Friday, December 1, 2017

November Reads

The Red Tree by Caitlín R. Kiernan
The Red Knight by Miles Cameron
Winter by Ali Smith
The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson
The Red Threads of Fortune by J. Y. Yang
Beneath by Kristi DeMeester

I read Kiernan's Agents of Dreamland back in August, in my "Part Two," which I never finished writing (I should do that) and I loved it: a stellar mixture of New Weird and Lovecraft homage and metafiction without being annoying about it. The Red Tree is more of the same, but longer, and more focused. The metafictional elements are woven into the text with skill, always far from the border of annoying self-awareness. While the horror elements of the novel didn't quite work for me as much as I wanted them too, I'm not convinced the novel is as interested in horror as its subject would have the reader believe. By which I mean, the novel feels more motivated by the tragedy and self-destruction of art than it does by eldritch horrors. This worked for me because the characters are really well drawn and the pain of writing is depicted with such a delicate and convincing touch. I loved this book and if it had leaned on the horror just a smidge more I might call it perfect. Not a slight against the novel as it had different ambitions, but more a preference on my part.

With The Red Knight, I try more fantasy fiction. I've been inspired to read a bit more in the genre thanks to playing Skyrim, the Betheseda video game (into which I've sunk countless hours). Cameron's series appealed to me because, and I'll be honest here, the cover design and the design of the physical object itself. My copy has a flapped cover, a deckle edge, a typeface for the title I'm inclined to like, and teeny tiny text set in another typeface I like. I had heard from a work colleague that the medieval warfare and combat were very realistic (the author is an enthusiastic reenactor) and exciting. Plus, the series is only 5 books long, with no individual title being more than 650 pages. I've abandoned Steven Erikson's magisterial Deadhouse Gates because it's just too damn long and too damn distant. I'd like to go back to it, but in the meantime, Cameron's just-finished series beckoned to me. While the cornucopia of medieval minutiae can be a bit wearing, the pacing is terrific, bounding ahead with its polyphonic narratives, but knowing well when to take a breath and demonstrate the humanity of its characters.

Something that sticks in my craw about The Red Knight though is the problem sitting at the heart of Lord of the Rings as well: the white Europeans are united against an impossibly large horde of uncivilized wild creatures. One of these creatures' name ends in "khan" which is obviously a problem. Cameron problematizes the simple dichotomy which is a staple of epic fantasy by having the creatures not be invading hordes but part of the very fabric of nature. In fact, the Wild, as the text dubs them, have been part of the land since before the arrival of man. Humanity has been encroaching on the Wild's borders, which is an interesting and discursively productive flip of the usual script.

Cameron's worldbuilding might be of interest to academic folks if only because at first glance, the world he's created seems enormously unimaginative: Christianity is the main religion, the French are called Galles, the Nordic folk are called Nordikon or something like that, and everything seems so faithfully transposed from medieval England as to be mind-numbing. Yet, there are glimpses past the veil of mediocrity to a fascinating world. The novel ends with the main cast meeting with a psychic avatar of a dragon the size of a castle who gifts them tools they'll no doubt use in the second book. There's a hint, just a hint, that maybe the cosmology of gods in this world is more complicated than the humans believe. Which intrigues me. I look forward to reading the next book.

Ali Smith's Autumn didn't quite do it for me but that hasn't deterred me from continuing with her four seasons project. Winter, of which I received an advance reading copy, was an incredible improvement over the earlier novel. It's more of the same, of course, more of Smith's linguistic pyrotechnics, practically naive political thoughts, and highly amusing episodes of awkward modern interactions (where Autumn had funny stuff about passport photos, Winter has a more heartbreaking but still similar episode in a bank). All of the same Smith tics and tricks are here, but they've been tightened just so, just enough to push this from ok to good, possibly even to great. Her ambitions are far greater with this one, even if her techniques aren't quite as advanced as they need to. Smith is interested in time and how time can function within the novel, but the very form itself resists any tinkering with time while still maintaining a narrative (a sequence of events laid out from one point to another). A narrative's very linearity, whether or not presented linearly, limits the possibility of synchronous voices or counterpoint or any musical/choral technique Smith would like to incorporate. Of course, I would never discourage Smith from her ambitions or experiments—I wish the opposite, in fact: please, Ali Smith, please save the novel from its bourgeois ruins. 

Molly etc is another novella. This is a great example of a premise better than the execution could ever be. No matter what Thompson followed through on, it was always going to disappoint from the promise of the central idea. Thompson sort of answers the ontological question at the heart of the novella, but not all of the way, but still too much of an explanation for my tastes. The novella isn't bad, per se, but it's kind of written in the same way a lot of contemporary SFF is: heavily workshopped prose designed to convey the maximum exposition possible, with little attention paid to aesthetics. Likewise, this is a novella operating under the logic of value, the logic laid out by Franzen in his essay "Mr. Difficult": the reader expects entertainment and any waffling from the author, any diversion from the path of the plot, any arty-farty interest in words, well that just distracts from the plot and thus betrays the contract, paid for by the reader. Which is to say that Thompson's novella is streamlined but at the cost of artfulness. Perhaps that's unfair of me, considering the purview of these novellas are to be short and sweet, but other authors under the aegis of the imprint have tried aesthetics outside of the usual range, so I don't think I'm asking too much. The type of plot first writing encapsulates the direction genre fiction is going and it's a direction I'm very ambivalent about.

The Red Threads of Fortune by J. Y. Yang was great: a unique fantasy world that's just deep enough to be alluring but not so deep as to be off-putting. Yang's queer protagonist falls in love with a non-binary person, who uses they/them pronouns, which is going to be an automatic boost for me, as it's nice to see non-binary representation in SFF. For once, and this is incredibly rare, I'm reviewing a book that's "in the news" so to speak, or at least making waves right now as we speak. I won't bother people with a long history of SFF's aversion to queer identities outside the safe heteronormative locus of thought (Delany being the apex exception) but I will link my readers to "An Open Letter With Respect to Reviews Published on Rocket Stack Rank" (here) and Rocket Stack Rank's response to the Open Letter (here). The crux of it is that this established apparatus of criticism was docking marks for use of the singular they pronoun, the use of which is a) linguistically established and, more importantly, the everyday texture of people's lives. I won't be mounting a defence of the singular they because who the fuck cares. But I am interested in how Rocket Stack Rank's apology leans less on mea culpa and more on nitpicking the particulars of the accusations. Ultimately, their apology is an attempt at damage control ("look, we're not all transphobes here!") and luckily for me, I had never heard of Rocket Stack Rank before (I'm, admittedly, out of the loop with regards to contemporary SFF). Over at the generally gross File 770, commenter Arifel sums up my thoughts on the subject quite eloquently:
the really fundamental thing to me here is that this isn’t some detached, debatable linguistic issue for a lot of people; it’s their identity. Treating it as the former and then forcing people to defend their existence against the Chicago Manual of Style (or whatever other historical authority about grammar you want to cite) is horrible behaviour, and at the very least precludes someone from writing an “objective” review site about SFF in 2017...
(here) This being one of the only times I would ever link to File 770, who have a grudge against the critic Jonathan McCalmont, for whatever reasons.

As for the novella itself, I quite liked it. Epic without being too daunting and intimate enough to maintain emotional stakes. My reading of fantasy has broadened a lot this year and my efforts to read non-paradigmatic examples has been the more rewarding (I've abandoned Tad Williams three times in my life now, most recently last month).

Kristi DeMeester's Beneath tickled my desire for horror and zagged where I expected it to zig. Similarly to Barker's Coldheart Canyon (reviewed here), DeMeester doesn't fuck around with the usual "I don't believe it" until the third act. Rather, in the first third, she puts the pedal to the metal, which is refreshing. An issue this brings up, structurally speaking, is how does one maintain the forward momentum, or the atmosphere. Unfortunately, Beneath does run into this problem. Around the halfway point, the characters are in a holding pattern: the narrative can't kill anybody major (because who would the novel then follow?) and the apocalypse can't come yet (because what else would follow?). It's a structural issue I'm not sure any novelist can truly overcome or at least if they have, I'm unfamiliar with them. The other issue plaguing Beneath is DeMeester's commitment to short sharp chapters. I'm presuming the intended impact is one of suspense, with each chapter ending on a sting, but the effect leaves the novel feeling choppy. No sooner is one scene set than we shift to another. Despite my qualms and quibbles, I did like the novel; it especially reminded me of T. E. D. Klein's short story from Dark Gods called "Children of the Kingdom" (reviewed here), and I mean that as a very strong compliment. DeMeester also reminded me a bit of the aforementioned Clive Barker, especially in her depicted intersection of sex and horror; characters often feel the heat of arousal during moments of fear; and one of the major subplots of the novel tries to delicately handle pedophilia, without ever feeling salacious or "Movie of the Week" in its earnestness. I've read some DeMeester short stories before and I plan to read more of her stuff.

All in all, a very good month, even if I felt a bit meh on a couple aspects of the texts I read.

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