Mendlesohn, Farah: Rhetorics of Fantasy

I don’t usually log books I’ve only read part of, but I need someplace to stash my notes on the bits of Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy that are relevant to the Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell reread, and I’ve come to accept that I’m probably never going to read the book straight through.

Rhetorics of Fantasy is a critical work examining “the way in which a text becomes fantasy or, alternatively, the way the fantastic enters the text and the reader’s relationship to this.” It argues that fantasy can be divided into four categories: the portal-quest (a character, and through them the reader, enters a fantastical world); the intrusion fantasy (fantasy enters the fictional world); the liminal fantasy (“magic hovers in the corner of our eye”); and the immersive fantasy (the fantastic is treated as the norm throughout).

These are thought-provoking categories, and I’d like to read the book in its entirety. But I find Mendlesohn’s prose a lot of work—this is not a complaint, I’m sure it’s within the norms of its genre, it’s just not a genre I’m used to reading. Also, I haven’t read a number of the works being closely examined, making those sections even harder going: so, realistically, I’m never going to finish this.

But what Mendlesohn has to say about JS&MN is quite useful and interesting. She categorizes it as an intrusion fantasy, though she points out that it’s more complicated than this: it opens as an immersive fantasy, because everyone agrees that magic exists . . . it’s just not performed any more, and thus its return is an intrusion. And (like in Lud-in-the-Mist) “magic is not an intrusion, but part of a palimpsest,” visible depending on one’s perspective.

The intrusiveness of magic in JS&MN is linked to manners—from politeness up to the very broadest sense of what different groups’ proper social roles are. Related to this is the way the story builds conflict around knowledge (how it’s arrived at, who has access to it) and how it talks about magic in terms of motion and the senses. And the footnotes, too, are intrusive, in that they often “disrupt the meaning or common understanding of the tale told in the main text.”

(There’s also a discussion of Stephen which I shall elide here for spoiler purposes, but which follows pretty obviously, I think, from what I’ve summarized above.)

Like I said, useful stuff, and I particularly like the bit about the footnotes. I’m sure I’ll be coming back to these ideas.

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Rapport, Mike: Napoleonic Wars, The: A Very Short Introduction

Mike Rapport’s The Napoleonic Wars: A Very Short Introduction is another book I read in prep for the Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell reread. And it lives up to the title and was just what I needed. I won’t remember the ebb and flow of the war, but I’ll be able to look things up for quick context when I need to; and more importantly, the book gave me the big-picture political context, which may not turn out to be directly useful to this reread but was interesting all the same.

international relations . . . were driven by the concern with what diplomats called the ‘balance of power’. This was based on the assumption that in pursuing their own interests, states and rulers ultimately achieved stability in the international order and a minimum guarantee of security for individual states—or at least for the stronger ones. . . .

. . . The ‘balance of power’, therefore, rationalized a brutally competitive international states system, in which the essential dynamic was the pursuit of individual, dynastic interest. Moreover, in a pre-industrial world, before rapid economic development provided states with a sustained expansion in domestic wealth, the quickest and most effective way of securing the resources upon which military power was based—above all, population and taxable wealth—was through territorial conquest, which also had the benefit of denying one’s rivals the same.

That’s from the first chapter, “Origins,” which lays out the state of European international relations prior to 1787 and then sketches the political changes leading up to the French Revolutionary Wars. Chapter two covers the French Revolutionary Wars; chapter three covers the Napoleonic Wars themselves. The other four chapters of the book look at the wars in terms of societal structures and government institutions, on one hand, and the experiences of soldiers, sailors, and civilians, on the other. As far as I can tell, this book does precisely what it says on the tin, so if that’s what you’re looking for, check it out.

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Mirrlees, Hope: Lud-in-the-Mist

Lud-in-the-Mist coverI’m going to be rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for starting in a couple of weeks [*], and to prepare for I’m doing a bit of research, posts about which will all be tagged as above. I started with Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist because Jo Walton said that JS&MN “is clearly written from an alternate universe where” it, not Lord of the Rings, was “the great fantasy-defining genre-starting book of the twentieth century, after Dunsany.”

[*] Though not, thankyouverymuch, chapter-by-chapter as I did for LotR and The Hobbit, since the precipitating factor here is the BBC TV adaptation which is expected to be out around the end of the year and JS&MN has 69 chapters.

So this was published in 1926 and is about a town that borders on Fairyland; but, we are told on the first page, “There had, however, been no intercourse between the two countries for many centuries.” This is, however, not accurate: not much later, the reader is told that fairy fruit is still readily available in the town, though its consumption is “regarded as a loathsome and filthy vice.” Trade in fairy fruit is part of what drives the plot. But more broadly, the book is about exposing the inaccuracy of that first statement: where JS&MN is about the return of magic, Lud-in-the-Mist is about the acknowledgement of magic that never actually left. (Well, it’s more complicated than that, but that’s a topic for the reread.)

This is a weird, weird book, partly in the way it portrays magic—where the weirdness is appropriate, because it’s meant to be discomfiting—and partly in the way its tone and plot don’t cohere by the end, which I regard as unfortunate. And indeed, I think it’s interesting to look at JS&MN as taking a very (very!) broadly similar plot arc as Lud-in-the-Mist and devoting much more effort to arguing that the resolution is just.

Speaking of justice, my second reaction after finishing (after “that was weird”) was, “no-one told me it was about law!” This is a book set after the merchants kicked out the aristocracy, who had looked upon fairy things with reverence; the merchants banned everything fairy, but they “substituted law for fairy fruit”: “fairy was delusion, so was the law. At any rate, it was a sort of magic, moulding reality into any shape it chose. But, whereas fairy magic and delusion were for the cozening and robbing of man, the magic of the law was to his intention and for his welfare.” (There’s even a trial late in the book, though the technicality that permits it would never fly these days.)

In terms of relevance to JS&MN, there’s a quote from about halfway through that’s the only thing I highlighted while I was reading: “Reality was beginning to become very shadowy and menacing.” While a bare-bones and unpoetic way of putting it, the way that the books write about magic, and its interaction with what we would call ordinary life, feel similar to me. There’s the similarity, on the very broadest plot levels, of the plots’ concerns: they are books of extremely different scope, but they’re ultimately about the proper place of magic in their societies. There’s also possibly a certain similar ironic tone in the omniscient narration, though I think that JS&MN‘s narrator is a bit warmer (I also can’t remember if Lud-in-the-Mist‘s narrator ever uses “I” instead of the occasional “we.”).

Anyway, worth reading, glad I did, but strange book and I’m not sure I actively recommend it. However, it is currently in print in the US as well as the UK, so it’s at least easy for people to give it a try. (The US ebook covers showing at Amazon and B&N are kind of hilariously wrong. I’m using the current UK cover here, which is sufficiently abstract that I have no idea what it’s depicting, but at least is pretty.)

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2014 Hugo Nominees: Novel

Look, it’s the very last 2014 Hugo post!

Parasite by Mira Grant. I read the first couple of chapters of this, and found it competent, but I realized it was putting my shoulders up around my ears because I found the opening rather gross and I knew more like that was on the way. So I stopped. (It’s not objectively explicit as horror goes, it’s just really not my thing.)

The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. Still not a novel.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. Still damn good.

Not read: Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles by Larry Correia, again for the reasons discussed here; Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross, again because I am allergic to his writing.

My ballot: 1) Ancillary Justice; (2) Parasite (competent, not its fault I couldn’t read it); 3) No Award; 4) Neptune’s Brood; 5) Warbound; 6) Wheel of Time (on ranking items below No Award). I’m ranking Wheel of Time last because this is a year where I genuinely think there’s a worthy book in the running and my guess is that if anything is a threat to it, it’s Wheel of Time (which, again: not a novel). I have no idea how its presence on the ballot is going to play out, but I’m going to do what I can just in case.

(Edit: it has come to my attention that ranking WoT last doesn’t have any effect on Ancillary Justice‘s shot at winning, as long as I put WoT somewhere behind; I admit the fine points of this form of voting are not something I have a strong grasp on. I’m not sure if I’ll revise the order of my vote below “No Award” as a result.)

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2014 Campbell Nominees

A quasi-Hugo post, as the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer is awarded through the same process but is Not A Hugo.

Wesley Chu. [*] I tried to read his first novel, The Lives of Tao, and gave up after, let’s see, four chapters. It was competently written but I wasn’t enjoying myself at all. Chad told me about it and yeah, it’s basically the Goa’uld and the Tok’ra all over again: sentient aliens that require hosts to live, share humans’ brains with them, and can use humans like meat puppets—except not even the nominally good ones in Chu’s novel ask for permission first, and they can’t be removed without killing the human. And from the four chapters I read, and what Chad told me, no-one takes the ethics of that at all seriously! Plus I am seriously over male geek wish-fulfillment fantasies; and when even positive reviews note its “[e]ye-rolling male gaze” and how the women are “all there to serve the male-driven plot”? No thank you.

[*] Initially I had a brain-glitch and conflated him with John Chu, who has a short story nominated for a Hugo. I got their names right in the entries and even the tags, and then just . . . glitched. Horribly sorry, and thanks to Caroline for pointing it out in comments.

Max Gladstone. Really liked his first book; meh about his second.

Ramez Naam. I stopped reading Nexus in the fourth chapter, when the clumsy exposition got to be too much. I hadn’t been enjoying myself much to begin with there, either—I’m pretty sure that the first chapter, which shows a guy using a seduction program and then a porn program to get a woman into bed, is supposed to show that he’s a bad guy, but being in his POV was seriously offputting—and then I realized that I’d already read works by multiple other authors on the ballot that were more technically accomplished, and closed the file.

Sofia Samatar. A Stranger in Olondria is really good; “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” is growing on me.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew. Short fiction only so far. Two of the three stories in the voter packet are online: “The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly” (Mythic Delirium) and “Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade” (Clarkesworld). (The other is “Fade to Gold.”) These were all very good. Sriduangkaew’s prose is a little on the ornate side for my tastes, but I’d comfortably put these up against anything else on the short fiction ballot.

(This is as good a place as any to note that many of the stories on the ballot this year are about identity in the face of technological changes to memory: the two Sriduangkaew stories linked above; “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”; “The Waiting Stars”; and of course Ancillary Justice.)

My ballot is probably 1) Samatar; 2) Sriduangkaew; 3) Gladstone; 4) No Award.

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2014 Hugo Nominees: Novella

One more short fiction category for the Hugos.

“Wakulla Springs” by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages ( This is pretty well-done, except for two things. First, its narrative weight is fairly unbalanced, scanting the end. Second, it becomes unequivocally SFF only in, literally, the last paragraph—indeed, I’ve seen a number of people argue that it’s not SFF at all. I think it is, because when I re-read that paragraph (I’d forgotten it entirely from my first read), I saw how the SFF element worked with the themes of the story . . . but in a very “let us write a high school essay pointing out the themes” kind of way. So I think it’s SFF, I just don’t think the SFF element is very good.

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente (published as standalone book; available as an ebook but not for free online). This also scants its ending, alas. More, it shifts from first to third about halfway through, and I would really have liked either first-person or some more explanation for the actions of the protagonist late in the story. Plus I didn’t find the narrative voice employed, in either first or third, very easy to get into. But I was somewhat more interested in it than in “Wakulla Springs,” so I don’t know.

The Butcher of Khardov by Dan Wells (published as a standalone book; available as an ebook but not for free online). I got about three pages into this before I said, “ugh, no.” Chad assures me that I didn’t miss a thing.

Did not read: “Equoid” by Charles Stross, because I am allergic to Stross’ fiction, which this time let me avoid some really awful sexual violence against a child, among other things (a short summary, read with due caution for triggers), so yay for that; “The Chaplain’s Legacy” by Brad Torgersen, again for the reasons discussed here.

I am really not sure what my ballot looks like, at this point, because I found both “Wakulla Springs” and Six-Gun Snow White flawed in fairly similar ways, and those are the only two going above No Award.

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2014 Hugo Nominees: Novelette

I’ve actually finished all the Hugo reading I’m going to do! Now I just have to . . . write it up. And vote, of course. Okay, here we go, today’s the day for all these (scheduled) posts.

So, I read 3/5 of the Novelette ballot. I’m going to discuss it, and the rest of the ballots, in alphabetical order by author’s last name.

“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” by Ted Chiang (Subterranean). As far as I’m concerned, this juuuuust barely escapes being a blog post or a Slate article about how technological advances change the way we approach memory, as opposed to being, you know, a story. And I would respect people who thought it didn’t escape it. (I also liked it better when I thought the third-person thread was not part of the first-person narrator’s presentation, but that’s a minor point.)

“The Waiting Stars” by Aliette de Bodard (at the author’s site). This was really good: emotionally engaging, genuinely science fictional worldbuilding, a lot of tension, resonant with current-day concerns while avoiding being didactic.

“The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal ( Nothing about the emotional weight of this story surprised me in the least, and that’s not even getting the weirdness of the worldbuilding that secritcrush on LJ notes.

Not read: “Opera Vita Aeterna” by Vox Day or “The Exchange Officers” by Brad Torgersen, for the reasons discussed here.

My ballot: 1) “The Waiting Stars”; (2) “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”; (3) “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”; (4) No Award; (5) “The Exchange Officers”; (6) “Opera Vita Aeterna” (on ranking items below No Award).

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Hatke, Ben: (02-03): Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, The Return of Zita the Spacegirl

The concluding books of Ben Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl trilogy, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl and The Return of Zita the Spacegirl, are as good or better than the first. Zita’s not perfect and the books let the consequences of her momentary lapses of judgment play out, with the same great art and inventive fun as before. Lovely plot momentum, too, Exhibit A for which is SteelyKid: the morning after we read the first half of the second book, she was dragging even more than usual, and she eventually admitted that she’d stayed up to read (or “read,” more likely) the second half of the book. So, though I felt like I was betraying my younger self to do it, I made sure to keep the third book out of her room when we weren’t actively reading it . . .

SteelyKid was a smidge taken aback by the “life goes on” style ending, because apparently narrative closure is an important thing when you’re almost six, but seemed satisfied by my firm promise that if the author wrote more books about Zita, we would get them. So, to the extent the SteelyKid seal of approval means anything to adults (as she also really likes, you know, Scooby-Doo books), there you go.

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Leckie, Ann: (01) Ancillary Justice

book cover Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice was one of the most talked-about books of my social circle over the last several months, and is nominated for a Best Novel Hugo. I think it’s not quite as amazing as all the discussion led me to expect, but it’s still damn good. Unless Mira Grant’s Parasite is far better than I expect (not that I have anything against Grant, but I haven’t heard anything about Parasite—well, anything at all, actually, which necessarily includes “anything that would suggest it’s as interesting as Ancillary Justice“), it’s at the top of my Hugo ballot.

The narrator of the novel, who goes by Breq, used to be a two-thousand-year-old spaceship called Justice of Toren which served in the Radch Empire. More specifically, she used to be an AI which controlled the spaceship as well as thousands of ancillaries—human bodies whose minds were wiped so that they could be controlled by the AI, like limbs. But now only a single ancillary body remains.

About the first half of the novel proceeds in two strands: retrospective narration of Justice of Toren‘s experiences twenty years ago, and a present-day strand in which Breq is on a quest for vengeance against the deliciously-named Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch Empire, who uses the same technology behind ancillaries to exist across thousands of bodies. So right away this is catnip for me: I love well-executed variations on narration, and there’s two things here, one new-to-me and one not but still great. First, the retrospective narration is first-person singular (“I”) but from many different physical perspectives. It starts out focused on One Esk, a twenty-ancillary unit stationed on a planet that the Radch Empire has recently annexed (read: violently conquered), and later broadens to include the awareness of Justice of Toren‘s ship functions (which are mostly background noise when the story is focused on the planet). At all points, the different perspectives and events experienced and related by the “I” are handled deftly. (And in particularly tense moments, the geographically-dispersed narration gives a kind of cinematic effect of quick-cutting between scenes, which is cool.) Second, in all her manifestations, Justice of Toren/One Esk/Breq is a profoundly unreliable narrator: but in ways completely separate from her multiplicity of physical inputs, which just delights me.

This is another book I read in tiny fragments at first, which did it no favors, to the point where I delayed writing this up until I could claw out some chunks of time to re-read it properly. And it works better that way, because what I thought at first was an overly-slow start turns out to be important for character development. I admit that I’d like there to have been more story in the present-day plot than there was; it is apparently a trilogy, and the book ends as a natural break point but with a tantalizing/frustrating promise of “this is just the beginning.”

This is a book very concerned with identity, as should be obvious from what I said already, and also with class. I haven’t seen much discussion of it along the latter lines; if anyone has links, please leave them in comments, because I know my thinking about class issues is pretty 101 and I’d love a more nuanced and informed analysis. It is not, much, a book concerned with gender, though that’s the other thing everyone knows about it: (a) it’s a book about an individual who used to be a spaceship and (b) it uses female pronouns for everyone, regardless of what, if any, gender they self-identify as.

This is only partly successful, but is also not that big a part of the book. In-text, we’re told that Radchaai society doesn’t have gender and therefore doesn’t mark it linguistically, and that Breq is unable to identify individuals’ gender in other societies. It’s implied that in translation, Radchaai ungendered pronouns are rendered “she.” Put that way, the problem with this is immediately obvious: “she” is not an ungendered pronoun. Sure, it’s better than Brust translating Paarfi’s ungendered forms of address into the masculine, and frankly I found it very relaxing to have the default be female instead of male [*]; but it’s quite true that in challenging the male default, the book’s pronouns then fall headfirst into reinforcing the binary gender default. I think it would have made more sense for the book to use an ungendered pronoun for Radchaai and an arbitrary gendered pronoun (“she”) for others. But, because Breq doesn’t care about gender, and because Radchaai society doesn’t either, the pronoun thing is a pretty small part of the book: Breq has a few musings about navigating other cultures politely, but that’s about it.

[*] Also relaxing is that the Raadchi are brown-skinned (indeed, a fairly dark brown is apparently the fashion).

There’s lots of stuff I haven’t even mentioned yet—aliens, there are aliens that are offstage in this book but very significant and teased to appear in the next; very tantalizing hints about Breq’s time before the present-day strand picks up (I don’t know if those are short stories, backstory to be expounded upon later, or just things to make the universe feel convincingly large, but any way I love them); and the relationship between Breq and her officers and former officers, including Seivarden Vendaai, who Breq almost literally stumbles across at the start of the present-day strand and rescues from hypothermia. (Yes, coincidence. I’ll allow it for the thematic resonances.) Leckie is juggling a lot of balls, and it’s tough to resolve anything on this scale, but as soon as I finished this I pre-ordered the sequel, which is out in October.

In short: not the best thing since sliced bread, but damn good. Read it.

(By the way, the series name comes from the header image at the author’s website.)

A spoiler post follows.

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