Books in brief: Martha Wells, Karen Lord, Seanan McGuire, Ankaret Wells, Andrea K. Höst, Barbara Ann Wright

Martha Wells, Emilie and the Hollow World. Angry Robot/Strange Chemistry, 2013. Copy courtesy of the publishers.

A delightful YA novel from one of my favourite authors. Further details should follow at

Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds. Ballantine/Del Rey (US), Jo Fletcher (UK), 2013.

A novel interesting on multiple levels, combining literary and SFnal approaches to worldbuilding and relationships. Perhaps not entirely successful, but interesting. Review forthcoming in summer Ideomancer.

Martha Wells, City of Bones. Republished by the author.

An excellent book, with excellent world-building and characterisation, which I really enjoyed. Right up until the very last page, which had to go all emotionally-complicated and very true to character but was not what I wanted to read just then.

Barbara Ann Wright, For Want of a Fiend. Bold Strokes Books, 2013. Epub. Copy courtesy of the publisher.

Lesbian relationships as normative within a fantasy novel that, while a little rough around the edges, is not noticeably rougher than most of the midlist. I recommend this, and expect to be talking more about it on the column.

Ankaret Wells, The Maker’s Mask and The Hawkwood War. Self-published; second book epub copy courtesy of the author.

A bit rocky getting started, but in general a delightful, well-characterised romp through weird and wacky tech and politics. It has a sense of humour. Oh, god, do you know how many stories don’t? Or substitute bitter snark and snappy one-liners? I will be speaking of this more later.

Andrea K. Höst, And All The Stars. Self-published. Epub.

A strongly enjoyable alien-invasion story, focused on a group of teenagers in Sydney. Well recommended.

Seanan McGuire, Midnight Blue-Light Special. DAW, 2013.

Another novel with a sense of humour. A lot of fun.

Seanan McGuire, An Artificial Knight, Late Eclipses, and One Salt Sea. DAW, various dates. Copies courtesy of the publishers.

McGuire’s Toby Daye novels make a lot more sense – and are a lot more fun – when you read them as second-world fantasies that just happen to take place in the same general area as a modern US city, and not as urban fantasy. I bounced off the second a while back, but the third is like popcorn. And so are the next two.

Popcorn. With hot butter and salt. I will be speaking more on them later, probably elseweb.

Inaugural Missing The Point Award – What Does This Comment Even Mean?

Coming from a location in Kingston-Upon-Hull, UK – says the IP address – comes a comment on Realism, (Male) Rape and Epic Fantasy I’ve kept in the “pending” bin. A comment that wins our very first “Missing The Point” award!

“Almost” only counts with horseshoes and hand grenades…

Wow. Hats off to you. You’ve somehow managed to make men being raped into something that shows how awful men are.
I mean, good show, that is some impressive logic to take a horrifying account of male rape through to a line of questioning that reads: “Come on, you bastards! Write more about torn anuses! Stop attacking the women! I won’t be happy until I see you (in literature) rectally bleed!”

My dear readers, I appeal to you: what does this comment even mean? Have I really expressed myself so poorly, in pointing out the horrors and the prevalence of sexual violence, that someone may honestly interpret it as advocating for more literary representations of sexual violence, instead of better ones?

I cast myself upon your good graces for an answer to this question.

Linky hates the world (because it’s still cold)

Ex Urbe: Why We Kept Asking “Was Machiavelli An Atheist?”

Later in the letter Machiavelli says that he is trying to come up with ways to actively stir up trouble among the monks he’s staying with just to entertain himself. This sparks a hilarious sequence in which Guicciardini starts sending Machiavelli letters with increasing frequency, and stuffing them with random papers to make the packages fat, to get the monks to think that some important political thing is going on. At one point a letter arrives saying that Guicciardini instructed the messenger to jog the last quarter mile so he would be sweaty and out-of-breath when he arrives, and Machaivelli describes with glee the increasing hubbub and attention he receives in the monastery as people become convinced that something of European import must be stirring.

Elizabeth Bear: The map is not the territory:

The point here, inasmuch as I have one, is that the media we consume produces our map of the world. We process our understanding of reality through those filters: the human brain deals with a world of unrelenting complexity by finding patterns and filtering out input deemed to be irrelevant. Our bodies are optimized for this process, in fact: thus, as opportunistic omnivores, we readily taste salt, sugar, protein, acid, possibly fat–and certain classes of toxins!–but cats and chickens cannot taste sugar. (Some cats may have a limited ability to do so.) Cats, however, appear to be able to taste adenosine triphosphate: they’re obligate carnivores, and that is the taste of meat.

The Guardian: Why ebooks are a different genre from print:

There are two aspects to the ebook that seem to me profoundly to alter the relationship between the reader and the text. With the book, the reader’s relationship to the text is private, and the book is continuous over space, time and reader. Neither of these propositions is necessarily the case with the ebook.

PC Gamer: Bioware’s David Gaider asks: “How about we just decide how not to repel women?”

The problem, says Gaider, comes from falsely held industry standards and the phenomenon of privilege. Regarding the former, Gaider made no concessions for “conventional industry wisdom.” It’s “bull****,” he said, after ridiculing the idea that games with female protagonists aren’t marketable.

“Are we supposed to accept the opposite, that a game which has a male protagonist and sells well, sells well because it has a male protagonist?” asked Gaider. “What about the ones with male protagonists that don’t sell well? Are those for other reasons? What would be the bar at which the industry would change its mind about female protagonists? Would we need a title to sell 10 million copies? Is that the bar?”

On privilege, Gaider recognized that it’s a sensitive claim, but explained that’s it’s not about being sexist or racist—it’s intrinsic ignorance.

“Privilege is when you think that something’s not a problem because it’s not a problem for you personally,” he said. “If you’re part of a group that’s being catered to, you believe that’s the way it should be. ‘It’s always been that way, why would that be a problem for anyone?’”

And this? This, for all the flaws of their games, is why I really rather like Bioware’s stuff. At least they’re trying.

Comic Book Characters In The Style Of Greek Art by Nicholas Hyde.

Because I don’t have too many books already…

…I’ve been thinking about the books I don’t have on my TBR shelf, staring accusingly – or sometimes, mockingly – at me. Books I’d also like to read.

It’s a long list. At its top, today, is a book a friend of mine’s been talking about with great enthusiasm: the YA novel Orleans by Sherri L. Smith. It seems like a potentially interesting dystopia, and the available sample shows a sense of style and place.

I’m intrigued by Melissa Scott and Jo Graham’s Lost Things, if not enough to commit to the asking price: both Scott and Graham have interesting track records.

Also intrigued by: Sherwood Smith’s The Spy Princess. Revolution? Teenagers?

And how about Alex Lidell’s The Cadet of Tildor?

Jo Anderton’s Debris is another one that looks interesting. Science fiction or science fantasy?

Those’re books in print that look interesting. As for out of print or forthcoming? (To say nothing of in my possession and on the TBR shelf.) We’d be here… quite a while.

That list, the forthcoming one, includes Madeleine E. Robin’s Sold For Endless Rue, John Scalzi’s The Human Division, D.B. Jackson’s Thieves’ Quarry, Tamora Pierce’s Battle Magic, Max Gladstone’s Two Serpents Rise, Kate Elliott’s Cold Steel, Elizabeth Moon’s The Limits of Power… to name but a few.

Anyway. So many books, so little time. So little money, too! But where there’s a will, there’s a way – and there’s always the library, for anything with a UK edition. Not that that always works out well. Giving them back, that’s the stickler…

Plague Nation, by Dana Fredsti, at

My latest review:

There are bad books, and there are tedious books, and there are tediously bad books with a desperately sad lack of redeeming value or artistic merit. The best I can say about Plague Nation is that it aspires to be popcorn reading, a low-rent version of Resident Evil with more boyfriend angst and pop-culture quotes. It’s boring, folks. Go watch Zombieland again, or reread Mira Grant or Max Brooks instead.

Linky has only two links

Marie Brennan continues the “gritty” vs. “grim” discussion in three conversations at once:

So my take on these multiple conversations would be to toss the “realism = superior” thing out the window, to decouple realism/grittiness/etc from grimdarkness (as per my last post), and then to have a more focused discussion about the specific portrayal of negative issues, and where the line is between depicting those things to critique them and depicting them out of habit, or for the shock value. Which is a situation where you’re mostly going to benefit from analyzing specific texts, before you try to make statements about trends — and that, I will admit, is where I probably have to step out, because I don’t have the data to argue my point. I haven’t read Martin since A Feast for Crows was released, got only halfway through Abercrombie’s first book, and so on with the rest of the key names in this debate. I know I don’t agree with every criticism I’ve seen of Martin (nor every defense), but I also know I should re-familiarize myself with the text before I try to debate it.

I doubt we’ll be able to get the debate to focus on that third question, because this is the internet. The conversation is going on in two dozen places, not all of which are aware of one another, and it’s sliding in new directions with each post. But I do think it helps to bear in mind that the question exists, and isn’t coterminous with the other things we’re talking about.

Once again, I encourage reading the comments, especially those by Alec Austin and Marissa Lingen.

Feminist Ire on Leo Varadkar’s World: Where Men Are Men and Women Are Grateful:

The implication of Varadkar’s comments are clearly that women in those situations where it may be a short-term cost to work should give up their jobs in order to avail of the personal insolvency arrangements. There is no other way of interpreting it.

And make no mistake about it he means women and women only should give up their jobs. Women for the most part earn less than men and it is they who should sacrifice their careers in order to save the family home. If they don’t do this, they can’t partake in the system and if the bank succeeds in having the home repossessed, well it’s Mammy’s fault because that selfish bitch wouldn’t give up her job. Dear Women, Leo Varadkar wants you to pull your socks up and get on with the hoovering because you have no business in trying to make your way in the workplace. That’s man stuff.

…What this demonstrates is how women and women-focused issues are deemed completely irrelevant to the discourse around indebtedness, employment, and even motherhood in Ireland. Who cares if the childcare cost is arguably temporary and leaving her job contains a risk that may result in not getting another job a few years down the road? Who cares that nobody wants to acknowledge that childrearing is a form of labour? Who cares that women are expected to be responsible for childrearing, housework and labour outside of the home? Who cares that it costs up to €2,000 a month to put two children in a crèche? Certainly not the good and the great…

…For women it’s a lose-lose situation. This is part of a strategy designed to make women work within the home for free to enable men to work outside it for payment.”

I’ve quote a lot, because it’s important. Read the whole thing.

Linky should be doing real work

Luc Reid interviews Ken Liu in Strange Horizons:

LR: What kinds of influence has the Chinese science fiction you’ve read had on your own work? Are there elements of those stories that stand out from Anglophone SF?

KL: I think it’s difficult, if not futile, to try to summarize entire bodies of literature in generalities. Qualities in individual Chinese writers stand out for me—Chen Qiufan’s trenchant social observations, Xia Jia’s poetic voice, Ma Boyong’s humorous blending of classical Chinese and Western elements, Liu Cixin’s grand feats of imagination—just like qualities in individual Anglophone writers impress me. But I can’t tell you how Chinese writers, as a group, are different from Anglophone writers, as a group—beyond banal observations such as Chinese writers appear to make use of more Chinese cultural references in their work.

It is true, however, that seeing Chinese cultural elements used in speculative fiction has helped me see more possibilities for telling the kind of stories I wanted to tell.

Oyceter on the first two seasons of Game of Thrones:

I knew HBO added a ton of nudity and sex before going in, but wow, I am still a bit astonished by just how much. Of course, the nudity is almost entirely women. I think there are three scenes with full male nudity, one of which is in a non-sex scene and one is in a sex scene in which convenient bits are obscured. Other than that, we get one scene of the older Stark boys topless, and two scenes with Renly and Loras making out while topless. The nudity and sex is also SO RANDOM. I assume they couldn’t get most of the main actresses to sign on for so much nudity, so instead there are endless scenes with prostitutes. And since the prostitutes are by and large random, to justify the scenes, you generally have male characters randomly pontificating about their motives or otherwise giving random exposition they couldn’t fit in otherwise.

Even putting aside my feminist rage, this is so annoying because it is such a clunky way to exposit and lets the writers stick in info that way instead of working it into the show more organically. And if they had to have sex and nudity, it’d be nice if they could have gone with something that actually added to the series, like maybe a flashback to Robert and Cersei first having sex or something.

Marie Brennan (I seem to be linking to her a lot) on “gritty” vs. “grimdark”:

So I’m thinking about our terminology — “gritty” and “grimdark” and so on. What do we mean by “grit,” anyway? The abrasive parts of life, I guess; the stuff that’s hard and unpleasant. Logistics and consequences and that sort of thing, the little stony details that other books might gloss over. It’s adjacent to, or maybe our new replacement for, “low fantasy” — the stories in which magic is relatively rare, and characters have to do things the hard way, just like us. Hence laying claim to the term “realism”: those kinds of details that can ground a story in reality.

But that isn’t the same thing as “grimdark,” is it? That describes a mood, and you can just as easily tell a story in which everything is horrible and doomed without those little details as with. (As indeed some authors do.) Hence, of course, the counter-arguments that grimdark fantasy is just as selective in its “realism” as lighter fare: if you’re writing about a war and all the women are threatened with sexual violence but none of the men are, then you’re cherry-picking your grit.

Also read the comments, particularly this one:

The thing that strikes me about the grimdark discussion is that there are multiple different-but-interlocking conversations going on at once. One is an argument about whether “realism” is grounds for granting a work a higher degree of artistic merit. Another is an argument about to what extent realism actually requires focusing on the darker and more unpleasant aspects of life. And the third is: supposing that we grant that the historical prevalence of misogyny and rape requires that they be addressed in realistic fiction, are there ways of portraying them that do no themselves reinforce misogyny and rape culture?

Consider the Tea Cosy on Another Irish Abortion:

Irish abortion stories have that thing in common, though, don’t they? Not all of them. These days they’re as likely to be accessed over the internet as through our more traditional boats and flights out. But any time one of us needs an abortion we must become outlaws- either by breaking the law or travelling until we are, literally, outside it.


That is not usual for this part of the world, I’ll have you know.

The Guardian: Scientists Link Frozen Spring to Arctic Sea-Ice Loss:

A recent paper by the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also found that enhanced warming of the Arctic influenced weather across the northern hemisphere.

“With more solar energy going into the Arctic Ocean because of lost ice, there is reason to expect more extreme weather events, such as heavy snowfall, heat waves, and flooding in North America and Europe,” said the researchers.

The Met Office’s chief scientist has previously said the melting Arctic ice is in part responsible for the UK’s recent colder winters.

Sleeps With Monsters: Marie Brennan Answers Six Questions

Over at, I interview Marie Brennan, author of A Natural History of Dragons:

Marie Brennan: I honestly think anthropology is one of the most useful fields a fantasy writer can study, more so even than history. It introduces you to other ways of living, other ways of thinking, and really cracks apart the idea that things which are familiar to you are somehow the natural product of existence, rather than social constructs that, from an outside perspective, may seem very odd indeed. This can be anything from the big ideas (some cultures are horrified by burial of the dead; others are horrified by cremation) to the small details of daily life (which meal of the day is the big one?) to things that are completely random and recent (pink used to be a boy’s color!). Putting those kinds of things on your radar can make your settings far richer and more interesting, whether you’re writing about the past, the present day in a country foreign to you, an invented land based on some part of the real world, or some place as unlike reality as you can manage.

Linky comes bearing gifts and huddling away from the cold

Natalie at Radish Reviews on Kathleen Tierney’s Blood Oranges:

Basically, Quinn gets turned into a vampire-werewolf (a werepire? a vampwolf?) as an apparently indirect consequence of getting in the middle of a job gone bad and the entire plot flows from there. Quinn makes things up, revises her accounts of previous events in the book, and declares that since she finds action sequences in books boring that she’s not going to have any. It’s fantastic.

The Georgian Bawdyhouse on Beware the “Squeaking Woman”! (1728):

The people here, it seems, are extreme cautious of being out too late at Night because of the squeaking Woman, call’d Long Margery, who is a great Haunter of this Parish. This Apparition (as the Tradition saith) appears in various Shapes and Forms, and has been seen and heard by many of the Women in this Part of the Town. The particular Office of this Ghost being to visit the Doors of Women in Child-bed only, and if they are not for this Life, to give them fair Warning by three loud Shrieks; and if a Midwife or a Nurse do but report they have heard anything like this, though the Woman shall be in the most happy Way of Recovery, the Husband would be thought worse than an Infidel, if Preparations are not immediately made for his Wife’s Funeral.

Ursula Vernon on Worldbuilding and the Okapi’s Butt:

The important thing is that the reader get a sense of vast, uncanny history and weird things happening just out of sight. You don’t want to drag the world in and put it on the dissecting table—that way lies Silmarillion-esque prologues—you just want them to catch a glimpse of it, like an okapi’s butt in the rainforest, and go “Whoa. There’s a really big animal over there, isn’t there?” while it glides away into the shadows.

It’s a form of writer’s sleight-of-hand. It’s making it look like of course you know all about this, and the reason you’re not going into it is because it’s not really relevant and you don’t want to bore people, not that the whole of the Malarial Queendom is (possibly) no more than three lines of text in a book two inches thick.

Probably there’s a skill involved—knowing what makes an alluring okapi-butt—but that all happens down at the not-really-conscious level for me, so I can’t talk much about it, except that I just assume if I find it interesting, the rest of you weirdos do too. And the truth, of course, is that for me (and I’d guess for many of us) there’s no okapi there at all, it’s basically a big striped butt on a stick that the writer is waving through the undergrowth. Possibly while making “Woooooooo!” noises because none of us actually know what an okapi sounds like.

Chaucer Doth Tweet translates “American Pie” into Middle English: Bye, Bye Englisshe Jakke of Dover. (Via Rushthatspeaks.)

Cora Buhlert on It’s Still Very Grimdark Out There:

And talking about the gender gap among rape victims in gritty speculative fiction, this is something that bothered me quite a bit about Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker series, which I otherwise enjoyed a whole lot. Interestingly, Green’s name never shows up during discussions of of gritty speculative fiction either. Quite the contrary, several of the review snippets on the backcover of my edition call the Deathstalker series “light and humorous space opera”. Because whole planets being slaughtered in graphic detail and the bodies of the victims being ground up and turned into a highly addictive drug is just so bloody funny. But I guess the fact that there is true love (lots of true love even for the least likely of characters) and hope in the Deathstalker series means that it cannot be dark and gritty.

Linky has been away playing Mass Effect

Because it was the closest thing I could get to a holiday from this constant cold cold wind and rain. Had we not the ability to import food, we’d be looking towards famine conditions, I suspect. Drowned fields and intermittent frost at this time of year doesn’t bode well for either the grain or the potato harvests.

Sobering thought, that for much of history the vast majority of people were only ever one bad harvest from suffering, and two from catastrophe.

Charlie Stross on The Permanent Revolution:

But it’s important to understand that virtually the entire mainstream of political and social discourse today is radical and revolutionary by historical standards. (Hell, the concept of sociology itself is a construct of the revolutionary philosophers.) This is not an historically normative set of touchstone ideas to run a society on. We’re swimming in the tidal wave set running by an underwater earthquake two centuries ago — and like fish that live their entire lives in water, we are unable to see our circumstances as the anomaly that they are, or to know whether it’s all for the best.

Marie Brennan on Batman had it easy:

It never even occurred to me that Bruce Wayne should have been in danger of sexual abuse. (Spoilers now for The Dark Knight Rises.) As McDougall points out, he’s physically helpless, in a prison full of violent criminals who have no path to sexual release except their hands and one another. We know how that kind of thing turns out in reality; we make jokes about it, because the subject is so uncomfortable. Yet put Bruce Wayne in prison, in a scene that is supposed to represent him reaching absolute rock bottom, and nobody touches him for any reason other than to help him.

Can you imagine how audiences would have reacted if Bruce had to fight off a rapist? Even if the rape weren’t completed. A lot of people were put off just by Silva unbuttoning Bond’s shirt and putting a hand on his thigh, by a few lines of suggestive dialogue. They would have blown a gasket permanently to see Batman treated like, oh, name just about any superheroine you care to. Batman, like Bond, is a Man’s Man, the ultimate in unimpeachable masculinity. You can’t damage that by having somebody try to rape him, whether they succeed or not.

This Week in My Classes: Am I Making Excuses for Gaudy Night?

But are these aspects — my feelings, and what I’ll call my ‘expertise’ — really so unrelated? Don’t I love the novel because of how I interpret it, and don’t I interpret it as I do because of the time and thought I’ve put into reading and rereading it? Or is it that I read and reread it because I love it, and thus I interpret it as I do because of how I feel about it? What does it mean to “love” a novel anyway? And since this particular novel focuses on precisely the challenge of integrating head and heart, can’t I just stop worrying about which came first, the love or the understanding, and be happy that here I find the perfect fusion of the two?

Mentioned in the comments to my SWM column on Dishonored: the Border House Blog on The Treatment of Women in Dishonored:

I think that’s what frustrates me about the depiction of women in Dishonored. The women in Dunwall are oppressed as they are in most ‘violent’ games set in fictional or non-fictional historical places. I just wish that at least once, either the women are given the chance to fight back and improve their situation, or I am given the option as a player to help them and show that I care. I feel like in Dishonored I am made blatantly aware of their inequalities and how unhappy the women of Dunwall are but also I am hobbled and unable to do anything about it, rendering it a cheap trope used to color the setting and add flavor to the plot.

Speculative Fiction 2012

Justin Landon and Jared Shurin are editing a volume of “The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary 2012”.

The list of contributors has been revealed, and yours truly is among them. Ten days ago, Shurin emailed me to solicit my contribution: the review from January 2012 that kickstarted my career (such as it is) as an internet crank.

Cranky person. Whichever.

For on January 13, 2012, Strange Horizons published Theft of Swords, by Michael J. Sullivan, reviewed by Liz Bourke” – a review which has, I believe, broken the all-time Strange Horizons record for the number of comments it attracted.

(Not everyone gets to experience two shitstorms in one week, as I did that January – the second time four days later at, for “Admirals and Amazons: Women in Military Science Fiction” – but since it’s probably at least in part responsible for opening up some opportunities for me, I can’t really complain.)

It’s an honour to be included among the “Best” of 2012, and I wish Landon and Shurin, and next year’s editorial team, Thea James and Ana Grilo, the best of luck.

Books: Elizabeth Bear’s Shattered Pillars

My copy of Elizabeth Bear’s Shattered Pillars arrived today from the Book Depo, and to celebrate its shiny, shiny cover, I thought I’d share a Review I Made Earlier, when I received an ARC. (I do not believe the persons to whom I submitted this review are going to use it, so I feel free sharing it here.)

Elizabeth Bear, Shattered Pillars. Tor, 2013.

Shattered Pillars is the second volume of Hugo-Award-winning author Elizabeth Bear’s Central Asia-inspired Eternal Sky trilogy, after 2012’s Range of Ghosts. My love for Range of Ghosts is passionate and exceeds all rational bounds. It’s possible that nothing could have lived up to my expectations for its sequel – so when I say Shattered Pillars is something of a disappointment, it falls short of a very high bar.

And there’s still plenty of awesome here.

Temur, grandson of the Khagan of the steppe, and Samarkar, wizard of Tsarepheth and once a princess, have come to the city of Asitaneh to seek aid in Temur’s quest to find and rescue Edene, the woman he promised to marry, from the Cult of the Nameless in the Uthman Caliphate. Unbeknownst to them, Edene has already left the Nameless’s fortress, carrying a ring of power and Temur’s child, to raise an army of ghulim in the desert of ancient, deadly Erem.

But the forces of darkness are still at work in the Uthman Caliphate, on the steppe, and in Samarkar’s home. A plague has struck in Tsarepheth, for the city’s magical defences have been compromised by the politics of its rulers. We see the depredations of the plague of demons – demons that infest the lungs, and hatch out fatally after weeks of suffering – through the eyes of Han, the wizard who takes point on trying to find a cure, who also works closely with arriving refugees from the steppe, people who have left the lands controlled by Temur’s usurping uncle. Meanwhile, on the steppe, a servant of the Cult of the Nameless has become close in the counsels of the usurper Khagan, and in Asitaneh and parts west, Temur and Samarkar, accompanied by the tiger-woman Hrahima and the silent monk Hsiung, run into trouble when the Nameless engage in a spot of regime change in the Uthman Caliphate, making life difficult for our heroes. Eventually Temur and our heroes discover Edene’s already done a runner from the Nameless cult’s impregnable fortress, and Temur feels the time is right to raise his banner as a claimant to the Khagan’s seat.

Shattered Pillars is beautifully written, with Bear’s usual clean, precise prose, and fully-fleshed characters. Understated emotional beats and political intrigue, rooftop chases and burning cities, occasional stunning turns of description. The lung demon plague is horrifying, disgusting, and a marvellously inventive use of a fantasy setting, as is the gradual changes of the world’s sky, and the descriptions of the landscape and inhabitants of Erem. As a book, I enjoyed it. But it’s very much a middle book of a trilogy, and has a number of classic middle book problems: more diffusion of focus, more confusion of characters, much that feels as though it’s setting up for an ultimate payoff in the final volume rather than paying off emotional or thematically before the end of this particular book. And I confess, I’m confused about what’s happening with Edene, and have been since the end of Range of Ghosts: Bear writes books that reward detailed attention and re-reading, and I suspect I’ll have to wait until the end of the final volume of the trilogy, Steles of the Sky, before I can be sure I understand what’s going on.

Shattered Pillars doesn’t quite live up to the awesome that was Range of Ghosts. That’d be hard, since Range of Ghosts hit what felt like every single one of my narrative kinks for epic fantasy and did it in new and intriguing ways. But despite its middle-book unevenness, it’s still a damn good novel, and I’m looking forward to the conclusion.

Linky brings tidings of tragedy and cheer

Elizabeth Bear on “I Love A Good Tragedy As Much As The Next Guy”:

I mean, we’ve all been fifteen and in love with death. Yours truly was a Goth before that was a thing; we were still adjectives back in my day, not even having graduated yet to nouns. That nihilistic view of the world is essentially a juvenile, sociopathic, self-justifying fetish, and most of us eventually grow out of it. We grow into a little responsibility, at least—the understanding that the only thing likely to make the world a more endurable place for the bulk of humanity is collective action. Even when we’re spending a significant amount of time selfishly looking out for number one.

Joe Abercrombie follows up his “Value of Grit” post with “Gritty Washback”:

Doubtless gritty fantasy (and I’d include my own) has not always covered itself in glory in its treatment of race and gender. Though I don’t see any reason why grit can’t be a powerful tool to investigate those issues, if wielded with skill, thought and responsibility (not by me, in other words).

Elizabeth Bear, again, with “I pity the fool”:

Every damned time the topic of diversity in SFF comes up, somebody says something about “Well, if the story demands that the character be queer/disabled/black/trans/female/postcolonial/feminist, that’s one thing. But if you’re just putting it in to be politically correct***, then you’re bound by ideology, and that’s bad art.”

… …
… … …

…because able Western white cis het male is the default. Because the viewpoint character being an able Western white cis het male totally doesn’t inform the narrative, and has no influence in the way the world is presented, because that’s the only viewpoint that really exists, and the rest of us are all flavor text.

Sofia Samatar interviews Nalo Hopkinson at Strange Horizons.

Also at Strange Horizons, the results of the 2012 Readers’ Poll. Very personally flattering, and congratulations to everyone else who made the lists.

@fidelioscabinet has provided a transcript of a Twitter conversation about anthropology in SFF between Rose Lemberg, Kate Elliott, me, and a couple of others.

Sleeps With Monsters: Thinking About Dishonored

A new post at Sleeps With Monsters: Thinking About Dishonored:

To me, Dishonored is more an interesting failure, one whose failings annoy me more the more I think on them.

…The second thing I noticed: Dunwall, although explicitly characterised as a port city and the heart of an empire, is populated only by the whitest of white people. Do I have to point out why this is alienating and wrong, or can we all agree that port cities, even plague-ridden ones, can be expected to present a wider palette of humanity?

Which brings us to item the third: presenting and portraying female characters.

Books in brief: Jon Courtenay Grimwood, The Outcast Blade; Weston Ochse, Seal Team 666

Weston Ochse, Seal Team 666. Titan Books, 2013. Copy courtesy of Titan Books.

This book’s prologue begins with a thinly-disguised fantasy fictionalisation of Seal Team 6’s assassination of Osama bin Laden, in which the unnamed bin Laden figure is portrayed as sincerely and knowingly in league with demonic forces.

Me, personally, I found this immensely disrespectful towards any understanding of Islam. Look, lads. Leaguing with demons? Charged by Protestants against Catholics and vice versa. But there are no demons in Islam. The only power a “devil” has is to lead men and djinni away from the straight path:

He said: “Give me respite till the day they are raised up.”
(Allah) said: “Be thou among those who have respite.”
He said: “Because thou hast thrown me out of the way, lo! I will lie in wait for them on thy straight way:
“Then will I assault them from before them and behind them, from their right and their left: Nor wilt thou find, in most of them, gratitude (for thy mercies).”
(Allah) said: “Get out from this, disgraced and expelled.”

(Sura 7, Al-A’raf.)

And when continuing on from that in the next chapter, there was no attempt at explaining why there’d be demons involved, and it also proved rather dull – well, I have a lot of other things to read. A lot. So I stopped, and I do not intend to go back.

Jon Courtenay Grimwood, The Outcast Blade. Orbit, 2012.

I may rag on “grimdark” fantasy a lot, but I like a good bit of gritty darkness as much as the next person – as long as it’s leavened with moments of emotional warmth and somewhat ethical choices. In The Outcast Blade, sequel to The Fallen Blade, JCG continues the story of Tycho, ex-slave turned knight, a trained assassin who craves blood under the moon; the sixteen-year-old noblewoman Giulietta, widow, key political pawn – or player – and the dark and troubled Venice of this alternate, fantastical, 16th-century Venice.

Caught between the Holy Roman Empire’s army and the Byzantine fleet, with scions of both empires offering for Giulietta’s hand in marriage, Venice, Tycho, and Giulietta are all in an uncomfortable position. One made more complicated by the dangerous rivalry between the regents for the mad/idiot Duke Marco: his mother, Alexa, aunt to the Mongol khan, and his uncle Alonzo. Tragedy, treachery, and international politics collide…

It’s a very good, very tightly written book. It never forgets the agency of its women, and its Venice is home to a wide range of people – Mongols and Mamlukes, rabbis and gravediggers, noblewomen and street children. I enjoyed it a lot, and I anticipate its soon-to-be-published sequel with some eagerness.

Linky has some politics and history and anthropology

Politics: Feminist Ire on why childbirth should be on the feminist agenda in Ireland.

History: La Maupin:

She is said to have been “born with masculine inclinations” as well as having been educated in a very masculine way. Certainly, she often dressed as a man and when she did so could be mistaken for one. She also seemed to have at least as much an eye for members of her own sex as for men. Her skill with the sword, either in exhibition or duels fought in earnest, seems to have been exceptional.

Two audio lectures on ancient medicine from Vivian Nutton and G.E.R. Lloyd respectively.

Easing Into The Past: A Brief History of Being Comfortable:

As this new consumer class was born, philosophers and social commentators vented their frustrations at luxury, claiming it to be an agent of moral corruption. “Soft commerce” (doux commerce), as it was called, softened the men who partook of it, making them weak, effeminate, and more like an increasingly futile aristocracy. “Necessity,” on the other hand, was the realm of poverty and paupers, of peasants who lived on black bread and had little access to niceties. “Comfort,” a term that previously meant “aid” or “consolation” (as when one comforts one’s friend), now came into vogue as a term that inhabited a middle ground between luxury and necessity, connoting a form of consumption that increased the ease of one’s life without casting one into the moral danger posed by its more luxurious counterparts.

Linky wants to start by referring back to realism

Since I just had an interesting discussions on Twitter about it.

Does genre have a tendency to do everything to lurid excess, as Niall Harrison suggested in another branch of that discussion? I’m not surely, personally, for myself. But it’s an interesting question, combined with that of realism.

Marie Brennan is also talking about realism, over at SF Novelists, in Welcome to the Desert of the Real:

That’s the way the world was Back Then, the defenders of grimdark say, and they’re just being honest about it.

(Strange how narrow a view of Back Then those defenders usually have. I want to see them applaud a grimdark fantasy in which the manly tradition of warriors includes institutionalized age-structured homosexuality, with the older members buggering the trainees. Oh, sorry, did I get realism in their “realism”? My bad.)

This trend came up at Fourth Street Fantasy last year, and I found myself vehemently rejecting the notion that only the ugly parts of the world are real. Men’s respect for women is just as true and meaningful as their disrespect. If the unbreakable trust of an ally is not inevitable, neither is betrayal; the world is made out of both. There really are people of breathtaking virtue and decency, as well as complete scum. You can focus on the latter if you want to, but don’t tell me it’s better — morally or factually — than focusing on the former.

The Border House Blog wants to see more female protagonists in video games:

We’re not just lagging behind as a narrative medium, we’re stubbornly stagnant and we’re risking complete cultural irrelevance as a result. Imagine the absurdity of a novelist saying that it would be “tough to justify” telling a story through the eyes of a female character. And where would film be as a medium if producers never even considered casting female leads? Alien was made in 1979 and went on to earn back ten times its budget at the box office. But, in 2013, video game developers are still trotting out the same tired excuses for failing to change the representational landscape of the medium.

From Dahr Jamail at Al Jazeera comes a report on how the use of depleted uranium munitions during the war on Iraq have led to exponential increases in the rate of cancers and serious birth defects:

Dr Alani has visited Japan where she met with Japanese doctors who study birth defect rates they believe related to radiation from the US nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

She was told birth defect incidence rates there are between one and two per cent. Alani’s log of cases of birth defects amounts to a rate of 14.7 per cent of all babies born in Fallujah, more than 14 times the rate in the effected areas of Japan.

…[N]ever before has such a high rate of neural tube defects (“open back”) been recorded in babies as in Basra, and the rate continues to rise. According to the study, the number of hydrocephalus (“water on the brain”) cases among new-borns is six times as high in Basra as it is in the United States.

Abdulhaq Al-Ani, author of Uranium in Iraq, has been researching the effects of depleted uranium on Iraqis since 1991. He told Al Jazeera he personally measured radiation levels in the city of Kerbala, as well as in Basra, and his geiger counter was “screaming” because “the indicator went beyond the range”.

Dr Savabieasfahani pointed out that childhood leukemia rates in Basra more than doubled between 1993 and 2007.

“Multiple cancers in patients – patients with simultaneous tumours on both kidneys and in the stomach, for example – an extremely rare occurrence, have also been reported there,” she said.

So generous, what the USA has done to Iraq.

As a chaser, here is a link to an amusing cartoon of St. Patrick and Medusa.

Realism, (Male) Rape, and Epic Fantasy

This post contains discussions of sexual violence, including anal rape and sexual mutilation.

In the last few days, I’ve crossed paths with a couple of discussions of realism, rape, and epic (quote-unquote “grimdark” or “gritty”) fantasy, that make much of the ubiquity of female sexual victimisation (“realism”) and the absence of male sexual victimisation in situations of threat.

The first of these is Sophia McDougall’s excellent article on The Rape of James Bond: On Sexual Assault and “Realism” in Popular Culture:

I found I couldn’t cope with rape as wallpaper.

When there had been two rapes of children (one of whom was also murdered) within about twenty pages of each other, when I realised I was physically tensing up every time a male and female character were in the same scene as each other, because something always happened, even if it was “just” sexualised verbal abuse, it occurred to me I was no longer having any fun with this book.

This is where the fans, whether of G.R.R.M or Rapey Pop Culture in General say, “But! That’s the point! That horrible sense that sexual violence permeates everything — that’s realistic.”

…But that heightened vulnerability to sexual violence applies to men too. So where are they, all the raped male characters? People say, it would be unrealistic if she wasn’t raped, but take it for granted that of course he wasn’t.

Why is that?

About one in every 33 men is raped… And that’s your statistically average, real life man. Despite all the privileges and protections of being male, he still faces a non-zero risk of rape.

He also doesn’t have a horde of enemies explicitly dedicated to destroying him. He doesn’t routinely get abducted, and tied up.

I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.

The other discussions on similar topic came to me via Adventures of a Bookonaut – who raises the question of why literary male-on-male sexual violence is often flinched from by the (usually male) authors of epic fantasy in the “grimdark” vein – and Episode 77 of the Galactic Suburbia podcast (around, I think, the 43rd minute mark), which discusses sexual threat with specific reference to Brienne of Tarth and Jamie Lannister in GRRM’s ASoIaF.

And this? This brought me to a 2011 Guardian Observer article on the rape of men in conflict zones:

Laying the pus-covered pad on the desk in front of him, he gave up his secret. During his escape from the civil war in neighbouring Congo, he had been separated from his wife and taken by rebels. His captors raped him, three times a day, every day for three years. And he wasn’t the only one. He watched as man after man was taken and raped. The wounds of one were so grievous that he died in the cell in front of him.

…Eleven rebels waited in a queue and raped Jean Paul in turn. When he was too exhausted to hold himself up, the next attacker would wrap his arm under Jean Paul’s hips and lift him by the stomach. He bled freely: “Many, many, many bleeding,” he says, “I could feel it like water.” Each of the male prisoners was raped 11 times that night and every night that followed.

…Men aren’t simply raped, they are forced to penetrate holes in banana trees that run with acidic sap, to sit with their genitals over a fire, to drag rocks tied to their penis, to give oral sex to queues of soldiers, to be penetrated with screwdrivers and sticks. Atim has now seen so many male survivors that, frequently, she can spot them the moment they sit down. “They tend to lean forward and will often sit on one buttock,” she tells me. “When they cough, they grab their lower regions. At times, they will stand up and there’s blood on the chair. And they often have some kind of smell.”

In its turn, “The Rape of Men” led me to Lara Stemple’s 2009 article in Hastings Law Journal (#60), “Male Rape and Human Rights”. Which, if you have access to this journal, I also recommend reading.

International estimates of the prevalence of male sexual victimisation range from 3-29%, including cases of childhood sexual abuse. There are two contexts outside of childhood in which risks of male sexual victimisation rise: prison (“Prisoner rape,” says Stemple, on p609, “is an alarmingly widespread human rights abuse that has received little attention within international human rights law,”) and conflict situations.

In conflict situations, Stemple says:

“Although these circumstances often include the rape of those detained in prisons or prison-like conditions, a discussion separate from prisoner rape is merited. In armed conflict, perpetrators are more likely to be captors from opposition forces, whereas in the domestic prisoner rape context, the perpetrators are most often, though not exclusively, other inmates.

The heightened political tensions during armed conflict and the frequently lengthy sentences carried out in domestic prisons are other important contextual distinctions.” [611]

“An astonishing 76% of male political prisoners surveyed in El Salvador in the 1980s reported at least one instance of sexual torture.” [612-13]

“The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia also instituted a Sexual Assault Investigation Team, which included investigations into the rape of men during the civil war. The team reported that men were castrated and otherwise sexually mutilated, forced to rape other men, and forced to perform fellatio and other sex acts on guards and one another.

“One study of 6ooo concentration camp inmates in Sarajevo Canton found that 8o% of males reported that they had been raped in detention. Accounts of abuse throughout the conflict were often quite graphic, including severe genital mutilation and forced incest.” [613]

An observer may therefore venture to suggest that sexual victimisation of men in conflict situations approaches that of sexual victimisation of women in the very same situations. In reality. But not, for some reason, in male-authored epic fantasy. What statistics we have on the (severely underfunded and under-reported) prevalence of male rape in conflict zones today, suggest that in epic fantasy every in-conflict-zone deployment of sexual threat against women should be almost matched by sexual threat against men.

And yet, in male-authored epic fantasy, it’s not.

(I’m not arguing for the inclusion of more sexual violence in epic fantasy. But if we halved the present incidences of sexual violation of female characters in epic fantasy, and subjected the male characters to that 50% surplus? We might approach “realism”. Of a sort.)

Why do men flinch from the reality of their victimisation? Does it not fit their fantasies of power? Of gritty, grim, realistic life and violence?

Sucks to be you, lads, but in a warzone you’re almost as likely to be raped as I am. And I am (women as a class are) a little less likely to be shitting myself for the rest of my life afterwards. How’s that for gritty and realistic?