The best speculative fiction - if not, by its very nature, all speculative fiction - explores issues of social justice and ethics, often along the linThe best speculative fiction - if not, by its very nature, all speculative fiction - explores issues of social justice and ethics, often along the lines of discrimination, prejudice and, beyond that, cloning, robotics - all things that ultimately lead to that unanswerable question: what does it mean to be human?
In 2012, a young medical student was travelling on a bus with a male friend in Delhi, India, when the five men and one teenaged boy on board beat her friend and dragged her to the back of the bus, to endure forty-five minutes of rape and assault. She died. The incident isn't isolated, but it's very blatant cruelty sparked protests and women-driven calls for change all across India. India may have a more obvious patriarchal ideology than Western countries like Australia, but when the bus driver in this particular case said in an interview that women are to blame for being raped, well that's not an Indian attitude at all. You here people - not only men, sadly - say the same thing in Western countries. Around the same time, a young Melbourne woman was raped and killed while walking home. We have a long way to go yet, in gender equality and respecting women.
Out of tragedy often comes something good, though, and one such example is Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, an anthology of shorts stories, graphic novel shorts, and one script written in collaboration between Australian and Indian women writers and illustrators. The title, according to the editors,
"suggested impossibilities, dreams, ambitions and a connection to something larger than humanity alone. ... This collection of stories embraces the idea of not just eating pie but of taking big, hungry mouthfuls of life and embracing the world. It's about the desire to have and do impossible things, especially things that girls aren't meant to do. We asked our contributors to re-imagine the world, to mess with the boundaries of the possible and the probable. ... Ultimately, this is a book about connections - between Australia and India, between men and women, between the past, the present, the future and the planet that we all share. If we had to name one thing we learnt in the process of making this anthology, it's the fact that when you eat the sky and drink the ocean, you are part of the earth: everything's connected." (Introduction, pages vii-ix)
Some of the contributors will be familiar to you; for me, an Aussie, the fact that my favourite author - Isobelle Carmody - was a contributor meant that I had to move this right to the top of my to-read list (I started reading it as soon as I got it, and actually finished it three days later - quite a feat for me at present!). Other names I recognised included Justine Larbalestier (I loved Liar) and Margo Lanagan (ditto for Tender Morsels). But I was blown away by so many of these authors and illustrators, unknown to me; I was truly inspired.
The anthology starts off strongly with the graphic short story, "Swallow the Moon", written by Kate Constable and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan. It is an uplifting, mystical sort of story, a story of hope and renewal around a deep core of tragedy. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, everything we know - all our 'stuff' - is gone; all that remains is the rubbish that drifts onto the beaches. The story was articulately told and beautifully illustrated.
It is from this story that the stunning cover illustration comes, too. It sets the tone and expectations for the rest of the anthology, which shows an impressive diversity of ideas and imagination, all linked by this common thread of a girl's place - and often, a boy's too - in society. Some of the other stories that stood out to me include "Memory Lace" by Payal Dhar - I am so a product of my society that I didn't see the 'twist' in that story! - "Anarkali" by Annie Zaidi and Mandy Orr, a graphic short story about a farming girl who is entombed alive for falling in love with the prince. She discovers she has the strength to escape, if she becomes one with her surroundings. In "Cast Out" by Samhita Arni, the familiar trope of exile into certain death for girls who exhibit sorcery - simply because it is not allowed - is given a strong, encouraging and hopeful ending when Karthini discovers a world in which she can be herself. In fact, that idea of finding your place, accepting yourself and being accepted by others, recurs in a number of these stories.
Several flip the gender imbalance on its head, like "The Runners" by Isobelle Carmody and Prabha Mallya, which also explores the idea of what it means to be human. As in some of the other stories, the central message is that how we perceive ourselves affects how we are perceived by others, and vice versa. If you are seen as human (meaning you are treated as one), you will be human.
Larbalestier's short story, "Little Red Suit" is a post-apocalyptic retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood"; it's not the only story to play around with well-known storylines and tropes. Environmentalism is also a running theme throughout this anthology, and it ties in well with the editors' comment about being connected to the planet. It made me think, what would this anthology look like if, keeping the same purpose and ideas and focus on girls, it was written by male authors? Because sometimes I wonder at that gender gap, that difference in perception that seems so hard to shift. What insights would we get? How do they see us, really?
Two of the stories - "Weft" and "Mirror Perfect" - deal with our contemporary society's obsession with appearance, and what we are willing to sacrifice for it. "Cooking Time", which I loved, questioned the point of survival for the sake of it, if there's nothing to enjoy. "Back-stage Pass", by Nicki Greenberg, is a short graphic story about Ophelia, and why she threw herself into the water, and the power of self that we gain when we take control of how we're 'written': how others perceive us, and the direction our lives take.
Each story offers something different to the conversation, in different styles and from different perspectives and genres. Some I loved, a couple I didn't quite click with, but overall, they showed how diverse we all are, women and men, girls and boys. We all have something worthwhile to offer the world. We can find safety and harmony and joy in working together and loving each other. And, ultimately, change is possible. ...more
This collection of poems, inspired by Sophocles' class Greek Tragedy, Antigone, was written by Marie Slaight between the years 1972 and 1981; the artwThis collection of poems, inspired by Sophocles' class Greek Tragedy, Antigone, was written by Marie Slaight between the years 1972 and 1981; the artwork by Terrence Tasker was created between 1974 and 1979. Both were living in Montreal at the time, but as far as I can tell this is the first time the work has been collected and published (by the the Sydney-based arts production company Slaight is director of). This is a beautifully printed and bound book, almost square in shape, produced on high-quality paper.
Sophocles' Antigone is a part of a trilogy of plays which includes Oedipus the King and Electra; the events of Antigone come after Oedipus but is considered the 'first' play. Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta. I will turn to Wikipedia for this next bit, for the sake of convenience and my feeble memory: "Antigone is the subject of a popular story in which she attempts to secure a respectable burial for her brother Polynices, who was killed in battle between him and his brother Eteocles even though he is seen as a traitor to Thebes and the law forbids even mourning for him, punishable by death." I haven't finished reading the original play, which I hoped would give me some context and deeper understanding of Slaight's poems, mostly due to work commitments.
Slaight's poems - which I took to be in Antigone's voice - are very short and can be read in several ways. You could read the poems as angst-riddled melodrama. You could read the poems as expressions of a tortured soul. You can read the poems - as you can many poems - as incomprehensible, simple words strung together into lines that befuddle rather than illuminate. You can read the poems as stark and beautiful and insightful glimpses into the darker side of human nature. I fear, despite frequent re-readings of the poems, both in order and as individual poems, that I am left largely untouched. I struggled to speak Slaight's language, to pierce the myth and share a deeper meaning. Arranged into chapters, I first read the collection all the way through, trying not to rush (the poems are so short it's easy to do). I came back to it later and went through them again, focussing on the those poems that did seem to stir some understanding within me (I often advise my students, when having to read something challenging, to start by focussing on what you do understand, and often the rest will become clear in context or on re-reads). This usually works, but somehow, I still felt like I was reading a foreign language, one I could pronounce but not grasp.
Some poems (all are untitled) seem on the verge of saying something profound:
We live our lives The instant between life and death. To touch death always, That is the sun.
While others confound me, as I search for narrative meaning where perhaps there is none:
Daughter of a dark sun My loins moving Sweep scarlet over dawn
My peak carrying Ice-frenzy to the fire Where ecstasy balms
My lips of pain
Rising black... Scarlet airs Begging laughter.
When I am used Then The innate language.
Potency. The potency is shattering. Only the night Holds jasmine. Where is my tongue?
If this perfume doesn't burst It will twist into venom.
I'm the kind of person - the kind of reader - who wants to understand. And I don't like to give up, admit defeat, or cry ignorance or stupidity. I could say that I read this at a bad time - busy with work, my mind distracted and stressed - but that doesn't explain my struggle with these poems. Others have found depth and passion and soul in these poems. I would like that, very much. They do verge on the melodramatic for me, with many references to fires and flames and pain and blood and torture. I have limited patience for self-flagellation or self-indulgence, especially when deeper layers of meaning escape me. But there are moments when words are aligned that are beautiful on their own (my students can bare witness to the giddy delights I ascend to when I get excited over language and beautiful-sounding words!).
[caption id="attachment_21013" align="alignright" width="204"] Copyright: Terrence Tasker[/caption]Perhaps in conversation these poems come alive. Often our understanding grows and deepens and matures through discussion, and I haven't been able to discuss these with anyone. Perhaps, too, I long for narrative. You won't learn anything about Antigone's story from this collection, which according to the (finely written) blurb is "an intensely personal invocation of the Sophocles tragedy" that "questions power, punishment and one of mythology's oldest themes: rebellion." I keep going back to this description, then back to the poems, trying to find this understanding. My brain grows tired, I cannot think, let alone feel. Not even turning to Tasker's artworks helps to illuminate what could possibly be called postmodern poetry (I do love the cover though).
Ultimately, poetry is an intimate thing - more so than any other literary form, I tend to think, it reveals more and opens the composer wide to scrutiny. Writing is a brave thing, a creative outlet that makes us strong while also leaving us vulnerable. And enjoyment or enlightenment is often, if not always, subjective. These poems didn't click with me. I was so looking forward to reading them and experiencing them in a visceral way, but it just didn't happen. For others, though, the magic could just as easily be there.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours...more
1919. The Great War may be over, but those who survived are left to put the shattered pieces of themselves and their families back together, alone and1919. The Great War may be over, but those who survived are left to put the shattered pieces of themselves and their families back together, alone and unacknowledged. Twenty-three year old Riley Purefoy lost half his jaw in the war; the artificial replacement helps hold his face together and is healing well, but he can't chew food or speak clearly. Still, Riley considers himself one of the lucky ones, and not just because all his limbs are in working order and his brain isn't muddled. He's just got married to Nadine, his fiancée from before the war, who served as a nurse on the front. While Riley comes from a working-class background, Nadine's parents are upper class, and as much as they've always liked Riley, they don't much care for the idea of their only child marrying a disabled veteran with no work skills or prospects.
Riley tries to find work, but he's just one of many unemployed young man missing body parts. Yet his determination not to live off Nadine's parents drives him to persevere, and make his own path.
In contrast, his commanding officer from the war, Peter Locke, returns from the war haunted by the overwhelming loss of life, all the men under his command who didn't make it. The list of names feels immense, and Peter soon turns to alcohol in order to endure. His wife is no help: Julia was raised by a domineering monster of a woman who made her understand that her only value was in her looks, so in order to be what she thought Peter wanted, she underwent a facial treatment that's left her face looking like a mask: white, immobile, false. Julia is ill-equipped to live with this new version of Peter, or their three-year-old son, Tom, who was whisked away by Julia's mother after his birth. Not knowing how to be a mother to Tom, or a wife or even friend to Peter, her plaintive, melodramatic behaviour quickly drives them both away. And now that Nadine and Riley are married and off on their honeymoon, the household only has Peter's cousin Rose to keep it sane.
Rose, however, has the opportunity to train as a doctor, an opportunity she wants with heart and soul. Never married and now never likely to be, medicine is the one thing she cares about - aside from her cousin and his family. Now she must make a decision, to put her own life ahead of someone else's and sacrifice her dream, or to stay and help.
From March to December, 1919, The Heroes' Welcome follows the paths of these five men and women as they struggle to build a life and a future while they mourn for all that's been lost.
There is always a "right" time to read a book, when your mind and emotions are aligned with a book's mood and tone and content, when your own mind is receptive and open to the story that wants to be heard. As interested as I am in World War One stories - stories about the first half of the twentieth-century interest me greatly - this was not, unfortunately, as it turned out, the right time for me to read this book. I kept picking it up, telling myself, Now, now, now I will start it; reading the first few paragraphs that describe Riley's injury, his face and what he's had to adapt to, I had to keep putting it down. The trouble way, I'd just finished reading Chloe Hooper's The Tall Man - a heavy non-fiction expository book - and was reading another about a man with mental health problems who abducts a girl, plus I'd just watched Sophie Scholl, a World War II story that made me cry buckets, and I was feeling incredibly overwhelmed and in need of something light and fun. The Heroes' Welcome felt like the last nail in the coffin of my emotional well-being (that sounds incredibly dramatic, but there are other things going on at the time that were making me feel this way).
All of that aside, I did find this to be a very readable novel, and certainly a very memorable one. Not enough stories get written about life after the war - we tend to skip a few years and go straight to the heady, exciting, liberating Twenties. No one received counselling or support after the First World War; likewise, no one seemed to want to hear about the struggles of the survivors through fiction. This story felt raw and true and honest, just one story among many possibles that could have been told but no less real for that. It is a sequel to a novel I haven't read, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, but it didn't make a difference: anything you need to know in order to understand these characters and their stories is provided. And aside from the sense that they have considerable shared history that I wasn't privy to, it didn't really feel like I was missing out for not having read the first book.
This is a depressing tale, though: the story of Julia affected me deeply and on top of all the sad stories I'd been reading and watching at the time, it felt like one sad story too many. Perhaps its that element of realism, but this didn't read like a story of hope to me, but one of struggle. Riley's industry, pro-activeness and pragmatic outlook help considerably in balancing out Peter's self-indulgent (yet still understandable) melancholy, depression, and general stubbornness to move on with his life. The two are opposite ends of a pendulum with a narrow swing. Their wives - and Rose - also present drastically different perspectives. Julia is the wife who stayed behind, who has no idea how to do anything let alone look after a small child and a mentally ill husband who shuns her. Yet of all of them, Julia goes through the most in terms of metamorphosis, which is why what happens is all the more heartbreaking. You come to care for her, shifting from scornful pity to sympathy and then to empathy. Of them all, Nadine was the least well-developed, and a little too perfect, but it was Tom, the child, who, while being thinly sketched, hit the hardest: my own son is three, nearly four, as I write this, and the neglect that Tom experiences was painful to read.
At times, the prose style felt too static, too constrained. The omniscient narrator describes almost endlessly, and left too little for me to but endure. The writing flowed, the story flowed, and you certainly get swept along - almost, slightly, with that 'train wreck' sensation, that fascination with the macabre that continues to appeal to us - but at the same time it never relaxes into the telling, never relinquishes control or trusts the reader to understand these characters on their own.
This was an emotional read, an intense and often upsetting story that I can't imagine myself ever forgetting. That's something I always want from fiction, that evidence of a connection and a good story told well. These people felt real, their stories like true reflections of real ones. For all that, though, it lacked that organic touch: the third-person omniscient narrator was just too intrusive for me. That's an element of the story that I don't think I would have reacted to any differently, had I read this at a different time.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours...more
**spoiler alert** In our (predominantely) white, Western, ex-British world, we are still hung up on our colonial roots and a deep sense of shame and g**spoiler alert** In our (predominantely) white, Western, ex-British world, we are still hung up on our colonial roots and a deep sense of shame and guilt - no one really talks of it in that way but it's there, nevertheless. Whether you're Canadian, Australian, American, Kiwi or from any of the other ex-British Empire colonies (with perhaps the exception of India; slightly different scenario), we weren't exactly welcomed with open arms, and we've yet to really apologise or make amends (because that would mean, as far as we're concerned, returning land, and we are very resistant to this). This post-colonial, anxiety-riddled, ideological hang-up comes out in our fiction, of course, and never more so than in Fantasy Fiction. Which is just one of the reasons why I love the genre.
While some authors take the Big Guns approach, in which the heroes of their fantasy worlds bring 'freedom', 'democracy' and 'capitalism' to the 'oppressed', the 'enemy' or the 'savages' (a la The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind), or forcibly unite the countries in order to defeat a greater enemy (American colonial history in a nutshell a la the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan) - and both push into the 'frontier' - others take the perspective of the 'indigenous' population being invaded, conquered and oppressed by another, arrogant force. Stories like Eric van Lustbaader's excellent Pearl Saga (which he's never finished and I fear, now, never will), for example, or any other Fantasy tale in which we side with the invaded rather than the invader, tells an interesting story of its own as we seek to empathise with our own indigenous populations, who we have and continue to oppress and denigrate.
Palmer's Ours is the Storm is a worthy entry into this body of ideologically-driven fantasy fiction, and unique enough to stand proud amongst them. It sets up fairly conventional expectations: the underdog hero with an epic purpose; the discovery of magic and a belief in its might and power; the Native-American-like plains people (Huumphar) who fight guerrilla style; the female hero of the Huumphar who, you think, will play the role of a great interracial love affair with the male hero; a great, perverted evil that corrupts and erodes those who wield it (always fun to pick what this trope is an analogy of: capitalism? colonialism? Depends what your views are...); and of course a might big showdown of power and ego in which our underdog hero much be triumphant. Like any genre, Fantasy has a formula - or several - but it is what authors inventively do with that formula that keeps us reading.
The boy has lived so long in complete darkness, in a stone cell somewhere, nowhere; he hasn't spoken to anyone in he doesn't know long, he has now lost his memories. He doesn't know who he is, who his parents are, what they looked like or how their voices sounded. He doesn't know where he's from or where he is now. This has become his life, his present, past and future.
Until, one day, an opening appears in the ceiling: a hatch has been opened, and a voice reaches down to him. The voice, the man, promises to release him, sounds outraged at his condition, and passes him a knife: the first of many tests. The boy, freed, learns that he is Revik Lasivar, son of a great man, a powerful leader in uniting Feriven, this land, under one strong leader: Halkoriv, the man who has freed him.
Halkoriv styles himself a king, and has lived for far longer than a normal human life span. He wields a magical force, a power that dominates and turns his servants into obedient mindless drones. Halkoriv is cunning, but at first seems merely fatherly to Revik. Revik, a poor starved boy driven nearly mad by being held captive in the dark of Cunabrel's fortress for so long. With no memories of his parents he latches onto Halkoriv and strives to please him - and to honour his father's legacy. Established as Halkoriv's heir, after years of training Revik is sent out on his final test: to lead an army to Cunabrel's door and defeat this nobleman who dares to separate himself from Halkoriv, and destroy the dream of a united Feriven in the process.
To get to Cunabrel's lands, Revik must pass through the plains: Huumphar land. He comes up with a brilliant strategy that changes the balance of power in the grasslands, and in the process of defeating Cunabrel, Revik comes into his own power. Seemingly invincible, he rides down a party of Huumphar on his own, but meets his match in the seeress Ahi'rea, who, with her Sight, can See that it is not a real magic Revik wields, but that he is being ridden by a monster that will devour him. The clash of swords and magic will have a devastating result for Revik, as he learns that everything he believed in was a lie. So who is Revik Lasivar?
This is just the beginning, really, and the deceptions and lies are handled with a magician's sleight-of-hand, a dexterity and skill that will surely surprise you. You think you've got it worked out, you think you understand more than poor Revik: that Halkoriv arranged for him to spend tortuous years in a dungeon cell so that he could pretend to save him; that Halkoriv set Cunabrel up to take the blame for it; that Revik is an ally to the Huumphar, by birthright, but this knowledge has been stolen from him; and so on. Who is Revik is a question that runs through the whole novel, and this theme of identity is pivotal to the plot. The turns in the plot are delicious, and one of the book's greatest strengths.
Ours is the Storm is well-written, visually arresting and fast-paced; the Huumphar are easily established, building upon our contextual knowledge of indigenous populations, specifically Native Americans. As an analogy for American colonialism and frontier-expansion, Ours is the Storm isn't particularly subtle, and by extension does seem to say the British Empire was rotten to the core, amongst other things. The one thing I would have liked more of was characterisation. Revik was well drawn, believable and oddly charismatic. In contrast, I never quite understood the key Huumphar characters, who are pivotal, such as Ahi'rea (not sure how to pronounce that either!). She was never fully fleshed out, so, while she was a strong character with whom you could place great faith, a believable character, I didn't get to know her as a woman or a Huumphar.
Alongside this theme of colonial invasion is the one of peace versus war, and the idea that the Feriven army is almost possessed by a hatred of the Huumphar - whom they dehumanise and fear - and an unnatural drive to fight. What it brings to mind, of course, is that our natural state of co-existence is one of harmony and peace, not bloodshed, and that, given a real choice, people would rather live peacefully and cooperatively than in terror. Thus, the thirst for blood, for whatever ideological reason, is largely manufactured. I can't help but think of the bloodlust and push for revenge that occurred in the mainstream media after 9/11, the repercussions of which are still being felt by many. Peace begins to seem like a fanciful dream, and Ours is the Storm posits the idea that you have to tackle the rotten core at the heart of it to finally find rest from the hatred and endless fighting. And, hopefully, to be happy with what you've got, appreciate differences rather than fear them, and respect others' right to live freely.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book....more