NPR Reviews: Heap House, The Accidental Highwayman

Here are a couple of books I’ve recently enjoyed and reviewed for NPR Books:

The Accidental Highwayman, by Ben Tripp.

Kit Bristol, a former circus performer, is the only servant employed by James Rattle, charged with supplying his dissolute gambling addict of a master with food and beer as well as looking after his magnificent horse, Midnight. Kit enjoys his life, and is fervently loyal to his master — even when the latter stumbles home dressed all in black and bleeding from gunshots, revealing himself to be Whistling Jack, a famously wanted highwayman.

Jack dies in spite of Kit’s ministrations, bequeathing to Kit his clothing, dog and horse, and a mysterious mission that will embroil him in the politics of two nations — one of which is Faerie Land. Joining Kit on his adventure are several small fairies, an exiled witch, an acrobat from his circus days, her amnesiac uncle, a shape-shifting fairy princess and an orangutan.

Heap House, by Edward Carey.

The year is 1875, and Clodius Iremonger is a member of a very strange family with a very strange lineage, occupying a borough of London called Forlichingham (or Filching), where they minister to the heaps. The heaps are piles of refuse and salvage that have been accumulating for decades, to the point where they have developed their own climate and a rather mercurial geography. The Iremonger family has evolved alongside these heaps in a symbiotic relationship that, over the course of the book, goes from quaint and whimsical to harrowing and bleak: each Iremonger is given an object at birth that comes to represent them, and from which it is dangerous to be parted.

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Rich and Strange on Tor.com

It’s done! Today saw Rich and Strange move over to Tor.com, where it will run weekly on Wednesday mornings (this week being an exception due to first-time scheduling). I’m excited and a little nervous about this; I do hope it travels well.

For my first piece there I reviewed C.S.E. Cooney’s “Witch, Beast, Saint: an Erotic Fairy Tale,” which I love primarily for the character of the witch, but also for an overall ethos of passion, women’s desires being unabashedly fulfilled, tongue-in-cheek (and, er, well) descriptions of sex and overall gorgeous writing. I highly recommend checking it out, and noting, too, that Strange Horizons is running a fund drive, so if you enjoyed it, do consider supporting them! You’ll be entered into a prize draw for some really neat stuff.

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Rich and Strange: “The Scrimshaw and the Scream,” by Kate Hall

This week on Rich and Strange, an announcement: beginning next week, this column will be running on Tor.com instead of here on my blog, though I’ll make sure to post notifications here. Thank you so much to everyone who’s donated and supported me up to this point; your contributions have been very welcome and helpful.


Kate Hall’s “The Scrimshaw and the Scream” appears in Lightspeed magazine’s Women Destroy Fantasy special issue. I highly recommend reading Cat Rambo, Terri Windling and Wendy Wagner’s respective editorials explaining their choice of stories and the rationale for the project. I read these editorials after having read the fiction, and was pleased to see that, of the original pieces, the one to have struck me hardest was the first one Rambo chose for the issue, determining in some ways the other kinds of stories she’d choose to accompany it.

Felicity is a talented scrimshaw artist, etching images on to bone. But this is ill-seen for a young woman of her class and breeding; scrimshaw’s a rough sailor’s art, no fit accomplishment according to her mother, who forbids it. Cut off from her art, Felicity begins to succumb to an ailment common to those perceived as disobedient in her region: she begins to sprout feathers all over her body, slowly transforming into a bird.

The reason for this localized sort of curse is never explained: a visitor to the area asks, outright

“You’re all like this here.” The woman shook her head. “What is this place, that it turns broken people into birds?”

“We aren’t broken,” Felicity said through her fingers. “I listened to my scream.”

This is a story that squeezes the lungs and maintains its grip from beginning to end. The imagery is viscerally powerful: when people begin turning into birds, they pluck the feathers out of their skin as best they can, and Hall’s descriptions of this made me wince and gasp every time with beautiful, heart-breaking economy. I was fascinated, too, to see that it isn’t just women at risk of turning into birds:

“You are looking very fine today, Felicity,” Ernest said, tucking her hand into his elbow. His watery blue eyes peered at her, skittering over the pale pink wounds on her face as if they weren’t there, as if they didn’t mirror the ones on his own.

The “scream” that Felicity speaks of begins in response to social constraint, but this understanding of the process is muddled in the story, as people are assured that the feathers will stop sprouting when they stop disobeying, when they reconcile themselves to their expected positions, whatever those are. The movement towards understanding the mechanics of the curse is one of the key tensions in the story.

There was a point at which I thought I knew what kind of story this would be and what form its resolution would take; the story blew threw that knowledge. I then thought I could see all the different paths it could take, having moved beyond a relatively common fantasy trope — but I still didn’t foresee quite the resolution it took. While I was pleased to be surprised — especially in light of the story’s general theme of the pressures and constraints expectation place on us — I’ve found myself re-reading the story repeatedly to have a sort of conversation with it, feeling something amiss in it, as if it had an ideal shape it had deliberately stepped aside to avoid.

Spoilers from here on in!

My main quibble is with the unnamed woman, in her dresses of yellow and blue, and her place in the story. Had she been named — had she been more than a foil to Felicity and an object to catalyze her downfall and release — I think I would have been better pleased; had the narrative’s shape around her been different, it might not have left me this niggling. Had the story been about Felicity and Claudette in the present tense, trying to figure out the curse between them such that one’s succumbing to it delivered a crucial message to the other in time, I would have loved it better.

As it was, it was painful to see Felicity’s message delivered to someone who had no need of it. Admittedly this pain lives simultaneously with the pleasure that someone heard it, that someone took to task those who would pretend they hadn’t seen a woman transform into a bird in order to release the scream inside her. But Felicity’s previous interaction with the woman sees the woman almost mocking her, then instructing Felicity on the scrimshaw’s capacity for saving her. This was not a woman who needed that message.

Part of me wanted the story to end with Felicity-the-gull cradled beneath the woman’s arm, leaving towards something more hopeful, a relationship with someone who understood her, who would work to give her back what she’d lost. Most of me, though, remains in awe of the story’s sharp language, its sense of encroaching threat and terrified horror of bodily changes over which we have no control, the brutality of the cosmetics required to keep those changes in check. And as much as I felt for Felicity, released into the oblivion of a bird’s perspective and shrieking flight, I found myself feeling much more keenly for those other women I sometimes felt the narrative despise: the mothers with talon-hands and mouths hardening to beaks, half-twisted into and out of two shapes, who force their daughters to behave themselves because it’s the only way they know to protect them — when in fact those repressions are the root of the harm.

It’s devastating, and accurate, and I recommend it highly.

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Rich and Strange: “Santos de Sampaguitas” by Alyssa Wong, Part 2

Last week I reviewed Part 1 of this story; this week I’m reviewing Part 2, as well as reflecting on the story as a whole.

Briefly: it made me gasp and cry in that mixture of shocked, satisfied pain that comes from a story that’s managed to truly, suddenly surprise you with the places to which it was willing to go, the comfort it was willing to strip away. I recently had the experience of moving my body through increasingly heated rooms before plunging it into a pool I hadn’t been told was not just cold, but icy–and the experience of this second half was very similar. I hadn’t realized, after reading Part 1, quite what kind of story this was.

Spoilers follow!

Continue reading

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Rich and Strange: “Santos de Sampaguitas” by Alyssa Wong, Part 1

In preparing for today’s review I had to think about what boundaries I wanted to set for this recurring feature. I said in my statement of purpose that “I’m going to focus on magazines as much as possible, and have the reviews slanted towards recommendations unless I think there’s something constructive to be gained from pointing out a story’s failings.” Yet presented with a story that I intensely disliked, that I thought poorly executed at best and actively harmful at worst, I found myself exhausted by the thought of unpacking its problems. In order to do so I’d want to bring careful analysis to bear on it and possibly compare it to another story that succeeds where it fails — and I just don’t have the time this week. Also, this feature’s called Rich and Strange, not Poor and Conventional.

So instead I’m going to set a precedent by reviewing only half of a story, but one I loved: Part 1 of Alyssa Wong’s “Santos de Sampaguitas” at Strange Horizons. Part 2 goes up next week, so I’ll check in again at that time to see how it stacks up as a whole. For now, I was hooked enough by Part 1 to want to talk about it in depth.

“Santos de Sampaguitas” is the first-person narrative of Tín, a girl working as a maid in a wealthy Manila household with her older sister, Silvia. One night she’s visited by a dream of a dead god who informs her that she, like her mother before her, is heir to his power — power that Tín resists. By the end of this first part of the story, we’re left hanging as to where their relationship will go.

The language in this is beautiful; I was struck again and again by the originality of Tín’s voice, and her knack for a well-turned simile:

the sound of distant screaming, like a boiling saucepan of human voices

and

The dead god laughs, a dry sound like marbles rattling.

The story’s also full of italicized Tagalog words, which I loved for the opportunity it afforded me to be exposed to an unfamiliar language, to google things, ask around and look stuff up. The italicizing of non-English words in English-language fiction is a subject I’m ambivalent about in the abstract (and sometimes annoyed by in the concrete, when it involves the poor use of languages I speak): consider this informational video by Daniel José Older, or these excellent posts by Ekaterina Sedia on the exoticism of language and seeing through foreign eyes, respectively. It’s a subject that deserves its own post, so I just want to mark it here as something that others may also feel conflicted about. Personally, ignorant as I am about the language politics of Manila, I’m uncertain about whether what I’m being shown in the story is an instance of the dominant class speaking English and peppering their words with Tagalog and Spanish (the reverse of, for instance, people in Lebanon for whom mixing French and Arabic is a sign of poshness), or if the Tagalog’s being used to emphasise moments and concepts by selectively foregrounding the setting and the language most common to it. My feeling is that it’s the latter, which I’m completely on board with — I’ve certainly used Arabic that way myself in my own stories, and my reasoning is often complicated and personal. Mostly, though, I’m just supportive of challenging Anglophone readers out of their comfort zones.

Tín only has the use of one hand, though whether she’s been disabled since birth or through injury hasn’t yet been made clear; what is made clear is her relationship with her disability, and her awareness of other people’s discomfort with it. This creates an interesting framework for her relationship with the dead god — who claims that her disability is its mark on her — and with Rodante, a boy she deals with at market. The relationships are connected, though it isn’t yet clear how; but I appreciated seeing the way Tín’s awareness of her disability book-ends their interaction, going from a marker of her difference to a marker of something they share in common, and looping back to the god.

There’s a strange, high pressure in the back of my head, very similar to the shrill sound I hear during bangungot. I feel stupid, and I have an irrational urge to hide my arm from him even though he’s already seen it. [...] He laughs again as he lifts himself out of his seat and walks toward the back of the shop. That’s when I see that he’s limping. Rodante’s right leg is a tangled, rippled mass of scars. Just like my arm.

The hum in the back of my head builds to a dull roar.

But what I found myself enjoying most, besides Tín’s voice and perspective, was Tín’s talks with the god. An interaction that begins with her trying to remember not to be rude while the god terrifies her, then moves into the god being conciliatory, then pauses when she demands a boon the god can’t grant — it’s fantastic stuff, a wonderful back-and-forth that I completely enjoyed and very much want to keep reading.

Which I will — next week!

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Rich and Strange: Sam J Miller’s “We Are the Cloud”

Welcome to the first instalment of Rich and Strange, a weekly review of short fiction I’ve really enjoyed!

Set in a near-future New York where the disenfranchised sell a portion of their brains to “cloud-porting” — functioning as living nodes processing wireless data for rich people — “We Are the Cloud” is focused on Angel Quiñones, nicknamed Sauro, a 17-year-old in his twelfth group home and “inches away from turning eighteen and aging out.” While there he meets Case, a gay white kid of the same age, and falls in love, catalysing a process of reflection and discovery about himself and the place afforded him by the world in which he lives.

I wanted to tell him about what I had learned, online. How many hundreds of millions of dollars the city spent every year to keep tens of thousands of us stuck in homes like Egan House. How many people had jobs because of kids like us. How if they had given my mom a quarter of what they’ve spent on me being in the system, she never would have lost her place. She never would have lost me. How we were all of us, ported or not, just batteries to be sucked dry by huge faraway machines I could not even imagine.

I loved this story unabashedly: Sauro’s voice and vulnerability, the generosity of his character, and the integrity of his engagement with the unflinching awfulness of the premise are tremendously effective. It’s a heart-breaking, harrowing piece, made all the more so by that near-future vision’s many intersections with the present: in his Author Spotlight, Miller expands on the realities of foster kids’ prospects and the gross systemic injustices they face. It’s also a desperately elegant story, combining a careful structure with a depth and intensity of emotion that puts me in mind of ivy bursting from a brick wall; the very controlled, deliberate punctuation of Sauro’s present with moments from his past is a mixing of mechanical and organic reminiscent of the cloud-ports themselves.

As much as it’s about being a gay kid coming of age in dreadful circumstances, and about pain and betrayal, and about race and class, it’s necessarily also a meditation on different perceptions and realities of power. Sauro’s 6″6, dark-skinned, and muscular; in the story’s first scene he’s called Goliath, intimidating Case’s assailant with a word and a look. In literally the next moment, he’s utterly at Case’s mercy, helpless with attraction, and terrified by it, willing to do anything Case asks of him. Their relationship is a brilliant investigation of the Mandingo stereotype, exploring and exposing its projection on to Sauro as a damaging fantasy, an imaginary power conferred on him in order to justify his exploitation. This dynamic is repeated, reversed, and turned inside out over the course of the story with dexterity and skill.

If I felt the story had any shortcoming, it was in the ending, and this was only a matter of rhythm; I wanted perhaps two more sentences to wrap it up somehow, to bring it to a fade-out ending instead of an abrupt stopping. The stopping works thematically, potentially with a sort of clever ironic twist (not a plot twist, just a sort of arch meta twist) — but this is a story that’s been nerve-strikingly intelligent throughout rather than merely clever, so I’d rather not read the ending with the glibness I can imagine justifying it stopping the way it does.

Definitely rich, definitely strange, as well as moving, beautiful and intense, “We Are the Cloud” was an incredible read, and one I highly recommend.


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A Commitment to Reviewing Short Fiction

Yesterday I tweeted the following:

I hadn’t yet read Sam J. Miller’s “We Are the Cloud”; I was just so furious that some twit at Tangent — the same twit, as it happens, whose ravings about Women Destroy Science Fiction I responded to here — thought the shambling homophobic incompetence excerpted above constituted a review that I wanted to make sure the story reached a wider audience.

Then I sat back for a minute and felt bad that it took a bigot panning a story by an author I like to make me read it.

This happens all the time: bigots are a dime a dozen, their disconsolate mutterings easy targets. We can pat ourselves on the back and feel good about rising to the occasion of sticking it to some jerk who thinks two seventeen-year-olds having sex with each other requires a warning label because they share a gender. But I don’t know if that moment of self-righteousness actually translates into sea-change without further, sustained effort; without praising the things we’ve enjoyed for their own sake and creating an environment in which discussions and recommendations of short fiction can flourish outside of award season.

I’m aware of a few people reviewing short fiction online with some regularity; by all means add more in the comments, as this list is not at all comprehensive:

For myself, I want to respond by actually reviewing short fiction the way I think it ought to be reviewed. Reviewing is how I make a living at the moment, so I don’t have much time to spare to do this for free, but I think I can probably cut an hour out of social media faff every day and let that add up to reviewing at least a couple of stories a week. Maybe I’ll stick up a tip jar or something if I succeed in achieving regularity.

So, starting today, Wednesdays will be Short Story Review days hereabouts (at least until I decide whether or not to start a dedicated review blog). I’ll call the series Rich and Strange in the hope of contributing to the aforementioned sea-change. I’m going to focus on magazines as much as possible, and have the reviews slanted towards recommendations unless I think there’s something constructive to be gained from pointing out a story’s failings.

I’ll start with “We Are the Cloud.”

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A Miscellany: NPR, Lightspeed, and PodCastle’s DRINK ME

I genuinely thought September would be something of a respite from the busy-ness of the summer, in which I’d be able to catch up on everything a few things before the end of the month and go into October with something resembling a clean slate.

That hollow, ringing sound you hear is my self-deprecating laughter.

So! Here are a few things I’ve neglected to announce anywhere but Twitter:

I reviewed The Witch With No Name, the last book in Kim Harrison’s Hollows series, for NPR Books here. I liked it much better than the penultimate book, was impressed by the wrapping up of several long-standing plots, saddened by the continued side-lining of Ivy, and perplexed by the withheld epilogue. I’m looking forward to starting a new urban fantasy series, though, and am happy to hear recommendations! Crucial to my enjoyment: strong friendships between women, and women as protagonists. Also ideally the friendships having some kind of narrative primacy over the heterosexual romances. (If you find me a multi-volume urban fantasy with queer romances between women I will just stare at you in sappy gratitude for an uncomfortably long time.)

I also reviewed Your Face in Mine by Jess Row, which so far has the distinction of being the only book I’ve read for NPR that I’ve actively despised. The review is here. For a slightly kinder review (with which I agree), you can read Alex Brown’s take on Tor.com.

And for some palate-cleansing — I highly, highly recommend Saeed Jones’ Prelude to Bruise, which I reviewed here. I was delighted to be asked to read it for All Things Considered, as well (you can listen at the same link), and learned to my astonishment that unlike reading fiction for podcasts, speaking at your speed-of-light conversational pace is actually encouraged for radio. Really all I wanted to do was read Jones’ poetry on air, but they wanted only the smallest of snippets, so allow me to reiterate again that you should all acquire this collection and read it over and over.

Speaking of podcasts — I contributed a piece of never-seen-anywhere-else-and-written-only-because-Dave-Thompson-batted-his-virtual-lashes-at-me flash fiction to PodCastle’s special DRINK ME flash fiction extravaganza, keeping company with stories by Tim Pratt, M. C. Wagner, Ken Schneyer, and E. Lily Yu. My story’s called “The Rag Man Mulls Down the Day,” and is read by the ever-amazing Marguerite Croft, who makes it, as far as I’m concerned, a million times better, to the point where I actually don’t want it to ever appear anywhere in print. I wrote it to be read aloud, and she’s reading it better than I could’ve done, so it’s basically achieved its perfect form. The only way I could imagine it improved would be if someone made a small comic out of it.

You can listen to DRINK ME here, and comment on it in PodCastle’s forums here.

And finally, I’m delighted to announce that starting in March of 2015 I’ll be writing a quarterly review column for Lightspeed, alternating with Andrew Liptak and Sunil Patel. I’m on the staff page now and everything! I’m really excited about this, and looking forward to working further with these excellent people.

#SFWApro

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Attack of the Space Unicorn Limericks

So Uncanny Magazine is for real a thing! It hit every last one of its stretch goals! I couldn’t be prouder of Lynne and Michael Thomas, or more excited to be part of their project.

unicorn_finalHowever! Last night, while excitedly watching the numbers, I started a betting pool with Michael in Gchat over how many backers there’d be. With 17 hours to go he was sure they wouldn’t get beyond 975; I was adamant that there would be at least 1000. So I decided that if there were 1001 backers — 1000 besides myself — I would do something ridiculous.

Like, I d’know, read out some hastily penned limericks in honour of Uncanny Magazine’s Space Unicorn mascot while wearing a silly hat. On video.

I’ve never done any video blogging prior to this, so forgive the rough effort; it was done in one take and I don’t know my angles. But here it is nevertheless, born of sheer enthusiasm for sillyness and Space Unicorns and delight at a project’s success.

Enjoy!

Space Unicorn Limericks from Amal El-Mohtar on Vimeo.

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Nine Worlds Schedule

And here is my Nine Worlds schedule — which begins TOMORROW, eep!

Friday

Suffering Sappho! Queer representation in superhero comics
Connaught B, 1:30pm – 2:45pm (LGBTQAI Fandom)

The Doctor’s Privilege
Royal C&D, 3:15pm – 4:30pm (Doctor Who)

Saturday

 
If A Woman Was Cast As The Doctor…
Royal C&D, 1:30pm – 2:45pm

Wouldn’t It Be Cool If…
Connaught B, 3:15pm – 4:30pm (LGBTQAI Fandom)

Bifröst! Queer Cabaret
Comm East, 8pm – 10pm (LGBTQAI Fandom)

Hope to see you there! Do let me know if you’re planning on being there and whether you wish to meet up — this is my first Nine Worlds and I’m looking forward to meeting new people and people I mightn’t get to see otherwise.

#SFWApro

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