Secondly: a real review. There are some spoilers, but nothing too major. I promise you will still have youFirstly: OMG I loved this book so very much.
Secondly: a real review. There are some spoilers, but nothing too major. I promise you will still have your breath stolen by many of the events in the book.
So, let me get "the gender thing" out of the way first. I debated leaving this 'til last, because it's what a lot of other people are apparently fixated on… but for that very reason, it seemed disingenuous of me not to engage. Thus: the narrator of the story, Breq, is from a culture that does not use gendered pronouns. When Breq is dealing with cultures that do use gendered pronouns, there are language problems - troubling enough that it causes Breq quite some stress. And when Breq is thinking/speaking to the audience, rather than rendering pronouns as 'it', Leckie has opted for 'she'. This, obviously, presents some rather intriguing aspects. Except for a few times when Breq is corrected, the reader actually has no idea whether the other characters presented are male or female. I don't actually think we know whether Breq's body is female or male, hence my hesitance to use a pronoun (Breq would use 'she' and roll her eyes at me). Why is this interesting? Well, we don't know whether the leaders have boobs or balls. We don't know whether the soldiers dying having tits or testes, and we don't know which the person who ordered those deaths has, either.* And I think this probably changes the way the reader reacts, at least in some instances. More intimately, we have no idea whether the physical and otherwise personal relationships presented are hetero or homo, which is relevant if it matters to you; at any rate the lack of knowledge is surprising, occasionally frustrating, always intriguing. And when any or all of the people might be women, you're left with the conclusion that women are actually capable of doing/being all of the positions presented - up to and including leading a galaxy-spanning society. Who knew? In the lack of gendered pronouns Leckie is making a call that gender doesn't matter - except that in choosing 'she', this is somewhat undercut.
Look, I'm not actually a gender studies scholar. Probably there are other things that Leckie is doing that I didn't really pick up on. But as a way of unbalancing the reader that works perfectly within the context of the novel, it's a brilliant choice; and it also does that thing that great SF should do: it forced me to reconsider my own world.
On to other things: and speaking of unbalancing the reader that works perfectly within the context of the novel, what is with the gloves?? This is a brilliantly clever, and devastating, move on Leckie's part. Breq comes from the Radchaai, and within the Radchaai everyone wears gloves. If you don't wear gloves, you are regarded with horror. Why? It's never explained. It's like a man getting around in a Jane Austen novel not wearing a shirt; it's clearly the wrong thing to do, but it's not going to get him arrested - and Austen wouldn't bother to explain why it's a problem because surely you understand? Sheer. Brilliance.
Ancillary Justice does not follow a neat linear narrative. There is a chronological thread - it follows Breq as she (all right, I give up; it's just easier, ok? and it's what she would use) searches for something she needs, in an effort to right a wrong. Along the way she encounters someone rather unexpected, who brings a whole pile of unlooked for problems. Alongside and around that thread, the reader lives through the memories of what has brought Breq to this path. The main thing to know, in order to understand what's going on (and this is on the back cover, so it's not a spoiler), is that Breq wasn't always Breq. Until twenty years ago, the body known as Breq was an ancillary of the AI controlling the Justice of Toren, a massive ship of the Radchaai involved in annexing and subduing planets - ostensibly for their own, but mostly for the Radchaai, good. Thus Breq's memories are mostly those of a few-thousand-year-old artificial intelligence. And being an ancillary means that her body is human, and was co-opted for… duty? inhabitation? use? by the AI.
This issue of ancillaries is one that the book is not obsessed by, but does deal with seriously via several of the characters who respond poorly to the very idea of them. I liked that the story didn't develop into something too preachy, but I also appreciated that having raised such a frankly horrifying idea, Leckie did not simply leave it as a necessary-but-evil, or evidence-the-Radchaai-are-dreadful, sign. Instead, it's as complicated an issue as the annexations themselves, because they really do bring benefits to the planets colonised - as other colonisations have - but whether that's worth all the pain and bloodshed… well. That's something we're still processing, to some extent.**
The blurb of my copy paints this as predominantly a revenge story, and I get where that's coming from. But it lacks nuance, too. Breq is indeed looking for revenge. But she's also looking for answers - to questions about events in her past, questions about the Radchaai itself, questions about how she can, should, exist as this solitary body rather than as a near-omnipotent (in a constrained space) being. Therefore even if the novel were purely focussed around her, it's more complicated than just "rargh I get you for what you done to me!" But, of course, as the above demonstrates this is a far more nuanced and complex novel than that. It touches on issues of colonisation, and of gender; it looks at what it means to inhabit a body, as well as to inhabit a planet. And it looks at how religion is co-opted for different purposes, too.
The inclusion of religion startled me, and - when I got over that - made me very happy. It's something I've complained about in the past, here and on Galactic Suburbia: the lack of religion, treated seriously, in science fiction. Seriously people: do you think that just because humanity lives beyond the Earth, they're going to somehow move beyond a desire for an explanation beyond what science can provide? I don't think so. Leckie's inclusion of religion, and the exploration of how religion and colonisation work together, was welcome and clever and shows how much thought she has put into this universe.
This next bit is for those who've read Iain M Banks' Culture novels. I can't help but assume that at least part of this novel is in dialogue with the Culture. There's the fact that AIs are in charge of ships and stations, and interact with their human inhabitants. I know that this happens in other stories, but there was something that made me feel a distinct connection to the Culture Minds. That said, these AIs are not really like the Culture Minds. For a start, they're not meant to have personalities at all. And there's a very clear point in the story where Breq reflects on the fact that the ships don't really talk to each other any more; they're too old, and they're bored by each other. This is in complete contrast to Banks' positively verbose Minds, who can usually hardly keep their traps shut. Then, of course, there's the use of ancillaries - actual bodies - instead of drones, which is… interesting. And reflective of the fact that the Radchaai is a far more problematic society than the Culture, and possibly reflective of the way such a human society is more likely to act (aggressively, rather than with the amused benevolence characteristic of the Culture). It's entirely possible that Leckie has never read Banks, I guess, but for me this works really nicely in conversation with a series of books that I also adore.
Finally, then: this is what I want my SF to be like from now on. Smart; fast-paced; intriguing characters; believable world. And intellectual depth for added joy.
*I do understand this is reductionist; I'm going for effect here. Additionally, there doesn't seem to be an indication of these societies going in for large-scale, Culture-esque body shaping, so it seems to me that these crude indicators would still be considered relevant by Breq's contemporaries.
**I mean on a global scale, not an individual scale. Please don't yell at me for defending colonisation, because I'm certainly not; I'm an historian, I know and agree with most of your points.
This book was provided to me by the publisher at no cost. ...more
It took me a few months to read this collection, this mosaic novel. This is no reflection on the quality of the book. Well, aThis book. Oh, this book.
It took me a few months to read this collection, this mosaic novel. This is no reflection on the quality of the book. Well, actually it is, but not the way you might think. See, I'd read a story, and then I'd be forced to close the book, sigh, and stare into space in order to wallow in the beauty of the prose. And then I'd have to go read something else, because (like with me and Gwyneth Jones' Bold as Love series) sometimes too much beauty is painful and you need a break.
First off, look at that cover. Is she not glorious? are the colours not soothing and enticing? Created by the awesome Kathleen Jennings (who chronicles the saga of its production on her blog), I would absolutely have this on my wall. LOVE.
Angela Slatter and Lisa L Hannett created the contents. Writers who collaborate are even more of a mystery to me than authors who work alone, and to produce this sort of magic has to be just that - occult somehow. And they haven't been content to just a straightforward story. Instead, as suggested above, this could be seen as a collection or a mosaic novel. A collection because it is made up of short stories that can basically stand by themselves. You could take one and put it in an anthology and it would still work ok. However - and here's a metaphor I'm very pleased with - that's like taking a candle out of a chandelier. Yes, it still sheds light. But when you put it with its fellow candles and they're ringed with crystal, the whole effect is so much more just a few candles in one place. These thirteen stories, read together and in sequence (and wrapped in that art), are far more than the sum of their parts. Together, they create a history of an entire people: their origins, their interactions with humanity, their crises and triumphs, and the ongoing impact of a few families and their heirlooms. Thus, a mosaic novel - there is continuity, but it's thematic and genetic; there's only one character appears in or influences lots of the stories. I couldn't help but be reminded of Edward Rutherford (London, Sarum) and James A Michener (The Source) following multiple generations in one place in order to fictively illustrate local history. Slatter and Hannett do just that... with magic. And Norse gods. Same amount of revenge though.
The premise, as set out in "Seeds," is of Odin's raven Munin (memory, here called Mymnir) surviving Ragnarok and setting out for Vinland (thought to be somewhere on the north-eastern corner of North America) with a few followers. Once she gets there, she creates an enclave and peoples it with servants, and sets out to rule it I guess like she learned from the Aesir she's observed for however many centuries. Of course this does not go entirely well either for her or for her people. There's love and betrayal, selflessness and vindictiveness; people get beaten up, rescued, married off, wooed... and some people even manage to make their own destinies. My estimate is that the stories take place over roughly a millennium, but that's based entirely on the fact that that's about how long ago it's posited that Vikings did historically head off for Vinland and settle for a short span. The early stories take place in a sort of timeless, medieval-ish zone; from memory there are no dates in the first seven stories, and it feels like that sort of myth/fantasy where time itself is important but recording it is less so. Then, with "Midnight," suddenly the external world exists and thrusts itself onto this dreamy place. From then on, time is relentless, and within 5 or 6 stories it's the modern world. This development works mostly because although the stories do stand alone, there is continuity within families. Sometimes the names give them away, sometimes it's an heirloom appearing, occasionally a reference to a past event. This often means that rather than having to struggle for a new emotional connection every time, the reader can build on the investment already made in the character's family, from an earlier story. It's the same reason Rutherford and Michener's works can be successful.
And on top of all of this, the sheer beauty of the prose. I do not have the words to explain how delightful the words in this book are. It just all works.
Did I mention it's an Australian production? Produced by Ticonderoga, in Perth. ...more
When I finished reading the first story in Mothership, a little voice in my head said "Was that really the story to start this anthology with? I mean,When I finished reading the first story in Mothership, a little voice in my head said "Was that really the story to start this anthology with? I mean, sure it's got a black protagonist, but is that enough?"
And then the rest of me took a step back, looked horrified, and said: "Have you learned nothing from Pam Noles' essay "Shame"? And from the entire Kaleidoscope project? The story has a black protagonist. That's entirely the point."
And then I sat, aghast at my own white ignorance, and felt ashamed.
And then I kept reading, because that's the obvious way to combat such an attitude and is at least part of the point of this project and why I supported its production.
There's a really wide variety of fiction in this anthology. Some skirt the edge of being 'speculative' (Rabih Alameddine's "The Half-Wall") while others hurtle over the edge and throw themselves at it. I didn't click with every story (Greg Tate's "Angels + Cannibals Unite" really didn't work for me, and nor did Ran Walker's "The Voyeur"), but many of them were absolutely breathtaking.
Nisi Shawl's "Good Boy" - one of the only stories that really qualifies for the 'mothership' appellation by being set in space - is a glorious fun romp.
"The Aphotic Ghost", by Carlos Hernandez, did not go where I was expecting and was utterly absorbing.
SP Somtow's "The Pavilion of Frozen Women" has a wonderful line in bringing together several quite disparate cultures and tying them together into a fairly creepy thriller.
NK Jemisin does intriguing things with the notion of online communities in "Too many yesterdays, not enough tomorrows."
"Life-Pod" is Vandana Singh's haunting reflection on family and identity and connection.
In "Between Islands," Jaymee Goh suggests how different things might have been for the British in colonising Melaka and surrounds with different technology...
Tenea D Johnson's "The Taken" is a profound reflection on contemporary issues and problems stemming from the historical transportation of enslaved African to America... I don't even inhabit the culture that's dealing with it.
One of the intriguing things about this anthology is that it's not focussed on African-American fiction, which I had basically expected thanks to the title's reference to P Funk and Afrofuturism. Instead, there are stories here that draw on Egyptian, Native American, Caribbean (I think? I'm Australian, sorry!!), Japanese and Malaysian (again, I think) traditions and cultures - and those are just the ones that I (think I) could identify. There are definitely others that draw on other Asian cultures (I think there's an Indonesian one?). The author bios don't universally identify where the authors are from, so that doesn't assist in figuring out what might have influenced them... which is not a complaint, by the way, because so what? (in the most prosaic 'fiction is fiction' sense). So it's a really broad understanding of what falls into "Tales from Afrofuturism and beyond" - much more inclusive therefore than, for example, many anthologies of the last few years, let alone decades.
This is an good anthology, period. That it's exploring and accomplishing a particular political aim is icing on the cake. ...more
I have been wanting to read Byatt for a long time now and somehow have never got around to it. Shame on me. So when I saw this little book for sale foI have been wanting to read Byatt for a long time now and somehow have never got around to it. Shame on me. So when I saw this little book for sale for about $6 in a dinky little newsagent in a dinky little town - SNAP. MINE.
It's part of the Canongate Myths series, the same series as The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson's Weight. Thing with these books - those I've read - is that they're retellings of myths. So when I saw that this was Ragnarok, the Norse myth of The End of Days, and that it involved WW2 - well, I assumed that the two were going to be mashed in a glorious Armageddon. That is, however, not what happened.
There are two parallel stories in this volume. One is a rough outline of Norse mythology from creation to the end of times, mostly following the antics of Loki, which is fair enough since he may have been around from the start and was largely responsible for the end. It's a pretty straight retelling, as far as I can tell; Byatt has added in motivation and dialogue and the sorts of things that modern readers expect, but there's no wild deviation into really exploring Loki or giving Loki and Baldur a steamy romance that explains the mistletoe episode. So while I enjoyed that, because they're good stories and there were some details (like Loki's parenting of the monsters) that had never clicked in my head before, it wasn't really what I was expecting.
The second story is that of the thin child - as she is always referenced - as she is evacuated to the countryside during WW2, and is given a book of Norse mythology. It's the thin child's experiences of life during wartime, and of discovering mythology and literature - there's a strong suggestion I think that this is heavily autobiographical. There's certainly a sense that it is the thin child telling the Norse stories to the reader. This aspect was also quite enjoyable, although frustrating because it felt to me like it lacked depth. I think mostly I was disappointed that the connections between the war and Ragnarok were not made explicit. Byatt goes to the point of saying that the thin child's father, a pilot away at war, has "red-gold hair" and is "like a god"… but makes no further connection to the idea that he, or the airforce, could be connected to Thor or some other aspect of mythology.
It's definitely a good read, and I am definitely going to just down more Byatt. If you know nothing about Norse mythology this is a very good, and entertaining, place to start. If you're looking for a Norse equivalent of The Penelopiad, this is not it. ...more
I read this thanks to a recommendation from Helen Merrick, who I seem to recall being a massive Czerneda fan. I understand that this is a prequel seriI read this thanks to a recommendation from Helen Merrick, who I seem to recall being a massive Czerneda fan. I understand that this is a prequel series, written after the world in question becomes part of a wider galactic network. Not having read the later books, I can't say how an already-fan would respond; but I imagine there are some awesome moments of filling-in-gaps. Because it is indeed a wonderful novel, and I do fully intend to go and find the rest of the trilogy, and probably the later series as well.
Told mostly from the adolescent (unChosen, in the parlance of her people) Aryl's point of view, this is a story of a world that - as far as Aryl is concerned - is entirely static, as it should be. One of the characters comments on Aryl and her people living in an eternal 'now' - and although that's not entirely fair, because their lives do revolve around the season of harvest, it does make sense because their knowledge of history and their expectations for the future are exceptionally limited. But this is not, overall, a bad thing: Aryl's family and friends live full, rich and generally rewarding lives. Without interference - and of course you know there's going to be interference - the Yena live.
Aryl lives on Cersi, a world that is home to three different sentient species. Aryl is of the Om'ray, human-types who live in Clans in disparate parts of the world and who rarely interact with each other except when one of the boys leaves on Passage, drawn by a woman who has become sexually mature (there's some mental communication stuff which makes this basically make sense). The Oud and the Tikitik are not humaniform, and they are more technologically advanced than the Om'ray - they swap the Om'ray for some things in exchange for technology. The Agreement is meant to guarantee stability (if not stagnation) between the three. But then things change - strangers come. And strangers are not accommodated within the Agreement, which sets off all sorts of problems between the species, and within them as well.
There's a lot of things going on within this book. Biological sexuality is not something that develops in Om'ray but seems to basically be on or off, which is intriguing and means that sexual tension isn't really an issue (well, it is at one point, but it doesn't overwhelm the whole story); issues of difference, and allowances for degrees of difference, are central to the Om'ray story and whether Aryl can be truly part of her Clan. In sweeping terms this is both a coming-of-age story, for Aryl, and also a first-contact story - and that part I think is done very well done, because it's neither entirely positive nor entirely negative. Part of the story is told from the perspective of a boy from a different Clan, and this allows Czerneda to show the different perspectives of the Om'ray themselves, within their general similarities.
Reap the Wild Wind is well-paced, with an intriguing world and winsome POV characters. Very enjoyable. ...more
I'm not much of a one for poetry, lyrically or as prose. That is, I like it, and I appreciate it, but I'm a fairly pragmatic person and I generally prI'm not much of a one for poetry, lyrically or as prose. That is, I like it, and I appreciate it, but I'm a fairly pragmatic person and I generally prefer story over how the story is told. My absolute preference is for good prose with story if I can get it, but of course that doesn't always happen. And sometimes the beauty of the prose makes a bit of a non-story into something wonderful. I think particularly of Kij Johnson's "The Man Who Bridged the Mist": there's really not much story to be told, but the way it's told is so beguiling that I really enjoyed it.
Ok, maybe I'm confused about what I like. Whatever. I know it when I read it.
So here's the thing. This is a beautifully written novel. It's lovely. And the story is an intriguing one; it's all about being a foreigner and how to negotiate that; it's all about the use and abuse of books, and of religion, and of power; it's about love, and family, and history. All of these things are great big YES PLEASEs for me.
But it didn't work. For me, this story needed more straightforward prose, so that I could really get at the ideas. I felt like Samatar was obscuring the ideas, drawing veils or mists around them with delightful words, so they remained frustratingly hard to comprehend and chew on. And there's also a lack of story, which means that as a novel it didn't work. I can imagine reading this as a novella - the same length as the Johnson would have been perfect.
All of that said, I did actually finish it, and I don't feel sad about that. I did want to know what would end up happening to Jevick, and I'm really pleased that the story kept going after what could have been the obvious end-point. I was, and remain, genuinely intrigued by what it said about the power of literacy and how that can be abused, as well as the problems with prizing ignorance (and whether ignorance and illiteracy are necessarily the same thing).
I'm sad I didn't love this more, given the love it's been getting from a few quarters and the noises about it getting onto awards shortlists. I understand why it appeals, and that's cool; I can see parallels between this and Jo Walton's Among Others, which I adored but I know didn't work for others. It too had lovely words and what might be called a 'quiet' narrative, but I think Walton's story worked better. However, I am still going to keep looking out for Samatar's work; after all, I adored "Selkie Stories are for Losers."...more