Once Upon a Time : A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner

onceThis book was alright.

It poses a question of form: when a book is sort of middling, a bit boring at times but never quite bad, certainly not in any funny or remarkable way, how do you review it without affecting the same feelings in the reader of the review?

My solution: Keep it brief.

Once Upon a Time is an overview of the history of fairy tales — the major players, the major theories, the major events. From the early, sinister folktales and the men and women that recorded them, to the shift to Victorian children tales, their places in Freud and other psychoanalyst’s oeuvre, to their deep examination by 20th century feminists, and then their reclamation of darkness and adulthood in the literature and films of the present day*.

It is very general. I would call it shallow. It rarely delves. There’s a handful of interesting facts — for instance, Wilhelm Grimm ardently defended the violent lessons of fairy tales as necessary for children, while at the same time changing them to be as patronizing as possible to women and girls — but not enough to carry the book. The author is clearly passionate about the topic, but the passion does not translate to and infuse the text.

And that is easily all it takes to move a non-fiction book from engrossing and memorable to serviceable.

*I give this book points for mentioning  Blancanieves, a seriously fantastic film retelling Snow White. It reimagines without diluting.

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The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

bookofstrangenewthingsPeter Leigh, an English preacher, travels billions of miles from Earth to the newfound desert planet, Oasis. His mission: to bring the word of Christ to the alien inhabitants. Yet he is not beset by your average challenges for missionaries — mistrust, lack of communication, customs. Indeed, the oasans are incredibly receptive to the Bible, which they call The Book of Strange New Things.

Meanwhile, Peter’s wife Bea is sending letters describing increasing worldwide catastrophe occurring back on Earth…

This book is fantastic. I was invested in Peter, the eminently hopeful, kind of weak, kind of bumbling protagonist, even while groaning through his boneheaded mistakes (generally involving communication with his wife). I loved the people of Oasis, both its native inhabitants and its hodgepodge group of damaged human immigrants. The people are colorful, as they should be. It’s a baldy science-fiction book that will be marketed as straight literature or ‘genre-defying’. I guess the genre defying part is smart character study and stellar prose. Which reinforces exclusion of sci-fi as unserious, but whatever.

Faber’s sentence-level craft is superb. His character work subtly reveals much without smashing you over the head — he understands the difference between the main point-of-view character’s perception of another character, and how that character actually is. The plot is smooth, moving between nail-biting tension and balmy contemplation. There was a point in the book where I knew something bad had happened to Peter’s wife, and as a careful reader, I had a good idea of what had happened — I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies, and I’m usually proven right — but no, Faber was in complete control and knew what I was thinking and actually it was a different bad thing that was set up just as well. The dialogue sounds like real people. The epistolary relationship between Peter and Bea reads like a separated couple unused to separation (“The cat misses you!”) and not like the astounding wordsmithery that often permeates letter-correspondence in novels. OK, at least Possession had the excuse that the letter-writers were poets. Peter and Bea’s letters are warm, chilling, tense, not boring as they might have been in lesser hands.

The planet of Oasis, bland at outside appearance, is richly described. It’s very easy and comfortable to feel like you’re there, amidst the green swirling rain and flat horizon. The fleshy-headed, berobed natives, who I feel guilty calling ‘aliens’ even for the purpose of this review (instead of what they are: people), go from strange and off-putting to almost unbearably endearing. They fulfill their sci-fi ascribed role as a foil for humans, while remaining their own distinct entity, who will be living amongst the stars on faraway Oasis long after the book is closed.

It’s rare in science fiction, indeed rare in anything but Christian fiction, that a book intelligently integrates faith into its narrative. Typically religion is a boogeyman or otherwise The Answer To All Things. Peter is devout, but not hardline in his beliefs. The Bible is open to interpretation. Other beliefs should be respected. The novel itself does not lend final credence or doubt to religion, though it does leave me wishing God were real, if not for humans, at least for the oasan’s sake. Instead, it is concerned with major Christian tenets that concern everyone. Notions of mercy, and forgiveness, and redemption. Regardless of faith, as humans we must realize people are capable of terrible, cruel things and just as capable of turning their life around and doing wonderful and compassionate things. The question is how to live with these people, how to forgive or understand them, or conversely how to live with yourself if you are one. God is an answer, but not the only one. And even in the absence of God, it’s worth investigating why singing Amazing Grace in unison is powerful.

(Thanks to Netgalley and Crown Publishing for hooking me up! This advanced-reader-copy thing is working out for me lately.)

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The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

the mirror empireLet me explain.

The players

We have…

The incestuous tribal peace-lovers. Otherwise known as Dhai. The majority of the main characters are Dhai, though much of the story happens elsewhere. The have big, polyamorous family structures, their wizards are sworn to pacifism, and they seem to be enslaved anywhere else not-Dhai. While seeming egalitarian, they practice hereditary rule and draconian rule enforcement.

The militaristic kill all men fascists. Otherwise known as Dorinah. Martial woman who fight and enslave for kicks and who happen to kill all the men they don’t need for breed/status-marriages, invoking their own version of Darwinism/(u)natural selection by killing off all but the smaller, pretty ones. I’m not sure what their wizards do. Act as deus ex machina maybe.

The empire that lives in the cold and acts like assholes for no clear reason (maybe they’re cold). Otherwise known as Saiduan. They’re very stern and cold (in demeanor!) and harsh, just like… the wintry land they inhabit. Their wizards are assassins.

Unlike the final version, the advance copy of this book is missing a map. For most of the novel, I was picturing these three countries as amorphous island blobs floating near each other. Turns out, this is not the case.

 

The game

The good peoples above are busy being their own nationalistic-defined selves when Saiduan (cold-assholes) are invaded by mysterious enemies dropping out of rifts in the sky. Said enemies happen to look just like the Dhai (tribal-incest). Turns out there are other worlds, and in one world in particular, a few decisions made differently were all it took for the pacifism-loving Dhai to become terrible imperialistic conquerors.

Other worlds. Mirror worlds. Mirror Empires. The gates between worlds have rules associated with them; you cannot cross over to a world if your other-world-self still lives, and they are difficult to open. Indeed, they can snap shut and slice you right in half and this will not be the only instance you are reminded of The Wheel of Time series, even if you got bored halfway through it. Like 10 years ago.

 

The good

This book moves quickly. It’s well paced. Every chapter is a contained moment of action that moves the plot along and sets up the next piece. While not essential in all works (I do love a slow burn), this is essential for The Mirror Empire, for reasons mentioned below in ‘The bad’. Much is communicated with few words and the tell-tale sluggishness and over description of most epic fantasy is absent. It’s almost baffling when a room or scene is described in detail — I’d scrutinize the wall texture for plot significance.

These traits are encapsulated in The Mirror Empire’s standout character, a Dorinah (KAM-fascists) general named Zezili. Zezili, in addition to being a spousal abuser and all-around curmudgeonly asshole, spends much of the book committing genocide on slave camps scattered across her country. Yet, you can’t help but want her to succeed.

(at halting the villains, not genocide)

She can get away with mass murder, because in The Mirror Empire, life is cheap. Murder, genocide, slavery are casually mentioned, rarely described. A character having mud and blood on her boots is an expository tell that a whole lot of people just died. While the numbers of people in any given scene are small, the amount that casually get offed is out-of-scale enormous. History is laden with genocide. There’s a disproportionate amount of slaves. Sometimes people are mentioned as dying offhand, and I’m not even sure what was around to kill them. It may be that this was supposed to point out the cheapness of life in the real world, the commonplace of genocide, how rote killing becomes when it’s all you know. But it doesn’t. Instead, it feels more like a Franz Kafka short where no one reacts as you’d expect them to. Murder is just totally fine in Mirrorempireland. Normal, even.

It works.

 
The bad

The genericism.

Despite the walking trees and killer plant life that suffuse the world, despite the mirror worlds and wacky magic, despite the avoidance of traditional-patriarchal-conservative structures, this still feels like just another fantasy world. Dhai has five genders but I have no idea what any of them mean — they seem pretty average fantasy-tribal-religious society. The cultures and people just don’t feel solid, or believable. They’re groups of traits.

This extends to the characters and language. You have reluctant man with small concerns and tragic past thrust into Leader of the People. Youth searching for a lost parent and coming of age (+superpowers). There’s a bunch of generic martial badasses. And while I’m utterly opposed to the thesis of Ursula LeGuin’s essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie — that fantasy requires some sort of mythic-grandiose language — it actually kind of applies here. The language, and especially the dialogue of The Mirror Empire is incredibly modern. Why are the people of this killer-tree, super magic, casual murder, pre-industrial, multivalent gender planet speaking like Americans in 2014?

 
P.S. Fiction and blog writers alike, I hate when you overuse the word ‘Well’ to start a sentence.

 
The wizards (and a refusal to adhere to a Serge Leone ascribed trichotomy)

In this world, some kind of moon-like satellite things rise and fall every few years. These satellites give the magic-users of the world their powers. It’s a pretty cool concept. Someone with their satellite in power in their early-mid teens may be a more confident youth and this will alter their life beyond just mastering powerful magic. And no doubt have a second effect once their power begins to wane. One place fantasy often fails is when you ask the question, ‘why don’t wizards rule the world?’ This books fails here too. The magic users are super powerful; they can heal almost anything, blow shit up en masse, etc. It’s not a major flaw but it’s there.

The actual magic system is weaving patterns and speaking litanies and the biggest conjuror of Wheel of Time memories. You have to grasp the magic source, maintain concentration etc. This wasn’t a negative. It made me nostalgic. I felt this often during The Mirror Empire and it is not merely because I’ve started reading more fantasy again after abstaining for years. Hurley conceived of this originally as a teenager and it feels like that. There are some magic assassins that have swords attached to their arms that glow and literally eat souls. Been there, wrote that, killed that World of Warcraft boss. In fact, I felt like I was in a video game often. Mass Effect in particular.

 
This review is all over the place. Sorry. Suffice to say: I liked it. I’ll read the next.

I requested this book from Netgalley as I’m a fan of Kameron Hurley’s blog. Then I failed to download it in the required time. The publisher hooked me up anyway. Thanks Angry Robot!

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Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes

terranostraThis book is physically daunting. It’s big. Dense. Heavy. Flipping to a random page reveals a tightly woven blanket of text, tightly packed and in small type. The prose is occasionally impenetrable. It took me a month to finish. Its themes are no less than Time and History and Religion.

Terra Nostra follows an alternate history of Spain’s past, with King Philip II (El Senor, Don Felipe!) married to Queen Elizabeth. Sick of war and government, El Senor has dedicated his life to raising a necropolis to the dead where he plans to shut himself away from the world while slowly awaiting death and unity with God. His plan is stymied by a trio of identical youths, born with crosses imprinted on their backs and six toes on each foot. In this version of history, it is one of these youths who discovers the New World and the entire middle section of the book (separated into The Old World, The New World, and The Next World) is his journey and immersion in the myths and religion of the Aztecs.

Along the way we meet Don Quixote, Don Juan, view a literal transcript of the first page of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis written and stuffed into a bottle by this universe’s Cervantes analogue. We also hang out in ancient Rome with Tiberius in a scene reminiscent of the Pilate scenes of The Master and Margarita, and no doubt countless literary references I am forgetting or missed. The power of books and the written word — the past conversing with the future — comes up frequently. El Senor only believes what is written, not spoken.

The cast is a cadre of terrible, awful people. Murderers intent on genocide, rapists, oppressors of chaotic nature. The way Fuentes handles women is questionable even in this supra-cruel world peopled by the worst of scoundrels. And the way he handles the sole little person is downright deplorable. There is a lot of sex. The sex is weird. Sex with animals, sex with skeletons, sex with god-beings, sex without jaws, sex with the supernaturally elderly, sex with a Frankenstein-like conglomeration of corpse pieces… or did she not actually have sex with that last one but just fantasize about it? The very last scene refuses to disappoint this trend and the reader concludes the book amid bizarre, transformative, cosmic lovemaking.

As I mentioned, Time is the central theme of the novel. In Fuentes vision, time is not linear. Everything happening — El Senor building his necropolis, the pillaging of the New World, the apocalypse of 1999 (haha), Emperor Tiberius being a sadistic prick, The Crucifixion, the creation of the world in Aztec mythology — is happening at the same time. Will happened, but has happened, is happening. Multiple universes of slightly different results occurring in tandem. One scholarly character hypothesizes it’s impossible to become a full and integrated personality until you’ve lived several lives in several times and possible worlds.

There’s a question that runs through the book: if someone could live life over again, would they change the actions they took, the decisions they made? The negative outlook of the novel announces a resounding No. The New World is still raped and pillaged, destroyed and oppressed even though Don Felipe had a chance to alter it. The Spanish Inquisition is just as terrible. In the Year 2000, things have become even worse. In an effort to reduce overpopulation, countries have turned to depopulating measures that match a ‘national character’ — Mexico brings back the blood sacrifices of the Aztecs, France very rationally kills someone for every someone born. It’s a little silly and very dated. Overpopulation may have been a giant, apocalyptic concern in 1975 when the book was written, but I feel like we’ve moved beyond it as a serious fear in 2014. I hope in 2055, global warming based dystopia is a similarly laughable and outdated sci-fi future trope.

Finishing this book I feel like I am climbing, bleary eyed, out of a cave. No, not a cave, a pit. A dank and endless cylinder with stairs spiraling to its interminable depths. I’m crawling out of the mind of Carlos Fuentes and the depravity of Don Felipe and friends. The tone of the book, its self absorbed characters, its physical weight — these are the things that will stay with me, more than any triumph of theme or historic analysis. I liked it, but I’m not even sure I’d recommend it. It’s incredibly overwritten and longer than it should be. I am quite certain several sentences honestly do not mean anything and are complete word-salad nonsense. Yet I am also certain that it will stay with me, long, long after I’ve placed it back on the shelf.

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Snowpiercer (2013)

Snowpiercer-2013-3Alright, alright. Let’s get this out of the way: Snowpiercer is really fucking great. It’s a goofy, violent ride that feels much shorter than its lengthy run-time and somehow encapsulates precisely what a great sci fi movie should be. It’s a movie funded by the Korean government, directed by a Korean director, largely cast by Europeans and the lead man is Captain America. Go see it.

It’s 2031 and the world has frozen over and humanity’s survivors are the bare few that managed to board a perpetually running train circling the earth.

No one wants to be preached too. This is why we praise politically themed stories for being ‘subtle’ or ‘non-intrusive’. This is disingenuous. It’s not matter of disguise or tone but writing/directing that makes politics intrusive or not. Well written, it doesn’t matter how obvious a movie’s politics are. Snowpiercer wears its issues on its sleeve and delights in it. The poor people are in the back of the train. Their diet consists of blocks of protein and their bunks are layered like sardines. The rich are in the front. Hedonism and excess abound. Class-revolution demands the oppressed fight their way to the front of the train to wrest control of the train from ‘Wilford’, the corporate entity/rich man/divinity running the train’s engine. This is the movie.

The train itself fulfills the sci-fi requirement of kind of cool, kind of silly but engrossing and visually exciting setting. Eschewing any notion of ‘hard-sci-fi’ that demands the mechanics of the future makes sense, Snowpiercer instead just wants to own it’s thematic conceit or otherwise have fun with the idea of a hell-train at the end of the world. The cars don’t really make sense. The living situation does not make sense. Some shots shoot the train as way wider than others. Exterior shots of the train reveal many more cars than our protagonists have actually traveled though. But it doesn’t matter, a setting does not require sense or even internal consistency’ to thrive. The train exists, regardless of wonky geometry, and the Earth has indeed frozen over outside. The camera shows us and an excellent cast sells it.

Snowpiercer is violent. The type of violent that causes the audience to gasp in unison or tense up. The kind that is totally expected but then sudden and unexpected when it actually happens. It is also funny, in a zany, occasionally campy sort of way. There’s times where it’s unclear if you’re supposed to laugh or not. I don’t know if this is simply because this is the kind of movie that gets translated and marketed in the US or if these are actually major traits of Korean cinema, but I feel like every Korean movie I have ever seen is similar. Funny and violent, often at the same time.

Anyway, in case you missed this in the first paragraph. Go see it.

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Update from the middle of a Latin American Opus

I haven’t updated in a while and it is not because I am dead or not reading books (synonymous states). Instead, I am reading Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes — a 1000 page monstrosity that is possibly the most dense book I have ever read.

Seriously, look at this shit:

costaThat is a totally average page. There’s plenty with no paragraph breaks at all and nary a period. Comma Comma Comma. If anyone ever complains Infinite Jest or a Pynchon novel is inaccessible I ought to throw this book at them. But not literally as that would be dangerous.

It’s pretty good though.

As I am still a good 3-400 pages from completion and forgetting what writing a review is even like, I will write on some of the excellent movies I have seen in the past week in the next few days.

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The Metamorphosis and Other Stories

metamorpmosisA MAN TURNS INTO A BUG. Franz Kafka is known for this. And one hundred years later, his work remains inimitable. Bizarre, grotesque, monotonous, true. Gregor Samsa wakes up as a cockroach and this is remarkable to everyone but his own self, because as the overworked and under-appreciated breadwinner of his family, he already lives like one. His initial trials involve trying to get out of bed (he’s stuck on his back carapace and hasn’t managed to control his multitude of tiny fluttering legs yet) and trying to open doors. What follows, as his family begins to ostracize him, is a black humor-laced* depiction of how some families treat the terminally ill among them.

The stories maintain a striking relevance. The Penal Colony is a story about the failed maintenance of the once great ‘apparatus’, an impossible steampunk device that writes a victim’s crimes in their own skin until they run out of blood and it (the apparatus) tosses them into a bottomless desert pit. It is a political tale of capital punishment and changing opinions tied to changing regimes. It could have been written today, which is sort of depressing in its resonance.

There’s fragments and meditations. Short recursive pieces where characters sunk in pathos consider and reconsider their life and emotions mark Kafka as a very direct antecedent to David Foster Wallace’s short fiction. There’s dark fairy tales and sardonic observations of social interaction and weird, coincidence laden tales of ship crews where no one acts or responds as they should. Why does that kid love the awkward crewman (‘the stoker’) like a father after knowing him for five minutes, why??

But yes, more Kafka. I intend read his entire oeuvre, which isn’t terribly long, but I’d do the same if it were much longer.

*I never realized the horror-trope of a man covering his mouth with his hands and slowly backpedaling away had its roots in Kafka. I do now, thanks to Gregor’s jerk boss coming to the Samsa house to lecture him on the requirements of showing up to work before he opens the door and sees roach-Gregor and reacts accordingly.

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Paradise by Toni Morrison

paradiseThey shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.

These chilling lines always appear on lists of the greatest first lines in literature, and always piqued my interest, but for some reason never led me to pick up Paradise. Until now. Which is a shame because it is really fucking good.

The all-black town of Ruby exists for reasons of virtue. Work ethic, godliness, community. Its founders, following the collapse of Reconstruction, were reduced from governors to street sweepers. Fleeing the abstract, omnipresent violence of whites and turned away from other black towns for being too black, they continued their Biblical journey to settle in the middle of the Oklahoma prairie. A generation later, their descendants are continuing their legacy, but failing to create their own; events in the real world are pulling their children away. A die-hard devotion to the old ways reveals the flaws in their patriarchal wisdom, and frustrated at the erosion of their status and control, they direct their ire outward, at undeserving targets, and yes, you guessed it, the oppressed become the oppressors.

Outside of Ruby lies the ‘Convent’, formerly a wealthy embezzler’s estate, then a re-education religious school for native girls, it has now become a home for lost women, fleeing predatory life situations and, though they don’t know it, desperately in need of the company of other women. These are the subjects of the first lines of the book, targeted for their free approach to sex and dress, paganism, and especially their independence from men. Their names mark the chapters of the book. These relate their their stories and how they arrived at the Convent, and are interspersed with the history and points of view of the citizens of Ruby, as unrest builds toward the shootout at the Convent — related in the first and penultimate chapters.

The themes of Paradise – the contagion of oppression, violence against women, the pursuit of utopia, the conflict on interpretation of religion — are obvious but deftly told. Morrison has a wonderful way of getting in a character’s head and asking you to empathize with them, then switching viewpoints to another character who just does not care or rejects the principles the first character held. As I mentioned in my review of Ancillary Justice, the difference between approaching current topics of human rights and politics by a lesser skilled writer who takes you out of the narrative and a master who just makes you angry on behalf of the characters is immense. Toni Morrison is the master here. I was enveloped by the plot and characters, not distantly pondering topics of feminism and civil rights. Or I was, but they were entwined. No academic detachment.

The sentence level writing is stellar. Toni Morrison is often described as lyrical and I guess she is, but that word is kind of vague and imprecise. The language in Paradise alternates between personal and biblical. The dialogue feels like it could be spoken aloud. The characters have depth but are familiar — they have traits you see in those around you. Then there are moral proclamations that strike to the bone. Fire and brimstone seem right around the corner. There feels like there is much more at stake than a few lives, or even an entire town.Taken together, it all reminds me deeply of a western — there’s something intensely hopeless about it all, similar to Warlock, another tale of biblical-American destruction.

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Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPThe disembodied, nearly always feminine voice of ‘Ship’ or ‘Computer’ providing a foil and guidance to the hero is a common sci-fi trope. She’s a talking prop that that rarely has a story of her own, though sometimes she has a hackneyed plot where it turns out she has real feelings after all. But there is almost always a motherly or sexbot bent to the exchange. Heinlein sort of spells this out literally (and earnestly) in Starship Troopers, where all the ship captains are women because it’s important for the male soldiers to hear a woman’s voice prior to battle. The adventure game Broken Age straight up makes the ship’s computer the hero’s mom. Ancillary Justice takes the woman-ship, gives her her own voice, blows up the ship part and strands her in a lone human body and sets her on a quest for revenge to take down the guy that blew her up*.

I liked the first eighty percent or so of this book. I was invested in the main character, Breq, and the thousand bodied nemesis she was hunting. The space operatic setting was slightly generic (there’s a threat of EMPIRE) but the book rarely devolved into world building porn. The problem is the pacing and character motivation goes to hell in the final chapter of the book. In part because prior to this point, there is a split narrative with every other chapter telling the story of the past (which is frankly more interesting). The point where the flaws of the novel, which my goodwill benignly passed over as minor shortcomings, became noticeable and annoying was when the past story caught up with the present one.

The superhuman hero and her antagonist, a divine emperor with an incalculable number of bodies that may be at war with itself, are fun and interesting. But nearly all the human characters are bland and unconvincing. This culminates when the terribly annoying and supremely arrogant sidekick that Breq inexplicably drags along suddenly and rapidly turns a redemptive corner into a caring and humble person. The rest of the humans are cardboard. They exist to move Breq along the plot or as window-setting-dressing to explain the politics of the world. The plot drags at the end because Breq’s laser-focus on her mission dulls and she just kind of… wanders around until events happen. This is not the type of a book for a passive protagonist.

Ancillary Justice is concerned with current events. Gender, class, colonialism. Much has been made of the novel’s lack of gendered pronouns. The society where Breq is from has no ‘him’ or ‘he’ or ‘son’ — everyone is a ‘her’ or ‘she’ or ‘daughter’. This makes for an interesting take on reading, since I generally ignored the pronoun and looked for tells to show if a character was a man or a woman. The idea that pronouns do not have to be gendered is convincing, as is rules of dress and makeup etc that mark people one way or another in most societies on Earth. Where the book fails is that Breq cannot distinguish between genders, same as the society she comes from. Even when seeing a naked person laying in the snow. There’s some handwaving about artificial wombs that tries to explain away any reproductive concerns, but it is unconvincing. It left me wondering — is everyone bisexual in the future? Has sexual dimorphism in humans gone away somehow? I wanted to know! But it seemed like Leckie was satisfied with challenging the reader via pronouns instead of, in my opinion, far more interesting questions. On top of this, she betrays her own conceit. Despite the removal of gender, there’s a clear tell early on that Breq is a woman; a jerk from a gender-conscious culture derides her as ‘little girl’. Any ambiguity is extinguished.

Regardless of its depth, the gender bits do fit the universe. At the very least, they make for good conversation. Conversely, the class-war plot is incredibly distracting. One cardboard character complains to another that poor people wouldn’t be poor if they worked harder. Breq’s dumb sidekick has a thing for purity of blood. People in the real world say and think dumb shit like that all the time. But it’s incredibly hard to pull off in a novel without a firm grasp on nuance, tone, etc. I am reading Toni Morrison’s Paradise currently which is transparently a book about violence against women. But where Leckie’s ‘poor people’ scene takes me out of the narrative, thinking oh I guess we’re talking about politics now, Morrison has me generally angry and terrified for the safety of the main characters. It may seem unfair to compare a debut sci-fi author to a Nobel prize winner (and one of the greatest American writers ever) but Ancillary Justice did win most of the big sci-fi awards and is nominated for the rest — if sci-fi is to be taken seriously, it does need serious consideration.

I’m absolutely going to read the next book in the series. The fall at the end did not dissuade me. I am still invested in Breq and want to see where this story is going. But I can’t help be disappointed that the book could not maintain the highs it occasionally rose to.

*Don’t get the wrong impression here. She’s still a caretaker of humans, a strange juxtaposition of mother-character with cold-killer that mostly works. But she has agency of her own.

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The Alligators of Abraham by Robert Kloss

alligatorsAn experimental Civil War epic.

We begin in the dust of the valleys, in the long days and the sounds of your generations, digging and constructing and fighting, the hollow slapping of their fists against the meat of the men they beat into the dust. The stray dogs that lapped their spilled blood, while flies hummed and flickered along their mangy skins, their bulged ribs.

This book is about an aesthetic. A scent. Sounds. Blood and embalming fluid and the yellow depths of alligator eyes. Verbs are generally bombastic words with accompanying sounds.The child-hero’s father puts his gasoline soaked hand over the boy’s mouth to keep him quiet and the smothering scent and sensation I can feel still.

It’s biblical in language and scope, Abraham Lincoln as father, God as father, and most importantly — your father as Father (it is written in the second person). The War is apocalyptic. There are plagues. Of gulls and alligators and militiamen. Endless imagery of furs and skins, mud and leather. Mountains of corpses. The prose is unique and dizzying and if it reminds me of anyone, it would be William Vollman.

When it’s not portraying an aesthetic (or sometimes when it is), it is allegory. The freed slaves are only ever called ‘the unpaid’; the whites are ‘the paid’, with the poor whites being ‘the lowly paid’. Eponymous Abe is alternately hated as an unpaid sympathizer, described as an unpaid himself*, then as time passes stories are told of how he was a great hater of the unpaid — ‘The Great Emaciator’. This demonstrates changing public opinions of major historical figures and events over relatively brief periods of time. If the reader finds themselves feeling dismayed and superior about the masses at this point, Kloss cleverly levels his ardor at the reader themself — by mixing real historical fact with insidious nonsense, the chaotic result makes it impossible to tell fact from fiction for anyone but a scholar of American history. Which I am not. Was Lincoln’s guard missing when he was assassinated? Was there really suspicion of Mary Todd being involved in the plot?

Like all books where the protagonists are all terrible people, the book can get a little dicey and uncomfortable when it comes to race and gender. Perhaps more so when the oedipal tyrant hero is ‘you’. Kloss seemed aware of what he was doing, but that is definitely up to personal interpretation. Oh, it’s also ultra violent if that it’s a deterrent.

*This book was published in 2012 and the Obama tie in is so blatant it’s almost distracting.

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