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Reading Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem

An Interzone review from last year.

Blood Kin
Steve Rasnic Tem, Solaris Books, 267pp

Steve Rasnic Tem’s Deadfall Hotel (2012) was a remarkable novel. Set in a mysterious hotel with an unusual and often elusive clientele, it dealt with Richard’s attempt to begin a new life with his daughter, Serena, after his wife’s death. Tem’s delicate handling of Richard’s emotional rawness set against the downright weidnessness of the Deadfall Hotel prompted me to nominate it as one of my books of that year. Unsurprisingly, I came to Blood Kin with high hopes. Maybe too high, for while Blood Kin is a perfectly respectable horror novel with strong gothic overtones it seems to lack Deadfall Hotel’s edge. And yet, it’s not easy to determine precisely where it is that Blood Kin does stumble.

The narrative concerns another broken man, Michael Gibson, former drug addict and alcoholic, who has returned to the small town of Morrison, Virginia, to take care of his ailing grandmother, Sadie. Michael knows very little of his family’s history, and Sadie has a story she needs to tell him very urgently, for she knows she is dying, and it is vital that she passes on her story. Sadie also has certain powers – the ability to experience what people feeling, and the ability to pass these feelings to others through her storytelling – as a result of which Michael doesn’t so much hear the story as experience it in terrifying detail, something he finds very difficult to cope with. The story is long, and its telling slow, because of its emotional intensity for both Sadie and Michael.

And this is where I begin to have problems with the narrative. In part the story concerns an iron-bound crate, buried in a ditch somewhere out in the fields which are now swamped with kudzu, the rampant creeper which has become symbolic of the southern states of the USA. The reader quickly comes to see that it is associated with the presence of that mysterious crate whose presence so frightens everyone. However, the story’s telling seems to me to be very slow, constantly deferring the things Michael really needs to know. Within the story, Sadie is determined that Michael should learn everything in precisely the right order, so that he understands fully what is to happen. The reader, though, might begin to feel that Tem is dragging it out just a little too much.

Sadie’s story is that of a hardscrabble life in a remote part of Virginia. Most of the local inhabitants are related to one another to some degree or another; the Gibson family’s various strands seem to intertwine as tightly as the kudzu vines. The Gibsons are Melungeons, descendants of poor whites, escaped slaves and Native Americans who have intermarried over the centuries. Their ancestry is uncertain, they are often looked down on by the white inhabitants, and not unnaturally they tend to keep themselves to themselves. This much is historically true, even down to Gibson being a genuine Melungeon name, but Tem’s purpose in raising the matter seems unclear. It may be that he is suggesting that Sadie’s powers are a result of her being a Melungeon or else he is employing the stereotype of the small, remote community, with a completely different perception of what is socially acceptable, prey to unusual beliefs. The fact that Sadie’s uncle is a snake-handling fire-and-brimstone preacher of the old school, possessed of a deeply warped personal theology, really doesn’t help. Indeed, I don’t think it is any coincidence that Sadie’s cousin, Mickey-Gene, likes to read William Faulkner for there are strong overtones of both As I Lay Dying and Light in August about Blood Kin. Sadie and Mickey-Gene have both recognised very early the need for deception in order to survive the Preacher’s tyrannical rule unscathed but as children, their power to act against him is very limited.

What does save this novel from slipping into Faulkneresque parody is the novel’s contemporary strand. Here, Michael quietly comes to terms with the destiny that has been placed upon him by his family, caring for his grandmother reluctantly but with extraordinary tenderness. He is, perhaps, the classic fictional sacrifice, with addiction, alcoholism and a failed life behind him, but as he learns his family history there is a sense that Michael becomes grounded as a result of knowledge gained. It is not a family one can take much pride in but Michael can see the good in it as well as the bad and does what he can to atone for the past in his own low-key way. In many respects, the best parts of this novel are the most understated; the closer it moves towards the grand guignol the less persuasive it becomes.

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Reading Astra by Naomi Foyle

A review from Interzone last year.

Astra: Book One of The Gaia Chronicles

Naomi Foyle, Jo Fletcher Books, 379pp

We tell one another stories to amuse and entertain ourselves, but we tell them also to commemorate, to educate, and, in the most extreme cases, to support an ideology. Astra, the novel’s eponymous protagonist, lives in a community that lays great emphasis on storytelling. The founding myths of Is-land are told over and over in elaborate community ceremonies by people who are only one or two generations removed from those pioneers. It reinforces their sense of who they are and where they’ve come from, but the stories also seem to act as blinkers.

Is-land itself is a small state located somewhere east of present-day Europe, which was created in the wake of a global economic and environmental collapse by refugees from ecological and neo-pagan communities in what was once the UK. While the details of this collapse are necessarily sketchy – when the novel opens Astra is a child, and as the story is told entirely from her point of view, the reader is entirely reliant on her childish apprehension of these stories – it is clear that the community has worked hard to protect its existence and maintain its philosophy. The communities of Is-land see themselves as working to heal the earth, in Is-land at least; their borders are sealed, to keep out those who would abuse the earth, and they refer to those beyond the Boundary as Non-landers. Is-landers live communally, grow their own food, make their own textiles, build low-impact houses, compost, recycle. Some communities have a relaxed attitude to the human body, eschew clothes and go ‘skyclad’. Yet even through Astra’s unquestioning gaze the reader already notes oddities. Where do the raw materials come from for the Tablettes which are such a feature of every child’s life? Why must the children serve a mandatory term with IMBOD, policing Is-land’s boundaries? Why is so great an emphasis laid on research involving genetic manipulation? For that matter, why does IMBOD seem to take such an interest in every aspect of the children’s lives?

The novel’s crisis is precipitated by two events, the first of which is Astra’s Shelter-mother, Hokma, persuading her to evade the Security shot, the preliminary to beginning training with IMBOD. Hokma’s concern is that this ‘shot’ suppresses children’s creativity and imagination, making them more open to IMBOD training and easier to manage. The other event is the arrival of Lil, who has grown up without the benefit of community education, raised by a Non-lander father who has taught her a very different version of history. Lil, unlike Astra, does not see Is-land as a paradise and constantly challenges Astra’s vision of the place.

For the outsider it is quite clear where this story is going, but the narrative is taken at Astra’s pace which means that we follow her rather too slowly through adolescence, preoccupied with such events as the Blood and Seed Ceremony, sporadically wondering why what she is told doesn’t match Lil’s stories, gradually realising that she has not been told the whole truth. Always, there is the background concern as to when, not whether, she will be discovered. This is fine so long as we are interested in Astra herself but despite her secret Astra is mostly an ordinary child, who takes everything pretty much at face value, and that is what the reader is given. Added to that, her world is not only familiar to her but is familiar to anyone who has read a lot of utopian or dystopian fiction. Much of what is actually going must go unremarked on by Astra because she simply doesn’t have access to it. As adult readers we might note that the general community seems either to be kept in ignorance or to deliberately maintain such a stance but without an adult viewpoint we cannot know, not until the end of the novel, and even then there are only hints. Too often it seems that Astra is a vehicle for Foyle to show us round the world she has created, and the action will only properly start in the second volume of the series.

Foyle has commented in articles that she is especially interested in the domestic in sf but while I’m sympathetic to the notion, domestic is not the same as ordinary. An author has to work very hard to make the ordinary seem compelling and I do not think that Foyle fully achieves this. Is-land’s stories about itself succeed so well that its inhabitants cannot see past them; for the reader, heavily reliant on one of those characters for information, the story behind the story remains mostly inaccessible, as a result of which the novel itself can never fully come to life.

Reading The Man With Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi

First published in Interzone in 2013

The Man With The Compound Eyes

Wu Ming-Yi, translated from the Taiwanese by Darryl Sterk, Harvill Secker, 302pp

The compound eye is not one eye but many gathered together, between them providing a wide-angle view of the world. Insects and spiders have compound eyes; they’re vital tools to ensure survival. The compound eye also offers a useful way to think about the structure of Wu Ming-Yi’s novel (his fourth, but the first to be translated into English). It is a wide-angle view of a world in which the sight of the two main characters, Alice Shih and Atel’i, has become so narrowly focused they can think only of one thing.

In Alice’s case, this is death. Since the loss of her husband in a climbing accident and the mysterious disappearance of their young son, she has lived alone, in a house on the seashore, which is now threatened by rising sea levels. Lately, she has reached the decision to take her own life, something she sees as an entirely rational act. In Atel’i’s case, the one thing on his mind is survival. A teenage boy from a remote island with few natural resources, Atel’i is following the traditional practice for a second son, leaving the island in a canoe of his own making, paddling away to his fate. Given the island’s remoteness, this is mostly likely death – the custom disguises a demand for suicide in order to maintain the island’s population at a rate that can be sustained.

Except that on his voyage Atel’i encounters something unexpected, a gigantic trash vortex off the coast of Taiwan. This vast island of rubbish offers Atel’i an opportunity for survival, but he struggles to make sense of this new world in which he finds himself. The vortex is due to make landfall on the beach where Alice’s house is situated. Thus, when Atel’i is thrown ashore badly injured, it is inevitably Alice who finds him, conceals him and, in her own brusque fashion, nurses him back to health. That’s one strand of the narrative, and one that a European reader, conditioned to look for certain kinds of story, can easily extract from the novel.

But to return to the wide-angled view, other elements of the novel are less easily apprehended. The slow but constant turning of the vortex, bringing objects together in unexpected relationships, mirrors the kaleidoscopic nature of the story. The reader learns about the perilous economy of Wayo-Wayo, Atel’i’s home, about the lives of the Taiwanese people who live close to Alice’s house, and in particular about her friendship with Hafay, the owner of the local café. Hafay’s life story starkly presents the dilemma of indigenous people forced off the land and into the towns to make a living, and the ways in which they are forced to earn their way. Their mutual friend, Dahu, seeks to resolve that tension by returning to his childhood home to help Anu with the Forest Church. Dahu, like Alice’s dead husband something of a naturalist, explores the local forest and through his eye the reader experiences something of the extraordinary diversity of life there, a diversity that frequently steps beyond the realms of the scientifically measurable.

The presence of the compound eye, and indeed of its owner, indicates that there are many different ways to address the business of story-telling, and elements that might seem to be mutually exclusive to a Euro-American audience are more easily accommodated within one novel elsewhere. For anyone seeking a traditional genre narrative, or indeed a story that fits snugly within a Euro-American perception of weirdness, this novel may seem not entirely satisfactory, baffling even. But the point is that it emerges from a Taiwanese tradition of storytelling, one which many readers, myself included, have no familiarity with, so we have to take it on its own terms. We might choose to position it somewhere between the work of David Mitchell and Haruki Murukami, and for reasons which become clearer as the story unfolds, to some of Christopher Priest’s work, to get a sense of it as a story, but it remains its own thing, a novel of the near-future in which genre boundaries no longer have any meaning. Ecological and sociological concerns rub alongside the fantastic in ways that might seem more familiar from real life than from fiction, and this seems to me to be one of the novel’s greatest virtues, that it eschews our expectations of it. Having said that, the novel’s use of language seems somewhat odd in places, but whether this arises from the translation or from the writer’s original intentions isn’t at all clear. However, it doesn’t impede one’s enjoyment in any way. The twists and turns of The Man with the Compound Eyes provide compelling reading. It is safe to say you will read nothing else quite like it.

 

Reading The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris

Published in Interzone in 2014

The Gospel of Loki

Joanne M. Harris, Gollancz, 413pp

I cannot remember when I did not know one version or another of the Norse myths. Most likely I began with Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of the Norsemen (Puffin, 1960), or Oxford University Press’s Scandanavian Folk Tales and Legends (1956), by Gwyn Jones. The version that sticks best in my mind is John James’ masterly reworking of the myths, in Votan (1966) and Not for All the Gold in Ireland (1968) (republished in an omnibus edition by Gollancz in 2014). Here, Photinus, a Greek trader, undergoes a series of adventures in Northern Europe that bear an uncanny resemblance to aspects of Norse, Welsh and Irish mythology. While James suggests that some myths might have a factual basis, and that Photinus is also working old stories to his advantage, there are places when Photinus crosses into a liminal world where events are not easily explained.

Photinus is a quick-witted and charming rogue, who tells a good story. Joanne M. Harris’s The Gospel of Loki suggests that she may have some acquaintance with James’s work as her Loki tells his story in a not dissimilar way. However, while Photinus kept one foot firmly in the real world, Loki is a purely magical creature, moving through mythic worlds; a shapeshifter, who gives birth to an eight-legged horse and fathers a werewolf. When Loki enters our world – the Middle World – it is a generic fantasy world of hovels, ale-houses and beddable young women in vaguely pre-medieval homespun, not a contemporary setting.

Like Photinus, Loki is jaunty and colloquial; a little too colloquial, in fact. His account is marked by a self-conscious use of contemporary language, as though he’s desperate to show how relevant he still is. Which is strange given that one theme of this narrative is supposedly the power of words. This is Loki’s own version of a story in which he is so often cast as the villain. Odin may have charge of the authorised version of events, but Loki is here to give us the gospel truth. (The Christian analogy is deliberately stressed, although it is picked up and put down at the author’s convenience throughout the novel without ever becoming integral to the story.) Yet Loki’s version of events turns out to be surprisingly, even disappointingly, similar to Odin’s account. No revisionist narrative, this, whatever Loki might imply. Instead, it turns into a rather tedious justification of epic bad-boy behaviour, on the grounds that as the Aesir will never truly accept Loki, it is perfectly fine for him to embrace his outsider status and fulfil the Oracle’s prophecy whichever way he chooses, because he is going to anyway. Thus, the creativity of free will is sacrificed to ‘the Oracle made me do it’.

Harris’s Loki is indeed more man-child than mythic figure. He may be Wildfire, son of Chaos, but this daemon behaves more as though he is suffering from a mid-life crisis. He might as well be propping up a bar in the Middle World, whingeing about how he hates his wife, his mistresses don’t understand him, his children are running wild, and worst of all, his dad has it in for him so he won’t inherit the family firm, all the while eyeing the bar maid and hoping she’ll take pity on him.

Harris’s retelling is faithful in many ways to the original stories – all the familiar events are here, from the building of Asgard, through Odin’s acquisition of writing and magical objects, the humiliations of Thor, and the death of Baldur. Yet somewhere along the line, Your Humble Narrator has turned into the worst kind of pub bore, droning on relentlessly, while myth becomes second-rate soap opera. There is little variation here: Loki describes all events in much the same tone. There are no moments of grandeur – not even in the fall of Asgard – or of pathos, though Sigyn’s protection of Loki, chained while a snake sprays venom into his eyes, momentarily touches the heart, though one does want to lean in and say ‘leave him, Sigyn, he ain’t worth it’.

It may be that every generation get the reworking of Norse myths that it most deserves. Harris’s reworking is perfectly competent but to my mind bland: all surface, no depth, like a coat of magnolia paint in a rented property. Myths persist, surely, because of their continuing power to move the reader or listener yet Harris’s version offers stories that have been somehow denatured. Loki provides a smoothly commercial account that reeks of mythic suburbia rather than epic grandeur. For all he may chafe at the situation in which he finds himself, it is Loki who told us this story in the first place. And Loki, it seems, has no imagination.

Reading Exit Kingdom by Alden Bell

Exit Kingdom

Alden Bell, Tor, 287pp

Late in Exit Kingdom Father Ignatius tells Moses Todd that no one is ever lost in America: ‘It’s all destination. Every corner of it. […] Do you see it?’ And Moses does – ‘the whole country, just one big road, attached to itself in different ways’. For Moses, ‘a true frontiersman’, ‘defined by forwardness’, his whole life has been a journey, especially since the frontier abruptly reopened when the dead began to rise. In Bell’s previous novel, The Angels Are The Reapers, Todd was the adversary, hunting Temple, the young girl who killed his brother, Abraham. Although Exit Kingdom is nominally set after this time, the story Moses tells at a stranger’s campfire takes place well before Abraham’s death, making it both sequel and prequel.

The story is filled with motifs familiar from the previous novel, not least the allegorical landscape which mysteriously continues to provide for its inhabitants as necessary, even though many years have passed since society collapsed. Bell attempts a cursory (and unconvincing) explanation of why the infrastructure survives in various places but this is clearly not where his interest lies. The dead continue to wait patiently for the living, while the living for the most part prey on one another’s weaknesses, or else hide from outlaws and form contingent communities.

At one such, Moses and Abraham meet Father Ignatius, who asks them to deliver a young woman, whom he calls the Vestal Amata, to a facility in Colorado Springs where they can investigate the fact that she appears to repel the dead. Ignatius previously rescued the woman from a carnival and the owner is reluctant to give her up. Moses, Abraham and Amata head north into an increasingly snowbound landscape, pursued by the carny folk, encountering the usual set of figures and tropes that inhabit contemporary zombie novels.

Exit Kingdom poses the question of how, psychologically, one might survive an apocalypse. Moses is the product of a society permeated by a simple but strong religious faith. It is reflected in his speech, in his storytelling, in his expectations of others’ behaviour. He has a code of honour, and tries to maintain a sense of order in his life, although he has lost everything he held dear. His journeys may seem aimless but he is nonetheless in the grip of a powerful if obscure destiny. He is the gunslinger who arrives in a community when most needed and moves on when the job is done: not a good man necessarily but a man who tries to do the right thing, all the while uncertain what that might mean in a world so radically changed.

In this, Exit Kingdom is more successful than its predecessor, perhaps because Moses Todd has more experience than Temple, more to consider, more to regret. This is a much more intimate novel than Reapers: the landscape Moses explores is internal rather than external and the post-apocalyptic setting, while necessary, is merely a beginning rather than the novel’s apparent raison d’etre.

Reading God’s War by Kameron Hurley

Another review for Interzone from 2013

Gods War

Kameron Hurley, Del Rey, 309pp

Orignally published in the US in 2011, Kameron Hurley’s God’s War belatedly arrives in the UK already clutching a British Fantasy Society award as well as a nomination for the BFSA’s Best Novel award. It has also attracted some very vocal admirers from among sf readers. God’s War seems to be one of those novels that was very much in tune with the sf zeitgeist when it was first published, yet I struggle to understand precisely why this is so. It is not that God’s War is a bad novel – indeed, there is much about it to admire – but I find it deeply problematic.

The novel’s focus is Nyx, a young woman who is a former government assassin, or bel dame, but who now works as a bounty-hunter, leading a group of mercenaries who dispense state-sanctioned summary justice. It’s a hard way of life and there is no room for sentiment. The reader is given to understand that Nasheen is a demanding country in which to live, and it polices itself accordingly. It also demands much of its citizens. The planet Umayma, of which Nasheen is part, appears to have been populated by an intergalactic Islamic diaspora – the circumstances of this are not made clear, and contacts with offworlders are few, and discourage. The countries of Umayma turn inward. Some of them are at war with one another and have been for what seems like centuries, the reasons for that war either forgotten or simply not mentioned.

Of the participants in this holy war, Nasheen’s is a matriarchal culture; every aspect of life is focused on the business of war. Men are sent to the front and allowed only to return once they reach the age of forty, assuming they last that long. Once they return they remain subordinate to women. It is a civil duty among the women to bear children in order to raise the next generation of soldiers but other than that, they are free to run their lives as they wish. Some choose to be mothers while the rest take on other jobs, as they choose. Men visiting from other countries are frequently disturbed to find themselves harassed in the streets by drunk and violent women, much as they might themselves treat women in their own countries.

One might begin to suspect that God’s War should be read as some sort of role-reversal feminist commentary, harking back to a time when women writers were trying to imagine what a world might look like were it not run by men. In part, the novel might be just that, given Hurley apparently intended Nyx to be a response to a question posed by Michael Moorcock in Wizardry and Wild Romance (1987): why is there no female Conan? But Umayma is no Hyboria, and Nyx is a far more nuanced creation than Howard’s barbarian swordsman. On the other hand, she certainly does not baulk at extreme violence, but Hurley is by no means inviting us to consider the mind-numbing effects of so much casual brutality, any more than I believe she is attempting a feminist novel. This, simply, is how Umayma is.

In the end, however,violence can get us only so far. The plot, when it finally gets going, enables us to experience certain other aspects of Umayma in greater detail, in particular the odd bug technology that is the novel’s most unusual feature, along with the insistence that things we take for granted, such as electricity, have somehow fallen under the purview of ‘magicians’. At this point too, we see perhaps a little more clearly the complex web of only half-admitted emotional attachments that bind this ill-assorted group of mercenaries together. At times, Hurley over-sentimentalises the tentative relationship developing between Nyx and Rhys, the barely competent magician from Chenja, framed as two people who barely know how to articulate their thoughts about one another yet who are clearly drawn to one another.

In a way, their relationship provides a metonym for the entire novel. It’s raw, jagged, not always terribly well-articulated. So much about this story is left unsaid, not as a narrative ploy but because no one seems to know. The infrastructure required to support a war seems not to exist; one might almost doubt the war’s existence as well. The bug technology, attractive as it is, relies on the reader’s connivance to work at all, and nothing seems to quite hang together.

And yet, having said all that, there is still an odd energy about the novel that draws me back. I don’t particularly like it but it is not a novel that asks to be liked. It is a novel that asks not to be ignored, which is a challenge to the reader, and all the more interesting for that!

Reading The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Another review from Interzone in 2013

The Shining Girls

Lauren Beukes, HarperCollins, 391pp, £12.99

In 1931, a homeless man lets himself into a derelict house in Chicago, using a key he finds in a jacket he’s stolen. He finds a room whose walls are covered in artefacts joined together by lines, with names, in the man’s own handwriting, yet he has never been here before. One of the names is “Kirby”.

In 1974, a man gives a young girl a toy horse for her circus game and promises he’ll see her again. Fifteen years later, he attacks her with a knife and leaves her for dead. Her name is Kirby.

Kirby Mazrachi is one of Harper Curtis’s “shining girls”, young women destined to die because they literally “shine” with potential. Harper’s job is to identify each one, then “claim the fire in their eyes and snuff it out”. The house sets the agenda; Harper is simply its tool, killing as casually as he might rip the wings off an insect, never questioning the elaborate ritual of taking and leaving objects that the house forces him to carry out. Though he sees extraordinary transformations every time he emerges in a new decade he remains fundamentally untouched by them. He learns to navigate the world but makes no contact with it.

While the novel follows Harper’s activities during a window of eight months in 1931-32, that window opens out onto a huge vista encompassing almost twenty years of Kirby’s life, and beyond that the lives of other victims, from the 1930s to the 1990s. We know their names, what they do, and in some cases, what they would have become. We see how others grieve over their loss and inevitably wonder about the consequences of the deaths that are not fully explored. Indeed, given the occupations of some of the “shining girls”, we also think of all the other women put at risk by their murders. The historical sweep of this novel demonstrates over and over the pressures experienced by women who attempt to make a life beyond the home.

Kirby, the survivor, attempts to come to terms with the assault by tracking down her would-be killer, talking her way into an internship on a Chicago newspaper and persuading the man who reported her own attack to help her search the archives for related murders. To the reader, aware of the near impossibility of Kirby’s task, her tenacity is impressive. It is not difficult to see why the house might want such potential to be extinguished. Kirby was always going to be sharp, funny, competent; having escaped she is all the more so.

Obviously, this is not a conventional novel about a serial killer, although Kirby’s investigation into the circumstances of her assault is a compellingly written murder mystery. Nor is it a conventional supernatural horror novel; though this is another narrative form which relies heavily on the use of threats or violence towards women to drive its plot forward. Another subtext points up the tensions between a deterministic model of the world in which women are expected to fulfil their domestic roles rather than achieve autonomy in choice of career, sexuality or reproductive rights.

The Shining Girls is subtle and deceptive. It is possible to read it as a smoothly executed if somewhat odd mystery-thriller, but that would be to miss its multilayered portrait of the precarious situation of women in the twentieth century. Perhaps Beukes on occasion manipulates the plot a little obviously in Kirby’s favour, and lays too much stress on the brutality of Harper’s killings. Having said that, given how easily we ignore the fact that so many women are killed, in genre and in real life, because they don’t conform to a predetermined idea of how they ought to behave, this may be a very small price to pay if it prompts us to think more deeply about what we are reading. And there can be no denying that the most harrowing scenes in this novel involve those left behind to account for a life ended far too soon.