Strange saints.

Everything I know about Saint Ijanel comes from Frances Weller’s 1978 book, Saint Ijanel: A Forgotten Holy Woman of Early Christianity. I think she’s kind of fascinating, so I want to share her with you.

 

The first mention of Saint Ijanel comes from a late sixth century ostracon from Edessa, shortly before the Muslim conquest. Her name in the Greek alphabet is rendered   Ιδζανηλη, and we find here didomai tei osioei Idzanelei, “I give to holy Ijanel” – but what’s given isn’t specified.

 

Ijanel’s name obviously derives from Armenian. It’s form of the Armenian verb to arise, and it seems possible that Ijanel the saint is a composite figure, around whom several stories — some plausible, some occurring in the lives of other saints — accreted over the course of time. While there are occasional mentions of Ijanel — in Greek as Aghia Idzanela or Izanele or Idzaneleia — as asides in other manuscripts, or once as a church in Armenian records, she is far from well known.

 

The earliest literary mention of Ijanel comes from a 9th century collection of sayings, the Apophthegmata of Armenian Saints. (Where we’re also informed in an aside that fragments from the spear of her martyrdom are miraculous relics, whose efficacy the author has seen with his own eyes.) By the 10th century it is clear her popularity is increasing, with an anonymous Greek hagiography, the Life of Saint Ijanel, in Byzantine circulation. This survives in substantial fragments, including an epitome translated into Arabic, and includes an invocation similar to the Irish litany of Saint Patrick:

 

“Holy Saint Ijanel, let me arise and go forth by day without hindrance. Holy Saint Ijanel, let me arise and go forth by night without fear. Let me rise up into battle with good courage. In peace, let me arise into wisdom and understanding. Let me rise up against tyranny with justice in my heart. Let me rise up in the morning. Let me rise up at noon. Let me rise up at the going-down of the sun. Holy Saint Ijanel, guard me and guide me until the last day, when all shall arise into glory.”

 

The author of this Life of Saint Ijanel mentions an “Emperor Constans” contemporary with Ijanel, but otherwise has — as far as can be told from the fragmentary text — very little concern with chronology. (And even this mention of Constans is not much help, since there were at least three emperors by that name.) In some ways, this hagiographical life is extremely subversive. Ijanel is – unusually for holy women – not a holy virgin, but a married woman who follows her husband to war, where she has a miraculous encounter with the angel Gabriel and receives a call to spread the gospel among the women “of the land of the unbelievers.”

 

The surviving text does not preserve what happened to her husband, but several stories — an encounter with an amorous nobleman in which Ijanel is miraculously saved when she calls on God and he “caused the land to rise up against him;” a village that Ijanel convinces to convert by miraculously causing a church to be raised overnight; another village where Ijanel is preserved from being burned alive because she calls on God to cause the waters of the nearby river to rise up, and they do; an encounter with a king who oppresses his people with heavy taxation in which Ijanel’s prayers cause “the stones of his chamber to rise up around him” — are preserved in entertaining detail. So too is a story of Ijanel healing a woman with broken legs, who got up and walked.

 

Confusingly, the Arabic manuscript epitome of the Life preserves a different account of her martyrdom to the Greek text. In the Greek text, Ijanel is faced with an unbelieving king who commands her death by impalement; in the Arabic epitome, she is — bizarrely — suspended by hooks from the walls of a city, but rescued by the apparition of an angel, who causes her to be bodily translated into heaven.

 

There also exists a short 12th-century Armenian Life, which includes elements of the Greek one, but returns to the spear mentioned in the Apophthegmata for Ijanel’s martyrdom. Or rather, spears: pierced clean through by one, she rises up and continues to engage in theological debate with the king who means to murder her. Pierced by a second, she gets up again and keeps talking. Only when she’s run through with a third spear does the king finally succeed in making her stop. The writer adds, in what may be a humorous aside playing on the Armenian derivation of Ijanel’s name, that those who wish to rise up (arise, get up, raise things up) should pray to Ijanel to aid them.

 

After the Turkish conquest of Byzantium, evidence for the continuing veneration of Ijanel disappears. Apart from one intriguing snippet, a footnote to her story: in 1773, a French traveller in Turkey, a doctor and naturalist by the name of Alexandre De La Boutière, recorded that he stayed in a small Christian village in Ottoman Armenia, where he was shown the relics of a saint in a gold-chased lead casket: the fingerbones of Saint Ijanel, which were said to have miraculous healing powers and also to move on the anniversary of her martyrdom, which De La Boutière said his hosts told him was the same as the Feast of the Dormition of Mary.

 

There you go.

THE SILK ROADS: A NEW HISTORY OF THE WORLD by Peter Frankopan

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan.
(Bloomsbury, 2015, HC,  ISBN: 978-1408839973, 656pp.)
No one has leapt to offer suggestions for me to review this month. (Understandable: it’s February, and February is a grim month at the best of times.) So you’ll just have to put up with me taking a ramble through what interests me, and offering you a reaction to Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.
I’m calling this a reaction rather than a review, because I’ve stopped 180 pages into this 500+ giant hardcover brick in order to gather my thoughts about what I expected from The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, and what it turns out it actually provides.
The Silk Roads is a universal history, or at least is trying to be one. It begins with Achaemenid Persia and continues up to the most recent American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have not read this far: by page 180 Frankopan has just about dealt with the Frankish sack of Constantinople in the early 1200s CE and moved on to Genghis Khan. That means, of course, that fewer than 200 pages have been devoted to eighteen centuries of history, leaving more than 300 pages for the more recent eight.
From a history that references Central Asia with its title — “Silk Road” is a term coined by a 19th century German traveller and geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, and popularised by the Swedish explorer (and admirer of the Third Reich) Sven Hedin in a 1938 book — one expects a certain focus on Central Asia, a book that centres the sweep of the continent from Dunhuang and the Jade Gates to China in the east to the Dardanelles in the west. A book about the enduring influence of Merv and Samarkand, Bukhara and Balkh, Khiva and Karakorum, Baghdad and Beijing: the interchange between the Hellenistic kingdoms of Central Asia and the spread of Buddhism, the effect of Central Asian sciences and traditions on the early Islamic caliphate, and some history of the Tang Chinese and the development of China, and how Central Asia spoke to East Asia and South-East Asia.
You would, perhaps, expect a book that acknowledges that between late third/early fourth century CE and the sixteenth century CE (post-Columbus and de Gama, when Europe’s serious colonial imperialism began), Europe was a backwater. Essentially, in terms of major intellectual and political developments, there’s a millennium where Europe’s at best a poor, isolated, inward-looking country cousin — with the exception of Muslim Spain.
But instead of focusing on the history of the world as it might look from the point of view of, say, Merv or the ports of the Persian Gulf, The Silk Roads recapitulates a familiar (and familiarly Eurocentric) vision of history. Frankopan spends more paragraphs on early Christianity’s church councils than the entire context and history of Zoroastrianism, and more time on the life and conquests of Alexander than all of Tang China. The medieval crusading period is mostly dealt with from the perspective of Christian individuals — far fewer Islamic rulers and their responses to the conflicts of that period are spoken of than Christian ones.
It’s just… this is not a new history, okay guys, this is the same old history and not a particularly illuminating version. I read S. Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age From The Arab Conquest To Tamerlane last year, and I was deeply impressed by his command of Central Asian sources, his ability to draw connections, his explanatory early history of Central Asia, and the way in which, despite focusing on a limited period, he wrote a history of intellectuals and scientific development that was, because of the connections, truly global. Starr’s achievement shows up Frankopan’s shallow engagement with non-Eurocentric histories and contexts for at least the first eighteen centuries of his history.
Before I throw up my hands and expectorate invective for my conclusion, I’m going to quote a paragraph from this book that added insult to injury — or perhaps injury on top of insult on top of insult, I’m not quite sure.
This is the second paragraph of the first page of the chapter entitled “The Slave Road.”
“The Rus’ were careful with their prisoners: ‘they treat the slaves well and dress them suitably, because for them they are an article of trade,’ noted one contemporary. Slaves were transported along the river systems — remaining chained while the rapids were negotiated. Beautiful women were particularly highly prized, sold on to merchants in Khazaria and Volga Bulgaria who would then take them further south – though not before their captors had sexual intercourse with them one last time.” (Frankopan, 2015, 117.)
And then he just — moves on, without contextualising any of this from a social history point of view, to talking about slavery as vital to Viking and Rus’ economies. No comment on what “treat[ing] the slaves well” might mean to the slaves themselves, no pointing out that transporting people in chains while negotiating rapids might not actually be treating them all that well, and no acknowledgement that having sexual intercourse with enslaved women is rape. You can say rape in a history book, Peter Frankopan! (And you can stop pretending that slaughtering the inhabitants of cities is just good business sense for conquerors, while you’re at it.) (And you can rephrase that whole paragraph to something less full of slavery apologia and rape culture assumptions, as well.)
So, basically. My reaction to these 180 pages is one part WHAT THE FUCK DID I JUST READ to three parts WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU BORING ME WITH THIS BULLSHIT.
Disrecommend.
This post brought to you by the support of my backers at Patreon. If you enjoy my work, you too can support it here!

THE NUNS OF SANT’AMBROGIO: THE TRUE STORY OF A CONVENT SCANDAL by Hubert Wolf

Hubert Wolf, The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent Scandal. Vintage, 2015. Translated from the German by Ruth Martin.

I first heard of this book via Lady Business, where it was spoken of in very complimentary terms. I can confirm that it is extremely solid history writing, clear and thorough and immensely readable: the kind of history where you keep reading in order to find out just what happened next.

Wolf deals with a particular convent scandal, one that took place in the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in Rome and was investigated as a result of a complaint made by the German Catholic Princess Katarina von Hohenzollern to the Holy Office for the Doctrine of the Faith (the office of the Inquisition). Katarina had entered the convent as a postulant and then a novice (after two marriages and a previous unsuccessful attempt to become a nun in a different convent) and came to believe that she was being poisoned by the sisters of Sant’Ambrogio, as a result of her opposition to certain practices she believed were entirely improper.

Wolf draws on several archival sources, including the Inquisition’s own files and the testimony of the witnesses and defendants in the case, to illuminate the life of the Hohenzollern princess, the convent, the other nuns, Church politics, and the case itself. False saints, poisonings, political manoeuvring in the Jesuit order, the curia, and the papacy, Solicitatio by priests in confession, sexual assault of novices, female sodomy: this is history mixed with true crime, and Wolf lays it all out in fascinating detail.

Including a good deal of detail on how the Inquisition actually investigated the charges laid before it, which is fascinating in its own right.

THE SNIPER’S KISS by Justine Saracen

Justine Saracen, The Sniper’s Kiss. Bold Strokes Books, 2017.

A romance novel involving women who love women set during WWII. A Russian-speaking American clerk in the Lend-Lease programme and a Russian soldier, later a sniper, encounter each other first during international meetings about the Lend-Lease programme. Later, the American clerk gets into trouble investigating corruption on the Russian end of the Lend-Lease problem and ends up at the front, where she disguises herself as a dead Russian sniper and partners with the live Russian sniper. Saracen has done her research: the WWII setting feels believable. The characters are reasonably well-rounded, the relationships make sense in context, and the writing is better than tolerable. As F/F romances go, it’s definitely in the top 10%, particularly for historical ones.

(I always feel sad judging F/F on these particular merits. But in any given month where I look at six or eight F/F books from Netgalley and at best only half of them are even readable, they are certainly the merits.)

Crusader Kings II: Queen of Oman

I recently started a new game of CRUSADER KINGS II, and since I’ve been enjoying Django Wexler’s write-up of his, I thought I’d do my own.

But unlike Django, I’m a cheating cheater who cheats.

Meet Karima Jamalid, a Levantine Karaite Shaykhah in the lower Arabian peninsula. There are no Levantine Karaites in the Arabian peninsula, you say! I say, I CHEATED.

203770_20170208202914_1

Thanks to the Ruler Designer Unlocked mod, Karima is a Strong Genius, Brawny and Shrewd, a Sayyid, poet gardener scholar mystic and so on, the healthiest woman on earth and so fertile that she only has to look at a man to fall pregnant.

Case in point: Shaykhah Karima of Dhofar produced a daughter almost exactly nine months after her first marriage:

203770_20170208204956_1

I also cheated my way into 50000 troops and a few thousand bits of gold. Just to get Karima started.

Karima is a vassal of the Azd Umanid Emirate, so her first cunning plan is to start a faction to weaken her liege’s power.

203770_20170208205055_1

Our second daughter is a genius. That’s useful!

203770_20170208213948_1

A bout of Slow Fever shortly after her second daughter’s birth results in Karima’s court physician cutting out her eye. It works! Cure! Now she’s one-eyed and badass… and still very fertile.

Several years pass. Karima forges a claim on Jask, on the other side of the Persian Gulf, and adds it to her desmesne. She has many children by many different fathers – some of whom she even married.

203770_20170208233607_1

Karima eventually declares independence, and after her former liege dies, claims another county, this time on the very tip of the Arabian peninsula.

203770_20170209000905_1

She gives Jask to her eldest daughter’s husband, and institutes elective monarchy, nominating her genius daughter Nastaran as her heir. A claim on Berbera and two quick Holy Wars later, Emira Karima is sitting pretty on a pretty piece of real estate.

203770_20170209021757_1

It’s stressful being a ruler. Next step, conquer the Arwadids and swear fealty to Harun al-Rashid, the Abbasid caliph, to stop him gobbling us up…

Where Do We Go From Here?

D Franklin’s post-Women’s-Marches post  (Women’s March: Where Next?) has reminded me that I meant to write my own post about Where We Are and What We Do Now.

I’m Irish, so American authoritarianism and the inauguration of a racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, transphobic, queerphobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, hateful, science-denying, world-wrecking bigot as President of the United States of America? That’s not something that I can do much about, practically speaking. (Neither is the UK’s determination on self-immolation through Brexit.)

But it’s a hell of a wake-up call for local civic engagement.

So, What Do We Do Now, from an Irish perspective?

First, take a deep breath

Twitter is a firehose of information, most of it from the USA, much of it accompanied by anxious commentary, catastrophising, and urgency that frequently approaches — and sometimes spills over into — panic. Panic is exhausting, and will leave you with very little energy for meaningful action. Ration your exposure to things that inspire you to anxiety and panic, rather than inspiring you to act.

For information, sign up for mailing lists from organisations like some of these:

Friends of the Earth Ireland is one reliable place to get information and action items for environmental matters, while the Irish Wildlife Trust has a quarterly newsletter. For the right to choose, the Abortion Rights Campaign has monthly open meetings and sends regular updates. The Irish Refugee Council sends occasional updates, while the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland updates via its Facebook page. Amnesty International’s Irish branch will update you on local opportunities for activism. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties wants you to print out and post in a form for membership, but it, too, will update you on the issues. TENI, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, will keep you up to date on trans and nonbinary issues.

There are more organisations, but these are the ones I know will actually provide updates and Things For You To Do.

Speaking of Things For You To Do – this is a second piece of advice on What To Do Now. If you aren’t already familiar with your TDs and county councilors, now is the time to get familiar with them: sign up for their newsletters, check out their Facebook feeds, know what their parties are and what they stand for. Email them and ask them which way they’re voting on issues that affect you.

The website for the Houses of the Oireachtas, oireachtas.ie, is a great resource. Not only does it tell you who your TDs are, and their official emails, but you can find the order papers – that is, the published order of business, what the Dáil and the Seanad will actually be doing, for each day in the week – here, on Tuesday every week that the Houses are in session.

You can also find the Weekly Schedule – the timeline of when things will happen – here.

You can find transcripts of the proceedings from the Houses and from the committee meetings here.

And if you want to watch or listen to the proceedings – say you’ve spotted something in the Weekly Schedule and you want to know in real-time whether your TDs are arguing your corner – you can do that from here.

Also, if you want to call and leave a message by TELEPHONY with your local TDs, you can ask for their office through the Oireachtas switchboard, the number for which you can find on the Oireachtas contact page.

Your local county council has a webpage. It lists your local councilors and their official contact details. It should also have a “Service Delivery Plan” or something similarly titled, which tells you what your local council has planned for you and your area. At a local level? This is information that will be useful for you to know, if you want to lobby for change.


This is what I’m doing:

  • I’m volunteering with the Abortion Rights Campaign and going to meetings.
  • There’s a weekly check on my to-do list for “write TDs about $issue,” where the issue changes by week. Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill, Anti-Fracking Bill, homelessness, ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, accessible public transport, the Moneypoint coal-fueled power plant, water, refugees, ending the Direct Provision system: I don’t want my TDs to get bored.
  • Every so often I ask them to ask a question of the Minister for something: if they do, and tell me about it (which only one has so far, three cheers for Clare Daly TD), I put it aside to think of how to ask more questions from there.
  • I’m getting familiar with what my local county council actually does, and what I might be able to lobby my councilors about with some hope of them acting in useful ways.
  • I’ve started an LGBTQ+ bookclub at my local library, the first meeting of which is to happen this month. Because building community remains important.
  • I’m investigating other avenues for local action, community- and capacity-building: it might be possible to start local monthly “coffee evenings” to bring together people on issues like lobbying for climate action or lobbying for accessibility issues (particularly with regard to public transport), but that will require a bit more knowledge and context than I have right now.
  • I’m keeping an eye out for other opportunities to volunteer in useful ways, and to throw my shoulder behind other people’s wheels.

Small acts. Local connections. Discrete things that you can do. Start small, build capacity. Build connections. Do the thing in front of you. Do what you can with what you’ve got.

(I am terrified about doing some of this, by the way: I’m insecure about my competence to start with, and interacting with humans is terrifying. But, as the great Carrie Fisher said: “Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action.“)

In Ireland, the next local elections for the county councils are scheduled for 2019: we have two years to start building the capacity to make local change.

 

Hugo Nominations 2017: thoughts part two

The bottom half of the Hugo ballot this year includes Best Series as a special category, as well as the usual:

Best Related Work
Best Graphic Story
Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)
Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)
Best Editor – Short Form
Best Editor – Long Form
Best Professional Artist
Best Semiprozine
Best Fanzine
Best Fancast
Best Fan Writer
Best Fan Artist

Best Series:

I’ll be nominating Lois McMaster Bujold for certain, since Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen means the Vorkosigan series qualifies. Whatever its flaws, that series contains some of the best science fiction of the last thirty years.

I may nominate Charlie Stross for the Laundry Files, which I think qualify.

I’m not entirely sure what else I want to nominate – Max Gladstone writes good books, but I feel like “Best Series” should be more of a keystone to a career, and I can’t think of another series with installments from last year that I’d consider an all-time best.

Best Related Work:

Sarah Gailey’s series around Rowling’s female characters on Tor.com, perhaps. Otherwise I am drawing a blank: I certainly didn’t read any related works in book form last year that’d count.

Best Graphic Story:

Bitch Planet Volume 1.

I didn’t read very widely in the graphic end of things last year. If anyone wants to supply my lack, do let me know.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form):

I think this category is probably going to go to Arrival, which I haven’t seen yet. I’d be happy to nominate all of Supergirl, mind you.

I’ll probably nominate Rogue One, despite my feelings as to its flaws, because it is an admirable piece of spectacle. I need to see Arrival before nominations close. I honestly don’t think I saw a film released last year in the cinema that impressed me at all apart from Rogue One.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form):

I have to finish watching Supergirl, but I’m almost certainly going to nominate an episode from that show. (I already have some favourites in mind, but if there’s a particular episode other people are considering, let me know!)

I did not like where The 100 went after episode 3.06 (I ditched the show with 3.07, because hey, why hurt myself, right?), but 3.04, “Watch The Thrones,” is still pretty awesome television. (I have a weakness for fight scenes.) 3.03, “Ye Who Enter Here,” also good.

I don’t know that I watched anything else SFnal under an hour in 2016 that I’d rate all that highly. But I’m pretty bad for watching things vaguely contemporary with their release.

Best Editor – Short Form
Best Editor – Long Form

As usual, I’m going to pass over these categories, because I don’t feel I know enough about what is a “best” in an editor.

Best Professional Artist:

Julie Dillon
Victo Ngai
Richard Anderson

Best Semiprozine:

Tor.com.
Uncanny Magazine.
Lightspeed.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
Strange Horizons.

Best Fanzine:

Lady Business (ladybusiness.dreamwidth.org)

…er. I think the only place that qualifies as a fanzine that I’m still following is Lady Business. Well. That’s me sorted, then.

Best Fancast:

No longer following any podcasts in particular, though have a wistful fondness for Galactic Suburbia – if only I could make time to listen.

Best Fan Writer:

This is a category I am seriously underread in, for 2016. Who is best at saying clever things with incisive analysis and wit? Apart from Abigail Nussbaum, of course.

Best Fan Artist:

likhain, who also I think works under another name, does really good art. But this is another category where I know I don’t know much.

Books in brief: Erica Cameron’s ASSASSINS: NEMESIS

Erica Cameron, Assassins: Nemesis. Triton/Riptide, 2017. Copy via Netgalley.

Okay. This is the sequel to Assassins: Discord, a book whose main selling point, at least at first, was that it had QUEER FEMALE TEENAGE ASSASSINS in it. Turns out Discord ran a fun little thriller plot all across the US, with an adversaries-become-lovers romance alongside. It wasn’t the tightest or most sensible of novels, but it knew what kind of gloriously fun pulp it wanted to be, all right?

Nemesis takes us on to a couple of secondary/briefly-mentioned characters from Discord: Blake, the intersex teenage child of a murdered FBI agent, and Daelan, a nice geek-boy teenage vigilante bodyguard from a family of bodyguard-assassins. Boundaries! Murder! Saving each others’ lives and maybe the world! Happy queer folks! Deliciously entertaining plot-relevant angst! Gunfire and undercover operations and explosions!

If you ever wanted queer vigilante teenage Jason Bourne, this is very likely the book (this is the series) for you.

Hugo Nominations 2017: thoughts part one

Hugo nominations are open for the 2017 Worldcon in Helsinki. So I’m thinking that you all could, if you really wanted to, nominate me for Best Fan Writer. (I’d really like another shiny rocket nominee pin.)

 But that’s not why I’m writing this post. (I wasn’t really on fire last year, and I know it.) I’m writing because there was a lot of excellent work published in 2016, and I want to share my thoughts about what I’m — probably — nominating. This post is for the prose fiction categories: I’ll probably make another later for the rest.

Novel:

1. Yoon Ha Lee, NINEFOX GAMBIT. Solaris/Rebellion/Abaddon.

A glittering, compelling and brutal science fiction novel, with an ongoing thematic argument about free will, conformism, and the cost of empire. Everyone should read it. Brilliant in several respects.

2. Foz Meadows, AN ACCIDENT OF STARS. Angry Robot.

A portal fantasy of a different hue. With consequences, and found family. When Saffron Coulter stumbles through a hole between worlds, she’s not a chosen one, or a hero, or anything other than a girl who ends up in the middle of things she doesn’t understand, and tries to survive them. While making new friends and enemies along the way. It’s a fabulous novel, one of my favourite things.

3. Hillary Monahan, SNAKE EYES. Solaris/Rebellion/Abaddon.

 The most extraordinary fun gruesome touching urban fantasy novel that I’ve read in years. A thriller, a story of family, and a novel about monsters: it’s utterly great.

4. Nisi Shawl, EVERFAIR. Tor.

 A brilliant alternate history of the Congo, liberally dashed with myth and a touch of magic. Deeply invested in interrogating people and systems of power, small compromises and hypocrisies and larger ones, it is a sweeping novel of nation-building and relationships.

Possible contenders for the final slot: Gladstone and Smith et al, THE WITCH WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (Serial Box); Palmer, TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING (Tor) — but I’m not convinced the first half of a duology that closes no arcs should hit the awards — Isabel Yap’s HURRICANE HEELS (Booksmugglers Publishing) if it qualifies; No Award.

Novella

 All my favourite novellas are out of Tor.com, and Laurie Penny’s Everything Belongs to the Future, Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone, and Marie Brennan’s Cold-Forged Flame are basically my top three. EDITED: I though Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Taste of Honey was novel-length but I was wrong, so IT IS NOW NUMBER ONE.

I should get Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe read in time to consider it for addition to the list.

Novelette

 Fran Wilde’s The Jewel and Her Lapidary (Tor.com).

All the novelettes in Isabel Yap’s Hurricane Heels – dammit, don’t make me pick just one.

SL Huang’s The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist (Booksmugglers Publishing).

Meredith Debonnaire’s “The Life and Times of Angel Evans.” (Booksmugglers Publishing).

 

 Short Story

Alyssa Wong’s “A Fistful of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” (Tor.com)

Aliette de Bodard’s “Lullaby for a Lost World” (Tor.com)

But mostly I don’t read short stories. Recommend me some?

PASSING STRANGE by Ellen Klages: Patreon Review

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages. (Tor.com Publishing, January 2017.  Ebook $2.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-8951-0. Cover art by Gregory Manchess. Cover design by Christine Foltzer. )

My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, i’ faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange;
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.
She wished she had not heard it; yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man.

Othello, Act 1, Scene 3

Wow.

Let’s start with that: wow. Let’s end with it too, because Ellen Klages’ Passing Strange lives up to the intriguing and cryptic promise of its matter-of-fact opening line with verve and vigour and an unexpected generosity and grace.

That first line is: “On the last Monday of her life, Helen Young returned from the doctor’s and made herself a cup of tea.”

Passing Strange isn’t about Helen Young as such, either now at the age of one hundred or seventy-five years earlier, in 1940, when she’s a young Asian-American lawyer making a living through dancing for tourists in San Francisco’s Chinatown — but she’s central to the story in more ways than one.

The emotional core of the story is a circle of women in 1940s San Francisco (although it is bookended by the acts of 100-year-old Helen). Their romantic and carnal inclinations include other women, and in 1940, San Francisco is one place where they can live and love in (relative) freedom, despite the difficulties of police harassment, moral codes, and the fact that the bars where they can be out in public are only allowed to operate because tourists come there to be titillated.

And the core of that story is the love between Loretta Haskel and Emily Netterfield.

Haskel, an artist who does covers for pulp magazines, encounters Emily Netterfield one evening in the company of Franny Travers and her circle, which includes Helen. Franny is an intellectual and something of a magician, and a vein of the wondrous and the strange runs through the heart of Passing Strange — to which I shall return momentarily.

Emily Netterfield fled an old and wealthy East Coast family to avoid repercussions for being caught in flagrante delicto with a girl. Now Emily performs as the dapper, masculine “Spike” at Mona’s, a club for women who like other women. When circumstances and mutual attraction send Emily home from the club with Haskel, the two quickly fall into a deep and meaningful relationship, but their fragile happiness is abruptly threatened when Haskel’s estranged husband returns from sea, angry and demanding money. To preserve their happiness, to write themselves into a different story, Emily consents when Haskel suggests they try magic to take themselves away…

Klages draws San Francisco in 1940 in vivid colours and subtle shades. The sense of place in this story is a vital piece of what makes it work. Here is a real city, vibrant and bustling: and here are its subaltern communities, struggling for acknowledgement as equally human. Passing Strange isn’t a tragedy. Its register remains defiantly hopeful, stubbornly determined about the possibilities for joy and happiness even as it acknowledges that shit happens and sometimes shit really sucks. It centres on a community of women who care about each other and show up for each other, on kindness and the willingness to help each other out, on friendship and — I repeat this word, because it feels so central — on community. On chosen family.

Its focus on women and women’s relationships with each other as family, as well as its 20th-century historical setting and its style, reminds me of Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. Like Valentine’s novel, it feels like a modern fairy-story — though unlike Valentine, Klages here is not drawing directly on the bones of an existing fable. But they share a sense of intimacy, as well characters who are caught between hard places because systems of power are indifferent or hostile to their independent happiness.

And there’s that vein of magic running through it, and the polyvalent implications of the title. Passing: passing for straight, a passing moment, surpassing, passing by. Strange and all the nuances of that word. Passing Strange is passing strange, indeed, and more than passing beautiful: elegantly constructed, elegiac, and hopeful in the face of difficult things.

This is a gorgeous short novel. I came to it vaguely suspicious of its premises, and finished by loving it unreservedly. It’s amazing. Read it.

Seriously: wow.


This review brought to you by the support of my backers at Patreon. If you like what I do, feel free to leave a tip!