Category Archives: fantasy

Above the Snowline by Steph Swainston

Eye copyright David Thurston

Steph Swainston‘s  Circle Trilogy examined, over the course of three books (well, obviously) and fifteen years an important period in the Insect Wars. The Circle of Immortals, given immortality by San (representative of God in the Fourlands) on the basis of supreme skill in their chosen area, work with the nobility and drafted soldiers to keep the Insects at bay – with varying success.

Jant Shira is the Messenger, designated Comet. Half-Rhydanne, half-Awian (which makes him a cat-boy with wings), Jant’s peculiar unique mongrelitude makes him the only being in the Fourlands – and farther afield – capable of regular flight. I haven’t spoken about this much in the reviews for the previous three books, but Swainston spends some amount of time making the possibility of flight in Jant’s body nearly plausible to the average, biologically uneducated reader. Jant’s sexy angel-boy good looks, immortal youth, facility with languages and fresh cynicism are balanced out by his impetuous stupidity, his drug addiction, his other addictions, his desperate desire for approval and status, his conflicted dual-self. Above the Snowline jumps centuries back instead of five years ahead, covering in greater detail ground mentioned in passing in the original trilogy.

Shira Dellin, a Rhydanne woman from the Dakaling borders, comes to the Castle to solicit San’s aid. Awians are encroaching on Rhydanne hunting grounds, making it impossible for Rhydanne to hunt, and not taking it too well when the Rhydanne steal their horses. There is a vast cultural disconnect here, one that remains unbridged for the forseeable future. San sends Jant with Dellin to find out what is going on, and to handle it as much as he can. Jant has been immortal less than a century: this is an opportunity for him to prove that he is worthy of his exalted status.

With Dellin, Jant faces his own past in the Rhydanne lands, and is forced to acknowledge that his upbringing left him unacquainted with his Rhydanne people, not just his Awian. Further he must deal with Raven Rachiswater, who intends to use his illegal fortress as a base of operations to gain the Awian throne. (To be honest, Jant’s final solution to the Raven problem should have been applied right at the beginning. I spent most of the narrative wondering why the hell he was being so dense, and why Lightning went along with him.) His own loyalties are conflicted, torn between the obvious exploitation of Rhydanne land and peoples (there is a somewhat obvious but as yet un-stale White Man vs. Indigenous peoples of Pick-Your-Continent parallel, but it works well enough and is not harped on). The novel moves between each agenda, each passion fluidly (save for one particular sequence near the end which is too blatant in its attempt to ramp up the anticipation); I think I felt more for each character than I did for anyone in the Circle Trilogy.

In some ways Above the Snowline is a better read for the newcomer to Swainston’s work, as opposed to the old faithful. While the novel shows us a younger, more insecure and thankfully clean Jant Shira, the original trilogy is so focussed on Shira’s involvement in Castle, Circle, Fourland politics and the immediate tactics and strategies of war against a literally alien enemy that it seems futile to send us back in time – we already know what the future holds. The reader who starts with Above the Snowline will take an easier understanding of Jant’s difficult, sometimes intolerable character with hir into the trilogy – this as well as some insight into the way the Circle is viewed by the mortals around them, which is something the other books lack. Most importantly,the novel is narrated from several perspectives, Jant’s most obviously, Lightning Micah Shearwater most importantly. Lightning is a character with a great deal of emotional importance in the trilogy, and in Above the Snowline one can see why Jant relies on him so very much, and why he might be kindly disposed to Jant in return.

There is a freshness to the prequel, peopled as it is by ruthless,

Don't ask me about this cover, it's not the one you're getting.

passionate people who can’t see beyond their own desires, rights and ambitions; the young and the experienced; the well-intentioned and the not-so-nice; mortal and immortal; “high” and “low” (take that both literally and metaphorically). I recommend it highly to fans and new readers, and mellowly to those of you who want more background into Fourlands people and Jant’s own history. I liked it!


The Modern World by Steph Swainston

Steph Swainston returns (returned, actually, given that The Modern World was released back in 2008) with another Circle novel, set five years after No Present Like Time (itself set five years after The Year of Our War, which allows the Circle Trilogy to cover approximately a decade of regular unrest in the Fourlands). At the end of No Present Like Time, we were promised that Jant would be weaned off his regular intake of “cat“, which provides both narrative and character relief. The Modern World shows us the Fourlands in greater details and wider scope than either of the earlier novels – The Year of Our War concerned the Insect incursions and Circle in-fighting; No Present Like Time with outside influences (and neo-Imperialism, so exciting) and the effects and machinations of Circle politics as it affects the people under the Castle’s wardship.

Five years since the scorched earth victory on the isolated Island Tris, the Circle architect, Frost, is nearing the completion of an immense dam at Lowespass, where the invading, ravenous Insects are held at bay (a tedious, centuries-long stalemate). The idea is to drown the Insect hordes and end the war. Frost is a fascinating character, a perfectionist: intelligent, creative and filtered through Jant’s mostly-sober perspective she takes on a presence she might not have had from an older or more socially adept character.

The completion of the dam is to be a military and media event – the near-guaranteed victory, or least tactical and strategic advantage, will change the face of Circle-Fourland power dynamics, allow the Fourlands to recover from a decade of bloody unrest and lay out the field for God to return, taking the world back from Emperor San’s tender care.

Meanwhile, Lightning’s daughter Cyan has disappeared. Lightning remains the presence he has been in the Circle , filtered through Jant’s admiration, suppressed resentment and annoyed respect to an unchanging, dignified tower of history and honour – and for Lightning, Jant takes off to seedy Hacilith to find Cyan and either rescue her or convince her to come to Lowespass where she can watch her father at his work.

Whatever else once may say about Swainston’s work – and I still feel like she spares us the tedium of info-dump at the cost of some economic world-building – she excels at capturing the feel of a location. Hacilith was where Jant lived as a half-grown adolescent, running wild in street gangs and apprenticed to an apothecary. Centuries later Cyan has come here to slum it in the Real World. Cyan is extraordinarily immature – nearly unbelievably so, though I suppose there are no analogues for the daughter of an immortal, a girl who shall inherit lands and has not been educated in her duties and privileges forthcoming, stifled and overprotected and spoiled spoiled spoiled. Cyan’s bad behaviour fulfills the dual purpose of character development for an unexpectedly large number of people, and of a mirror to Jant’s own life and nature. Lightning is Cyan’s father, and he also has the dubious honour of being Jant’s unofficial mentor.

So. Cyan runs away to Hacilith, runs around with seedy men in seedy bars, has an overdose of cat and has a near-death experience in the Shift – a parallel world only reachable through cat overdose or an as-yet unexplained meditative process. Enter the Vermiform, a hive-mind of worms. I kid you not. An all-too-hasty rescue mission and chase scene through too many locations in the Shift later, Cyan is rescued, Jant has seen too many lands destroyed by Insects, and the Vermiform is still around.

The Modern World is mostly narrated by Comet Jant Shira, Messenger for the Circle. Through his jaded, tired, shallow but perspective eyes we see a nation that has lain stagnant for too long, with economies centred around mor and more efficient forms of warfare – medieval to our eyes, and entirely brutal. It’s possible to read The Modern World as a stand alone novel, but I wouldn’t recommend it. As with The Year of Our War and No Present Like Time, the material plot exists as a vehicle for exploring overarching questions of the nature of the multiverse that more and more of the Fivelanders are in contact with, and now beginning to be conscious of said contact. More universal (as opposed to in-novel multi-versal) issues of religion (more precisely, faith), the generational divide, power in the hands of women – more on this later – function following form and the dangers of submitting to your benevolent tyrant.

I’ve skimmed over the concept that Jant embodies the vulnerable male body as written by a female author before, but not in detail. To examine: Jant is a Rhydanne-Awian hybrid, the only one that exists. Think of the Rhydanne as human-shaped people with a LOT of cat mixed in; the Awians have human-shaped but have vestigial wings. In Jant, these combine to give you a man who can, with a lot of training (self-researched), work and more wear-and-tear than seems advisable, fly. A long-limbed, lean, boy with wings is our Jant. The prologue shows us his recurring nightmares of his first major wounding after he joined the Circle and became immortal. It took him a year to recover, under the experienced, incomparable Rayne, the Circle Healer. (Rayne has more of a presence in this novel, but her contributions are more to atmosphere than to plot.) In a strange flashback set before No Present Like Time, Queen Eleonora of Awia ties Jant down and violates him with inanimate objects. The section serves no obvious purpose, unless we’re to be impressed with the idea that Women Can Be Evil And Powerfuller Than Men, Who Moon About Being Sentimental And/Or Useless. It isn’t required to display Jant’s desperate need for control and security, nor is it required as an “explanation” for his habits and character.

It follows, in fact, a rather worrying trend: there are very few women in the Circle novels who are written as positive characters. At their jobs, at their skills, at their life’s work these women are all competent, accomplished, skilled and even excellent. And yet I give you:

  • Cyan, when she uses her teenaged brain (not often) shows the beginnings of a woman to be reckoned with. But for the most part she whinges around saying she wants to be free, make her own decisions, have her dad pay more attention to her, take up her duties, do anything but her duties, and everyone is mean to her.
  • Eleonora, a practical, pragmatic ruler who has rationally and systematically oversaw the reconstruction of her kingdom after two separate incursions. She is an excellent character, and it’s too bad she rapes immortals to sate her pervesrity and reputedly is behaving badly with the castle maids.
  • Mist Ata (last seen in No Present Like Time) – incomparable Sailor for the Castle who uses her body and her femininity to manipulate the men around her, who has no tact, respect, delicacy for anyone but herself and uses her family to extend her power. She killed her last husband, became pregnant to get Lightning (not her husband) under her thumb, and blackmails people as cheerfully as Jant does.
  • Frost, who may have been normal once, but locked in her grieving for her dead husband is a pale cipher surrounded by blind perfectionism. She is sensible and determined and not annoying or in any way malicious, and Swainston does not reward her overmuch.
  • The woman Jant may or may not have raped (it’s a cultural thing) and his cheating wife whom we don’t see much of. (The only wife-of-an-immortal who may have deserved outright respect is dead. There are trends here!
The only female character with any straightforward decency is Rayne, ancient, lonely, a healer, and little to no plot agency. Swainston has been very clear that she does not want to draw pristine characters for us to admire, but I think it strange that
It’s annoying, so sue me.
And yet.  Despite these flaws. The mysteries of San in the multiverse, the vermiform, the Insects, the Fivelands. The politics, the infighting, the Immortals and the mortals. The children. The battles! I have been careful not to say anything about the battles – read and find out! – but the unfolding of that plotline is fantastic, completely inevitable in hindsight and yet completely unexpected. The final chapter-cum epilogue shows us a HUGE character event that will shake the political, Circle, and personal relationships in the Fivelands for years. It’s scnadalous, exciting, frightening and very, very brave.

I like The Modern World. Descriptive, vast, with little to no drag, it’s a must-read for every Swainston reader (even if you were a bit drained by No Present Like Time).  There’s been no word (that I can see) of a sequel, though Swainston had out a prequel this year – I want very badly to see what happens next. Not for the Insects, but for the world, and the people in it.

No Present Like Time by Steph Swainston

Swainston places us five years after the last, massive, Insect incursion: the Fourlands are still in the throes of reconstruction. Awia in particular is still reeling under economic crisis. The Castle is involved, of course, and concerned, but denizens have something more exciting to think of: Gio Ami, Swordsman of the Castle, titled Serein, has just lost a Challenge – and therefore his place in the immortal Circle. He is no longer Swordsman, no longer Serein. In his place is 25-year old Wrenn Culmish – now the youngest Circle member. Wrenn is a feted hero – long may his ascendancy last – and the immortal Eszai crowd around the newcomer, ignoring Gio. Such near-shunning is automatic, a display both of the discomfort of losing an old comrade to a ruthless meritocracy of perfection, and an Eszai arrogance that sees and values Eszai over mortal Zascai. (And why not? Zascai die, Escai stick around for ages before you must mourn them.)

Again we see the immortal Circle, led by God’s chosen, the Emperor San, through the eyes of Comet Jant Shira, Messenger. Since we last saw him in The Year of Our War, Jant has been clean, sometimes sober and mostly efficient for five short years. Throughout this novel we are frequently shown Jant as some of his peers must see him – a shallow, material, surprisingly perceptive, acutely intelligent, often useful oddity. But things do not look good. Mist Ata Dei – the Sailor – is to lead Jant and Lightning Saker Micahwater – the Archer – on a sailing expedition to a newly discovered island, Tris: thence to offer its inhabitants (rich, peaceful, untroubled by Insects) a place in the Empire, protection, trade – and the chance to be immortal if they gain a place in the Circle. The new Serein Wrenn chooses to come with them – his first task for the Emperor, his first adventure as Eszai. All well and good, except – Jant is terrified of the sea. On top his extreme terror is his new-found knowledge that his wife, Tern, is involved in an affair – normally nothing to worry about, but Tern is dallying with Tornado, the Castle Strongman. A mortal lover who won’t be young and beautiful in a decade or two? Who cares? An immortal, larger and stronger than Jant, likely to be here centuries from now? That’s competition, and Jant is self-aware enough to be very, very threatened.

At the tail end of such sterling virtues as lying, adultery, whinging, being young(er) and immature, reading private correspondence, sleeping through appointed duties in a drugged haze, entering said drugged haze in the first place, Jant now adds theft to his repertoire, taking Tern’s money (earmarked, no less, for reconstruction of Tern’s holdings) to buy drugs. Four Eszai must now take the reader along a three-month sea-journey to a near-mythically perfect island. The narrative flags dangerously here. While Jant’s drug of choice has proven to have plot value in the previous novel, what it might bring to the table here is less clear. Jant’s addiction no longer holds any novelty, and while Swainston utilises the journey for some very useful info-dumping, for the most part we wait for Jant to do new things – which, to be fair, he does once or twice, unveiling the sinister mechanisms Mist is to use to convince the Trisians to accede to the Emperor’s “offer” – mostly we just wait for him to run out of cat and focus.

Tris and its inhabitants are vaguely reminiscent of the Incans, with plenty of gold (enough to literally piss in), and a seemingly egalitarian economic/political system. (I’m also reminded a great deal of Aldous Huxley’s Island.) Jant shines here, really – as a scholar, as a linguist, as a diplomat (albeit working for some incredibly clumsy leaders – Mist is a fantastic strategist on the sea, in battle, but she has not half the sensitivity she needs to understand when someone neither wants nor needs what she is offering, nor to to refrain from insulting someone via translator). A series of mishaps wreck havoc in the main city (Capharnaum), destroy potential relations with the Capharnai and leave the Eszai with no choice but to return home with the gold and spices they’ve traded for steel and rum – and a single book of history which Jant stole from the library (well done, Jant! You are a credit to all Eszai).

Back in the Fourlands, the Castle faces rebellion, on the brink of civil war. Ex-Serein Gio Ami has amassed a horde of the discontented masses, blaming the Castle, the Eszai, and an allegedly deluded Emperor for the Insect invasions, the current economic downturn and the secrecy surrounding Tris – land of gold, where any down-on-his-luck Fourlands farmer or soldier can get rich. Rich! Rich! There is more sea-travel, more cat, assassination plots, some mawkish but aged (and therefore dignified) sentimentality from Lightning – and Jant uses more cat to perform more crazy acts of saving the day, only somewhat making up for many futile acts of fucking up everything possible.

No Present Like Time fills in a great deal of the Fourlands’ history, most especially as it relates to the Castle. This works best to explain the Eszai – their rituals, their priorities. It’s good to see what immortality can do to a person – either in the seeking or the keeping or it. And of course, in the losing. In particular we learn more of Rayne (the Doctor) and Lightning – both particular idols for Jant, and so drawn with more fondness and charity. They are foils for Jant, of course – Rayne in her sensible, aged maturity, Lightning in his romantic practicality. If Jant (at his functional best) has dadvantages over both – his quick cleverness and dynamism, his sensory but abiding passions – he still leans on both these Eszai for support and validation. An undercurrent of the novels is a deepening intimacy – or at least, humanisation, of these, the oldest Eszai – in front of Jant, who values these revelations both for his own ego and because of his tenderness towards them. (Jant when he is functional – even merely as a friend – is delightful to read, partially becase functional protagonists are easier to live with, and partially because it makes a welcome contrast to his highs, lows, cravings and withdrawals.)

Amidst the history, the unveilings of San’s vast plans that span centuries, the mystery of San’s larger goals and issues of the Shift – the parallel world Jant still visits when overdosing on cat – some of the issues from The Year of Our War repeat here in No Present Like Time. Where are the industries and universities? How do they work? If they’re making bicycles in the Fourlands and cars out of athletic flesh in the Shift, why aren’t we seeing more of all of these? What on earth is Dunlin Rachiswater – so integral to The Year of Our War – doing now? Ignoring these questions, Swainston takes us through imperialism, Fourlands-style; good old fashioned conquistador-ing;  a reminder that knowledge, and the ability to learn in different languages and thought systems, is an integral part of keeping track of what your (mysterious, revered, Machiavellian) Emperor might be up to. As with The Year of Our War, there is a near-continual focus on socio-economic hierarchies, as well as cultural-racial divides – how they wound us, and how reaching above them can neither heal nor exacerbate an existing problem. No Present Like Time does not move at The Year of Our War’s breakneck pace, and it might even lag at some moments, but it’s a more contemplative narrative. As a stand-alone novel it does not work, and perhaps it could have used more action, but No Present Like Time is still an enjoyable read, one which leaves a lot of room for further novels in the series.

The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston

I'm speculating: Cover Design by Emma Wallace (she definitely did the *next*) - my own book has a black background, possibly so the damn thing is easier to see

Steph Swainston is apparently one of these New Weird writers – what that means I cannot precisely tell you, especially since I find her much easier to digest than China Miéville or Jeff Vandermeer (not that these are bad writers, at all – just very different from her, and from each other).

God left the Fourlands over two thousand years ago – apparently he needed a vacation. In his absence he placed San in charge – Emperor San, who holds the Castle, who grants immortality to fifty men and women serving in the Circle, who defends the Fourlands against the invading Insect hordes. Under his guidance, with the Circle’s immortal expertise, San maintains a delicate stalemate against the Insects, who’ve advanced far as Lowespass, and have built there a Wall.

We enter the scene in 2014, where King Dunlin Rachiswater of Awia, with Circle immortals Lightning (the Archer), Tornado (the Strongman), Mist (the Sailor) and Comet (the Messenger) as counsel, aides, validation and support. Comet, Jant Shira, is our first-person narrator, and through him we see Rachiswater as a dynamic ruler, an offensive strategist. Being Zascai, mortal, his goals are to stamp out the Insects in a decisive ingress at the Wall. Being Eszai, Circle immortals, Lightning and co. want a plan of attack that’ll save more lives. Rachiswater wants to be Eszai, and hopes his successful attack will show Emperor San his worth.

Through Jant Shira’s jittery, withdrawal-tinted (more on drugs in a bit) perspective, Dunlin Rachiswater is both an admirable hero and a fool; and of course, in the line of heroic duty he is mortally injured. As a last act of sympathy, euthanasia, what-have-you, Jant gives Dunlin a fatal dose of scolopendium – a hallucinatory drug that in unsafe doses sends the junkie into Shift. Shift is a parallel world with no clear connection to the Fourlands, or any part of the known universe. As an immortal who can take more scolopendium than a mortal without dying, Jant is possibly the only living being who visits the Shift on a regular basis. He sends Dunlin there, hoping that Dunlin can gain a form of immortality – he can stay in Shift (specifically in the city city Epsilon) forever, doing what he pleases there.

Jant Shira posits himself as a character on the sidelines, working as Messenger for the Castle, under the mentorship of older Zascai, especially Lightning, whom he hero-worships as a Noble Ideal. His “cat” addiction often renders him nonfunctional, with various people enabling his habit, covering up for him, disapproving without barring him from it. Why does the Emperor keep him around? Well. Jant Shira, when functional, is still self-absorbed and self-pitying, but he is inconveniently intelligent, excellently multilingual and he is the only living being who can fly. As the product of an Awian (who have non-functional wings and hollow bones) and a Rhydanne (a lithe, light people with excellent reflexes) Jant Shira is a cat-bird-human  amalgam who can travel up to 120 kilometres on a clear night. He was 23 when he first joined the Circle, and remains 23 forever – blessing and a curse, one he notices only tangentially.

Jant Shira, two hundred odd years old, has seen a lot of change. Lightning (and other characters we don’t see much of in this narrative) is older, and more rooted in his powerful, elegant past. Shira walks, talks, and lives in contemporary norm – denims, sloganed t-shirts, dealers, needles and pound notes (which last he uses to snort up cat); swords, arrows, lightweight shields, an old-fashioned admiration of the aristocracy and a fantasy world he can “shift” to at the push of a plunger. His place as Eszai is in danger because of his near nonfunctionality – one gathers that only his erratic sobriety keeps him in his post. The Circle is a position of much value, with people hoping to challenge or marry their way in.

If Jant’s position is uncertain, at least it is a place the unsympathetic reader can believe he will retain if he kicks his narratively tiresome habit. Mist, the Sailor and his wife, Ata, cannot say the same. They both are at war with each other, jockeying for the position of Sailor. Their internal wars overflow to entangle such bystanders as Lightning, their daughter Cyan, and Jant himself. Meanwhile, the Insects are more aggressive than usual, pushing farther and farther to the Fourlands, with towns and forts being abandoned to their voracious hunger. Where are they coming from? When will the Castle pull together its bickering forces to thrust them back to the sea?

I’ll note, by the way, that both as a drug addict constantly stretching his body’s limits and as a being who can fly, in body not truly constructed to do so with ease, Jant Shira fulfills, for the most part, the function of the vulnerable male body as written by female authors. (I’m still not sure what the hell tree I’m barking up, but I’m pretty certain the tree exists, and so: Mark.)

Jant Shira is a fantastic narrator (and in his own world an acknowledged poet and writer – it’s his job, after all). His prose (well, actually Swainston’s) is economical and rarely mundane. The plot rushes on carrying the reader with it, and there’s not a single dull moment. Jant’s shifts between realities pull together a convoluted but ultimately straightforward plot, delineating an era of momentary success against the Insects, as well as putting Jant into a position of some ambiguity with his irascible Emperor.

What Jant doesn’t give us is much detail. Where does a seemingly unindustrialised world make its jeans, t-shirts and syringes? How, if there is only one true expert in medicine, has there been progress enough to make Junkie Jant an excellent field medic? How does San’s power work, and why do people accept him as their benevolent if inefficient overlord? Is Rhydanne sex really like that? (It seems to be.)

Further, Jant’s constant need for a fix does have the utility of giving him access to Shift, which means that narratively, his habit receives a left-handed validation and permission which can get tiresome in future novels. In fact, future novels have a lot to take care of – they must provide us with more information about the Fourlands, fill in the holes of The Year of Our War‘s breakneck pacing, and show us deeper insights into characters Jant has shallowly judged from moment to moment.

For all these flaws, Jant and the Fourlands are fascinating: in their history, socio-hierarchies, in the present power structures and in their chosen heroes. Lightning and Dunlin Rachiswater exercise a charisma undimmed for being shown hastily from Jant’s sidelines –  in fact, Dunlin undertakes an entire heroic quest worthy of the epic fantastic in its own right. Mist and Ata are a powerful tale of unbanked ambition and ruthlessness, Tornado the Strongman shows an unremitting strength and love. There’s more than enough fodder here to make it impossible to ignore the sequel – I’m picking up No Present Like Time right away.

The Ingenious Edgar Jones by Elizabeth Garner

William Jones walks down the streets of Oxford, navigating its shadows, crossing the boundaries of its inner and outer foreignness – the ones that mirror his relationship with his wife. Night is falling, it is the Nineteenth century, stars are falling in the sky, and at home his wife Eleanor is giving birth to Edgar. Edgar is smaller than expected, very healthy, with unnaturally aged skin and a line of hair down his back.

Elizabeth Garner‘s prose is light, taking much prosetic licence – the effect is charming, and very gripping. Within an illustrative, detailed (though incomplete) geography of Oxford, William Jones, porter at an unnamed college, looks at his son as a delightful miniature of himself. Eleanor wanted a girl, and got an “unnatural” boy instead. William is much older than his wife, and spends most of his waking hours in the darkness, at the college gates. Eleanor stays at home, watching over her son. Her only visible contact outside of that home is Mrs. Simm – practical, clear-sighted Mrs. Simm, who assisted at the birth, who gave Eleanor a job as a seamstress, who advises her to accept her son as he is.

While William dreams of the greatness his son will achieve, and Eleanor stitches and dreams of the life she wanted to escape to, Edgar runs literally wild through his home and garden. If Eleanor accepts that her boy is a rambunctious, William, brought up a foundling by the Oxford clergy, is alarmed.  attempts at disciplining Edgar fail only in part to Edgar’s unmalleable incorrigibility – William’s process is didactic, incoherent; Edgar might be dyslexic. William’s growing disillusionment reflects in a waning expressed love for his only son.

Edgar has nothing with which to woo his father save his brilliance and his eagerness to please. Instead of acting out and breaking all his father’s stuff, Edgar goes out into the world and seeks employment. The idea of his son serving an apprenticeship with a blacksmith pleases William even less. William glowers through his nights, Eleanor sews in her private room full of light and colour, and Edgar leaves smoky prints wherever he goes – until he gains the attention of The Professor, who sees in Edgar the small, agile, smart, starved-for-love tool he needs to build his Museum to Biology and Evolution.

In time, William is displeased by this, too. Eleanor is stuck in the middle, playing peacekeeper, but William is not the sort of man who listens, and Edgar still very young. The entire novel is set up in terms of opposition and advancement – the Pagan, the Medieval, the Christian, the Rational, the Academic, and the Desiring all jostling for overlapping spaces within one small household amidst three small people. Oxford and the Jones household lay out the cartography of the human soul – itself liminal, changing, selectively steadfast, and not always in the right contexts.

Edgar has been ruined by the wrong kinds of mentors for years before he finds the perfect fit – unlike Goldilocks, he cannot truly appreciate his third and final helping, since he is so hung up on the first two, and how much he needs them to love him. Mr. Stephens the instrument maker is a lovely man, whose shop is somewhere in between the University and the Jones’ home. (Coincidentally next to Eleanor’s first home in a tavern.)

And then disaster strikes(!). Eleanor learns of the perfidy of mankind, William learns nothing at all, and Edgar loses the little freedoms he has. The novel careens to its inevitable dénouement, and at the closing the three Jones move their separate ways.

That’s not really a spoiler, so I’m leaving it in.

Garner’s prose, as I’ve mentioned, is light and gripping, and she has a knack for saying a great deal without beating the dead donkey over the subject. The novel is descriptive with that hint of enigmatic other-worldliness that we see hints off through out Oxford’s gargoyle-laden streets. What makes this novel less than ideal for me is the ending. Where William goes, well, that is perfect. It fits in neatly with all the facets of his personality, the concrete details of his life as he walks stonily through it. Eleanor and Edgar do not give us the same sort of closure. I would have appreciate a. a sequel or b. more chapters, telling me what the hell happens to them. The Ingenious Edgar Jones reads like incomplete but lovely novels (I’m looking at you, Heyer and Steinbeck!) – lovely, but incomplete. The reader is left hanging, while Eleanor and Edgar move away with no knowledge of each other to do – what? I found it completely unsatisfactory, worse still because I was hooked from the beginning.

You could read it as a way of allowing them their freedom, unfettered by our gazes (gaze, and entrapment within gaze, is a running subtext through the novel), but  that still leaves me hanging. Eleanor and Edgar has a great deal of potential in terms of development and adventure(!!), and I’m basically left with them saying goodbye, this isn’t for you anymore.

All in all? The Ingenious Edgar Jones is a lovely, emotional novel about the boundaries of loyalty, and the damage that a trespass against loyalty can cause – no matter how much love there is to patch up the breaches. It has an ending that will leave you wanting more, with little likelihood that you will get it. It’s an exercise in humanity and frustration. I wouldn’t recommend it.

Ardour by Lily Prior

Spelled "Ardor" here. That's why it's a tiny picture, I don't want to look at it


Spelled "Ardour"

Actually, Ardor: A novel of enchantment according to Prior’s website. Prior lives in London and travels in Italy, apparently, so I do not see why the ‘u’ was so summarily dismissed, unless the publishers thought, ‘Expose our readers to an extra/a missing U? No wai!’ I ought to do more research into this perplexing question, but I want to keep the “wai”, so I won’t.

I might as well start off with the thing I’ve written over and over again in my notes: “The prose! Such lovely prose!” Prior’s language is ornate and light at once, her humour gently raucous. It carries an otherwise not-bad, interesting story and makes it an elegant ode to unrequited passion.

It starts, as stories sometimes do, when Francesca Ponderosa leaves her home, to find her sister’s and maybe reconcile with her. In Norcia, Arcadio Carnabuci is deep, unattractive and lonely. From a randomly helpful gypsy (someone had not read his fairy tales!), Arcadio (note that name!) buys magic seeds for love, and plants them. They grow, and in due course become proper plants and bring forth flowers and then fruit. All of them smell of love and lust, and everyone breathes in this air of love – but Francesca Ponderosa barely notices Arcadio, caught up in her own loves, and her own agenda. Instead, Arcadio has the heart of Gezebel, the gentle, observant, caring, helpful mule.

Yeah. She’s the narrator. Ardor is 200-odd pages of unrequited love narrated by a donkey. She’s very eloquent.

Ardor is a novel about unrequited love, about passion and lust. Love hnags in the air in the summer-heated months. And incidentally, just incidentally, magic is here, there and everywhere.

As the town falls more and more under the spell of Arcadio’s fruit, the people there move inevtiably forward, towards or away from each other. (One of the subplots involve a doctor and nurse who have loved each other for years without approaching each other. Their narrative thread is melancholic gold, gold I tell you!) Some of them love, more of them lust – and of course, some of them make war. The same impetus drives people to very different things, the same madness expresses itself in very different ways. There’s something very unworldly about this kind of created inner fire.

After a summer of sometimes literally operatic farce comes to its climax, well, life moves on.

This is a very sort review, for a very short book. It is lively and graceful, and does not hide from the distresses of love, and the beauties nonetheless. It reminds me, and market-wise probably actually is, of one of those surreally magical-realist novels that tend to hide murky sociopoliticing under their zany, otherwordly plots. I wouldn’t, myself, look any deeper for that here. There’s more than enough fevered layers to explore as it is.

Ardor is a sweetly short read, rude and funny and sad and lovely. If you find the time, and it’s around, you must read it.

Author Event: China Miéville

China Mieville

Link to his Amazon USA page

Toto Funds the Arts arranged for China Miéville to give a reading at the British Council on Monday, the 1st of March, 2010. Of course we went. I was late, to be honest, and so came in at the tail end of the reading – an extract from Kraken. Miéville has a pleasant voice (a tenor? I do not ever ever know how to categorise these things) and I daresay if I had been there from the start I would have found it very fascinating. As it is we shall take it for granted that Miéville’s coolth came through here and it was awesome as awesome can be.

The TFA folks had arranged for some people to ask Miéville a few questions before he was thrown to the slavering audience, which shows an unexpected degree of organisation and general common sense. (I was at Usha K.R’s book launch for Monkey Man today, and the same sort of organisation was evident. My standards, they need adjusting!) One of them – I am assuming the student, had a very young-sounding, high-pitched voice. It set my nerves on edge, and I automatically assumed all her questions were stupid. (They weren’t.) So the rest of this post is going to be a meandering of the questions and answers, with no one but Miéville and myself identified. (I like myself.) This way, I cannot comment on the intelligence of questions. They were all good questions, and Miéville said later he thought he was getting interesting questions in general, in the Indian cities he visited. (Wooo, patriotic pride!)

So. The meat! It was meaty!

I wasted time hunting for a pen and paper, so I am going on gut instinct when I say this was about Kraken, which comes out in June 2010. KrakenKraken apparently began life as a short story, inspired by the magic brooms’ (and Mickey’s, I think) “pitiful working conditions” in Fantasia. What if they’d had a union rep? On the wow-factor note, Kraken is about cephalopods. “I love cephalopods… My favourite cephalopod is the octopus – I don’t have to make a case for that.” (And later: “Now you make it sound silly!” Well, yes. “Cephalopod” is a very silly-sounding word, and “octopus” is no better. These are, in any case, squishy sea-animals with the wrong number of legs and hearts.)

Mieville City 2009 UK.jpgI’ve only read the Bas-Lag novels, so if anything about The City and The City sounds hinky it’s probably because I’ve taken it out of context. tCatC is apparently a novel about two overlapping cities, and they… ignore each other? Miéville spoke extensively over the course of the entire session about fantasy, and the epic, and here he said, “People never know what stories they’re in.” So the protagonist, who is a police officer/detective, never tells us as much as we want to know about the city he lives in – he’s more concerned with the things more immediately apparent to him, and not the things he takes for granted.  Apparently the book was a present for his mother (awww!), who likes detective novels. Miéville apparently “auditioned” genres for the novel until he found one that fit, and then proceeded to tell the story according to the protocols of said genre. It was important that the novel not “cheat”.

King Rat coverSomeone asked about a connection with King Rat, and Miéville (some silly tall guy was right in front of me, and Miéville was sitting down, so I could not see his face, but he sounded shame-faced, so) shamefacedly admitted: “I only ever have about three ideas. As long as you don’t notice the repetition you’ll be fine.” *(Maybe it was good-humouredly instead. Stupid tall boys.)

Miéville tells us what I’ve suspected for a long time, by the way: he has a rather “combative relationship with readers”, and tries specifically “not to give readers what they want”. (Much is explained about the Bas-Lag novels, yes? I think the Bas-Lag novels were a tangent here.) As Miéville  went on writing, he found that he got “more disciplined” as a writer. Not that not being disciplined is a bad thing – Gravity’s Rainbow, he reminded us, was an undisciplined novel. Fantasy and SF tend to have an inordinate amount of info-dumping: the “look at that! and look at that!” – and one does that “hopefully with a certain amount of charm”. tCatC was/is “an argument to those early books.” A  lot was said about tCatC‘s structure, and I gathered this much: the narrator/protagonist starts off in this familiar location/geography, and is concerned with the everyday investigations and worries of his job; he moves, finally, to a sense os chaos and via him one has an exploration of cities, both his, the unknown he finds himself in, and I assume, cities in general. The novel, divided into three parts, has some “almost annoying” (I wish I knew the questioner’s name, really) shifts in language tone – my notes are freakishly messy at this point, I’m sorry.  Each section of tCatC  is  “mini-homage” to sub-genres (I hate all these categories, I am confused by them) of Crime Fiction.

A very long question came about whose essence was, “Do you ever create a system that works?” I’m not sure if this was in reference to The Scar, TheScar(1stEd).jpgbut I vaguely think it was. Miéville talked about SFF, about the vague idea that SFF is meant to be the genre of utopias and dystopias – that they must offer warnings or prophecies (can’t remember his exact phrasing) – he called this a reductive idea, far removed from the simpler,  freer concept of “sociological extrapolation”. The Armada, for instance, floats 7 different political systems, and none of them work as wonderfully as a complete optimist would hope they would. Of course this is “narratively more interesting.” “I’m not saying Utopias are boring – that’s attacking progressive thought.” He’d love to live in a utopia, “Bring it on!” (I dunno. I’d always be afraid I’d be Le Guin’s child in a dark basement [if I locate this story online I promise you I will link us there].) Harking back to the question of subverting, or frustrating, readers’ expectations, “The Scar has a very happy ending – a satisfactory ending.” “Being left frustrated is not ipso facto a bad thing.” (So. Many. Bad. Jokes.)

About characters, and authorial control over those characters as he writes them: “You know they don’t exist, right? … They’re not really there.” (You know, this practically begs for [already-written] shorts of characters who step out of the page and proceed to harass their authors bloody. Again, if I find this one online , I’ll link it.)

I do not know what he was talking about when he used the phrase “pornography of melancholy”. It is a lovely phrase. It might have been during a discussion of Literature with a capital L, whether or not Literature-with-capital-L should be “life-enhancing”. (Nope, it needn’t be.) But it is a lovely phrase, and I want to use it in real life, myself.

We talked – I forget how we got here, but Miéville spoke of “gritty” fantasy as opposed to “epic” fantasy. My notes are still messy, and Miéville did not change the world with what he said, but he was very sensible, so I shall summarise as much as I remember. The Gritty is an attempt to make Fantasy more “real”,  which makes it all “both more and less fantastic”. Much later, I have, “the oscillation – to contain the uncontainable” – which really was about things like D&D and Cthulu board games, but I think could grow fairly organically out of a description of Gritty Fantasy too.

Epic fantasy, while not in and of itself a bad thing, is more easily abused. “Any narrative is a lie – epics are bigger lies… they’re more baggagy”. I’ve got, in my notes, in all caps: “The Archetype – Licensed Cliche.” (And, in what I suspect are my own notes and not quotes from Above, “character-plot shortcut”.) The Archetypes (again, this is from later in my notes) that familiarity is in fact “a betrayal of the fantastic”. You know the kitchen boy will be a king. It’s predictable. (and nearing the end:) “Epics lend themselvexs very easily toUnUnDun(1stEd).jpgkitsch. Kitsch is a tool of the fascists.” There’s also the issues of who gets cast as demons? What the hell is up with there being a Chosen One, and why the hell does the Sidekick have to be the Sidekick? (Shout-out to Hufflepuffs, here. The spares.) Miéville says he has “a great libidinal draw to the Sidekick,” which apparently is fairly clear in Un Lun Dun I’m not sure I want to know.

More sensible talking: Marketing, it makes categories. It establishes “specific aesthetics” – or each genre has specific aesthetics – and as long as we remember that they’re “not hermenutical categories but a useful shorthand”, we’re okay. Literature, with a capital L, or “Lit-fic” as he called it (please someone tell me he made it up, it sounds terrible) – does the grave disservice of “making a hierarchy of compartmentalisation”. “Geeks talk about this all the time,” he said, and I thought, yes we do! (I’m looking at you. Yes I am.) “Should I be a bore or a wuss?” (He did fine, and was neither.)

File:PerdidoStreetStation(1stEd).jpgI am skipping loads of notes here, poor you, and poor me. Miéville does not pronounce “Garuda” right, but then again, his Garuda may be pronounced however he chooses. Miéville gets asked about the Garuda in India a lot, as might be expected. But it’s simple enough: “I love monsters.” It’s all very well, as someone who is interested in anthropology and culture, to see what the Garuda stands for to some people, but for PSS, and for story-telling, “I steal monsters and I don’t care what they really mean… Bird-Man: Cool!” The “radical naivety” of “forgetting what you know they’re about” is “more faithful” than if you stuck to the letter of the myths. “Fidelity can be an act of epistemological violence”.

Again, not sure how we got here: I think it may Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law (Historical Materialism Book Series)have been after I asked questions on behalf of Larry –  couldn’t take notes while I was listening attentively as he answered my question. (Listening Attentively is freakishly hard work!) In essence: Miéville does intend to do more non-fiction writing, and to continue his political work in the real world. (He stood for Parliament in 2001, and lost, and I told him that was very sad, which it is, but there is no way to tactfully, randomly, bring that up in front of an audience.) But “I cannot multitask,” and so for now there are no tangible, set-in-stone plans to do either. He wants to, intends to, and therefore will.

The Bas-Lag novels, I noted (I really, really like me) form a sort of historical triptych, with Iron Council ended on this really tense note. Events radiate outwards from New Corbuzon and fall back in – Miéville said that he would like to write more Bas-Lag novels, but right now has no plans to. Particularly because of the way Iron Council ends. He’d need to find a way to continue this history, this chronological mapping, without taking away from the suspension of that final event.

I think someone else asked him whether he intended to write political fiction, or whether he deliberately politicised his fiction – I forget the actual question. In essence, though, Miéville has been politically aware since he was pre-pubescent, and politically active since he was nineteen. He grew up reading fantastic fiction and being political. For him, the entire question is a non-issue. Which is good to know. But “realistic fiction can’t handle” the ramifications of a political aesthetic argument, whereas the “tools of the fantastic” can be very effectively deployed to do the same. “Political stories are quite exciting stories!” – he just doesn’t set out for that to be his be all and end all.

After we were all given the green signal to leave or hang around as we saw fit, Miéville spent some time signing things, talking to people, and generally being led outside. When I got my chance, I reminded him of the Wotmania –> RAFO changeover, which is when he remembered Ben. (Ben, China Miéville says you should put up the interview!) I forget what I said to make Miéville worry that Ben thought him mean. Gross misrepresentation of Ben, I suspect. (Sorry, Ben.)

Miéville has been touring India for days, but apparently has had no time to see the sights. This – this is a shame. I suggested he run, he said we wasn’t cool enough. I made mean comments about politicians, but apparently he’s “not that sort of politician”. How’re we supposed to know?

Apparently, TFA invited some people (Aditi was one, I was jealous) to meet Miéville for coffee before the event. You have not lived until you’ve heard a clean-shaven bald author with earrings referred to as “China”. (Sorry, China Miéville . I have watched too much bad tv.)

At this point, the TFA people took him away, hopefully to feed him, and Aditi and I went book shopping.

[Edited to Add (and link and proofread)]: As an aside – I think we never once mentioned The Tain or Looking for Jake. I’d be sadder if I’d actually read them, but it’s still a shame.)