nice too. I’m not totally sure I’m happy with how the priests were portrayed, but overall, I think it was a valuable device for setting up the conflict without having to tinker too heavily with the mythology itself – it allows Arden to just let things be, which I think is a good choice too. Reinterpreting mythology is a great thing, especially when done well, but you don’t always have to… sometimes it’s perfectly fine in the original interpretation.

That being said, I like how the mythology is often only adjacent to the story. It’s also about her familial relationships, and growing up, and independence. And obviously most stories are these as well, but told through the mythological side, whereas in this, they sort of sit next to each other, and tell different parts of the story.

As I’ve sort of said earlier, the pacing could have used some work, but the writing in general was pretty good, and very atmospheric. She’s not got the way with words of some of my favourite authors, but she knows how to tell a story, and how to set a scene you can really feel. It’s July, but reading about the winters of the Russian north was making me want to huddle up in a blanket with a hot drink… and if that’s not successful writing, I’m not sure what is.

She’s also pretty good with her characterisation. When reading Russian-set things before, I’ve slightly struggled with the way that the characters end up with like, four different names each depending on who’s talking to them, some of which I’m not intuitively grasping as related (e.g. “Sasha” for “Aleksandr” in this book). If you back that up with poor characterisation, I am going to be totally lost about who’s who. But Arden has her people speaking like people, with their independent voices, and so you don’t struggle so much with keeping track of who’s who, even in the fairly wide cast that The Bear and the Nightingale throws at you. She gets a good range of personalities in her mythological creatures too, from the remote coldness of the rusalka to the friendliness of the domovoy and the inscrutability of Morozko – they manage to be both alien and familiar, in a way that sets them apart from the humans of the story without making them unknowable.

All in all, it’s a pretty good book that I just have a few quibbles with. I gave it four stars without too much consideration, because for all it wasn’t perfect, I really enjoyed reading it, and I would happily read more from Arden in future (which is lucky, as I believe there is due to be a sequel).

But.

There was one thing that stuck in my mind to a stupid degree, considering that it wasn’t particularly a massive problem. And that was the fact that the title of the book gets taken from two fairly… non-significant things right near the end. And that annoys me. Because ultimately, the book is not in any way about the bear and the nightingale. They’re not really emblematic, or meaningful. So it feels like the title was tacked on at the end, somewhat haphazardly (or it’s a title taken from Russian myth but just really ill-fitting? I don’t know). And this really, really bothers me. On the strength of this alone, I was tempted to shunt it down to three stars. But that’s… pretty harsh, so I stopped myself. But I was tempted. Bah, harrumph, etc.

Next up, The Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee, sequel to Ninefox Gambit. I am much looking forward to it.

 

*The author starts with a note on her transliteration choices, specifically about why she’s been inconsistent in them. And it… didn’t entirely make sense to me? But I say this as someone who would always be dedicated to authentic transliteration. And I just didn’t get her aesthetic arguments. But eh. It just struck me as slightly weird to lead in with it.

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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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