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.
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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.)

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.


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OF FIRE AND STARS by Audrey Coulthurst

I submitted this piece to one of the places for which I write reviews. They handed it back to me as unduly cruel to a debut author writing in an underrepresented subgenre. I will not name the venue. “Unduly cruel” may be a fair criticism of this review. So if you read on, be warned.

(I will write and sell at some point, I hope, a longer essay on the stakes involved with writing about underrepresented groups and the extra frustration when a cool premise in that regard turns out to have crappy execution.)

Of Fire and Stars is Audrey Coulthurst’s debut novel, out of the Balzer + Bray HarperCollins imprint. It’s a novel that I wanted very much to like.

Unfortunately, I found myself very disappointed by it. One might go so far as to say I was brutally underwhelmed by its achievements.

Of Fire and Stars promised me a princess, Dennaleia of Havemont, sent away from home to fulfill an arranged marriage. A princess who falls in love with her betrothed’s unconventional sister, Amaranthine, better known as “Mare”. With extra magic and all sorts of hijinks. That’s what it promised me.

You’d think it might be difficult for such an intriguing premise to turn out bland and somewhat boring, wouldn’t you? I mean, wouldn’t you?

As it turns out, you’d be wrong.

Let me enumerate the ways in which Of Fire and Stars disappoints:

Everyone in this book is an idiot. There are constant, confused — and confusing — infodumps about politics, and a cast of political actors who… well, let’s just say I’ve seen more sophisticated school yearbook committees, and leave it at that. In politics everyone has an agenda! Often more than one! This book does not have any clue how to depict that effectively. No one has the least suspicion that a Helpful Guy might be manipulating everyone for his own profit. Neither princess knows how to lie. I can’t see a single redeeming feature about the prince, who may be a complete incompetent — jury’s out, because no one in this book is particularly competent.

And every so often, we’re treated to a scene of the ruling body of the country sitting around a table yelling infodumps at each other — and committee meetings are just as boring to read about as they are in real life, unless you can appreciate cunning politics in play.

Of course, that means there needs to actually be cunning politics.

Of Fire and Stars is told in the first person, alternating points of view between Dennaleia and Mare. Neither of the voices are particularly well-defined. Neither of them can be easily distinguished from each other. Denna and Mare are thinly drawn protagonists, and unfortunately the members of their surrounding cast are just as thin, if not more so. In the main, character motivation is ridiculously shallow, where it isn’t confused. And the pacing — It’s all over the place.

I haven’t even mentioned the worldbuilding. “Lightly sketched” might be overstating the case: there is very little solid here, very little that feels real or plausible or even that follows the general constraints of physical geography. It also possesses an unfortunate lack of linguistic tact in its naming conventions — if they were sufficiently consistent that I might call them conventions, that is.

Sod me, I wanted to like this book. I really wanted to like it: there’s not so much mainstream fantasy with queer lady protagonists out there. I’m always looking for reasons to love every single one.

It is a perpetual canard of the “anti-PC” crowd that “social justice warriors” promote politics over quality, in art. And untrue as that is, I’m prepared to give something that tells a story I don’t often get to see — a story like this — much more benefit of the doubt than I otherwise would.

But Of Fire and Stars makes me want to get out the Immortan Joe MEDIOCRE clip.

It is mediocre at best. I spent the three hours it took me to finish it hoping against hope, hoping desperately, that it would show a glimmer of something great before the end. A hint of shine. A promise of better things.

NOPE.

It lets the queer lady awesome side down, is what it does.

Of course, part of my problem here is scarcity. And scarcity, where it comes to queer female protagonists who do not end up dead or miserable, is a major problem. I’m annoyed at Of Fire and Stars, and frustrated by it. Would I be as annoyed if I had acres of stories with queer female protagonists to choose from?

No. I wouldn’t be nearly as annoyed.

And that’s not fair to Of Fire and Stars. But we don’t have acres. We have a scant handful every year. (Even scanter if we look for stories whose protagonists aren’t white.) So every example carries an unfair weight of hopes and expectations: every example’s success is a wedge by which to pry open more space to tell these kinds of stories to wider audiences.

And failure therefore, particularly on economic grounds, becomes a stick that can be used to beat that wedge back.

I wish I could simply not care that Of Fire and Stars is a mediocre offering for the Young Adult marketplace. I wish I had that luxury. Just say “meh,” and let that be an end to it. Instead, I find myself uncomfortably rooting for the success of a novel that I find at best third-rate, because if it sinks without a trace, who the hell knows when I’ll see another fantasy take on a similar premise?

And this is an unhappy place to land.