Poetry, Reviews, SFF

Review: “Our Lady of the Ruins” by Traci Brimhall

New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012

This review first appeared in 2016 in Strange Horizons.

Our Lady of the Ruins, by Traci Brimhall, is a poetry collection that follows a group of women wandering through the apocalypse. The back cover describes the women’s journey as a “pilgrimage” which is a faith-based term if ever there was one, even though the women themselves are periodically, violently anti-religious. The collection is mythic and layered, the poems forming a fractured narrative. And it’s a challenging narrative at that: a text laden down with metaphor and imagination, taking its imagery from a number of sources and with journeys over land and sea, from the old worlds and into the new, even venturing down into the underworld.

Steeped in the language of myth and pilgrimage as well as science, the first poem starts with an invitation that serves the same function as a question: “Imagine half the world ends and the other half continues” (“Music from a Burning Piano”, p. 15).

Imagine indeed.

There are a lot of apocalyptic stories out there. I don’t claim to have read all of them, but I have read a good few. They come in all shapes, mostly, although there are certain funnel effects—like the spectre of nuclear war, for instance—that help to form the resulting narrative and give it a sense and aesthetic different from that of a climate change apocalypse, for example, or one caused by plague.

What apocalypse stories tend to share is a theme of faith: what it is to have it, what it is to lose it, and how the object of that faith is both constructed and reconstructed in a changing environment. The faith in question could be in family, or it could be religious, or it could be the inability of science to make it all better, to restore order and bring back a semblance of normal life. Faith isn’t the only post-apocalyptic theme, of course, but it is I think the pre-eminent one.

The only type of faith that has no place in an apocalyptic narrative is a stagnant one. Stagnancy is dramatically dull at the best of times; following a hideous, transformative disaster it becomes unrealistic as well as dull. So: faith changes, or fluctuates, or perhaps it rebels. Faith, in an apocalyptic world, is metamorphic.

Which is why it shouldn’t be constrained by structure. The individual poems in Our Lady of the Ruins are fragments of larger stories. They ask questions of a destroyed world, of the place of faith and the place of stories in a world where destruction and faithlessness is the new norm. Because of this, stories are strung through the text like little seeds, telling of how “curators removed an elephant’s heart / from the museum because it began beating when anyone / in love looked at it, how the coroner found minnows / swimming in a drowned girl’s lungs” (“Prelude to a Revolution”, p. 16).

Sometimes, though, these stories are twisted from what they once were. After visiting an oracle, the narrator records, “We tie new knots in her hair and swim / into the belly of a shark to retrieve the book / of signs” (“Come Trembling”, p. 81). When it comes to oracles who are linked to the swallowing of great ocean creatures, we are more used to thinking of whales… but a shark is sharper, more deadly, and more apt for the gorging of war and end times. These twisted little references are found throughout the text, and explicitly so: later in the “Come Trembling” poem is the comment, “We want to believe, to split open the myth / and lie in it” (p. 81); but myths lose cohesion when split open, when examined for cold reality and superstition, and the skewing of the stories reflects a destabilised world in which the old beliefs have become insufficient.

This twisting is intentional. If the undermining of faith is the backbone of apocalypse, the transformation of faith is the meat about the vertebrae, the journey towards a place to stand again, the beginnings of recreation, and of resurrection.

The spirituality that so conflicts the women at the centre of the collection is implicitly stated to be a form of Christianity—there are reliquaries and madonnas and cathedrals, although all of the last are burning, set alight by the pilgrims in an act of conscious destruction. “We tried to burn every cathedral in the country” (“Hysteria: A Requiem”, p. 48) the narrator confides, but what is the purpose of such burnings? Are they vengeance upon a faith that proved to be inadequate, or are the fires set for the purpose of metaphor? It’s not a new image, fire in the service of purification, of transformation, but in times of struggle we often fall back upon the familiar.

Often, but not always – and it’s in this land-mined area between old habits and the kicking against them that new myths are born.

Our Lady of the Ruins is determined in its stand against resurrection. The narrator of the poems, one of the nameless women on pilgrimage, resolutely turns away from the possibility of spiritual renewal. This is the primary tension of the text: the betrayed reaction, for even though the women rebel against symbols of what one presumes was their previous, shared beliefs, they are on a pilgrimage still. But a pilgrimage for what? Does a pilgrimage have to be for anything anyway? What if it is a pilgrimage against?

Mid-apocalypse is a time for doubt and darkness if ever there was one, and both take centre-stage in this narrative. Doubt is not only a reasonable condition here; it is a mandatory one. “You, chosen for your doubt, / remain on the bridge, caught in your quiet / passage from one broken country to another” (“Diaspora”, p. 22). “You are the doubter and the doubt / worshipping a book you can’t read” (“Gnostic Fugue”, p. 35).

Characters who don’t doubt, in an apocalypse, are not characters driven—or even influenced—by reason. Their faith tends towards fundamentalism, their one-track minds so broken by trauma, or by the opportunism granted by trauma, that they’re all too invested in faiths that don’t change. That can’t change, although that “can’t” is always a position both driven and enforced by a faith’s followers. It’s the people more attuned to the world around them, the people with the most awareness of the utter destabilisation of apocalypse, that find their faiths both muted and mutating.

The world of Our Lady of the Ruins has been scarred from war until it is almost unrecognisable. “The Colossus” states that, “In the beginning, none of us can tell rock / from bone” (p. 31). This is an example of the conflation of body and nature that is so often illustrated in eco-poetry, lifted out and inserted into another genre, one where the body is equally influenced by—and influencing of—the environment. Here the conflation between the two is underlined by the sterile landscape and the death of the narrator’s baby. Fertility and growth are beyond the personified natural, and the stories are instead those of death and burial, or death and cremation.

The images of destruction in this collection are consistently linked with fire. New battlefields are “lit by strange flames” (“The Needful Animal”, p. 32). Even the anonymous narrator links her own desire for obliteration with fire, following the death of her child in “Requiem for the Firstborn”: “I can burn down the sugar cane” (p. 74). Some days she says that “fire is a mirror” (“Envoi”, p. 78), comparing their different capacities for destruction. The only things the narrator can retain are “grief / and a new obedience and four pounds of ash” (“How to Find the Underworld”, p. 75), where the ashes are remnants of fire and the only link to a destroyed past.

In the collection’s introduction, Carolyn Forché links the apocalypse of the text with the holocaust that was the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War Two. Forché describes Brimhall as “standing, as the stone lady stood in the ruins of bombed Dresden (as it happens, near the Church of Our Lady), keeping vigil in the aftermath”. The holocaust at Dresden is an apocalyptic landscape also caused by science: the white phosphorous bombs causing fires that would foreshadow the coming atomic bomb. Brimhall, by exploring the lives of the survivors of her own scientific apocalypse, tells their stories by metaphors and mixing, echoing science with myth to make new stories and new meanings for the new (and frequently hideous) world.

This merging of myth and science is repeatedly illustrated in the text. I’m thinking of one particular image of a fossil, standing as proxy for the subjective nature of personal truth. The narrator tells of her sister, who knows “that a fossil leaves two stories—one about unmiraculous fish and loaves and a hill crowded with atheists muttering mass, and one about carbon” (“The Revisionist Gospel”, p. 36). Or there’s the poem in which the women visit monks in “The Orchard of Infinite Pears” (p. 82)—monks who refuse to speak, whose primary interest now seems to be in the mathematical properties of zero. If they’re spreading any word at all now, any gospel, it’s of fruit and arithmetic instead of divinity.

As I commented before, this is a challenging text. But also a rewarding one, I think, and one that bears repeated reading. It exists in a space of searching and doubt, with juxtaposed images and personal ambiguities—the rages and defeats and small joys of continued existence—illustrating what life in an apocalypse might be for the poets, or for the faithful. Highly recommended.


Poetry, Reviews, SFF

Review: “Wake” and “Drink” by Laura Madeline Wiseman

Wake published by Kelsay Books, Aldrich Press, 2015.

Drink published by BlazeVOX [books], 2015.

This review first appeared in 2016 in Strange Horizons.

These two poetry collections are reviewed together. There’s some similarity between them: both are centred on family and myth, with metaphors both mortuary and marine. Both are worth reading, although if you’ve only got time for one, I’d recommend you go for Drink. I’ll get to that one in a bit.

Wake is the slimmer of the two volumes, and it is primarily concerned with death – specifically, relationships with death. Before death, after death, how monsters approach death and how women do. The last of these is particularly relevant, as Wiseman’s death is a woman, come in the form of a sister. This female, familiar perception is not one I’ve come across often – barring F.G. Haghenbeck’s portrayal of Godmother Death in The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo­, or Death in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series,  for instanceand it gives an interesting flavour to the text, one that’s underlined and simultaneously undercut by the unsympathetic portrayals of corporeal sisters.

“Unsaid Negative Confession: We Hate You” (49) has the poem’s narrator screaming her hatred at a sister who stands block-like, impervious. Apparently she feels nothing; the hatred doesn’t touch her – which is what you’d expect from a death-sister and not a blood one. Everything dies, and tantrums on the stairs make no difference. The mythological carries on, undisturbed by the messiness of human emotions and accusations. Yet the attraction remains, the sense of family loyalty even if it’s one-sided.

“I like monsters” says the poet (in “Preference”, 56). Yet “My sister is a monster” (so claims the poem “Barren Monsters”, 58) which tells of an abusive relationship between the sister and her partner, a man who hits and pulls her hair, who calls her names. The sister is infertile, presumably because “Monsters and humans can’t mate”. One would presume, in this case, that it’s the partner who is the true monster, but biological femininity will out – the bleeding, the “extra wombs” – for body here defines monstrosity more than action. It’s a classification prefigured by early behaviour. The poem “Book of Monsters” (61) states that “As a girl, my sister painted her bedroom’s ceiling and walls black”. Black, the colour of death, of unconsciousness and falling away, if ever there was one. The monster-sister, building a habitat.

No surprise, then, that this monstrosity is reflected in the death-sister. The walls between realities are narrow things, and easy to split. This is most obvious in the imagery of the death-house. In this world, that house is only visited once, and the door is one way. In Wake, however, the house of death is a place to be visited over and over again as one walks in and out of the underworld, as in myth and legend.

Part of this dual approach is due to the nature of the collection: Wiseman takes a genre-mashing approach, creating a whole out of disparate parts, so that more realistic poems are cheek-by-jowl with explorations of fairy tales (the Little Mermaid and Snow White) and mythology. Part of it, however, harks back to the sister-relationship of death. A sister’s house is a place for visits, for taking tea and gossiping – or throwing cups and slamming doors, a grand exit full of pique and refusals. “We don’t go there anymore” says the poet (in “Death’s House”, 38) and it’s a saying that comes with the echoes of fractured relationships and replacement, for other people are lining up to visit Death’s House. Other people live there; they “tread the family carpet, watch the doors”. Yet later, in “Sister Death” (46), “We know it’s time to visit again” and it’s all reminiscences of past lives together, of parties and shared beds and thin walls so that conversations in one room can be heard in the next. The reminiscing isn’t kind. It’s of a bitter thank-goodness-I’m-well-out-of-it-now sort, an uneasy truce. But if that relationship has notes of realism in it, then they’re overshadowed, often, by a text that values a sort of mutual, metaphorical osmosis. In “The Entrance to Death” (64) the same narrator who refuses and remembers crawls over the threshold: “I’m going in. I’ve been there. I can come back.” In “Death’s Cameras (51-52) it’s “Together we’ll go back to the living”.

But go back to what? Come back as what? As one of the women in “Anthology of the Dead” (40) who gather under an advertising flyer, lured in to tell stories of their own deaths, their own murders? Stories of being strangled, of being framed as a suicide, of the betrayal of sisters and mothers (by sisters and by mothers? or just by daughters?). And these stories they tell – how real are they anyway? Are they just fairy stories of another kind? Ariel the amnesiac mermaid, making things up because “Anyone would forget an event that turned every step into a feeling of knives” (in “Considering Lore”, 39).

It’s a focused collection, Wake, albeit with a focus that blurs to ghost each action with metaphor and myth trailing behind like incense. That focus makes for a very interconnected text that can be a little repetitive but at least is certain of what it is: a study in death and sisterhood, one that stalks behind with a rotting welcome mat.

I read Wake before I read Drink, and really it would have been better to have read them the other way around. Drink appears to be the more foundational work, and large portions of it are dedicated to the portrayal of an abusive, alcoholic mother and the resulting suicide attempt of a sister. The effects of alcohol, of drink, are contrasted in this collection with the imagery of – and poems on – mermaids. It seems an odd combination, at first, and one that relies on wordplay – in the drink, on the drink, and so on. Bottles piling up in the rubbish bin of a cheap motel room; bottles sinking to the ocean floor and being used as toys. Empty bottles broken up and used for art; empty bottles filled with seawater and messages.

But the wordplay is underpinned by deeper connections – the varying myths and realities of modern life. The poem “On Vanishing” (19) makes this particularly clear. After the disappearance of a plane, possible reasons for that disappearance get stranger and stranger, delving into science fiction and controversy. Then “Someone says, Mermaids. Another says, This is about lack of security, welfare moms. There’s no such thing as mermaids.” The myths of the past, of half-human, half-fish sea creatures are being replaced by the myths of the present: the welfare mother as the reason for social (and aeronautical) collapse, the ever-present expectation of terrorism as the new lurking monster under the bed (in the hold). These myths expand into our social consciousness. Given that this is a book about mothers and daughters, the myth of the welfare mother holds special weight. Unemployed and slovenly, bearing multiple children to different fathers and spending her money unwisely. A scourge to her daughters, violent and abusive. That it appears to be true in this case – the sequence of poems in Drink where the mother ignores a daughter’s suicide attempt, telling her boyfriend du jour, on being confronted with that daughter’s failing body, to “Step over her, Joe. Step over her” (“Complicit IV”, 63) is particularly horrifying – doesn’t mean that the exception is the rule. Unless, of course, we’re mythmaking. Then, the single incompetent individual is blown up, magnified as the representation of an entire class, because demonising that class is an easy thing, a simple explanation. Terrible mothers don’t bring down ships in “On Vanishing”. They bring down planes.

The subject of the myth changes, but the object – the desire to explain, to place blame – remains the same. It’s not mermaids pulling men underwater any more, it’s irresponsible women drowning themselves in drink, and the children are suffering for it.

But if the terrible mother shares the threatening nature of mermaids, so do her daughters. It’s here that the two parts of Drink really come together: it’s an exploration of what living with drink, what being surrounded by it, can make of you.

In Drink, the daughters of an alcoholic become mermaids. Not literally, of course. They don’t learn to breathe underwater. Their legs don’t fuse; they don’t live on fish and the folk they lure into drowning. What they share is more subtle than that. It’s certainty that ties the two pieces of myth and reality together… the certainty of self, of what it means to be a mermaid, to be the daughter of a drunk.

This certainty both strengthens and handicaps. Mermaids “fear nothing. The only thing to fear is mermaids” (“Shadows”, 24). The only thing to fear is the self, in other words. The self that refuses to die, even after swallowing a bottle of pills and being stepped over by boyfriends, still and silent on the carpet, surrounded by vomit. The self that is afraid of backsliding, of transforming into the mother, because alcoholism in a family member increases the chances of alcoholism in the self. “I don’t drink anymore so there’s no beer, no wine, no liquor to take a drink” (“Hit the Bottle”, 87). Reminders of temptation, of generational repetition, are always about. A partner who collects bottles (and how much is the daughter of an alcoholic going to be drawn to others? has it happened without her understanding it?). Bottles that appear out of nowhere: “I didn’t understand why there was a bottle by the sink. I didn’t put it there” (“The First Bottle”, 72). Bottles thrown into the ocean, and always the possibility of return: “You say, It will come back. I shake my head, thinking, No, some choose never to come back” (“A Bottled Message”, 71) – the implication being, of course, that some do.

Mermaids are trouble because their only danger is themselves. They’re unaffected by anyone else. “Not like elves or fairies. If you stop believing in them, they don’t care or die” (“Against I: Myth”, 29). If you stop believing in a parent, do they care? If a mother’s daughter is overdosing at her feet, does she remain unaffected?

The rock solid certainty of personality, this absolute cleaving to myth, is reflected in the certainty of daughter towards the mother. “Welfare Queen” (43) is acid in the description of the parent: negligent, abusive, entirely absent of boundary. The daughters, in reflection, are called “Pariahs. Homeless. Whores” because certainty is catching when myths are about. They’ve a mythic role to play, those daughters: the next stage in the intergenerational cycle of dependency, the image of their mother.

In response to sexual abuse, the girls “grew scales, bone hard and jagged, an armour”. Their humanity is taken away by the indifference and determined looking-away of neighbours, when there was no-one “who would talk to us like we were human / we swam mostly alone” (“Pariahs”, 51).

Mermaid traits are thus a defence mechanism – but a double-edged one. Becoming a mermaid may protect from some threats, but it comes with certainty and risk, the possibility of turning into mother, of being so solidly set upon a rock made of bottles that the final destination really is drowning in drink. “I write, SOS. I write, My sister refused to die. I write, We are all mermaids” (“O Captain! My Captain!”, 88). The daughters swim alone, but another poem, “The Mermaid’s Sister” (89) says “I don’t swim, not even close”, while being gifted with bottles by a lover.

The drink is always a temptation, for mermaids, for the daughters of alcoholics.

It’s what’s expected of them, anyway.

Reviews, SFF

Review: “Of Sorrow and Such” by Angela Slatter

slatterTor.com, 2015.

This review first appeared a little over eight months ago in Strange Horizons.

Patience Gideon lives a quiet life with her foster daughter and familiar, until another witch comes to town and trouble follows soon after. Rescuing a local shape-shifter goes pear-shaped when gratitude doesn’t guarantee common sense, and Patience finds herself in the hands of the men whose preferred dealings with witches end in public burning…

There’s an author’s note at the back of the book that says Of Sorrow and Such takes place in a pre-established universe; one that Slatter’s written about before in her collections Sourdough and Other Stories and The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. Fair warning: I haven’t read either of these, and so my assessment of Sorrow is purely as a standalone novella.

The story takes place in your typical European mediaeval/early modern community, complete with overbearing religious orders and expected hidebound social relations (especially gender relations: more on that later). I wondered briefly if this was a secondary world, but there are enough references sprinkled through (most often religious, along the lines of not suffering witches to live) to set it firmly in this one. “Simply confess how you worship and obey Lucifer, the fallen one” (114) says one of the churchmen, removing all my doubt.

There’s no real indication of a specific time period, though. I was a little surprised to find a reference to skin cells – “I should have no more attachment to her than I do the skin cells that slough off daily” (124) says Patience of her dust-double – which did give the text a more modern feeling. (Robert Hooke coined the phrase “cells” in the latter half of the 17th century after looking at sections of cork under a microscope. Cell theory wasn’t really developed until the 19th though, and I’m wondering how common knowledge of cells was previously, even for closet intellectuals living in small communities such as Patience was and did.)

So, the story’s untethered in time. A fair enough choice, given the strictures of the novella form, and it doesn’t need to be pinned down to rely on expectation – for rely it does. Most readers will have an (already heavily underlined) perception of the times of witch-burning and religious oppression. They’ll have had Galileo and Miller’s The Crucible rammed down their throats in school, reinforcing the basic unfairness of intellectually corrupt power structures and the tendency towards mass paranoia and finger-pointing resorted to by at-risk populations. Take her not me; it’s her that’s the witch, and so on.

Readers only have to be marginally more aware to realise the gender politics at play in accusations of witch-women: the uncontrollable feminine and the moral disasters that follow (so sayeth Authority) when it breaks out of bounds, disobedient at heart and a danger to all around it. Worse when the women themselves believe it, subscribing to an ideology that hurts them when they follow and hurts them when they don’t. (Take her not me.) If Sorrow is untethered in time it may be because there’s just no room for any more tethering, for Slatter takes these common expectations of witch hunts and women and absolutely hammers them.

Let’s be clear: this is not a subtle book. (Subtlety’s not always the goal, of course, but when it’s so clearly eschewed it’s interesting to wonder why.) There’s no mention of Malleus Maleficarum but it hammers and hammers anyway, this story of a witch-hunt from the other side. And part of this hammering is really quite wonderful, but part of it is not.

Sorrow is very clearly a book of female experiences, of the lives and secrets of women. It’s the sort of story I’m predisposed to love. But the more I read, the more I began to wonder if the underlying world-building rests on anything but expectation.

This is complicated somewhat by the simple fact that there is validity in Slatter’s approach. Sexism was a powerful social force during the historical witch-hunts, and glossing that over would have had many readers rolling their eyes, I think. It’s perfectly reasonable, then, for Slatter to weave women’s experience of sexism so thoroughly into her story. It’s a realistic choice.

But. BUT. How far does realism go, I wonder? Sorrow’s genre is not historical fiction. It’s a fantasy story. And while I hesitate to bring up the trope, “Everything changes but the status of women”… if I’m honest, while I was reading there were times when I thought it.

Sexism develops from power structures. This isn’t news to anyone: when one gender holds the balance of power (physical, political, religious etc.) over another then an unhealthy relationship between the two develops. There are numerous examples of this in Sorrow: the murderous collaboration between the pastor and the doctor as they try to poison the pastor’s wife so she can be traded in for a younger model; the domestic violence in the Brautigan family; the burning and hanging of women who stray from prescribed behaviour.

If this were a historical novella, where Patience and the women like her were persecuted for herbal remedies and talking out of turn then the unrelenting focus on the power relationship that is sexism in those times would be absolutely appropriate.

The thing is, power relationships change when the balance of power changes, and that’s what Sorrow doesn’t address. (The other texts in the story’s wider universe may do so, but as I said, I haven’t read them.) Patience and Selke – and by inference all the other witches – don’t make their way through the world by having green thumbs and knowing what feverfew will do for a migraine. They have real, tangible power.

When Flora Brautigan has her hand chopped off, Selke makes her a new one. Admittedly the ingredients are a little creepy – living clay and grave dust, for instance – but once the magic’s over it’s a functional hand and essentially no-one can tell the difference.

In a pre-industrial, primarily agricultural peasant economy, how, how is this not a game-changer for the existing power structure? Imagine that you’re a peasant farmer, a tenant farmer with a family to feed, and you’re out doing your thing in the fields when you trip over your own scythe and lose a limb. There’s no social security, no national health. If you can’t work you don’t eat and your family starves. And yet Patience still has a pre-magic, historical-genre understanding of what this means for society.

Consider her (quite lengthy, given the total word count) musings on how male-dominated medicine will eventually push her own efforts out of local healthcare.

I’m the person Edda’s folk turn to for everyday remedies even when Doctor Herbeau is visiting. Yet I harbour no illusions: I am tolerated. If a physician ever deigns to make his home here, then I shall become something of an embarrassment, an object of superstition …. A medical man will spout fancy terms they do not understand, patronise them, and hand out tablets that give a little relief but no cure …. A doctor with his empty vows will steal their hearts and hollow heads from me, and they’ll dismiss the times I saved their children from fever, or given elderly parents a balm against lingering disease. (7-8)

The full argument, over two pages, is crucial because it comes so close to the beginning of the book (it starts on the third page of the story proper). I don’t believe Slatter has given it so much time and early space for no reason: it’s the gender-theme of the book in a nutshell. Patience is skilled and useful, but she is also perceived as inferior, and when a more socially acceptable (if less capable) Learned Man comes along, she’ll be pushed out. This, she opines, is typical behaviour: “It has happened before and I’ve no doubt it will happen again” (8).

In a magic-absent society – and I’m talking real, demonstrable magic here, not the accusations minus empirical evidence that passed for sorcerous inquiry in historical times / passes for it in historical genre – Patience would probably be right. An existing power structure that privileges men over women would very likely bulldoze her methods for his.

If you’re a peasant with a headache you’d probably go along with it. I mean, there’s the Learned Man come with his diploma from the outside, come with the backing of university and church and he uses a lot of impressive words and gives you pills and instruction. On the other hand there’s Patience, who likely gave you a whack on the arse as a kid and chatted with your old Mum about your toilet training. You see her rummaging in hedgerows sometimes, looking for bits of green.

You’ve got a headache. You take the pill and the headache goes away. I mean they do eventually, don’t they? It’s just a headache.

But if you’re a peasant who’s just had both arms lopped off at the wrist because your neighbour in the fields was careless with swinging his scythe, then I’m sorry but the doctor with his pills can fuck right off compared to a woman who can give you back your hands. Fear of hell is totally overthrown by the fear watching your family starve in a ditch after eviction because you couldn’t work enough to pay rent on the farm.

That’s what magic does. It changes the balance of power. A change in the balance of power changes the power structure.


But not here.

Magic in Sorrow is deeply, undeniably powerful. It can recreate lost limbs, restore perfect function. It can even recreate a whole person well enough to fool others (as when Patience’s dust-double mimics her practised slipping-under-radar, behaving as expected under the most trying of circumstances). Magic can bring the dead back even if only to half-life; it can change people into animals and back again. Against the scientific and industrial capacity of mediaeval or early modern times it’s the power equivalent of giving grenades and a machine gun to a Neanderthal while the rest of them are hitting each other with clubs, but none of that fucking matters because in fantasy everything changes but the status of women.

And it’s such a shame because there was a point in this highly-feminine text where it looked like Sorrow had a handle on how power could play with gender. Patience has a giant dog who’s actually the forced transfiguration of a man she loved, a man who discovered what she was and spurned her. Patience, however, wanted what she wanted, a loyal and loving companion, and used her magic to enforce her wants. It’s such an inversion of gender expectation – often in fantasy, it’s the woman compelled to stay, her body shape forcibly controlled (see, for example: selkie). But Patience has power, and that alters not only Gideon’s body and fate but his emotions as well. That’s as far as it goes, however, and the clear next step lies untaken by the narrative, which otherwise sticks against all odds to the solidly gender-expected.

I wrote earlier that Of Sorrow and Such was a story of female experience, of the lives and secrets of women. And it is – but I can’t help but think, if only those experiences had come out of choice rather than compulsion. Instead, it’s the outside male threat that causes women to band together – as if they wouldn’t do it out of liking and shared interest and common cause. That threat is everywhere, from the domestic (how many brothers here have sexual designs on their sisters?) to the wider world (the witch-hunting churchmen).

Those churchmen. You know what I’d do, if I were the church trying to neutralise the effect of real magic – demonstrable, useful, potentially highly popular magic – on my preferred power structure? I’d engulf it, like I did with pagan festivals and midwinter feasts. I’d make it mine.

You can replace a severed limb, and you can do it where everyone can see and have no doubt of what you can do? Congratulations, pious lady! You’re a miracle worker, touched by the saints. We’ve a comfortable little anchorage for you, free food, a couple of servants, religious services every day. Your skills can get us prestige and cash. Not that we’d have you turn away the poor, of course not. Donations of any kind can help support Mother Church. Wait. You don’t want to? So sad. Don’t you have a daughter? (A brother, a husband…) Surely you’d never let anything happen to them, would you?

Witch-hunts for burning become witch-hunts for haven. Still creepy, still with issues of consent and suitable, imposed behaviour. Still with lopsided gender relations, the sexism underlined and women pushed into little boxes – but boxes they can shape themselves, because the acknowledgement of tangible power only increases it. The story’s still the same, but also different. Nothing changes perfectly, but it does change.

Because that’s what changing power – real power – does to power structures. It pries them open in new ways. It never, ever, ever leaves them static.

There is a great deal to like about Sorrow, but it is static, and the world-building does seem politically, socially shallow. Something informed primarily by historical settings and historical genre, never-quite-believing that it’s fantasy enough to really push that fantasy as far as it can go.

There were times, reading this novella, that I was charmed. There were times I admired it (nearly all of which were related to the bloody-minded practicality of Patience, who I really do enjoy though she’s not all that nice and has spurts of actual evil). The characterisation is undeniably fantastic. I got a better sense of the characters in this novella than I have the characters in a lot of actual novels. But once you’ve made the link of woman-power-bad in the world of Edda’s Meadow – and it’s impossible to miss doing so – then the plot is fairly obvious and the world-building takes on more than a whiff of paint-by-numbers. Writing about gender is a laudable goal, but genre I think has the capability of illuminating that discussion more than it does here. In speculative fiction, one should be speculative.

Reviews, SFF

Review: “The Stars Seem So Far Away” by Margrét Helgadóttir

starsFox Spirit Books, 2015.

This review first appeared a little over six months ago in Strange Horizons.


The Stars Seem So Far Away is a narrative of northern futures. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic warming world, where the ice caps have melted and plague has turned the population into starving refugees. Those who can flee north, to the scattered Arctic islands, where they live close lives of deprivation and increasing infection. Also of isolation – from each other, and from the other living things that once shared the planet. All other animal species are extinct, apart from odd individual animals grown in labs, generally for the wealthy. Similarly plant life is severely limited: “Only a few kinds of vegetables, fruit, berries and spices existed now, grown in artificial soil and dried or tinned for mass distribution around the world” (26). And as Nora thinks, “No land was green anymore” (109). This naturally has ecological and social consequences, although these are not always as fully explored as they might be (see later comments).

One technology lost for lack of fuel, but in the early stages of revival, is that associated with space exploration. The stars might seem out of reach, but human colonies remain amidst the stars and the possibility of exploration, of leaving the Earth for a better life, is woven throughout the text.

Helgadóttir presents this world in a series of interconnected short stories. There’s a small core cast of characters who interact in different groups at different times, and their stories slowly converge near the end of the book. It’s an interesting structure, and one I enjoyed, but it’s double-edged.

Weaving a narrative through what are essentially fragments allows the author to order the stories to emphasise, for instance, theme or imagery. The last page of “Lost Bond” tells of the disappearance of a ghost fox, while the next story, “Aida”, begins with the titular character believing she’s seen her dead parents. This can give a sense of connection over initially disparate stories, a sort of tying-together, but it also means that readers have to cope with gaps between the stories. This isn’t an atypical strategy for any author – readers don’t want to see the boring bits, say Aida washing up after each meal – but sometimes the gaps can feel too large. This happens when crucial choices, fundamental character moments, happen off-screen. There was an instance of this in The Stars Seem So Far Away that did stick out. Bjørg initially refuses to go into space with her lover Simik; she is afraid of what will happen to the isbos, her pet polar bears (she believes they’ll be shot without her, and she may be right). In the end it’s Simik who decides to stay, but when the two of them pop up again in a later story, they’re preparing to go into space. I can understand Helgadóttir not wanting to show the decision-making process twice, but it’s still jarring. A lot of Bjørg’s story is concerned with those bears – she raises them from cubs, and they’re one of the closest emotional bonds she has. Yet that bond becomes disposable almost between stories, and for a collection themed so much about connection, about staving off disconnection, this is a discordant note.

I’ve seen that the prose of this book has been praised by other reviewers. The back cover alone describes it as “kinetic” and “beautifully written”. I’m not sure that I’m in total agreement. The Stars Seem So Far Away is certainly competently written, no complaints there. I found the language quite plain, though: sparse and strong, often quite muscular. There can be a beauty in that, but I’m afraid I didn’t much see it. Consider the following, from page 17 (the point at which I flipped to the back cover to reread the praise of prose):

One massive door revealed a dark tunnel. The mine. They couldn’t see the end of it. It probably went deep into the mountain. The other doors were either locked or opened to empty rooms. The whole place seemed abandoned. Simik frowned. How odd. In one of the rooms they found an instrument panel. Hurrying, they stuck some of the explosives under it and scattered several more around the place, but mostly around the door to the mine.

Prose is subjective, of course, but I would have liked, overall, to see more description. This is a different time – a different world, almost. That difference should be sensory, but here the emotional connection to setting seemed to be reserved more for the descriptions of space, for the environment of yearning. (Roar’s passion for space is one of the strongest emotional beats of the book.)

Possibly less subjective is an assessment of the world-building. Too often in speculative fiction I see world-building used as an end in itself, not as a vehicle for story. Too often I find myself closing a book in irritation because it’s been overstuffed by this mania for detail. So you’ll understand my surprise when for once my main complaint is the opposite: there’s too little world-building here.

Granted, The Stars Seem So Far Away is a short book. One cannot reasonably expect 160 pages to be an encyclopaedia. But, as an old professor of mine once said, “Brevity is next to Godliness, but clarity never faileth.” The world-building here succeeds in brevity, but fails in clarity. My reading experience is constantly undermined by questions – and not of the “what’s going to happen next?” variety.

Let me give what I found to be the most glaring example. Another of the primary themes of the text is migration – the movement to refugia, the escape to a cooler world, away from the heat and thirst of the continental temperate and tropical regions. Fuel is essentially unavailable, so most movement is by sailboat. Most of the refugia are islands. People tend to live on coastlines. And they’re on the verge of starvation, all of them – so where, where, where is any mention of fishing? Or algal collection, or synthesis of edible phytoplankton? Nowhere, that’s where.

Nora and Aida try to sail to Greenland with their dog, Tarik. They’re short on food, which is exclusively tinned vegetables (grown in artificial soil, if you recall), mostly served, it seems, in the form of broth or soup. And no-one thinks to run a line over the side? They stop, in one of the stories, at “The Women’s Island”, where the three inhabitants keep fat and happy by slaughtering the sailors that land there. Fair enough, I was expecting cannibalism eventually – but are there no shellfish on the beaches? Are there no fish? I can understand finding fishing a tiresome endeavour, but isn’t it better than butchery?

It would be one thing if there were an explanation, or a nod to an explanation, of why the seas are so empty (or even simple acknowledgement that they are). There’s the odd mention of rare fish farms (often reserved for the rich, I think) but no mention of the two thirds of the planet that’s covered in water and why it’s just so barren. This isn’t a missing detail: this is a giant gaping hole in the middle of the text, with no acknowledgement that the hole’s even there. I’m struggling to think of an apocalyptic series of events that destroys all land and marine life, bar humans. It’s one thing losing, say, elephants to massive climate change. It’s quite another to lose plankton, or algae.

This absolute dismissal of the entire marine ecosystem is just bizarre. I don’t understand it – perhaps we are meant to infer, by the absence of any reference to the contrary, that the sea is sterile. Okay. My inner biologist is revolting but let’s take it as a matter of faith: there’s nothing living in the oceans. It would be a beautiful contradiction – that the birthplace of life on Earth is utterly barren, but the stars are full of future. That would emphasise Helgadóttir’s sense of migration, of movement and process – but I wonder if I’m assigning meaning that was never intended.

The question of flesh of any kind is a thorny one. Meat I can understand: it’s energy intensive to produce – especially in comparison to plants – so I don’t expect the characters to be eating it. And indeed, I can only recall one (non-cannibal) reference, where Bjørg is left “a plate of bread and dried meat” (133). But Bjørg is also the caretaker of a group of polar bears. A polar bear is an obligate carnivore – so where are they getting their food? Bjørg lives in a seed vault. And alright, the bears are genetically engineered. They might be vegetarian. But the text hints not – they seem, at times, on the verge of stalking human prey. They’ve certainly killed humans before: Bjørg’s primary responsibility is to keep the vault safe and unplundered, and any incursion onto the island is met with deadly force, both from her and her bears. Yet the text also states that she burns the resulting bodies (“the corpses she’d had to burn” 122). There’s a food store for the bears, but never any mention as to what these large, apex predators are actually eating. If there were any indication of marine life, I could buy them prowling the shore for fish and walrus – but there isn’t. The bears just seem to magically exist.

To be fair, there is an undercurrent of magic and myth to the text. And it’s when Helgadóttir focuses on this that the text is strongest, in my opinion. Possibly the strongest image is that of the ghost fox, who acts as a guide for Simik in “Lost Bonds”. The story opens in flashback with Simik as a young boy, being instructed by an elder on the spiritual bonds between humans and animals. “They said that men needed the animals to lead them in the right direction and protect them against dangers …. They also said that wise men, the healers, needed the animals and their spirits to guide them into other worlds, in their quest for truth” (12). These bonds are now lost with the extinction of nearly every non-human species. “All I know is that when the animals disappeared, not only were men left alone and unprotected, but the wise men could no longer help people” (12). Simik’s connection with the spirit fox is one of renewal, of rebirth, and the growing sense of possibility isn’t checked by his discovery of the corporeal fox, dead and abandoned in a cage. Contrary to the elder’s belief, the potential for connection remains in Simik – and in such a disconnected, fragmentary world, this potential is a crucially important thing. It’s a genuinely moving moment, one mirrored later by Simik and Bjørg as they view the skeletal remains of a whale, once trapped in a too-small pool at a long-abandoned aquarium. (Although it’s a moment that’s later undermined when Simik chooses to forgo the bond he could have formed with the bears in favour of the totally animal-less journeying of the space shuttle: how much does Simik value the return of this very rare bond when he’s happy to toss it away, potentially forever?)

This magic seeps into the text, although not always convincingly. There are places it genuinely works – Simik and the ghost fox, for one – and places where it seems like the easy hook: flashy and insubstantial. Genetic laboratories grow what the conservation movement today would call iconic species: polar bears, a whale. Sexy species, to go alongside the more usual occasional dog and human being. One can see why Helgadóttir’s referencing these creations: they’re magic moments in the text, little explosions of diversity and enchantment. Yet I found myself wondering: if they can construct a killer whale, why can’t they make some carrots? Or a batch of plankton to chuck in the ocean, make at least an attempt to re-establish an ecosystem – even if only an exploitable one. (No wonder efforts to repopulate the ocean with whales failed – what were they supposed to eat?)

But the stars are just so far away, and next to that the practicalities of building a world (for the inhabitants, for the author) just don’t seem that attractive. Unless, like me, you’re leaden-minded.

This is an ocean world. There’s wonder in that, too.

Except there isn’t, not here. And the book ends with the bulk of the main characters planning to head out into space, despite the fact that they’re all not much more than children. Because there’s still a space programme running, with people running it – and they’ve been working for it and up to it for a long time. So there’s got to be people in the surrounding community who have been training in relevant scientific disciplines for years… but the astronaut places go to a handful of kids who do well in a crash course, because… well, because they’re our protagonists. It’s the magic again, the miracle moment – and again, I can see why Helgadóttir is doing it. It’s metaphor, the youth of humanity migrating onwards, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense and it borders on the cheap.

Look, there’s a lot to like here. I admire the imagination behind this book: the ideas are interesting, the attraction for outer space and exploration profound. I genuinely liked the structure, and most of the characters. But I can’t help feeling that, despite Helgadóttir’s unquestionable achievements, The Stars Seem So Far Away would have been measurably improved by additional material and another draft.

Reviews, SFF

Review: “Navigatio” by Patrick Holland

navigatioIllustrations by Junko Azukawa

Melbourne, Australia: Transit Lounge Publishing, 2014


This review first appeared a little over six months ago in Strange Horizons.


In the sixth century the Irish Saint Brendan, according to legend, set out in a sailboat on what would end up as a seven-year search for Paradise. This Voyage of Saint Brendan, commemorated in a number of manuscripts from the Middle Ages, is a fantastical travelogue re-imagined by Australian author Patrick Holland in his recent book, Navigatio, beautifully illustrated by Junko Azukawa.

Navigatio includes the usual fantastic creatures—mermaids and dragons and witches, etc.—but they are temporary things, stepping stones within the text. That text is a fluid one, both in terms of voyage and structure. Holland doesn’t stick to Irish legend: Brendan’s curragh drifts into future worlds as well as fantastic ones; different waters and hemispheres, Ireland to Vietnam. There are skyscrapers in the search for Paradise, boats made of iron as well as ox-hides.

It is a fluidity with an underlying structure. Brendan starts the voyage in several different ways, one after the other, as if they’re all equally valid. The islands he visits on his search tumble over each other and backwards, and the text is organised into many intercut stories, interrupted by illustrations and the occasional page of poetry or wordplay. (This results in a very aesthetic read, although one has to be in the right mood to enjoy it best, I think, and that mood may well be contemplative.) The main interest of the book, however, rests in that underlying structure, which is very well executed if not entirely original.

That fragmented structure, the way it rewrites and re-imagines, put me very much in mind of Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Holland doesn’t have the same lightness of touch, I think—his writing has in it more stony tones than whimsy, and very little humour—but the multifaceted take on reality is strongly similar. Brendan’s journey, cut into interleaved chapter-themes of “Hell,” “Light,” and so on, mimics almost exactly Calvino’s interwoven “Cities and the dead,” “Cities and the sky” . . .  organisation.

Brendan owes a lot to Calvino’s Marco Polo. In Cities, Polo describes to Kublai Khan all the places he has been, although the cities are fantastic and become ever more so, to the point where Polo doesn’t even travel any more. He just stays with the Khan and keeps describing these exotic locations, and the Khan comes to understand that these invisible cities, these places of empire are a single city: Venice, the home and origin of his guest, which Marco Polo has all the time been describing (“Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice” [trans. William Weaver, Harcourt, Inc., 1974, p. 86]). Note, for comparison:

All Islands are one. There is only one Man abroad the wild seas, only one shore he lands upon and leaves, only one home he seeks and never reaches . . . no matter how far you sail you cannot leave. (157)

In Navigatio, it’s the islands and the dream-state nature of the encounters that get the bulk of the characterisation. Brendan himself is fairly thinly drawn. Granted, it’s a short book, but the human-shaped Brendan is essentially a placeholder, as much a vessel as his curragh. As all cities are Venice, all islands are Brendan: those with monsters, those with barren rock, those associated with uncertainty and wonder and abandonment. This gives insight into his spiritual mindset, but less so into his underlying personality, which might be most accurately described as dampening. (One imagines he could make for either a comfortable or a very uncomfortable travelling companion.)

One point at which his personality really stood out for me was a section dealing with the crew’s encounter with a dragon. At first sight they turn and row away as fast as they can: well, fair enough. It’s the sensible option. I would have done the same. But when asked, Brendan opines that it was right for him to run away. Doing otherwise would have been self-aggrandisement. “I ran away from vainglory,” (31) he says, and that’s the point where I rolled my eyes and thought Of course you did, you smug bastard.

One of the crew members agrees with me. Padraigh is sceptical. “That is easy to say,” (34) he smirks, and Brendan apologises for the seeming temerity of his original claim. But Holland promptly turns this seeming abashment on its head: the dragon gives chase, and Brendan banishes it—as he clearly could have done in the first place. “Padraigh lowered his eyes when Brendan looked his way” (35).

To me, this passage was the first of very few times that I felt an emotional connection with any of the characters. It raises, by necessity, a couple of questions. First is Brendan himself. Can one actually like the man? He might be running from vainglory but he’s not exactly humble. Again, fair enough. I like a lot of people—a lot of characters—who aren’t humble. No. I can’t say I do like him. Perhaps this is the function of a saint: to define humanity by its mimicry, to take on the face and form of a person, sanctity stretched over skeleton. Still. I don’t like him, and I don’t trust him. This may be a result of reader bias—as an atheist, I am strongly predisposed to scepticism—but it’s hard to connect with someone I feel no emotional connection to, someone who seems to be written so metaphorically.

This is where the second question comes in: am I the only one who thinks so? Padraigh is a version of Patrick, and it’s tempting to wonder just how much author self-insertion plays a part here. One can never truly know, bar an admission from the author. That being said, Padraigh is the one member of the crew—so briefly defined as individuals, so collectively amorphous—besides Brendan who seems to have a distinct philosophical viewpoint. Padraigh, “whose heart was unknown and who troubled Brendan” (9), Padraigh who “did not believe in the devil” (15).

Holland is a religious man—a convert to the Greek Orthodox Church—and one presumes that his conversion came with questions and doubts and difficulties of its own. If the various islands that Brendan sails to are in part reflections of himself, then it’s not a stretch to wonder if Padraigh is also one of Brendan’s many parts. (Or if Brendan is one of Padraigh’s . . . )

In the “Hell” chapter-thread, Padraigh calls the devil to the boat. He laughs while he does so—his disbelief allows him the luxury of mockery. Yet when all other members of the crew fall asleep, Satan does indeed come to Brendan, the sole remaining sailor awake on the boat. The conversations between Satan and Brendan—the temptations, the truths—are the meat of the “Hell” chapters. Crucially, these conversations are always solitary. None of the men witness them—including Padraigh. When—and only when—Padraigh’s scepticism is removed from the “Hell” text, Satan takes his place. To what extent they are the same is a many-layered question.

He’s a tricky character, Satan—but although he’s undoubtedly a threat to Brendan’s ideals he never strikes me as particularly menacing. Pretty much the worst thing he does is tell Brendan the truth, when he catches him looking at the stars.

“Indeed, you know the sun does not rise and fall around you out of devotion, what you do not know is that it is bigger than a hundred worlds, and it is smaller than the biggest suns by a thousand times, and there are more of those in the universe than there are drops of water in this ocean. So many more there is no number that will fit it. And their light shines on infinite desolation. What then of your significance under these cold and hateful skies, brother? Believe this, we are alone!” (40-41)

Brendan isn’t particularly blinded by science—he claims “the heart of a poet” (41) as reason enough to dismiss this truthful argument. It’s even more ambiguous when the biggest untruth in the text comes from Brendan himself—on one particular island, he consoles an old man and his daughter with the lie that there is nothing good upon the ocean, that they are better off where they are. He means it as a kindness, but it isn’t hard to see that he feels his own dreams, his own desires, are both unsuitable for and unattainable by others. (Can one be a saint without condescension? Without the perception of condescension? Navigatio is the story of a saint, but it’s hard to read and not wonder if it is also a comment on sanctity and the nature thereof—what does it mean to be a holy man, and how can other people actively engage with such?) Satan’s truths are not Brendan’s—there is a separation between them. It’s non-overlapping magisteria all the way, essentially, but Brendan’s refusal to meaningfully engage in the truth that Satan speaks is a clever way of underlining the novel’s structure and tone, which are poetic to the core, privileging dream and metaphor and fragment in a non-linear manuscript. This is not a place for telescopes and the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.

Indeed, there are so many beginnings and endings that it can be difficult for the reader to parse out an actual storyline. The text thus reflects the voyage. Brendan’s curragh has sails and oars, but against the might of wind and waves these can prove ineffective, as when the mast breaks during a storm. Much of the voyage is therefore a deliberate giving up of control: the sails are taken down and the oars are put away and the curragh is left to float on currents, an object of fate. This leads to a journey full of dead ends and dead islands, a strange and irregular voyage to Paradise. One can only presume that this is itself a reflection of the religious journey. (Not having experienced such a thing, I can’t say for certain this is so—although science itself can be a dead-end experience, where hypotheses and new experiments disprove old facts.) As such, I can understand over-valuing the linear experience—as does Brendan, I suppose, and Holland himself.

Or perhaps we are not where I thought, but at one of the points that makes up one of the three strokes, or a speck in the map’s blankness. And the lines mean a place larger than the Earth and the known worlds. I have spent thousands of hours poring over this map, trying to find my place. Sadly, I am successful each and every night. This map is perfectly accurate and true. And, like you say, perfectly deceitful. For like the universe it accommodates all theories, and I have no notion of its scale. (131)