I am officially whelmed by this book. Exoveterinary studies sounds like a cool field, and all the strange animal descriptions reminded me of AnimorphsI am officially whelmed by this book. Exoveterinary studies sounds like a cool field, and all the strange animal descriptions reminded me of Animorphs, which I guess is always a good thing. Zenn Scarlett is a very whelming book, however: it is competent in every technical respect, but it does not inspire me or grab me. Christian Schoon’s imagination is rich, but his rendering of it on the page leaves something to be desired.
Our eponymous heroine is taking the tests needed to become an exovet novice. For some reason, exoveterinarianism is a monastic kind of thing. She lives on Mars, at the cloister run by her uncle, and is pretty good with the animals. Too good, in fact—she has some kind of psychic rapport with them, except that should be impossible, because psychic stuff is fake. Oh, and mysterious sabotage keeps occurring, and Zenn keeps getting the blame. So we have all the ingredients for a good mystery, for something that would keep me engaged. I was ready for Zenn to get mixed up in some high-stakes, pulse-pounding action.
What we get instead is … hmm. I’m not sure if it’s just that this book aims at a younger target audience than I was expecting, or if it just doesn’t pitch its tone quite right, but Zenn Scarlett reads like an after-school TV show. The villains are all a little over the top. The conflicts are all very mundane. Most of this story is just small town shenanigans transplanted to Mars. Replace “aliens” with “outsiders” and the townies become your standard closed-minded rural folk who don’t want to see the city slickers around. The plot progression is eminently predictable—like, I had most of the plot figured out after the first few chapters, and even with the few twists that Schoon threw in here or there, none of it was very surprising. Zenn is the Encyclopedia Brown of exovet stories.
Unfortunately, the novelty that might be acquired from having a setting on Mars is belied by the utter waste of such an amazing planet. For the longest time, I was trying to figure out how everyone was living there—were they in domes, had the planet been terraformed? I was worried Schoon had just overlooked that one small niggling detail. To his credit, he eventually tosses in an explanation that some kind of force-field is keeping the atmosphere “pressurized” up to a certain altitude. (No mention of where the nitrogen/oxygen ratio required for human life is coming from.) Still, Mars is a special place. I kind of feel like you don’t use it in your science fiction unless you’re willing to deal with it in the right way, willing to accord it that gravitas it demands as our closest planet and most likely candidate for colonization. The way Schoon describes living on Mars, however, it might as well be any extraterrestrial planet. This is a waste of the Red Planet!
If these aspects of the story underwhelm, there are some redeeming moments that bump the book back up into whelming territory. There is some cool technology at work here to work with these large animals. The “in soma” pods and the regeneration tool (I can’t be bothered to find its name) are neat ideas. Similarly, Zenn herself is not a terrible protagonist, though I do find her a rather flat character. The cliffhanger at the end of the novel (yes, this is merely a set up for a larger story, surprise surprise) is genuinely interesting—though, again, I think I’ve kind of got it mostly figured out already.
If you are trapped in an airport, or at an insufferable relative’s house, or you’re waiting for the rain to stop before you dig up that body, this is a perfectly pleasant book to pick up and pass the time. The story is OK, the characters are OK, and the writing is … yeah, OK. And that is OK, I guess. But that’s about all I can say.
If you have read any Samuel R. Delany, you know he is a complex dude, and even his simplest stories are complex in some way. Tales of Nevèrÿon is no eIf you have read any Samuel R. Delany, you know he is a complex dude, and even his simplest stories are complex in some way. Tales of Nevèrÿon is no exception. Largely branded sword-and-sorcery, it’s actually an attempt to deconstruct this subgenre and provide commentary on the relationship between capitalism and slavery. And, for bonus points, if you read closely enough you start to see patterns and echoes from some of his other work, including Triton and Dhalgren.
I picked up what appear to be first editions, or near enough, of the first three Return to Nevèrÿon books from my used bookstore a year or so ago. This version of Tales of Nevèrÿon lacks the preface by Delany’s fictional K. Leslie Steiner, though I do get the afterword, “Appendix: Some Informal Remarks Toward the Modular Calculus, Part Three by S. L. Kermit” (love the play with the initials there). Apparently later editions/printings have corrected errors? So there’s that. But I love collecting old, used editions of classic SF&F like this, so I will suffer in satisfaction.
Longtime readers of my reviews will know I’m never quite satisfied by short story collections. That being said, Tales of Nevèrÿon fits into the loophole of one story deliberately structured as a series of related shorts. Indeed, the stories in this collection are even more related than most. Characters and settings overlap, with characters from one story reappearing, often older (but not necessarily wiser) and in different capacities than they once did. Each story tends to focus on a particular theme, which Delany might then rebut or reinforce in later stories. Overall, the stories form a kind of tapestry of tales that provide us with an understanding of Nevèrÿon, its cultures, and the changes underway in this empire.
This might be one of those rare situations where briefly looking at each story would genuinely be helpful!
“The Tale of Gorgik” is the first and pivotal story, since Gorgik goes on to play important roles in most of the subsequent stories (and, I am given to understand, later books in the series). Gorgik is a light-skinned man in a land ruled by darker-skinned people. He becomes a slave and works in the mines until a high-ranking government bureaucrat pulls him up out of that position to use as her sex buddy. He lives on her sufferance at the imperial residence for a while, then she gives him an army commission and sends him packing. Eventually, Gorgik strikes off on his own, becoming a kind of adventurer. Yet his experiences have left him with a taste for freedom and a distaste for slavery, and we’ll see that later. All in all, “The Tale of Gorgik” is mostly a reflection on how one’s fortunes are often out of one’s control and depend upon the will and power of other players.
“The Tale of Old Venn” takes us across the land to an archipelago off the coast of Nevèrÿon proper. The peoples of these islands trade with Nevèrÿon but otherwise exist outside its influence. That is changing, however, because money is making its way through the land. Although comprising several stories told by the eponymous Venn, the protagonist of the frame story is actually Norema, who will later emigrate to Nevèrÿon and one day meet Gorgik. Through Venn’s stories, Norema is exposed to the potential problems with the introduction of money, as well as different ideas about gender roles. This story might be one of the most confusing to follow, simply owing to its structure.
“The Tale of Small Sarg” concerns a young man, little more than a boy, who is kidnapped from his people and sold into slavery (are you sensing a theme yet?). Sarg was revered as a prince among his people, which seems to mean he wasn’t responsible for doing all that much, because in his society women had most of the responsibility. As a slave, Sarg gets sold to Gorgik. The relationship between these two forms the core of this story, as they navigate complicated matters of sexuality, kink, and the power dynamics of master/slave—which might not be what you would expect, not that I want to spoil it. Basically, if you are familiar with Delany you shouldn’t be surprised that so many of his characters are super queer, and this is book no exception. This story advances Gorgik’s character development, setting him on the path on which we encounter him in subsequent books.
“The Tale of Potters and Dragons” returns once more to this idea that money could be a saviour of society or the root of all evil. A potter educates his apprentice in the virtues of money before sending him to conclude a business deal. On the voyage, the apprentice meets Norema, also dispatched by her mistress to secure the same contract he is after. Unfortunately for both, they never reach their destination, falling victim instead to a much more massive and older deception. Norema meets Raven, a woman from the matriarchal society of the Western Crevasse, who tells her a very detailed myth about the creation of women (and then ’men). I really like this story for its plot, the craftiness of some of the characters we never meet, and because I get to see Norema again!
“The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers” brings together Norema and Raven with Gorgik and Sarg. The best way I can describe this is that Sarg basically yells, “RAMPAGE!” and runs into a castle and kills as many guards as possible, kind of like Sir Lancelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The scenes are literally kind of cinematic in that way. But anyway, this is the story that sees the culmination of the narratives on slavery, power, and economic revolutions. It’s a short but powerful tale amplified by the reader’s awareness of the previous narratives.
Lastly, we have “Appendix: Some Informal Remarks Toward the Modular Calculus, Part Three”. This is where I’ll state the controversial opinion that you could, indeed, just skip this entire part if you wanted. I think it’s possible to enjoy Tales of Nevèrÿon on the strength of the stories alone without worrying too much about what Delany is doing here. However, if you’re into considering the deeper implications of Delany’s work, then it is worthwhile reading and trying to parse this last entry. This is “part three” of these informal remarks; the first two are in Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (the main story is “part one” and an appendix to that story is “part two”).
So Delany is trying to link his works, trying to create a common thread throughout them. I don’t have the energy or memory to really compare Triton with these stories. But I can see some similarities between Dhalgren and these stories. In both cases, Delany makes much of the deconstruction and semiotic analysis as pioneered by Derrida. Language and symbols have huge significance in Tales of Nevèrÿon: in “The Tale of Gorgik”, Curly lectures Gorgik over the depth and significance of the few words the Child Empress utters to him; in “The Tale of Old Venn”, the rult that Venn describes from her time among the Rulvyn is a potent symbol, and this story also examines the utility of writing; in “The Tale of Small Sarg”, the slave collar that Sarg wears plays an important role in the relationship between Sarg and Gorgik beyond denotation of who is the slave … and so on.
And so, this is how Tales of Nevèrÿon transcends the sword and sorcery genre from which it takes its setting and inspiration. Delany transforms the setting into a meditation on the shape and scope of language, of writing, of money—the intersection of language and economics. It’s a slim volume that should not be underestimated; it reminds me a lot of the anthropological science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. I don’t know if this is a good entry point to Delany’s writing, but I’d also argue it isn’t a bad one.
Last year I picked up my first Holly Bourne book with Am I Normal Yet?. I had been hearing so much about Bourne and her Spinster Club trilogy from pLast year I picked up my first Holly Bourne book with Am I Normal Yet?. I had been hearing so much about Bourne and her Spinster Club trilogy from people I follow on Twitter and YouTube that I ordered all of her books—yes, all of them—on faith. I deliberately deferred her debut, Soulmates. Not only did I want to see what all the fuss around the Spinster Club was about, but I know that debut novels are often not representative of an author’s full talents. Nevertheless, I still wanted to tackle Soulmates before getting too deep into the rest of Bourne’s back catalogue, so this was the first book I started in 2017. It proved a good choice.
If you can’t guess what this book is about from its title, you’re trying to be too clever. It’s exactly what the title promises. Poppy Lawson is seventeen years old, and she thinks boys her age are stupid. Then she meets Noah, a “fit guitarist” and troubled child, and their connection is electric and panic-inducing. As Poppy and Noah circle one another and start dating, we learn that their status as soulmates is literally an existential crisis—that there is an entire secret society devoted to stopping soulmates from getting together, because natural disasters are the result. If Poppy and Noah don’t want to cause untold death and destruction, they can never be together. What’s a girl gotta—wait, sorry, wrong book….
Soulmates is strange fare. It walks that line between being science fiction and not, never quite deciding how far it wants go towards the tropes of that genre. It takes a very long time for the soulmate police subplot to intersect with the main narrative. Until about the last 50 pages of the book, one could theoretically excise the italicized scenes between the members of the soulmate police, remove this entire subplot, and the book could just be about a particularly charged romance between two teenagers. The weird weather would just be a footnote. And to be honest, I kind of did this, mentally, because Dr. Beaumont was the least satisfactory character for me. Everything from the descriptions of her to her behaviour felt quite one-dimensional.
In contrast, the main characters of Soulmates have the three-dimensional and vibrant personalities I would expect, having enjoyed Am I Normal Yet?’s dynamic cast. Poppy endeared herself to me at the end of chapter 3:
“Anyway, on that note, I’m going to go home now. Ruth, in the future, can you please refrain from using my illness as a pulling method?”
I turned on my heels and made for the door, forcing myself not to break into a run. In one last moment of courage or madness—whatever you want to call it—I turned back and examined the stunned looks on their faces.
“Oh, and watch out,” I added. “She’s had chlamydia twice.”
And I flicked my head round and walked out into the night.
Low blow, perhaps, a bit reminiscent of Mean Girls but so too was Ruth’s behaviour. And whereas in Mean Girls Cady was only pretending to befriend the Plastics, these girls are genuinely Poppy’s friend.
Bourne is really good at depicting the complicated, often messy, nuanced interactions that happen among adolescent girls. One moment, Ruth is using Poppy’s anxiety as a way to make herself look better in front of a boy—the next, Ruth is helping Poppy’s other friends super-glam her in preparation for a date (with same said boy, ironically). This is the kind of behaviour that is played for laughs and used by male writers to patronize women/girls or downplay female friendships—“them bitches be crazy” is a common refrain. Instead, Bourne pulls back the curtain ever so slightly to show what influences these relationships. Poppy herself is a very introspective character, reflecting on her own changing self—how she couldn’t care less about any of the boys her age, and now she is hot for Noah—as well as the personalities of her friends, from Lizzie’s buoyant and intrepid journalistic ambitions to Amanda’s surprising journey from shyness to assertiveness to Ruth’s overcompensation for her own insecurity.
As much as I liked Poppy’s forthright attitude, though, I confess Lizzie is my breakaway favourite. It’s just that every time she shows up, you know you’re going to have a good time with this scene. You know you’re going to laugh, because Lizzie cannot keep a secret, because she is so nosy, because despite these flaws, Lizzie is Poppy’s true best friend. And it is great that, in a novel that is essentially a YA romance, we are also getting all these positive depictions of female friendship.
OK, Ben, that’s all well and good, but what about that romance?
I suppose one benefit of the science-fictional angle in this plot is that, whether or not I believe in soulmates (I don’t), this story takes place in a world where soulmates exist. So we can set that aside and take it as read that Poppy and Noah are, indeed, meant for each other. Bourne tries to balance their expressed desire to “take it slow” with the hormones that continue to push them together and prod them into more and more physical moments of intimacy. As a result, the romance feels both very intense and not at all rushed—there is an inexorable, powerful development of Poppy’s understanding of herself, and herself in relation to this boy, that is quite compelling. While I can’t relate to this myself, I can only imagine that there will be some teenagers out there who can identify with the way Poppy expresses her hesitation, her mixed feelings about how quickly everything is moving, as well as how much she wants things to move so much faster.
And then there’s the ending. Sometimes I’m a sucker for happy endings, but I have to admit, tragedies do tend to be more my style. I’m not going to spoil the details, but let’s just say that Soulmates is not about two people living happily ever after. Bourne does not promise her audience that you’ll find The One and everything will work out OK. Rather, the theme here is that love—any kind of love, as I read it, be it romantic or otherwise—is a powerful influence on one’s character. Love changes you, sometimes in surprising ways. So whether a relationship is destined to be for a day, a year, or maybe forever, that person leaves a mark on you—and you on them. It rather reminds me of the song “For Good” from Wicked.
Soulmates is an admirable debut novel. It already contains precursors of things that Bourne goes on to explore more fully in her later books, such as mental health issues. Despite wrapping itself around an intriguing science-fictional premise, the narrative never really embraces that part of the story except in the final, feverish rush towards a climax near the end of the book. However, it mostly makes up for this by containing so many well-drafted characters. For a book that is, literally, about fated love, Soulmates is more remarkable for being so much more than romance.