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The City We Became by N K Jemisin

Orbit, 2020, 443 p. Published in Interzone 287, May-Jun 2020.

 The City We Became cover

The central conceit of the first book in Jemisin’s latest trilogy explains its otherwise odd-sounding title. Here cities can achieve some sort of critical mass by which they come alive and are personified by an individual. In the prologue we meet Paulo (Săo Paulo) come to aid the emergence of New York into sentience, but something goes wrong. This being New York, though, we have not one living embodiment but six; its five boroughs and the overall avatar, each the epitome of the area they personify. The book follows the five boroughs’ personas as they come to the realisation of their nature and seek each other out to help not only themselves but also the overall City, now underground and in a coma.

Manhattan’s instantiation is Manny, a new arrival whose awakening to his fresh nature involves him losing the memory of his previous identity. We then meet (Staten) Aislyn Houlihan, whose Irish parents did not pronounce her name in the Gaelic way and who physically cannot bring herself to visit the rest of New York. The former MC Free, Brooklyn Thomason, is now a mother and city councillor. Bronca, descendant of the original Lenape inhabitants of Long Island, runs the Bronx Art Centre, and maths whizz Padmini, of Asian extraction, is the avatar of Queens. On her confusion over her new status Padmini’s aunt invokes her background to tell her, “Real gods are people, who make love, have babies, fight, die. ‘It’s duty, it’s normal. Get over it.’”

If you were counting that’s four out of the six metropolitan areas are embodied by women. The narrative has sections focusing on all five boroughs, by intermittent turns, plus Interruptions describing Paulo’s endeavours before four of the avatars finally get together.

In Jemisin’s previous trilogy, the ground was literally not safe beneath her characters’ feet. Here it is not just the ground but also the air and especially the water in which weird things can happen. The first manifestation of this is when a tentacle rises out of the East River and smashes the Williamsburg Bridge. The ordinary folk of New York are aware only of the bridge’s destruction and some sort of obstruction preventing them from going about their business as usual.
Sentient cities traverse the layers of the parallel worlds. On emergence they punch through, killing other universes. If a city isn’t born, it dies, hard, (witness Pompeii, Tenochtitlán, Atlantis, Sodom and Gomorrah.) The enemy looming here is the city R’lyeh, an entity from the many parallel universes, out to kill new-born (newly-awoken really) Earth cities at birth. Manifesting as The Woman In White, she infests New York’s buildings and its ordinary citizens with white tendrils controlling their behaviour, putting obstacles into the boroughs’ way and sending large white columns shooting up into the sky.

Little vignettes of New York history are slipped into the narrative, from the original Dutch settlers (featuring an aside making this the only fantasy work I have read to give a name-check to Eddie Izzard) to Staten Island’s prickly relationship with its neighbouring boroughs, its almost orphan status, in contrast to Jersey City’s longings. It also manages to include three mathematical equations and remarks on the distinctiveness of Guastavino tiles.

Though incidental to the book as a whole, where in The Broken Earth Jemisin approached the subject of prejudice in a more-or less oblique way the use of an all-but contemporary setting here allows her to tackle it head-on, especially in the form of Aislyn’s everybody-but-him-is-wrong policeman father, attitudes which bleed over into Aislyn herself. At one point she ascribes a Canadian as “driven mad by the cold and socialised medicine,” at another, “terrorists are bearded Arab men who mutter in guttural languages and want to rape virgins.” An appearance by Alt-right ‘artists’ at Bronca’s work insisting on their right to have their art displayed and that any refusal to do so can only be evidence of reverse prejudice is a comment on our times.

Using five aspects of one whole might be seen as an attempt by Jemisin to repeat the bravura narrative of The Fifth Season, where three different viewpoints turned out to be the same person, but The City We Became feels more conventional, with its down-to-Earth, often demotic, dialogue and prose, but no less worth reading.

Roaming as it does over almost all of New York those unfamiliar with its geography might be grateful for the map which precedes the prologue here.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- “None of the people around him react” (none … reacts,) antennas (antennae,) “lay of the land,” (lie of the land.) “‘Are you actually insane.’” (ought to have a question mark after insane, not a full stop,) dredlocs (is this how USians spell dreadlocks?) “None of them are talking to each other.” (none of them is talking to..,) “None of them face each other” (None of them faces each other,) several more examples of ‘none’ with an unwarranted plural verb, ambiance (ambience,) no opening quotation mark when a chapter begins with dialogue.

The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville

Picador, 2017, 215 p, including 12 p Afterword and 22 p Notes.

 The Last Days of New Paris cover

This is an (almost) indescribable novella+. A tricky, tricksy story whose unfolding makes all but impossible demands upon the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Sometime in 1941 an S-Blast occurred in France. From then on surrealist visions (here called manifs – manifestations; but one of the Notes hints it may perhaps derive from manifest quiddity) stalk Paris’s streets. The even numbered of the novella’s nine chapters are set in the run-up to the blast, as a man called Jack Parsons seeks to invoke the imagination of the surrealists to help defeat the Third Reich, the others in 1950, where part of Paris is still occupied and a Surrealist group known as Main à plume is fighting against both the manifs and the Germans (who are seeking to manufacture manifs of their own.)

The viewpoint character in the 1950 sections is a man named Thibaut who, as well as running the gauntlet of the manifs and German troops, encounters a female US journalist named Sam and her unusual camera. Sam is claiming to be researching for a book but has other reasons for coming to Paris.

As an altered history (of sorts – perhaps this really ought to be called a distorted history -) Miéville has the usual fun with name-dropping an author enjoys in this type of novel. As well as various surrealists mentions are given to Aleister Crowley and Josef Mengele.

There is a problem with this sort of “six impossible things before breakfast” tale, however. While some people like to be taken out of themselves, frightened with the bogey man or “the horror,” breaking the illusion of normality is a dangerous tactic for an author. If what we read about goes against all our knowledge of how the world works how can we trust it? How does the author ensure the rest of what is shown to us connects? How is it relevant to our lives in the mundane world?

Even given that potentially insuperable drawback this story itself can be argued to fail in the way internet arguments are said to – by invoking the personality – or lack thereof – of the most famous failed artist in history. It also includes a critique of the blank, pallid nature of his artworks.

Adding to the sense of unreality is the story’s Afterword where the author relates how he came to write it, invited to a meeting with an old man who he says gave him the tale all but verbatim but without allowing any documenting of its contents, written or recorded. This man, we are to suppose, is the Thibaut we have been reading about. Paradoxically this has the effect of making what preceded it even more unbelievable.

Nevertheless Miéville’s skill as a writer is self evident but the most interesting part of the book was the list in the Notes of all the surrealist works which Miéville referenced in the novella’s text. He is clearly steeped in the subject.

Pedant’s corner:- Irritatingly for a book published in the UK there are USian spellings and usages throughout – presumably due to its prior US appearance. I know there would be financial costs involved but surely they cannot be so large as to obviate the small translations necessary? Meters (metres,) “grit their teeth” (gritted,) “had hid” (hidden,) refit (refitted.) “A congregation of Seine sharks thrash up dirty froth” (a congregation … thrashes,) “was stood there” (was standing there,) “in if any subtle ways” (‘if in any subtle ways’ makes more sense,) “are now a crowd” (is now a crowd,) accordian (accordion,) “hemming and hawing” (humming and hawing,) “evanescent schmutz” this referred to images produced from candle smoke so surely ‘evanescent smuts’.)

By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar

Head of Zeus, 2020, 510 p.

Why would an Israeli author better known for exploring Middle-Eastern or Jewish themes and concerns and the byways of Altered History turn his attention to the (so-called) matter of Britain? For that is what Tidhar has done in By Force Alone, a retelling of the story of King Arthur from a novel angle – what would it really have been like to contest for kingship in a bygone age, to gain, hold and wield power by force alone? I suppose the tale is well enough known, though, and, as Tidhar’s Afterword shows, it has always been fair game for reploughing and reinterpreting.

Here we have all the familiar names of Camelot and the knights of the Round Table, Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin, Morgan le Fay, Morgause, Galahad, Mordred etc, but seen in a downcast light. Forget any notion of parfit, gentil knyghts (especially as that was a phrase which Chaucer no doubt devised cunningly.) The characters here are earthy, human, venal, demotic in speech, prone to all the vices known to man and few of the virtues, their surroundings mostly squalid, their motivations base.

By Force Alone is told in an urgent present tense, its background is England before it was England, in the Dark Age aftermath of the Roman withdrawal. A “wild country, a host of warring tribes who scrabble for scraps in the ruin of civilisation,” with a new religion, Christianity, on the ascendant. Most of the characters are Brythonic Celts but offstage sundry Angles, Saxons and Jutes are making inroads into the territory of southern Britain, mainly by peaceful settlement but bringing their harsh, guttural Anglisc tongue with them.

Arthur is engendered in the usual way, Uther Pendragon disguising himself with Merlin’s help to resemble the lady Igraine’s husband and so impregnate her, but the resulting child is whipped off by Merlin to a foster home in Londinium, where, growing up, he learns the dark arts of street fighting and survival. Joseph of Arimathea features as the trainer of Lancelot in martial arts and his inductor into membership of the Inner Circle of the Venerated Secret Brotherhood of the Seekers of the Grail. Joseph’s conviction that the Grail was to be found in Britain brings Lancelot somewhat reluctantly to its shores.

In what in retrospect is an odd interpolation Tidhar brings in elements of SF with the appearance of a falling star – which can be read as a descending spaceship or, more prosaically, Halley’s Comet, but its later reascent militates against that – and the growing up round its landing/crash site of the Zone, where strange things happen, odd creatures appear, food rots instantly or stays unaccountably preserved and where those who frequent it tell newcomers, “Don’t touch anything.” Merlin spends his time thinking about this apparition and Lancelot conceives it as the location of the grail. In this context that streak of light in the sky might be considered as an avatar of the Star of Bethlehem.

We all know how things will end but finding out what happens is not the driving force for the reader to continue. This tale of Arthur may be, as the text has it, “just a sad, simple tale of violence and greed,” but it is the telling of it that matters, the slants it takes – Guinevere as a sort of bandit, a leader of Amazons up for a scrap as much as anyone else in this, Arthur as almost feckless – and uncaring that he is cuckolded by Lancelot – Galahad an administrator supreme.

The text is replete with allusion and quotation, including Kurt Vonnegut’s recognition of the inevitability and ubiquity of death (three words not unfamiliar to readers of this blog) and even a riff on the “choose” rant from Trainspotting, not to mention a scene depicting musings on an Antikythera mechanism. Some readers may find this sort of thing distracting but others that it adds to the flavour, a reminder that this is a commentary on its sources as well as a skewed recapitulation. Repetition too is an ingredient, especially of the three words of the title which describe the way in which Kings in these circumstances win and keep their crowns.

Merlin’s thoughts perhaps at times speak to Brexit, “A shared identity, Merlin thinks. A story to unify all these warring tales, so that Britons now and in centuries to come could tell each other that they share a thing. That they are one. And to be one, as Arthur understands implicitly, you must be defined against an other,” and his reflection that “this island’s just a piece of Europe with the landbridge submerged,” and, “It doesn’t really matter, this matter of Britain. Just another way to pass the time.” Later Sir Pellinore muses, “And who’s to say whose land this is, really? Land’s just land.” (Which may – or may not – be a reflection by Tidhar on his Israeli background.)

It is the characters that make By Force Alone. The humans feel like flesh and blood people. The wizard (who doesn’t himself believe in magic) or the fae folk are all as they are in fantasy tales, instruments of darkness to tell us truths, to betray their victims in deepest consequence. (That allusiveness can be catching.) Warnings, all.

The novel is a vigorous, vibrant retelling of “the glorious age of Camelot” rendered more powerful by focusing on the individuals rather than the appurtenances or overall architecture of the tale. In a curious way this demystification of the myth almost makes it more memorable.

Pedant’s corner:- “fifteen hundred heads of cattle” (usually ‘head of cattle’,) “moat pleasantly” twice within the space of a line, and “most pleasant” another line later, Nennius’ (Nennius’s – all of the names here which end with the letter ‘s’ are given possessives with s’ rather than s’s,) “ he lays back, sated” (lies back,) mithraeums (the Latin plural would be mithraea,) ass (in a narrative like this, set where it is, that just seems so wrong. The correct word is arse,) Morgana (is used once for Morgan, but it was Merlin thinking it and will have been an allusion,) “a money changers’” (a money changer’s.) “And he resents her that” (for that?) “…. Kay says Shrugs” (should have a full stop after ‘says’,) “off of” (off, just ‘off’s no ‘of’ required,) fit (fitted.) “It gauges out eyes” (gouges out, surely/) “he flies across a darkening skies” (omit ‘a’ or have a singular sky,) “‘The Angles and the Saxons’ growing influence’” should have apostrophe for Angles as well as Saxons.) “Previous stones. Coin” (Precious stones, I think.) “They are a tribal peoples” (either, ‘They are a tribal people,’ or ‘They are tribal peoples,’ the latter preferably, given that ‘they’.) The army of mutatio scatter” (scatters.) “Lancelot expands little energy” (expends.) “Lancelot is shook” (shaken.) “‘That’s none really of your business’” (has odd syntax – ‘that’s really none of your business’ is more usual,) “The trees don’t sway unless the king commands” (this was in Orkney, traditionally thought to have no trees. When I was there I saw none worth the name,) parlay (parley,) sat (sitting, or, seated,) the town of Wormwood has a sign saying Pop 971 853 (so populated? In the Dark Ages?) epicentre (centre,) “and the water turn to dull reflection” (turns,) “nought but an illusion” (naught.) “A veritable rain of arrows flies down from the enemy’s archers then and hit him” (‘rain … flies down’, therefore should be followed by ‘hits him’,) snuck (sneaked.) In the Afterword; Tidhar says Britain was unified once more by the end of the Wars of the Roses. (It wasn’t. England – with Wales – might have been; but Scotland was politically separate till much later,) ditto “the Norman conquest of Britain” (the Normans conquered only England – until within 200 years the Plantagenet Edward I had also subdued Wales – though their influence spread into Scotland with dynastic marriages and the like.)

The Dollmaker by Nina Allan

riverrun, 2019, 409 p.

This book is an odd mixture of three types of narrative, the first person memoir of Andrew Garvie, a man of small stature (four feet nine inches,) inevitably nicknamed the Dwarf at school, and who has been fascinated by dolls since he was a boy before going on to manage to make a living producing bespoke dolls, interspersed with letters to him from Bramber Winters, an inhabitant of an asylum in the West Country, and five short stories, The Duchess, Amber Furness,The Elephant Girl, Happenstance and The Upstairs Window, as written by one Ewa Chaplin (and supposedly translated from the Polish by Erwin Blacher 2008, as the text notes after each one’s title.) Chaplin, another doll maker, had had to flee Poland for England just before the Nazis took over.

Despite Andrew not being a true achondroplasic – his narrative informs us there are many varieties of dwarfism – he suffers frequent comments on his size and appearance and there are other references to the famous seven dwarfs. His affinity with Bramber comes after he answers an advertisement she placed in a magazine named Ponchinella asking for information on Chaplin’s life and work.

The book veers at times into fantasy but only occasionally. One of the short stories mentions the fae folk and Andrew steals from a museum a doll, ‘The Artist,’ which is able to talk to him – but may of course only be voicing his inner thoughts.

Allan’s writing, whether as Garvie, Winters or ‘Chaplin,’ is superb. It flows, builds up a picture of Garvie and Winters, lays out their lives and, as Chaplin, the characters in ‘her’ stories deftly and economically. Those stories parallel and counterpoint the experiences of Garvie and Winters and most of them either feature or mention a dwarf or someone with a physical deformity – but they do tend to interrupt the flow of Andrew and Bramber’s relationship and require the reader to reset every time they appear. If you were harsh you could say that Allan has found a way to recycle her short stories into a larger whole, fixing them up into a novel. The overall impression though is that this has been extremely well thought out and executed.

My previous reading of Allan had been that there was something skightly askew about her writing, an oddness. The first ‘Chaplin’ story here crystallised that. It was almost as if in her previous books I were reading a translation and something in the background wasn’t coming through. Some of that oddness is apparent in the ‘Chaplin’ stories – but they are supposed to be translations which is why I made the connection. In the Andrew and Bramber sections here though everything is transparent and lucid.

Allan is a talent, of that there is no doubt. Here, her strengths show up in that lucidity.

Pedant’s corner:- “were stood at the bar” (standing,) “a team of detectives were tgrashing” (a team .. was trashing,) sprung (sprang,) vanishment (awkward sounding word. It’s in the dictionary but ‘disappearance’ would do just as well,) stumm (schtum.) “He decision to stay on” (Her decision,) “a ragged reddish-brown ellipsis” (ellipse – Allan seemed to be referring to a shape, not to a truncation, or if so it could only be interpreted that way at a severe push,) “the post office stores” (eight words later referred to as ‘it’, hence, ‘store’,) “the Church of St Ninian’s” (the possessive is already included in ‘Ninian’s’, hence either ‘St Nininan’s Church’, or ‘the Church of St Ninian’,) Andrew buys a return ticket from Bodmin to Tarquin’s Cross but then at the start of the return journey (surely unnecessarily) buys another ticket to Bodmin, “‘the Penzance train normally arrives on to Platform 3’” (trains arrive ‘at’ platforms, not on to them.)

Radiant State by Peter Higgins

Gollancz, 2015, 286 p.

“For centuries the Vlast had wiped histories away. The stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen created unpersons out of lives and made ruined former people the unseen, unheard haunters of their own streets.”

Higgins’s Russian inspired Wolfhound Century trilogy (I have previously reviewed the first and second instalments) is a commentary of sorts on the relatively recent history of that country. While adopting a mad whirlwind of a story arc of its own, a mix of realism and fantasy, it also has roots in Russian myth and folklore. The sentences quoted above could be a complete description of the setting if the fantasy elements were ignored but they are integral to Higgins’s vision. The three books are also unmistakably about Russia itself even if Higgins is writing about a Russia that never actually existed.

In the first part of Radiant State the Vlast Universal Vessel Proof of Concept is about to blast off for space. Literally – it is propelled by the detonation of atomic bombs beneath its pusher plate – though the actual propellant is the bombs’ casings of angel flesh pulverised to plasma by the explosions. The poor human occupants of Proof of Concept are however destined never to return to Earth. The ship, as its name suggests, is a prototype for a project to hurl the Vlast to the stars and domination of other planets.

Characters familiar from the previous two books reappear, Visarrion Lom, Maroussia Shauman, Elena Cornelius, Eligiya Kalimova. Josef Kantor – in the guise of Osip Rhizin which he had adopted in the previous book, Truth and Fear, where he saved the Vlast from defeat at the hands of its traditional foe The Archipelago – is now head of state, overseer of a vast apparatus of repression and control. “Rhizin had tens of thousands of security officers but trusted none of them because he knew what kind of thing they were and knew they must themselves be watched and kept in fear.” In the sidelines, lurking under a mountain, is the remnant of the supernatural creature Archangel, waiting to be loosed from its bonds. The main thrust of the plot, though, is Lom’s search for proof that Rhizin is Kantor and of the nature of the acts which brought him to power and keep him there.

If I found the fantastic portions overdone (I nearly always do) they are very well written, sometimes even understated, which is all to their good. In the realistic scenes Higgins is utterly convincing. His writing, while not straightforward, is almost without flaw. This is surely how it is to live in a totalitarian society. Even minor characters read as if they are real people, in all their complicity.

My only reservation is about how relatively easy it is in the end for Rhizin to be overthrown. But then again Lom has what is in effect supernatural help. Notwithstanding that, it is refreshing to find Rhizin’s removal from power taking place with no violence involved.

This trilogy just got better and better as it went on – not a usual comment on the form.

At one point Higgins uses the impeccably Scottish word smirr, at which I rejoiced, but it was in the phrase “smirrs of mist.” Technically smirr isn’t actually mist, its droplets are too large. Instead it is an extremely light, but persistent, rain; lighter than drizzle, but much more penetrating.

Pedant’s corner:- “memorising layouts and procedures she already knows by heart” (if she already knows them by heart she has already memorised them. I think Higgins meant she was reinforcing her knowledge.) “More than one of them wants to see failure today” (‘more than one’ is plural, hence, want to see.) “‘And always we have always driven them out’” (has one ‘always’ too many,) a missing full stop, Cornelius’ (Cornelius’s,) sunk (sank,) “come here very morning” (every morning,) pantoufflard (pantouflard?)

Winterwood and other hauntings by Keith Roberts

Morrigan Publications, 1989, 188 p, including 6 p Introduction by Robert Holdstock, plus illustrations by the author.

Roberts was one of the best prose stylists ever to write SF in Britain. His scope was not restricted by the genre though. One of his best novels, The Boat of Fate, was historical, set in Roman Britain and his stories of Kaeti (on Tour) plus Kaeti (and Company) and Gráinne used more contemporary surroundings. I reviewed his Irish Encounters written about his experiences while researching Gráinne here.

As the appendage to the title suggests the contents of this book are essentially ghost stories. To each Roberts has given us an introduction which describes how and perhaps why it came to be written. All the stories are invested with Roberts’s precise manner of story-telling. Some exude a Victorian/Edwardian sensibility. Taken as a whole, though, he has a tendency to employ a throat clearing scene before we get to the meat of the story or else to utilise a framing device.

In Susan, Roberts conjures up the atmosphere and look of an old-fashioned school Chemistry lab with eerie precision. The titular Susan is a self-contained and assured fifteen year-old schoolgirl with a strange air about her who has an after school conversation with a teacher on the brink of retirement, an encounter with a disturbed man on her way home and a mother who senses she is unknowable. At the end the reader doesn’t know much more about her either but it doesn’t matter, the story works as what it is.

Roberts’s Introduction to The Scarlet Lady contains the surprising information that Kyril Bonfiglioli wrote its last few lines and also suggested the ending to Roberts’s celebrated Altered History novel Pavane. The Scarlet Lady is a car – a between the wars one, with a face like a grinning skull, bought by the narrator’s brother. She turns out to be a heap of trouble; with a side order of malevolence.

The Eastern Windows is set at a party whose attendees have all experienced a close shave on their journey to the venue. The story is largely made up of snippets of overheard conversation as it roams between guests. Gradually the same voices and phrases begin to repeat. Eventually a woman called Eileen says, “‘Sometimes I think Hell must be like a party. A big room full of people you don’t know and you have to talk to them for ever.’” A short while later the man she is speaking to counters, “‘I don’t quite agree with your conception of Hell. I think it would be worse if you were stuck in a room forever with people you knew too well.’”

Winterwood is a variation on the haunted house story, though it is the narrator who ends the more haunted.

Mrs Cibber is in a similar vein, dealing with the obsession of a man with a painting of an eighteenth-century actress called Mrs Cibber which he sees hanging in a London pub. It is more about how it affected him and his life story, though. The detail is utterly convincing.

In The Snake Princess a shy boy on holiday is attracted by the NUDE PRINCESSS WRESTLES WITH LIVING SNAKES sign at a fairground and visits the exhibit. The “princess” is not naked and the snake is merely draped over her. The next day on the beach she – all that his mother would disapprove in the one package – befriends him and encourages him to become what he wishes for. This being a Roberts story (and one of the hauntings of the book’s subtitle) things are not quite as straightforward as that.

Everything in the Garden is in the form of what she refuses to call diary entries (and strictly no dates) by a woman named Diane who has it all – husband, big house in the country – but not everything in her garden is rosy; in particular the big tree. A coda in italics somewhat counterpoints the thrust of her tale by questioning the details of her life.

Reading Roberts never disappoints.

Pedant’s corner:- in the Introduction – smokey (smoky.) Otherwise; “‘to seek counsel of a fifteen year pupil is an act that I consider gross, and that I can only describe old as an obscene privilege’” has that ‘old’ misplaced, the illustration of the Scarlet Lady, while beautifully done does not resemble the description in the story, maw (it’s a styomacn, not a mouth,) “that never will lay flat” (lie flat,) “‘I wouldn’t have missed it for world’” (for the world,) “I wish I cound forget his hame” (‘his name’ makes more sense,) miniscule (minuscule,) celi (ceilidh?) “as soon as I reasonably dare” (dared,) Ingres’ (Ingres’s,) Candales (Candale’s,) “a paint wholesalers” (wholesaler’s,) “a greengrocers” (greengrocer’s,) “a tobacconists” (tobacconist’s,) the grocers (grocer’s,) whiskys (whiskies,) “at the doctors” (the doctor’s.)

Ivory Apples by Lisa Goldstein

Tachyon, 2019, 278 p.

Ivy and her increasingly more exotically named sisters, Beatriz, Amaranth and Semiramis, motherless for a few years when the book begins, have been brought up to keep the secret of their great-aunt Maeve’s identity. Over fifty years ago, under her real name of Adela Madden, Maeve had written a book called Ivory Apples, describing a fantasy town. The book was a slow-burning success but Maeve soon withdrew from social communication. In the interim her work and fantasy world has gained an enthusiastic following, with websites devoted to the book’s meaning – trawled for clues to Maeve’s real identity and the messages her replies to letters (in fact supplied first by Ivy’s mother but now by her father Philip who also deals with Maeve’s finances,) may contain – annual conventions and the like. The family visits Maeve every month or so in order for Philip to do this work.

On one visit Ivy takes a walk through the nearby woods and finds a lake hitherto unknown to her. Maeve is swimming there naked and the trees which surround it are festooned with sprites. As she is leaving, one of these jumps at Ivy and penetrates into her body, squeezing into her every extremity, filling her with a kind of exhilaration and heightened awareness. The sprite thereafter is a more or less constant presence in her awareness (unless he withdraws into himself) and she names him Piper. She is warned by Maeve not to tell her sisters and to be careful, to choose wisely, that sprites have the attributes of tricksters.

One day in the park the children are befriended by a Ms Burden, who soon inveigles herself into the family’s lives then prevails upon Philip to investigate a noise in her basement but he dies there. His will comes as a shock to the girls as it entrusts them to Ms Burden’s care. Thereafter her previous solicitude becomes callousness, neglect and gaslighting (the embodiment of a wicked stepmother even though Philip hadn’t ever considered marrying her.) It is her persistent questioning of them about Aunt Maeve that reveals her real interest, though. She is on a quest to find the present day whereabouts of two original Greek muses, Talia and Claudio, and believes Maeve knows where they might be found or is in contact with them.

Ivy undergoes various adventures, running away from home followed by a life on the streets in which the presence of Piper is a great asset to her, the discovery of the depths of Ms Burden’s perfidy, her meeting with a female private investigator to whom she is attracted, becoming Maeve’s carer then journeying into the fantasy town, before the denouement. In the meantime she becomes a published poet with the raised awareness which Piper has brought her (sprites can act as muses and so apparently heighten your artistry. Ivy speculates that Shakespeare, Bach, Dante etc had been so inspired – a thought which to my mind does a disservice to their artistic endeavour) and meditates on the leach-like qualities of a writer, “I learned later that every writer did this with people they knew, that we were all vampires, feeding on other people’s experiences,” which is true to an extent but again devalues the importance of imagination.

Goldstein certainly writes well and it is gratifying to read a fantasy which doesn’t have a cod-mediæval setting (with its potentially iffy political stance) and to have the villain of the piece resolutely human.

Pedant’s corner:- “as studied my hands” (as I studied my hands,) “an apparition would appear” (yes, that’s what apparitions do.) “Like my sprite, he played music, and like my sprite, he played music” (was this repetition intentional or was the second half of the sentence supposed to be different?) “‘I don’t think you’re supposed to put warmed up peas and carrots on pizzas’” is said to be about culinary habits in England but I’ve never heard of anyone doing that, imposter (impostor,) a lot (a lot.) “‘Do you know who’s president?’” (President,) a missing full stop, Claudia (elsewhere always Claudio,) “to come back with me” (to come back to me makes more sense,) “in places ad smeeled strongly of smoke” (and smelled strongly.)

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Vintage, 2019, 574 p.

The Clarke Award (whose 2020 version this novel won) has a history of recognising, and sometimes rewarding, novels which are only marginally SF. At first sight this novel seems to be of that ilk – resolutely realist in tone, albeit with the occasional magic realist flourish, almost family saga in form (there is even a family tree facing the contents page,) while incorporating the history of Zambia and white colonialism in Southern Africa in its purview. Only in its later sections does it stray into SF territory and that in a way which non-SF readers may find jarring. To British eyes the text is a curious mixture of British – bum (as in backside,) maths – and US – fit as a past tense, swim lessons (swimming lessons,) mowed down (mown down) – usages, but there is also a generous sprinkling of Zambian words.

The novel is bookended by two short sections, The Falls – “The Smoke That Thunders” which David Livingstone of course immediately named after Queen Victoria – and The Dam (the Kariba Dam,) but the main body of the book is taken up by incidents in the lives of “The Grandmothers,” “The Mothers” and “The Children,” to each of whom a section, though not always exclusively, is devoted. (In The Falls we are told that Livingstone’s attendants transported his body to the coast – and thence to England – not out of devotion or duty to him, but rather from fear that otherwise his death would have been blamed on them. The explicit racism of European colonisers in Africa is expressed in some of the words used.) Intermissions between the sections, rendered in italics and occasionally commenting on the text, are written as if by anopheles mosquitoes. In one of these interludes we are told that “evolution forged the entirety of life using only one tool: the mistake…”

The Grandmothers are Sibilla, whose hair grows uncontrollably – all over her body, Agnes, a promising English tennis player who had to give up the game when she became blind and who falls in love with Ronald, a black student come to England from Rhodesia (as was,) and therefore has to run away from her racist parents in order to marry him, and Matha, one of the participants in Zambia’s unofficial space programme (an aspirational effort the concept of one individual, Ba Nkoloso, without any of the resources nor capability necessary to succeed.) Pregnant, and told Godfrey has left her, Matha begins to weep unceasingly, her eyelids crusting over with salt, an affliction which lasts the major part of her life thereafter.

Of the Mothers, Sylvia is Matha’s daughter by Godfrey, one of her fellow Afronauts, Isabella the result of Sibilla’s union with Federico, forced to flee Italy after killing his brother but usurping his identity, and Thandiwe marries Agnes’s son Lionel (who also impregnates Sylvia.) The Children are Joseph and Jacob (the ensuing sons of Lionel’s two unions) while Naila is the child of Isabella’s marriage to Balaji, a shopkeeper of Indian sub-continental origin. Sibilla’s children inherit her hair-growing condition – but only at twice the usual rate and only on their heads. This is transformed into a family wig-making enterprise known as Lovely Luxe Locks Ltd.

There is a nice exchange between Agnes and Ronald when he asks, “‘But I thought the English hated the French,’” and she replies, ‘Oh we do, but we steal from them mercilessly. It’s our sort of thing,’” a comment on the perennial position of women when we are told Matha thinks, “She had never imagined that to be a woman was always, somehow, to be a banishable witch,” and a rumination on the myths countries tell themselves, “This sort of thing happens with nations, and tales, and humans, and signs. You go hunting for a source, some ur-word or symbol and suddenly the path splits…. Where you sought an origin, you find a vast babble which is also a silence.” We also have Serpell’s variation on Tolstoy, “Every family is a war but some are more civil than others.”

The main Science-Fictional ingredient in the tale is the Digit-All Bead, a kind of iPhone embedded in a finger which utilises the skin’s conductivity as a power source and shines its information onto the palm – or elsewhere if needed. This invention, since it appears in the book’s 2000s, makes The Old Drift an Altered History. Digit-All had been savvy in calling their product a bead rather than a chip as it sounds less threatening. They then partnered with local governments to distribute their beads free. Its connection to the internet makes it the ultimate surveillance tool. Another SF-ish element is Jacob’s development of lightweight microdrones – to all intents and purposes technological mosquitoes.

Hanging over the characters in the later sections is a pathogen only ever named as The Virus (which the reader will naturally take to be HIV but may not be. It does have HIV-like characteristics, though.) Lionel is researching a way to immunise against it and is particularly inteeested in people who seem to have natural immunity. Two human mutations are likely candidates. The person he calls the Lusaka patient has both. Serpell compares the Virus’s modus operandi – infiltrating the immune system’s white blood cells (usually the body’s defenders) to reproduce itself – to its main means of transmission, sex, “it takes advantage of the two engines of life – the desire to reproduce and the will to persevere.”

Serpell undoubtedly can write and has an eye for the variety of human relationships. I am not entirely convinced, though, that the later sections and the novel’s conversion into a subdued kind of technological thriller really belong together with the earlier character-based narratives but as an attempt to render the (relatively) recent history of Zambia in fictional form by focusing on the lives of individuals The Old Drift is still a formidable achievement. I have no doubt that it will linger in my mind.

Pedant’s corner:- “The hair on her crown and face were the same” (was the same,) sprung (sprang,) “irked Agnes to no end” (irked Agnes no end; ‘to no end’ means without purpose, ‘no end’ means without limit,) Cadbury Whole Nut (in Britain it always used to be “Cadbury’s” but I note that they have recently dropped the apostrophe and its ‘s’,) Walkers shortbread (Walker’s,) “to secret her to Kasama” (that’s the first time I’ve ever seen ‘secret’ as a verb, it appeared as such once more,) wracked (racked,) stunk (stank,) “because was it was” (one ‘was’ too many,) grills (grilles,) “turning those minuses into plusses” (‘pluses’; and in any case why put a double ‘s’ in plusses but not in minusses?)

Skein Island by Aliya Whiteley

Titan Books, 2019, p. Published in Interzone 285, Jan-Feb 2020.

Skein Island cover

As readers of Interzone already know, Whitley writes impressively. Here she takes a modern domestic setting and gradually blends it with strange happenings and figures from Ancient Greek myth to make a tale that is always readable and looks at sexual politics from an oblique angle.

On the day she receives an invitation from a dead woman, Marianne Spence has an encounter with a pervert at closing time at the library where she works in Wootton Bassett. The incident prompts Marianne to accept that invitation to the Skein Island of this novel’s title; a retreat for women only, set up after the Second World War by the adventurer Lady Amelia Worthington. The only requirement for beneficiaries is to make a written Declaration of their reasons for visiting, to be kept in the island’s library. Marianne’s mother Vanessa had herself gone to the island seventeen years before – and never returned; prompting Marianne’s father, Arnie, himself to retreat, into moroseness, spending his evenings at The Cornerhouse, a pub with a dubious reputation – and odd goings on in its back room. The ramifications of Marianne’s decision rumble through the novel as husband Dave takes to lying in wait for the pervert to prevent him offending again. Here his path crosses that of Police Community Support Officer, Samantha, who also hopes to catch the offender. The narrative is delivered in two strands which for the most part alternate; a present tense first person chronicle from Marianne’s viewpoint and a third person past tense account focusing on Dave.

Threaded through the initial stages of the novel is the appearance in the narrative of either squares or cubes coloured red, blue, yellow and green and an emphasis on a quote from Homer’s Odyssey, “Each man delights in the work that suits him best.”

The dead woman is a bit of a tease on Whiteley’s part as the invitation was not in fact written by her but by Marianne’s mother to whom Lady Amelia bequeathed the operation on Skein Island. Vanessa tells her the cubes represent the four types of men in the world, heroes, villains, sidekicks and wise men, corresponding to the four colours. In the library Marianne reads Lady Amelia’s Declaration in which she described looking for the Throne of Zeus in a cave on Crete and instead found a monstrosity which caused her male companions to rip each other to pieces. Amelia tamed it by telling it her life story, turning it into a statue which she took back to the island and locked underground to keep it away from men, naming it Moira after the Greek fates. Its appetite for the stories which bind it is fed by reading the Declarations to it. Marianne encounters Moira in the basement and recognises its strangeness. Her roommates remain unconvinced, but the possibility it was all illusion is not supported by the rest of the narrative. Things go awry when in his attempts to find Marianne, Dave finally gets to the island and his presence there leads to a demolition and Moira’s disappearance.

Thereafter, in the wider world, men’s behaviour, already somewhat overbearing, changes; their tendencies towards being heroes, villains, sidekicks and wise men, to “protect” women, becoming exaggerated. Marianne reasons that Moira’s constraint seems to be necessary for equable relations between the sexes so Marianne’s task becomes to find Moira and restore “her” to captivity on the island.

On the face of it Skein Island has an explicitly feminist perspective but Marianne’s thought that Moira’s existence means men are meant to be more important than women sits oddly with that. However, “When a hero walks into a story, he doesn’t do as he’s told,” is an entirely consistent proposition. In this context the relationship between Dave and policewoman Samantha also struck a discordant note.

As to Moira: it may be a rather well-worn trope but for supernatural beings to exert influence on human behaviour is a problematic feature of a fantasy since that automatically removes agency – and responsibility – from its characters. Characters’ behaviours should not be exculpated in this way. They can also be perceived as dancing too much to the author’s tune rather than behaving as if independently.

I should add that, completely unheralded, either in the blurb or the title page, and taking up 35 pages here, is the inclusion in the book of a novelette, The Cold Smoke Declaration, a ghost story partly set on Skein Island. Value for money then.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:-“the physical cracks that lead to emotional ones” (context suggests ‘led’ rather than ‘lead’,) zipper (zip,) “to not have to field questions,” (not to have to; many instances of ‘to not’ rather than ‘not to’,) “a chemical brand that irritates my nostrils” (this is of a washing powder, what does Whiteley think any other brands of washing powder contain apart from chemicals? The phrase ‘chemical free’ is a nonsense.) “There are a number of caves in Crete” (strictly, there is a number,) Zeus’ (Zeus’s,) sunk (sank,) fit (fitted – used on the next line!) smoothes (smooths,) “the eldest girl had thrown back her shoulders and sang to the vaulted ceiling” (that ‘had’ carries on so the next verb ought to be ‘sung’,) “it would be impossible to spit it into sentences” (split, I think,) “exclamation points” (exclamation marks,) “the lay of the island” (it wasn’t a tune; lie of the island.) In the novelette, “a strong draft” (draught.)

Phyllis Eisenstein

I see from George R R Martin’s blog that Phyllis Eisenstein died last month – from Covid-19 though she had suffered a cerebral hæmorrhage much earlier in the year. Another sad departure for a year too full of them. Not that this year is looking much better at the moment, vaccine apart.

I first read her work in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction way back in the day but it wasn’t till recently that I read her two novels relating the adventures of Alaric the minstrel, Born To Exile and In the Red Lord’s Reach.

I have another of her books on the tbr pile. It will be read with a sense of sorrow.

Phyllis Eisenstein: 26/2/1946 – 7/12/2020. So it goes.

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