AGENTS OF EMPIRE by Noel Malcolm

Noel Malcolm, Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016.

Malcolm, a historian who specialises in the history of the Balkans, has reconstructed the achievements (in the service of at least five crowns, counting the Papacy and Venice) of three generations of an Albanian family in the 1500s. From Venice to the borders of Poland, and the Vatican to Istanbul, the Brutis and their relatives the Brunis were at the heart of political, social, and military events across the Mediterranean.

It’s a really good book. I recommend it.

PALADINS OF THE STORM LORD, by Barbara Ann Wright

Barbara Ann Wright, Paladins of the Storm Lord. Bold Strokes Books, 2016.

I was extremely disappointed in Wright’s last outing, Thrall: Beyond Gold and Glory. That novel was, to put it mildly, an incoherent Norse-inspired mess – although better at a sentence level than many f/f fantasy romances in existence. Her first novel, Pyramid Waltz, showed a great deal of promise, and I will confess to Some Hopes of her continuing career: but structurally the later novels of her first series (For Want of a Fiend, A Kingdom Lost, The Fiend Queen) really didn’t stand up well.

However, Paladins of the Storm Lord marks the beginning of a new series from Wright. This novel shows something of an improvement, both structurally and in terms of worldbuilding. It mixes elements from fantasy and science fiction into a planetary opera a bit reminiscent of Darkover (without the faux-medieval sexism), with small-town politics and fights and interspecies romance. It’s fun and fast and entertaining: promising, in the best SF-equivalent-of-sword-and-sorcery way.

I’m really hoping that she manages to actually structure the rest of this series so that the narrative pays off in satisfying ways.

News, views, disillusions

I have finished my third week at a RealJob. The paycheque is nice, but I woke up this morning sick as a dog. Ah, well. It could be worse.

There’s a lot of news to catch up on. In my case, the most exciting piece is that, along with Mahvesh Murad, I’ll be editing Speculative Fiction 2016:

Call for Submissions: What You Need to Know

The Speculative Fiction series is a not-for-profit publication. All net proceeds will be going to charity.
The anthology seeks non-fiction reviews and essays (“works”) specific to some aspect of Speculative Fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror, and everything and anything that falls under the broad genre umbrella), including but not limited to: books, movies, tv shows, games, comics, conventions, genre trends, and so on. No short stories or original fiction, please.
The works MUST have been originally published online during the calendar year 2016.
Any pieces chosen for the publication will be paid a flat fee of $10 per work (in lieu of payment, contributors may choose to donate their fee to charity in their name).
Nominations are accepted for works published by anyone online. (This includes bloggers, friends, bloggers who are friends, authors who blog, bloggers who are authors, alien life forms, cats, etc…)
People may submit their own work or someone else’s.
People may submit as many works as they like. (There is NO limit on submissions!)
Submitted works ideally should be between 800 and 1500 words (but that’s not mandatory, we may consider longer and shorter pieces).
While submitted works can be from anywhere in the world, although we do need an English translation for consideration.
Submissions are open through December 31 2016.

Submit your nominations here. Deadline is 31 December 2016.


There are some links hanging out in my tabs:

The Church’s Lingering Shadows On Sex Work In Ireland.

Jane Austen to Cassandra.

Lesbians of 1916 are the Rising’s “hidden history.”

Carrie Fisher interviews Daisy Ridley.

Wonder Woman, Amazons, armour and history: the best thing on Tumblr.

Poem: “Questions to Ask Yourself Before Giving Up.”

Database of Public Monuments in Roman Greece. Lovely searchable database.

Doctoratus in Philosophia

Yesterday I attended the commencements ceremony for my Ph.D. I wore a waistcoat and bowtie.

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The Ph.D. robes are red and yellow silk, and very swish. I had a great day, for the most part. My mother and my academic supervisor both attended the ceremony, and I had dinner with them and some other people, and then cocktails. TWO WHOLE COCKTAILS.

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There is a downside to attending a formal ceremony in gender-noncomforming formal garb, though. Perhaps more than one.

Ph.D. graduands must line up and process in to the Public Theatre. The line is alphabetical by last name, and a person goes down the line with a clipboard checking that one is in the right place. This exchange occurred when that person — by appearance a woman — got to me:

“Elizabeth Bourke?” said they.

“Yes,” I said.

“Nooooo,” they said.

“Yes,” said I.

“Nooo – Oh,” they said, and wandered off further down the line, causing the person next to me to remark, in commiserating fashion: “I expect you get that a lot.”

During the ceremony itself, when the pro-chancellor went to hand me the parchment, he said, “Mr. Bourke, congratulations -” and the professor sitting next to him pointed out his error, since the name on the paper was Elizabeth – “oh, I’m sorry. Ms. Bourke, congratulations.” Mic’d live to the whole hall.

It would’ve taken a lot more than that to put a damper on my enjoyment of the day, but, y’know, I could’ve lived without either. Although being contradicted when I answered to my own name was extremely irritating.

Still. I am DR. BOURKE now. For good. No one can take it back.

VISITOR by C.J. Cherryh

A new review up at Tor.com!


So, I have started a new job. I will not be telling you anything about it, except that it is my first ever proper office job, and working office hours is going to be a… difficult transition, let’s say. I expect to be rather scarce in these parts until I acclimate to Mornings and Being Awake All Day again. (I haven’t done this kind of thing five days a week since I was in school. That’s a decade ago.)

Long overdue update!

Before anything else, there’s a new post about The 100 over at Tor.com.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve caught up on the second season of The 100, the post-apocalyptic murder-fest television show of our time. Somewhere around halfway through, and definitely by episode 2.12, “Rubicon,” I started having a vague niggling itch: it was reminding me of Xena: Warrior Princess. “But that’s not right,” I said to myself. “They’re completely different: tonally, stylistically, structurally, in all ways. Have you been sniffing glue, self? Just because people are bringing Xena back is no reason to have it on the brain!”


I’ve been silent here for quite a while. February was A Month, friends, full of Interesting Life Things All Happening Close Together. (I joined a social club, went back to rockclimbing, had some developments happen that might change the shape of my life for at least the rest of the year. Etc.)

I haven’t been blogging because I haven’t been reading: reading for an award jury (the Clarke Award, which I’m not really supposed to talk about much?) has about killed my ability to not hate fiction.

It’s not so much fun taking about books when you read the first three pages and just hate everything, even if it has obvious merits.

I’ll probably be continuing quiet here for the foreseeable future, with the odd update when I have something new over at Tor.com or somewhere else online.

In the meantime, I entertained myself over the weekend by watching THE SHANNARA CHRONICLES and tweeting about it. Here are some of those tweets:

In conclusion, only watch that show for a drinking game.

TRUTHWITCH by Susan Dennard: Patreon review

TRUTHWITCH by Susan Dennard

ISBN 978-0-7653-7928-3, Tor Teen, HB, 416pp, USD$18.99/CAN$21.99. January 2016. Cover art by Scott Grimando.

 

I first heard of Truthwitch some five or six months ago, when Kate Elliott mentioned it as a forthcoming YA novel that did interesting things with female friendship and epic fantasy worldbuilding. When I received a review copy, I was vaguely interested — but to tell you the truth, I’ve been rather burned out on reading for a while now: I expected I’d have the same UGH WORK GO AWAY reaction to it that I’ve been having to the vast majority of fiction.

 

This was, astonishingly, not to be the case.

 

Truthwitch opens with a caper: a highway robbery about to go horribly wrong. Safiya and Iseult are young women living in Veňaza City, playing in high-stakes card games and getting up to trouble — like committing highway robbery to avenge themselves on the handsome young man who made off with Safiya’s winnings. Unfortunately, they target the wrong carriage and run afoul of a guildmaster and his hired Bloodwitch… and that’s only the start of their problems.

 

Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to tell truth from lies. (At least, what people believe to be truth.) She keeps her abilities secret, because Truthwitches are rare and much sought-after by rulers, and Safiya, an impoverished noblewoman who doesn’t want the responsibilities of her position, has absolutely no desire to be turned into a useful prisoner. Iseult is a Threadwitch, who can see the threads that bind people together, the patterns in the world — and also a member of a despised social minority, the Nomatsi, a people who have no legal rights. And Iseult’s people have all but officially cast her out.

 

Iseult and Safiya are inseparable friends, as close as sisters: Iseult’s steadiness compensates for Safiya’s impulsiveness, and Safiya’s class and connections provide protection for Iseult. They have a strong emotional bond, but one that is shortly to be tested by politics and the pursuit of that Bloodwitch — a young man whose ultimate loyalties are something of a open question.

 

There has been a long peace between three major powers, and now that peace is coming to an end. Safiya’s uncle is engaged in some plot, which involves her betrothal to an emperor and then her escape by way of a ship belonging to Prince Merik, a young man whose nation suffered terribly in the last war and whose people are on the verge of starvation.

 

It is all caper. Very exciting caper, from then on, including pursuit and politics and sea serpents and some gonzo magical fight sequences. The pace is breakneck, with the characteristic first-novel trick of cramming as much stuff as possible in while rarely slowing down enough to allow its significance to sink in.

 

Except for the significance of Boyfriend. The narrative definitely pairs Prince Merik off with Safiya, and it is strongly implied that the Bloodwitch (Aeduan is his name) is supposed to be seen in the light of a potential future romantic interest for Iseult — although their relationship consists of just barely not killing each other up until the point where he saves her life.

 

I’ve been chewing over the problems I have with this book for a few days. It’s fun, and it has solid themes, and it’s not slight, exactly, so much as scattered. It opens with the promise of a caper novel: best friends (female friends), cardsharps and highway robbers, and some of my definite level of irk with it may be a result of how those early expectations were disappointed.

 

One of my problems with Truthwitch is that it makes unavoidably obvious one of the issues I have with a lot of young adult SFF, which is the centrality of heterosexual romance. There’s nothing wrong with romance. But this is a book where the core established emotional relationship is between two women — friends-like-sisters — and where one of the major themes concerns both of them discovering — owning — their own significance and ability to make choices that affect other people. And the presence of Boyfriend, for me, is a distracting sideshow from the coming-of-age narrative.

 

It is a sad truth, it seems, than in YA one can have Boys without Girls, but where there is a Girl, the general rule is that there must be a Boy.

 

Prince Merik is the Responsible One. Aeduan is the Dangerous One Who Might Come Good. But Merik berates Safiya with her irresponsibility, and Aeduan verges on unheathily obsessed with, alternately, Safiya and Iseult (for revenge or politics and eventually, for themselves). Being berated by the handsome prince, it seems, causes Safiya to undergo Personal Growth and make some frankly large sacrifices for Merik and his people.

 

I might have enjoyed the attraction-plot between Merik and Safiya a lot more if it hadn’t included an incident in which Merik locks Safiya in irons for dealing with the enemy to heal a badly-wounded Iseult. One does not exactly buy Safiya’s attraction and loyalty to Merik after that: the whole bondage thing seems like a large step to overlook.

 

But all the bits of the novel that don’t have boyfriend in them are really fun. Some excellent magical fight sequences! Epic fantasy worldbuilding that’s actually making an effort to use that epic depth of field! Female friendship! Lots of women around doing interesting things!

 

I’m just a little disappointed, because the emotional beats of the whole boyfriend plotlines are fairly predictable — and thus not very interesting — while the deep friendship between the two girls, and their relationship to the world, is something that we don’t see a lot in SFF. Their respective social statuses and backgrounds are different to each other, and there’s just enough there to tease me with the story the author’s not interested in telling: how these two, this unbreakable pair, interact with each other and a world that sees one of them as more human than the other.

 

On the other hand, this is definitely a book that’s easy to read, and easy to enjoy while reading. That’s a significant set of points in its favour, by me.


This post brought to you courtesy of my supporters at Patreon.

 

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.