Two Tor.com posts!

I have been away, enjoying the delightful company of friends who insisted on feeding me. I sometimes look around and wonder how I ended up with a life that has so many smart, funny, kind, generous, <I>interesting</I> people in it…

 

Anyway! Over at Tor.com, I have column about novellas – Sleeps With Monsters: “There are such monsters in a palace” – and a review of Jim C. Hines’ <I>Revisionary</I>.

 

How are you all doing lately?

GHOST SIGNS by Sonya Taaffe

A collection of excellent poetry, reviewed over at Strange Horizons.

 

The sheer precision and emotive effectiveness of the poetry is a thing of wonder. I’m particularly fond, if one may use the word fond when speaking of a poem that caught the breath in my throat, of “Censorship,” a short poem—as so many poems here are short—that tangles Cato Elder and Carthage, war and history and memory:

Your voice repeating itself across a sea that was never ours
the one word I cannot rub away
as easily as a city’s dust between my palms,
my mouth sea-breeze bitter with knowing
none of the names of children we have burned.

Linkpost!

From “The Journal”: “Britain to return 1916 banner seized as war trophy.”

[T]he Na Fianna Eireann banner which was seized from Countess Markievicz’s home by the British army as a war trophy will be returned to the Irish State for the 1916 centenary.

 

From “Fusion”: “Hiring managers are less likely to call an LGBT woman back.”

After sending out 1,600 resumes to apply for more than 800 jobs, the study found that women with an “LGBT indicator” on their resume (represented in the study as work experience at an LGBT advocacy group) were about 30% less likely to receive a call-back than women who didn’t have those indicators.

 

From Al Jazeera English: “Hip Hop Hijabis.”

By inhabiting the intersection between cultures whose values on the surface seem so conflicting, Poetic Pilgrimage challenge a plethora of dearly held convictions from all sides of the cultural spectrum. Many Western feminists believe that promoting women’s rights from within an Islamic framework is a futile exercise, while in the eyes of some Muslims, female musicians are hell-bound.

 

From Foz Meadows: “PSA to people who menstruate.”

If anyone tries to make a dumbass sexist joke about your being more [insert stereotypically negative feminine quality here] while on your period, you can tell them that actually, menstruation raises testosterone levels, not oestrogen. (Telling them to go fuck themselves with an angry cactus can also be therapeutic.)

 

From Max Gladstone at Tor.com: “On Alan Rickman, Loss, and Mourning Our Heroes.”

No one among us exists as a thing in herself, alone and complete as she appears from the outside. We’re all collages of art and memory and friendship and family, struggling and striving together. Places and people we’ve encountered endure within us. And when those places or people pass away in the outside world, within us something changes too. When we mourn, we trace the shape and magnitude of that change. We find, sometimes—often—to our surprise, the depths at which we were formed by others. There’s little logic to the architecture of our souls; we like to think blood matters, and time, but sometimes a glance or a touch, a half smile on a movie screen, a cover song, a piece of lightning bolt makeup, a Christmas card, an afternoon’s conversation, a book read once in childhood, can be a pillar on which the roof of us depends.

 

This article at Buzzfeed will make PERFECT sense to a lot of people I know:

Click on the image for the link to the article, “13 charts that will make perfect sense to people with imposter syndrome.”

 

From the Economist: “Referendum madness.”

ONE dodgy referendum lost Ukraine Crimea. Another threatens to lose it the European Union. On April 6th the Dutch public will vote on the “association agreement” the EU signed with Ukraine in 2014. The deal cements trade and political links with one of the EU’s most important neighbours; the prospect of losing it under Russian pressure triggered Ukraine’s Maidan revolution. But last summer a group of Dutch mischief-makers, hunting for a Eurosceptic cause they could place on the ballot under a new “citizens’ initiative” law, noticed that parliament had just approved the deal. Worse luck for the Ukrainians.

 

And finally, Foz Meadows again, this time on: “UPROOTED: Abuse & Ragequitting.”

Tonight, I started reading Naomi Novik’s UPROOTED. It was a novel about which I’d heard only good things from people I trust; a novel I was hoping would break me out of my current reading slump, wherein I’ve started a great many books, but am struggling to finish any of them. To borrow the parlance of memes, cannot tell if too depressed to read or just fed up with exclusionary, derivative bullshit – or, alternatively, if reading so much fanfiction has utterly wrecked my internal yardstick for length, structure and content.

 

And that’s all the news that’s fit to print…

Well, no, it isn’t, but I have to keep some links for next week. *g*

Passion

I’ve been thinking about passion. (Not in the erotic or romantic sense: minds out of the gutter, people! More on the line of intellectual passion.)

I had an interview today for a job in an area that is, at best, tangentially connected with my degree (either of them). One of the interviewers said to me, “It’s obvious you have a lot of passion for your degree subject,” or words to that effect. And I might be reading too much into that, but the implication seemed to be that passion was a finite thing, that having one compelling interest meant having less capacity to be passionate about other things.

I’m passionate about ancient history because that’s where I ended up. But I ended up with a specialism there as much by accident of circumstance as design: it was in front of me, and there would always be more to learn.

I like knowing things, understanding how they fit together, making sense of people and themes – I’ve been known to spend hours learning how volcanoes work, or geomorphology, or the genesis of the space programme, or 19th century medical science; about medieval China and India’s North-Western Frontier under the Raj, about Dutch and Portuguese mercantile colonialism in South-East Asia and its effect on European market capitalism; about social relations in modern Malaysia and the anthropology of taste and class in 20th-century France. About economic relations between states and between people – economists rarely make it legible to ordinary people, but once you relate the numbers to relationships of people and interests and power, it becomes fascinating.

I like language. I like knowing how it works, the varied language groups with their different grammatical structures and the way different languages encode different ways of viewing and interacting with the world in their own ways. I like science, the way new developments have different ramifications for human life and experience and potential, for individuals and communities.

My capacity for passion is no more limited than my capacity for love, or grief. It’s limited only by time and resources. There is very little with a human element I find boring, for crying out loud.

(Data-entry is boring. But you have to do the boring shit to get to the good parts: if a PhD taught me anything, it was that as the prime law. Also the importance of organising your logistics in advance.)

I know there are people who are only interested in one or two things, and the rest of the world can go hang. But I don’t know many people personally of whom this is true. The capacity for passion – for enthusiasm – for taking delight in the topic at hand – seems to be a key component of geekiness. We constrain our passions according to how much time there is in a day, and the ratio of effort:reward, but still.

…I guess I might be passionate about the capacity for passion. Who’d have thought?

Tor.com bonanza day!

I have two, count ’em, two whole posts over at Tor.com today!

First up, an essay I’m pretty proud of, on “The Politics of Justice: Identity and Empire in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy.”

 

From a certain angle, the Ancillary trilogy—and certainly Ancillary Mercy—is about the permeability of categories taken to be separate, and about the mutability, and yes the permeability too, of identities. Mercy of Kalr has no ancillaries anymore, but it (she) begins to use her human crew to speak through as though they were ancillaries—but not against their will. Breq is both AI and Fleet Captain, Radchaai and not, simultaneously a colonised body and a colonising one. Tisarwat—whose identity was literally remade during AncillarySword, both times without her consent—uses what that remaking has done to her to give Athoek Station and a number of ships a choice in what orders they follow: she allows them to be more than tools with feelings. Seivarden—learning how to live with who she is now—is wrestling with her own demons; Lieutenant Ekalu—a soldier promoted from the ranks to officer, a previously-uncrossable barrier crossed—with hers. Athoek Station and Mercy of Kalr and Sphene make laughable the Radchaai linguistic distinction between it-the-AI and she-the-person. (And numerous characters draw attention to the Radchaai linguistic quirk that makes the word Radch the same as the word for civilisation, while quite thoroughly demonstrating that Radchaai and civilised are only the same thing from a certain point of view.)

 

And my Sleeps With Monsters column this week is on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Hollywood’s Problem With Really Low Bars”:

 

[M]uch as I enjoyed Star Wars: The Force Awakens—much as I was thrilled to see background characters who were women, women in the crowd scenes and in the cockpits of the X-Wings, women making up part of the world of people who do things—I have some serious problems with the portrayal of every narratively significant female character who isn’t Rey in The Force Awakens. (Quite aside from how hard it is to find Rey or General Organa in the merchandise for said film, which is a problem for another day.)

 

I can’t recommend the comments, though. (I may owe the moderation team the good beer.)

Unfinished Books: ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY by Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders, All The Birds In The Sky. Tor US/Titan UK, 2016.

There are books that are made for other people to love. This is one of them. Stylistically, it has a plain and matter-of-fact voice. Said voice almost seems at odds with its absurdist approach to Doing Fantasy And SF at once: this is not quite the surrealism of Welcome To Night Vale or occasional pieces of China Miéville, but treads close upon that territory.

It is also deeply engaged with American cultural territory — middle school and the travails of weird children — that leave me rather shaking my head at a wide cultural gulf. I stopped reading somewhere around page 150, feeling as though there was no way for me to get any emotional purchase on the text, for the combination of the absurdist approach and its socio-cultural rootedness in an experience I find particularly alien left me with no real place to stand.

I think it is likely that other people will enjoy it rather more, for it is not that this is a bad book, or an unambitious one, just that it is a book that is doing things that do not work for me.

Linkpost!

Here are some things that have been hanging out in my tabs:

 

Max Gladstone, “A Year of Reading Differently.”

 “Why the hell,” sez I on the train, gasping, exhilarated, overcome with awe, “did it take me this long to read To the Lighthouse?”  “The Fire Next Time is every bit as brilliant as people have been telling me for a decade, and it’s only like eighty pages long.  Why did I not—”  Midnight’s Children!  Fucking Midnight’s Children, which is a groundbreaking, critically acclaimed literary novel about the X-Men, what was I waiting for.  I knew I loved Woolf.  I loved Satanic Verses.  So why did I read [stack of mediocre novels] before these?

… Oh.

Oh.

oh.

One exists, of course, within a karmically determined universe.  One’s choices, even at the most minute level, are shaped by overlapping fields of power arising from the movements and injustices of history.  If we’re not conscious in the way we engage with those fields and manipulate them, we perpetuate them.  But it’s scary to see that face to face, to recognize its presence in one’s migration of one’s library.  (I owned all the books I mentioned in that paragraph already, and had for at least five years.  I just hadn’t read them.)

 

Max again, with a magnificently geeky piece on Star Wars: The Force Awakens: “The Force Awakens RPG Madness.”

I think part of my excitement stems from how open the universe feels.  A lot of the setting power of the Original Trilogy rises from its focus on the Imperial Periphery.  We see the edges of power, where the Empire projects force and interesting stuff happens, where the destinies of nations hinge on a single battle or moral choice, rather than the metropole, which corners more slowly if at all.  The prequel trilogy’s political ambitions tangled its story with the engines of power that drive the Galaxy Far, Far Away—and limited its characters to maneuvering within those engines, rather than “taking the first step into a wider world.”

 

A friend of mine has written a glorious CYOA fanfic for Sunless Sea (I don’t even play Sunless Sea! I haven’t played Fallen London in years!) which you should all go look at: “The Virulent.”

I can’t remember who passed me the link to this piece on Dorothy Arzner, a director in the early years of Hollywood, but it makes for fascinating reading: “Dorothy Arzner, Hidden Star Maker of Hollywood’s Golden Age.”

Type the name “Dorothy Arzner” into Netflix’s search bar and you’ll get zero results.

It’s an odd outcome, considering Arzner, a prolific golden age film director, has 16 feature films—among the most of any woman in Hollywood, ever. She gave Katharine Hepburn one of her first starring roles. She navigated the transition from silent films to talkies with panache, inventing the boom microphone in the process. And yet, she is largely unknown today.

 

And finally: the best picture on the internet:

  Is this not the most magnificent red carpet image ever?

THE MASKED CITY by Genevieve Cogman

The Masked City by Genevieve Cogman

ISBN 978-1-4472-5625-0, Tor UK, MMPB, 358pp, UK£7.99. November 2015.

 

The Masked City is the sequel to Genevieve Cogman’s well-received debut The Invisible Library. It is not High Literature.

 High Literature was never this fun.

 Gonzo. Bonkers. Batshit. These are the words that immediately leap to mind when contemplating The Masked City. It’s incredibly, unapologetically pulp: so valiantly determined to have fun, commit property damage, and trade witty banter while engaging in high-stakes peril on the top of, for example, moving magical trains, that it’s impossible not to be utterly charmed by its sheer energy, by its delight in digging out all the genre tropes and the kitchen sink too, and mashing them up together in a delicious stew —

Mmm, stew. My metaphor might have got away from me there. Where was I? Right. The Masked City.

 Irene is a Librarian, an employee of an interdimensional Library. The Library. The Library helps stabilise the multiverse. (Being a library, it does so through collecting books. Or, at least, the Librarians collect books for it.) Across the multiverse, alternate Earths can have magic or technology, or both, or neither: they can be high in order (dragons prefer order) or high in chaos (spread by Fae), or somewhere in between. After the events of The Invisible Library, Irene found herself the Resident Librarian in the Victorianesque London of just such an in-between world, with Kai, a youthful dragon-in-human-form, for an apprentice, a friend in Vale — a Sherlock Holmesian Great Detective — and an occasional adversary in the form of Lord Silver, the most powerful of the local Fae.

 But there are factions and plots afoot. Kai is kidnapped — and it’s quite difficult to kidnap even a young dragon — and Irene’s investigation of how (and by whom, and where they’ve taken him) keeps getting interrupted by someone else’s werewolf thugs. It soon becomes clear that this is a plot by Lord Guantes, an old arch-rival of Lord Silver, and his Lady. They’ve taken Kai to a high-chaos world and intend to auction him off to other powerful Fae, in an attempt to start a war between the dragons and the Fae, and raise themselves up the ranks to Most Powerful in the tumult.

 Irene’s going to get Kai back. If she can. Without orders — or permission — from her superiors in the Library. With Lord Silver — unreliable at the best of times — as her only ally, she has to infiltrate a high-chaos world and rescue Kai from an all-but-impenetrable prison, all the while avoiding the attention of Lord Guantes and the Fae rulers of this alternate.

 And that may be harder than it seems. Because Fae are creatures of story, and in the higher chaos worlds that are the natural habitat of the more powerful of their kind, coincidence warps to form narrative patterns. Is Irene the hero of her own story, the comic relief in another, or the villain in Lord Guantes’ play? In a 1700s-esque Venice where it’s always Carnival and never Lent, where masked black-clad agents of the Council of Ten haunt every shadow, Irene has to be on top of her game if she’s going to escape with her skin, and Kai’s, intact.

 There is so much to like here. The madcap pace of Irene’s rush from caper to caper! The group of young and ambitious Fae she falls in with while undercover, all of whom with complaints about their own patrons and their own ideas about their roles in the unfolding dramas! Arguments about Fae etiquette, which is batshit and hilarious. Zayanna, whom Irene gets drunk as a distraction and who keeps lamenting the fact that she never gets to seduce any heroes — and then makes Irene promise to let her try to seduce her, later. The way in which Cogman has such obvious affection for so much genre furniture, but not so much affection that it gets in the way of breaking convention when that would be more fun.

 The Masked City has a great and pleasing energy. It’s one of the most purely entertaining novels I’ve read this year. I can’t think about it without grinning. It made me very happy, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants a really fun batshit pulpy fantastic ride.

 Good book. A+. Would book again. The world needs more like it.

 


This review has been brought to you thanks to my generous Patreon backers.

Sleeps With Monsters: In Defence of Fanfiction, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Trust Myself

A new column over at Tor.com:

I had a conversation in this last month about queerness and pairings in fanfic and other narratives. In the course of that conversation, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart came up, with its portrayal of queer (and kinky) consensual female relationships. And I ended up admitting that the first time I read it, the female queer stuff went over my head. I was seventeen at the time: it was there, explicit, and on the page, and my reaction to reading it was I know something is going on here but I don’t understand what it is.

Happy 2016!

How long has it been since I updated? Not since 24th November last, which is quite a while. In my defence, I spent December rather thoroughly distracted by trying not to die of the Chest Infection From Hell.

(No, really. From hell. I couldn’t stand up or talk for a week. And then I could only shuffle slowly for another two. It was the nineteenth before I was capable of going for even a short walk.)

And then there were the Mandatory Togetherness Times, which worked out unusually well this year. And, of course, the Briefly Returned Emigrés got together with those of us still living here for a bang-up evening of gossip. And the occasional exchange of gifts.

My friends, apparently, know me as well as love me.

But I have goals! And plans for this space – for example, to be more regularly entertaining in the coming year.

We shall see how well I succeed…

Anyone may die at any time.

One day in May 1974, my mother left work fifteen minutes early to go to a doctor’s appointment. It was a fortunate day to have had her doctor’s appointment, because that day was a day that carbombs went off across Dublin. Her route to the train station took her right through the blast area for one of them, and she missed them by fifteen minutes.

In Paris and Beirut after this weekend, there will be similar stories. And stories that do not have so happy an ending. And that is true across Syria and the conflict zone in Iraq, but we do not hear the civilian casualty counts from the airstrikes of the Syrian regime, Russia, the US, Turkey, France. We are insulated from that horror until explosions rip through the fabric of the city of Paris, and everywhere the English-language news is gleefully horrified at the opportunity to expound.

And racists everywhere seize the opportunity to blame people fleeing this exact sort of violence.

France has bombed Raqqa in Syria in retaliation. France is using the rhetoric of war and revenge. France is doing Daesh’s work for them, in part. Fundamentalist movements cannot be overcome through violence: it is their most fertile recruiting ground. The best revenge would be to react to this tragic event with humanity and tolerance, with love instead of hatred, openness instead of fear.

But that is not what we see.

I’m fairly disgusted with the world right now. Every time I hear the news all I can think is: how many more dead? How many more dead will be added to the tally of tens of thousands? How many more millions of refugees?

In moral cowardice, I avoid the news.

Books in brief: Alexander, Hunter, Stark

There is nothing I can do about the news. So I may as well talk about books.

Mardi Alexander, Spirits of the Dance. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. E-ARC courtesy of the publisher.

Lesbian romance. Better than many of its ilk. Set in Australia, on a cattle ranch/in a small town, starring a leg-amputee ex-military officer and a young local with an abusive father. Lots of horses. Extended description of attempted (hetero) rape. (And when the barn goes on fire, I asked myself – homophobic foul play, or just Australian summer?) Somewhat off-balance in terms of pacing and structure, but nonetheless rather satisfying.

Cari Hunter, Cold to the Touch. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. E-ARC courtesy of the publisher.

Crime novel set somewhere around about Sheffield, as best I can tell. Starring lesbians, because Bold Strokes Books. It’s a pretty solid crime novel: with this and her last novel, Hunter has taken a step up in terms of structure, pacing and tension. There is murder, winter, relationship drama, and occasionally kissing. It is a very enjoyable novel.

Nell Stark, The Princess and the Prix. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. E-ARC courtesy of the publisher.

Lesbian princess romance is apparently a subgenre of its own now? Formula 1 driver meets Monagasque princess! Hijinks ensue! Batshit, and yet a ridiculous amount of (ridiculous) fun.