Warning: total spoilers.

Jurassic World: Dominion is not a good movie. Let’s get that out of the way up top. Given how terrible the first two Jurassic World movies were, I wasn’t expecting it to be, and yet I felt the need to see it anyway, just to make sure. Possibly this coloured my perception of it from the outset, but generally speaking, I’m not a person who purposefully sets out to hatewatch things, as I’d much rather be pleasantly surprised by an okayish film than proven right by a dud. I will, however, spitefinish an aggravating film in order to justify writing about it afterwards, and having sat through all 146 minutes of Dominion – unlike my mother, who walked out of our session and went home after the first five minutes because it was so goddamn loud – I feel the need to save others the time and money of doing likewise.

At every level of execution, Dominion is sloppily made. It has the feel of a group project where only one person was really trying, leading everyone else to coast along on their coattails without stopping to consider whether their work itself, for all the effort put into it, was actually any good. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the dinosaurs themselves, which ought to be the best thing about a goddamn dinosaur movie, but which in Dominion are woefully underwhelming. There’s nothing inherently wrong with mixing practical effects and CGI – in fact, done well, the results can be spectacular, as per the original Jurassic Park film – but here, the inconsistency is maddening. The practical effects look rubbery and cheap, but even that wouldn’t matter if they had any soul; instead, they have less personality than the titular 90s sitcom Dinosaurs and are considerably less memorable.

The dinosaur CGI, meanwhile, is really only good for two things: dramatic, distant landscape shots of dinosaurs in the modern world, and very slow closeups. Put them in motion, however, and the animals end up with a weird, furze-edged blur to them, as if they’ve been clumsily greenscreened in circa 2003. Every scene with fast-running raptors – and there are a number of these – looks like a video game cutscene where your custom-built player-character is moving through a pre-rendered environment: there’s that constant sense of something fake being imposed on an a setting rather than being part of it, and for a film with this sort of budget, that’s inexcusable. Nor have any lessons been learned from the first two films regarding a consistent sense of scale: the dinosaur sizes wax and wane depending on the camera angle, changing from moment to moment in such an egregious fashion that even my nine year old noticed. And to top things off, the climactic dinosaur-on-dinosaur fight scene – tacked on and plot-pointless though it is – looks like it was shot in a gymsock only sporadically lit by a pen-light: you can barely see anything, and when you do, it’s shaky to the point of incoherence.

With veteran names like Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern and Sam Neill returned to the cast, you might hope the acting was good, but it’s not. With the exception of a few bit players, the performances are uniformly flat, a failing I’m inclined to lay directly at the feet of director and EP Colin Trevorrow. In addition to directing the first Jurassic World and executive producing Fallen Kingdom, Trevorrow has writing credits for all three films, and frankly that goes a long way towards explaining why they never get any better. Trevorrow’s dialogue is flat, his pacing abysmal and his plotting worse; that he also manages to get consistently stilted performances out of some otherwise talented actors makes him the quadruple threat no-one asked for. As with the dinosaurs, he also doesn’t know how to shoot people in anything other than closeup or running at a distance, presumably because letting the characters inhabit the space for more than two seconds at a time would require him to use functional, character-developing dialogue and a basic understanding of how to block non-action sequences. Given Hollywood’s propensity to let mediocre white men fail upwards, however, this doubtless means Disney will snap him up for the MCU or Star Wars, so it’s hard to feel too bad for him.

Another constant issue was the sound, which – look. Possibly the obscene volume of the action scenes at our session, which chased my mother out of the cinema and had the rest of us watching with our hands over our ears, was the fault of our local cinema. I’ve been there many times before – recently, even, to see Top Gun: Maverick, which to my great annoyance is a superbly constructed film – and never felt like my eardrums were being blown out, but perhaps today was an exception. Whatever the case, the dialogue was normal, but the music and sound effects came through at a volume that could shatter glass, and while the cinema might bear some blame, the clear disparity between the two felt very much like a sound balancing failure, such that if I’d been watching it at home, I suspect I’d have been constantly turning the volume up for the dialogue, then ratcheting it down again for the action scenes. 0/10, do not recommend.

And then there’s the actual plot.

After a completely pointless, never-to-be-revisited opening scene in which a giant prehistoric sea-crocodile eats a fishing boat in Alaska, Dominion kicks off with what can only be described as a shitty YouTube video recap of the previous two films. As a background montage of what’s meant to be phone-camera footage of regular people encountering dinosaurs plays, a journalistic voiceover explains why dinosaurs have been walking among us for the past four years while also mentioning “by the way, we think there’s a human clone of a lady called Charlotte Lockwood walking around somewhere, only she’s missing,” without ever explaining why this relates to dinosaurs or how anyone knows about her, because in-universe continuity is for the weak. As dinosaurs are now apparently a global problem, with underground genetic engineering and illegal breeding farms cropping up everywhere, we also learn that a company called Biosyn has emerged to do Good Dinosaur Science and is relocating rescued animals to a scenic sanctuary in the Italian mountains, where they can live safely while also being studied for Beneficial Medical Research Purposes. Biosyn is run by a man named Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott), which is a callback to the original Jurassic Park, where “Dodgson” was the guy who paid Dennis Nedry to smuggle dinosaur DNA samples out in a shaving cream can. Presumably, this is meant to be the same guy many years later, but as that’s never confirmed and has no real bearing on the plot, it doesn’t actually matter. We get a glimpse of the journalist giving the voiceover walking through some trees as she explains all this, and then she, like so much else in this film, is never seen again.

Cut to Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) engaged in a midnight heist to rescue a random baby dinosaur from an illegal breeding facility. Some action happens as she and her buddy flee, and we see that she’s still in touch with Franklin (Justice Smith) from Fallen Kingdom, who now apparently works for the CIA’s dinosaur division (yes, really). Cut again to Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) as he lassos a random parasaurolophus from horseback, because that’s absolutely a thing you could do without dying. Dinosaur acquired, he proceeds to… I don’t know, hand it over to the dinosaur rescue people? It’s not really clear, and the rest of the herd just goes running off, so there’s not really any point to it except once again Making Chris Pratt Look Cool And Manly. Not to kinkshame anyone, but between this, Owen Grady Looking Like Rough Trade From A Vintage Coke Ad By A Motorcycle in the first film and Owen Grady Building A House By Hand (While Sweating) in the second film, it feels a little like Trevorrow has a particular masc fantasy he’s a little bit obsessed with, and which he perhaps might want to consider working through in a venue other than film. I dunno, man, I’m just spitballing.

Next up, we’re reintroduced to Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon), aka Clone Daughter, now aged fourteen, who’s apparently been living in a rustic cabin in the woods with Claire and Owen as her parents for the last four years, because I guess that makes sense. The creepiness of the fact that they took her illegally and have kept her out of school and away from other people, let alone anyone her own age, is completely glossed over as fine, because they’re keeping her safe, you guys! Nor are we invited to wonder how this weird little family unit works; the fact that Claire and Owen weren’t even a couple four years ago goes unacknowledged, while Claire herself has morphed from a highly-strung, child-free CEO in heels into a homesteading mother and partner in flannel who rescues dinosaurs on the side with zero difficulty because the plot requires it of her. Maisie chafes at her confinement, but that’s ascribed to her being fourteen and moody instead of, you know, a kid in a fucked-up situation. Also, Blue the velociraptor is here, and she’s had a baby Blue, even though that should be impossible! But oh noes! A nefarious Dinosaur Bad Guy has followed Owen back from one of his dinosaur hunts and spotted both Maisie and Baby Blue, and is planning to kidnap them!

And then, because this film doesn’t have enough balls in the air, we cut randomly to Texas, where Dr Ellie Satler (Laura Dern) has been called in to investigate after a plague of giant locusts attacks an independent farmstead and eats all their crops. The neighbouring farm, however, remains untouched – because their crop comes from Biosyn seeds. Keen observers might wonder why Satler, who was a paleobotonist in the original film, is now being called in for locust attacks; the answer, as best I can tell, is Because Reasons, with base notes of Studying Extinct Plants Is Basically The Same As Studying Alive Insects, It’s All Science, Just Roll With It. Naturally, then, the only way for Ellie to prove that the giant, provably prehistorically-engineered locusts come from Biosyn – that is, the only company known to be dicking around with dinosaur DNA and whose crops are the only ones the locusts don’t eat, where the fuck else would anyone think the locusts came from – is to join up with her paleontologist ex, Alan Grant (Sam Neill), and use her in with chaotician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who now has a gig with Biosyn, so she and Alan can break into their labs and steal a matching DNA sample to prove where the locusts came from. Because this is clearly a job for them, and not, say, any of their journalist or government agency contacts. Obviously.

Back in Rustic Cabinlandia, Maisie and Baby Blue have now been kidnapped, because Maisie disobeyed and went outside on her own! Her protective kidnapper-parents were right after all! So Claire calls up Franklin at the dinosaur CIA, who tells them that the kidnapper is named Rainn Delacourt (Scott Haze), and that there’s a sting operation afoot to catch him doing illegal dinosaur stuff, which they should stay out of; he also explains that they have an inside man at Biosyn named Ramsay (Mamoudou Athie). Naturally, Claire and Owen ignore Franklin – or possibly he helps them during this bit; my attention was phasing in and out due to the terrible sound balancing – but either way, they head off to Malta, meet up with Owen’s old dinosaur-taming buddy Barry (Omar Sy), who we met briefly in Jurassic World, and then infiltrate a black market dinosaur bazaar, which, as we’re in Malta, looks exactly as stereotypical as you’d imagine. We’re also introduced to Kayla (DeWanda Wise), a pilot who takes Baby Blue to Biosyn and, in the process, catches sight of Maisie at the airstrip, so that when she then encounters Claire at the dino bazaar and realises she’s looking for her daughter, she feels obligated to help.

With Maisie nowhere in sight, Barry and Owen spot Rainn with a random evil henchlady, Soyona Santos (Dichen Lachman), who was responsible for transporting Maisie and Baby Blue for Dodgson, but who is now trying to offload some genetically modified raptors which h ave been trained-slashed-engineered to attack anyone she indicates with her special laser pointer. Do the raptors come from Biosyn? Who knows! It doesn’t matter! Santos is only there so that when Barry and the sting operation interrupt the deal, she can flash her little laser on everyone to instigate a big dinosaur chase scene, while other for-sale dinosaurs end up on the loose. (Rainn is summarily eaten by said dinosaurs, but not before Owen gets him to admit that Maisie is at Biosyn. You’ll forgive me if I’ve got the order of events slightly backwards, but this section in particular was both very loud and structurally incomprehensible.) Thus armed with the knowledge of Maisie’s wherebaouts, Owen runs away from raptors on a motorbike while Kayla and Claire do the same in a truck en route to the airstrip. (We get a glimpse of Barry arresting Santos, and then neither of them are ever seen again; as for what befalls the random civilians left to fend for themselves in the face of sudden dinosaur carnage, who knows? The movie certainly doesn’t!) This culminates in Owen riding his motorbike onto the moving plane just before it takes off, complete with an angry dinosaur falling into the ocean, and then we’re off to Italy!

Meanwhile, Ellie and Alan have met up with Ian Malcolm at Biosyn to try and do an espionage. Ian gives them the special key-bracelet that’ll let them into the labs where the locusts are held, while elsewhere in the same facility, perpetually shady geneticist Henry Wu (BD Wong) is explaining to the captive Maisie that actually, she’s not quite a clone after all. Instead, Charlotte Lockwood, who was apparently a brilliant scientist, contrived to give birth to Maisie as part of her research and also because she wanted a kid, and then, on learning that she (Charlotte) had an incurable genetic disease, altered all of Maisie’s DNA so that she wouldn’t have it. This is why Henry wants to study both Maisie and Baby Blue, who is now named Beta: if he can master their genetic power, he’ll understand how to use genetics to wipe out the evil locusts, which are now mutating and breeding at an alarming rate. None of this makes the least bit of sense, nor is it clear why Henry, who has been cheerfully on the side of evil corporate science for several movies now, has suddenly grown a conscience, but he is wearing a very large brown cardigan with oversized lapels, which surely counts for something.

Unmoved by any of this, Maisie releases Beta and escapes into the facility, where she runs into Ellie and Alan, who have just had a traumatic encounter with some giant locusts. As they plan their escape, we cut back to Kayla, Owen and Claire, now on approach to Biosyn. As Dodgson is made aware that Kayla is carrying extra passengers, he disables the ADS – Air Defense System – which is some sort of electronic Thing that keeps the pterodactyls from flying above a certain height. Right on cue, their plane is attacked by an angry quetzalcoatlus, which prompts Owen to strap Claire into the only parachute and send her off into the sky, where she is immediately menaced by angry flying dinosaurs before falling into a carnivore-infested forest. Owen and Kayla crash the plane on a frozen lake and have to contend with a feathered raptor of some sort in order to escape and look for Claire, who is also having some dinosaur-related issues; at the same time, Ramsay has helped Ellie, Alan and Maisie onto an underground train-thing, but Dodgson has it stopped when he realises Ian has abetted their locust-bothering. This forces them to get out and make their way through the old amber mines, which – of course – also contain dinosaurs.

Dodgson takes this moment to fire Ian, who gives a big exit speech about how evil Dodgson is without actually mentioning the secret locust project. Double agent Ramsay then equips Ian to go save the others, which culminates in Ian fumbling about trying to input a gate code while Maisie, Ellie and Alan are menaced by dinosaurs; unbeknownst to any of them, Ramsay does the actual code-changing back at base after seeing their peril on CCTV, which I guess makes sense. Shortly afterwards, Owen and Kayla find Claire in time to rescue her from an angry dilophosaurus – this is Foreshadowing – and are then fortuitously united with the other escapees when their jeep rolls down a hill. Back at Biosyn and unaware that the good guys are all together, Dodgson decides to get rid of his locusts by having the whole lot set on fire. However, it turns out – and I cannot believe I’m about to type this – that the locusts can survive while on fire, so that when the burning lab’s contents are vented into the sky, a massive swarm of burning locust fireballs is released into the forest. This causes everything else to be on fire, which means that Dodgson has no choice but to use the special neural implants in all his dinosaurs (because this, too, is apparently a Thing) to make them come to safety at the facility.

As our heroes try to get back to base so that Owen can save Beta – having promised Blue solemnly that he’d rescue her baby, because sexist chivalry apparently now extends to dinosaurs, too – they encounter an angry giganotosaurus blocking their path. As a burning locust flaps weakly by, the gigano eats it; this ought to be unremarkable, except that, minutes later, Ian spears another burning bug on a stick, waves it to distract the gigano a la the original movie, and then throws the whole thing into its mouth, which – and again, I cannot believe I’m about to type this – causes the fucking dinosaur to breathe fire. Like, significantly more fire than the locust was ever on, and yet nobody comments on this! It just happens, because this is a Colin Trevorrow movie and why the fuck not, apparently. More peril ensues, and then they get into the tunnels leading back to the main facility, where Dodgson, having realised that his evil schemes are unraveling, tries to run off with Ramsay and is shocked – shocked! – when Ramsay reveals himself to be a good guy after all. Strangely, this confrontation does not result in Dodgson trying to attack Ramsay, or even so much as restrain him. He’s just… allowed to walk out, and then Dodgson escapes himself to the underground train-thing, heading for the airfield.

Now back in the facility, the good guys encounter both a remorseful Henry, who explains his plans for stopping the locusts and is therefore allowed to come with, and a significantly more useful Ramsay, who knows how the park systems work. Then they split up: Kayla to get a plane, Owen, Alan and Maisie to get Beta, Claire and Ellie to turn off the power so that the ADS has sufficient power to turn back on (because something something emergency power routing something) and Ian and Ramsay to hold down the fort and look pretty. Kayla gets the plane, Owen gets Beta (while teaching Maisie and Alan how to do his patented Hold Up Your Hands To The Dinosaur So It Obeys You trick) and Ellie and Claire wade through a server room inexplicably full of dead and dying locusts to turn off the power, which causes Dodgson’s train-thing to shut down. This prompts him to run into the tunnel until dinosaur noises make him retreat, at which point he is unceremoniously killed by a trio of dilophosaurus while a shaving-cream-shaped canister rolls away from his hand – see! He met his end just like Nedry in the original Jurassic Park! What a callback moment!

With the ADS reactivated, Kayla comes to pick everyone up. There’s just one problem – all the dinosaurs were neurally commanded to return to the facility because of the raging forest fire, so our heroes have to dodge them to escape! This culminates in the obligatory fight between a t-rex and a giganotosaurus, which you could simulate by putting a couple of plastic dinosaur toys in a hamster ball and rolling it down a hill in the dark, during which Henry sustains a mild arm injury, and after which Ellie and Alan make out a little, because Ellie and the husband with which she apparently had two now college-aged kids have split up, and so why not. And then it’s done: everyone gets away, the t-rex wins and roars triumphantly (because of course it does), and we’re treated to a random voiceover from nowhere – I don’t even think it’s the same voiceover from the shitty YouTube journalism bit at the beginning – telling us that Ellie and Alan went on to testify against Biosyn, Henry did his Locust Science and released an infected bug to kill all the other bad ones, the UN designated the Italian valley a world sanctuary, and now humanity has to learn to coexist with dinosaurs. There’s a few very pretty distance shots of dinosaurs in various environments – parasaurolophus running with wild horses, rhamphorynchus nesting on a high rise building, a stegosaurus on the savannah – and that’s it. There’s no closure about what Maisie is, whether anyone’s sill after her or where she gets to go now (other than, presumably, with Claire and Owen), nobody wonders what happened to Dodgson (whose motives were never more than gestured at as Basic Rich Guy Hubris), and there’s no mention of dinosaur containment elsewhere: just roll credits.

What a fucking waste.

But, to be fair, there are two things I liked about Dominion: the feathery raptor dinosaur that Owen and Kayla encountered, which actually looked pretty decent, and the fact that, as stupid as the plot was, it still wasn’t as sexist as the original Jurassic World or as willfully idiotic as Fallen Kingdom. Okay, two and a half things: there’s also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it inference that Kayla is queer and has a history with Denise, the random Biosyn worker who tells Dodgson that her plane has unauthorised passengers on it, but otherwise, it’s just two and a half hours of dreary, worse-than-formulaic pablum. Even my nine year old, who enjoyed the other two movies, came out of this one complaining that it was too loud, too long, the dinosaurs were all the wrong size and that what happened to Dodgson was stupid, and if you cannot successfully entertain a nine year old who loves dinosaurs with your big budget dinosaur movie, then who the fuck is it even for, Colin?

Point being, if you want to see a shiny action film this summer, I would recommend literally anything else. Everything Everywhere All At Once is absolutely flawless, but if you’re really desperate to revisit a decades-old franchise for the nostalgia value, try Top Gun: Maverick – yes, it’s a spectacular work of US military propaganda starring a known Scientologist, but at least it has the decency to include real planes doing real aerial stunts, a tight yet emotionally complete script and a banging soundtrack, and I’ll take that over shitty dinosaurs who can’t decide what size they are and Chris Pratt’s smugly punchable face any day of the week. You’re welcome.

It’s not every day you encounter a film that is simultaneously a work of absurdist scifi, a screwball action comedy, a heartfelt drama and a meditation on intergenerational trauma among diaspora families; it’s even rarer to find one that works. Everything Everywhere All At Once is – bizarrely, delightfully, touchingly – such a film, and while it will doubtless confuse or frustrate the kind of viewer who balks at risk-taking and complexity in art, or who thinks that only serious art matters, for everyone else, it’s a masterpiece.

As hardworking migrant Evelyn Wong (Michelle Yeoh) prepares for a new year’s party, her father’s visit and the audit of the family’s small business, all while wrestling with the fact that her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) has brought home a white girlfriend, her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is acting strangely. There are two reasons for this: the first is that he’s procured divorce papers; the second is that he’s being periodically controlled by a different version of himself from another universe – Alpha Waymond – who believes this version of Evelyn can save the multiverse from Jobu Tupaki, a nigh-unstoppable agent of nihilistic chaos. When Alpha Waymond makes contact with Evelyn during their audit under the critical eye of IRS agent Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), Evelyn is catapulted out of the life she knows and into an infinite web of roads not taken. With her consciousness ricocheting between the sublime and the ridiculous reaches of reality as she learns to verse-jump, Evelyn must figure out how to save the multiverse, her family and her own small world from the terrifying despair that comes from seeing everything, everywhere, all at once – and, in the process, find out what matters most.

It’s easy to imagine an alternate universe where Everything Everywhere All At Once turns out an ambitious failure, overwhelmed by the many balls it has in the air and unable, in the end, to juggle them. In fact, the actual film contains a meta joke to this effect: fake credits start rolling midway through, only for the camera to pull back and reveal that we’re seeing the premiere of a movie-version of these events in a different world, one where Evelyn Wong is a famous actress living a life akin to Michelle Yeoh’s. (The gag is emphasized by the inclusion of a smatter of clips of the real Michelle Yeoh attending real movie premieres, and as I was lucky enough to see this movie at the LA premiere, although sadly without the real Michelle Yeoh in attendance due to Covid, this added an extra level of meta-hilarity to the whole thing). But instead, we live in this reality: one where the film is superbly written, directed and balanced by the Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) and where every cast member gives a tremendous performance, creating a narrative whose extremes somehow compliment rather than contradict one another.

In large part, this is due to excellent editing – were the transitions managed less masterfully, the whole thing would’ve come apart at the seams – but it’s also aided by a deep thematic resonance between all the disparate parts. Life is hard, says the film, and to contemplate the hugeness of the world and the smallness of your place within it is terrifying. What does anything mean, really? What can it mean, when you zoom out beyond the petty immediacy of human concerns and see how empty most of the universe is? Life is absurd for trying, absurd for being obsessed with itself; absurd for making us care about the cruel inevitabilities of death and taxes when, in the scheme of things, none of it really matters. But this is also why it matters: because we decide it does. In choosing to be kind, says the film, we choose meaning. Joy is not an inherent, finite resource we can exploit by pressing the right combination of buttons, but something we conjure over and over again, even when life is stupid; especially when it’s stupid, because stupidity might be bleak, but it can also be funny, and there’s power in laughter.

With this deeply sincere central thesis, the film is able to get away with absurdities which, in another context, might be its undoing: a universe where everyone has massively wobbly hotdog fingers, and where Evelyn and Deirdre are going through an affecting almost-breakup; a universe where an ambitious young chef is controlled by the skilled raccoon under his hat, Ratatouille-style; an extended action sequence where verse-jumping combatants gain the combat powers of their alternate selves by performing incongruous actions, including jamming suspiciously buttplug-shaped IRS awards in places buttplugs traditionally go; fights where bodies are equally likely to explode into gleaming confetti as be brutally smacked down by overlong, wobbly plastic cocks; a reality-destroying everything bagel that really does have everything on it. It’s weird and hilarious and deeply absurd in a way that evokes both Weirdmageddon in Gravity Falls and the Infinite Improbability Drive of Douglass Adams’s seminal The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, but turned up to eleven a-la Spinal Tap – and yet it never undermines the serious stuff, because the whole point is that the multiverse is both absurd and meaningful, so why not laugh about it?

This attitude is personified by Waymond, a relentlessly cheerful and good-hearted man whose heroism is rooted, not just in his kindness, but in his determination to be kind. Early on, Evelyn is frustrated by her husband’s habit of putting googly eyes on everything, dismissing it as silly; but at the film’s climax, embracing that silliness becomes a form of power. A bullet pressing against her forehead becomes a googly third eye, wide open to see and welcome the absurdities of the universe. It’s ridiculous and beautiful, but as Evelyn contemplates her life and her choices – her relationships with her husband, her daughter and her father (James Hong) – she learns that it’s not enough to do one right thing. You have to keep trying – to be determinedly kind, even when it’s hard; especially when it’s hard and you don’t know what you’re doing – because that’s what makes the difference.

It’s hard to say more without spoiling the film, which I’m reluctant to do: sufficed to say that Stephanie Hsu turns out a phenomenal performance, easily holding her own in scenes where veterans like Yeoh, Hong and Curtis are also being masterful. The Wong family’s relationships are a profound emotional core to the film: a literalised metaphor for the forces that can either hold the multiverse together or tear it apart. Joy wants her mother to accept her as gay instead of hiding it from her grandfather; Evelyn wants not to feel as though her life is going nowhere, a constant disappointment to herself and her father; Waymond wants to be acknowledged, his steadfast kindness and humour seen as strengths, not weaknesses. At a runtime of just over two hours, you could argue that the film ought to be tighter in places, but it’s the steady (but by no means slow) early build, establishing the family’s relationships, that cements so much of what happens later: we care about these characters, and in the moments when Evelyn’s verse-jumping brings her back to what is, for us, the real universe – her universe, the one where she started – there’s a genuine deep investment in things working out for the Wongs. Their difficulties matters, and when Jobu Tupkai’s infectious nihilism prompts Evelyn to take a google-eye-adorned baseball bat to the window of the family business, it truly feels like a world is being broken.

Generally speaking, mainstream cinema likes to avoid direct philosophical questions, which means there’s not a lot to compare it to. At various points while watching, I found myself thinking of the existential detectives from I heart Huckabees, or recalled The Dude from The Big Lebowski proclaiming, “They’re fuckin’ nihilists, Donny!”, but neither of those films is doing anything nearly so ambitious or emotionally complex as Everything Everywhere All At Once; they’re not even in the same genre. In fact, in terms of using the impossible to drive a story about the Chinese diaspora, parental pressure, trauma, disappointment and finding your place in the world, the closest film I can think of is Pixar’s Turning Red, but even that’s too simplistic a comparison, and one which only feels handy because both are recent releases dealing with (wildly different!) facets of the Chinese diaspora and the different experiences therein of grandparents, parents and children. Scifi has dealt with the multiverse before, but the two quotes that keep rattling around in my head in relation to Everything Everywhere are both from SF books rather than films or TV shows, and only one of them concerns parallel worlds.

The first is How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu, a specific line from which has always stuck with me: “You want to tell a story? Grow a heart. Grow two. Now, with the second heart, smash the first one into bits.” The second is from Barrayar, by Lois McMaster Bujold, and is the closest thing I can think of to the film’s central thesis: “Here you go: have a world of wealth and poverty, wrenching change and rooted history... Endure pain, find joy, and make your own meaning, because the universe certainly isn’t going to supply it. Always be a moving target. Live. Live. Live.” Evelyn’s life is one of wrenching change and poverty, though the multiverse shows her versions of her life where she’s had great wealth; yet always, always, history is there, both culturally and personally, tying her to the present moment. She has already endured pain; her daughter is Joy, and finding her is, in some ways, what the film is about. This is how she makes her own meaning in a universe – or multiverse, rather – determined not to supply it. She is a moving target, verse-jumping her way through different lives and selves in the quest of finding one that makes sense. And in the end, the message is simple: live. Live. Live.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is a remarkable film: silly, dizzying, heartfelt, curious, inexplicable, brutal and, above all, kind. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I haven’t been blogging much, lately. I’ve wanted to at times – the ideas have been there, the impetus to say something – but I’ve bled it off in Twitter threads rather than coming here, because that’s felt easier. Blaming the pandemic is convenient insofar as it’s largely true, but it’s also not the whole story; I was already struggling to blog before it started, and once it did, there wasn’t much bandwidth for considering why. We’re still in the pandemic now, almost (god) three fucking years later, for a variety of reasons that make any sane person want to walk into the sea if considered too closely, and things are still bad, but they’re also a different, slightly more hopeful flavour of bad, or at least more resigned, by which I mean we can go outside now and see people and get vaccinated, but – well. Well.

Anyway, the point is that, pandemic aside, I’d been having a rough time of things re: mental and physical health since, oh, let’s say 2012, which timeline not-so-coincidentally lines up with getting pregnant and having a child, who is now five days off from turning nine (!) and is in every respect a wholly wonderful person. It’s just that, as boring and gross and as gauche as certain people think it is to mention What Pregnancy Does To The Body (and hence to the brain), it’s actually quite a lot, and when some of those people are doctors who think that discomfort and sadness are a sort of AFAB baseline to which giving birth should natively acclimate you, such that raising any medical issues without, in their eyes, an obvious cause is just a hypochondriac complaining, it’s hard to get those things diagnosed, let alone fixed.

So: let’s say you’re me, a genderqueer-leaning-slightly-more-masc-than-hitherto-realised person who, prior to pregnancy, has been keeping all those feelings in a careful mental box without ever quite acknowledging them. All of a sudden dysphoria is a Real Goddamn Thing, because even more than your body changing, you’re suddenly being publicly, consistently, insistently gendered in ways you never have been before, and you realise oh, I really don’t like that, but feeling sad and gross and confused is, again, considered a fairly normal part of pregnancy, so it takes a couple of years to sort that all out, and in the interim, you contract a nasty viral infection postpartum that leaves you feeling shitty for months – and again, you are not listened to, not about the tiredness, discomfort and not-rightness in your body and certainly not about the excruciating pain that comes with breastfeeding, except to be told that you must be doing something wrong and either way just to push through it – until you finally collapse in a fever and have to be hospitalised for a week on powerful IV antibiotics.

Eventually, on your own recognizance – because, again, no one is listening to you, or at least, no one who’s a doctor – you do some research and determine that, regarding breastfeeding, you have an atypical presentation of Raynaud’s Syndrome, which is why it feels like someone is slowly pulling a hot wire out of your nipple when you feed your child (breast is best, the nurses say repeatedly; just push through the pain, are you sure you’re latching him properly? no? well, just keep at it, don’t switch to formula). You take this finding to a doctor who, for a miracle, agrees to prescribe you the relevant medication, and the pain goes away for a blissful week before you get a plugged duct and are once more in agony, at which point you switch to formula and, finally, are able to relax.

But your body still doesn’t feel right. You’re fatigued, not just tired but bone-pressingly exhausted all the time, so that some days you can’t get out of bed; it feels like there’s a giant hand physically pressing into the mattress, insisting that you need to lie down even when you already are. Your back starts to hurt. You explain this to doctors, but the best they can do is shrug and suggest it’s purely a mental health issue, as though your depression is making you hurt and tired instead of your hurt and tiredness making you depressed, and you don’t think that’s right, but you have to try something. So you go on antidepressants – a mild dose, of a drug you later find out is being discontinued in places because of its many unpleasant side-effects, with which you soon become intimately acquainted. They help a little, but the fatigue remains. Everything is hard.

You do more research. After a while, you wonder if the viral infection fritzed your immune system on its way out, as sometimes happens, making you more prone to inflammation. Tentatively, you ask your doctor to prescribe some anti-inflammatory meds. The doctor obliges; you take one, and have more energy than you’ve had in the four years since your child was born. Briefly, beautifully, you think you’re cured. But still, the tiredness comes back, stronger and worse, and now your back is hurting all the time, and one day it just goes twang! and leaves you barely able to walk for a fortnight. You blame the terrible Ikea couch you’ve been working on and try to sit more at a desk, which is uncomfortable in a different way, and keep on doing your best.

By the time your child is six, you’ve moved from England to Scotland to Australia to America and are now thoroughly tired of being tired, to say nothing of having doctors in four countries all shrug at the apparent vagueness of your daily, life-inhibiting tiredness and say there’s nothing to be done, all while implying you’re making it up. You think, all right: either this is a weird autoimmune condition that I can’t do anything about, or it’s something really simple and obvious that we’ve somehow missed. You rack your brains and come up with a single possibility: perhaps the only dietary change you made since becoming a parent – drinking soda in place of alcohol while pregnant, which became drinking soda daily thereafter – might be responsible. It feels like a hail Mary – bourbon and coke was your go-to pub order for years; if soda was a problem, surely you’d have noticed before? – but there’s nothing else to try. So you go cold turkey on soda, have two days of dizzying withdrawl symptoms, and then –

The fatigue is gone. Absurdly, beautifully, completely, gone.

Dazed, you do some googling. Apparently, it’s relatively common for pregnancy, which has a big impact on the immune system, to leave you with new allergies that you never had before. You learn that a certain type of caffeine intolerance, while not really referred to as an allergy, nonetheless falls under this umbrella, and that it can cause fatigue, as your body no longer processes caffeine as a stimulant. You have been poisoning yourself into misery for six years without anyone realising. You are furious; you are vindicated, that it wasn’t all in your head. To celebrate your newfound energy, you spend the whole day cleaning the house, bend slightly to look out the window at the end of it, and slip a disc in your lower back. The next day, you can’t walk and have to be stretchered down from your third-floor bedroom to a waiting ambulance – stretchered upright, because the stairs are too narrow for you to lie down. The pain is worse than childbirth. You go straight to hospital. It’s a week before you can walk again.

Recovery is slow. There is physical therapy. Months pass. You’re in pain every day, but (you think) manageable pain. By the start of 2020, you’re ready to go to the gym again, and have just gotten into the habit of it when the pandemic hits. The pandemic is all-encompassing and terrible; your child is in first grade when virtual learning starts and in third grade before he returns to a physical classroom. In 2021, both you and your husband suffer the loss of a parent and are unable to travel to be with family because Australia’s borders are closed. You watch their funerals over zoom; both times, the internet briefly cuts out.

Near the end of 2021 and with a newfound awareness of your mortality, it occurs to you that, two years after slipping a disc and five years after starting antidepressants, you are still in daily physical pain, while your mental health is good. You did ask for a chiropractic referral a few months back, but the doctor wouldn’t give you one: physical therapy only, they said, but the physical therapist never returned your call. The doctor who prescribed the antidepressants is in another country, while your current doctor is hard to get an appointment with even when there isn’t a pandemic. You do some research about going off your particular brand of antidepressants: the side-effects you’ve been living with are becoming steadily more pronounced, more unpleasant, and the more you research, the harder it is to understand why you were put in this particular medication in the first place, given the seeming gulf between its designated purpose and your original symptoms. The depression itself was caused and exacerbated by the now-understood fatigue, which is no longer an issue, and your dose is small enough that tapering won’t be noticeably better than going cold turkey. You decide to take the risk.

You go off antidepressants, and you use the money inherited from your father’s passing to pay for a chiropractor.

Withdrawal symptoms last just under two weeks and are mostly manageable – weird, but manageable. You brace for your mental health to crash, but it never does. Instead, your body gets stronger and your head gets clearer, and as you start to read more quickly, easily and voraciously than you have in years, you realise suddenly, angrily, that this vital part of yourself – your ability to read, to focus on words – had been badly impacted by a medication you should never have been put on in the first place; were only really prescribed because nobody was willing to figure out the source of your actual problem.

And then you go to the chiropractor, who takes one look at your spine, x-rays you to be sure, and shows you how, when you were pregnant, your pelvis twisted within your body, tilting up and back like a crooked bow-tie, steadily imbalancing your whole body. This is why your lower back has been hurting for years; why you slipped a disc so badly; why, even though you did everything your physical therapist asked of you, the pain never went away. You almost break down in tears in the chiropractor’s office, but manage to save them for when you get home. You begin a schedule of adjustments to put your bones back where they should be.

A week into 2022 – a month before your son’s 9th birthday – you wake up without a lancing pain in your hip for the first time since 2019.

It’s been nearly a decade since I first fell pregnant. My health has been impacted by it every day since then, both mentally and physically. I’m coming out of it now, I think – I hope – but I’ve thought that before, and each time, there’s been some other issue lurking in the woodwork. I love my son dearly; I am furious at the broader medical establishment for leaving me to fumble around in the dark, alone, because my quality of life was not held to be important if the symptoms impacting it didn’t have a quick, obvious, commonplace solution. I have been reticent to talk about going off antidepressants on my own as a positive thing, because even when they’re working properly and perfectly prescribed, they can still have unpleasant side-effects, and it’s easy to think you’re better when you’re not, and it’s always better to consult a medical professional, and and and – but still, I was prescribed a medication for a condition I did not have, in lieu of trying to determine what I did have, and it briefly helped the symptoms without touching the cause, and made my life miserable and hard to an extent I’m only fully realising in its absence, and I can read again now, without feeling like I’m forcing my eyes through glue, and I need to be able to say so.

The fact that I achieved anything professionally during this period is, the more I think about it, miraculous, or perhaps a testament to my own bloody-minded reliance on fiction in general and fantasy in particular to carry me through life. I want to blog more, and hopefully will do so, but I find that I’m having to unlearn a habit of flinching from my own ambitions. For so long, I’ve had to curate specific conditions in which to read, to write, to work, because if I attempted to do so otherwise, I’d run up against a wall of exhaustion and fail, and that sense of failure – of wanting to do a thing I love, but finding myself unable to – has left me inhibited, like a crocodile stunted to fit the undersized pool in which it’s kept. There are so many books I’ve picked up and struggled to read in the last few years, not due to any fault in the writing, but because my brain has been lagging, muddled; I want to read them now, but still, there’s this terrible, paralysing fear whenever I reach for one that the fog will come back, an invisible wall to smack me out of my progress. I feel the same about writing, especially here – but I’m trying. I’m going to keep trying.

My next book is coming out this year – my first since 2017 – and I’m terrified. I love this book; it’s just that I’ve got all this leftover terror of being too tired, too far away, too not-enough, and that makes it hard to remember that somehow, amidst all the terrible everything of the last half-decade, I managed to not only write a thing that I love, but get it on track to be published. Part of me is paranoid it’ll all somehow be taken away before it ever hits shelves, which I know is irrational, but I’m working on that, too.

Anyway. This is all to say that, while I haven’t been blogging much for a while now, I’m still here, and I’m trying, and I’m hopefully getting better, which is really the most that any of us can aspire to. It’s about to be the lunar year of the tiger, which is my year and therefore exciting, and frankly at this point, I can use all the positive omens I can find, so I’m leaning into it, mentally. And whoever’s reading this, I hope you have – or are having – a good new year, too. We could all do with one.

My next novel, A Strange and Stubborn Endurance, has a cover! I love it so much – it’s utterly gorgeous, and like the book itself, which is due for release by Tor on 26 July 2022, I can’t wait to be out in the world.

When Lord Velasin vin Aaro of Ralia is summoned home, he doesn’t expect to be offered a diplomatic marriage to a daughter of the ruling family of Qi-Katai in neighboring Tithena—in fact, he dreads the very thought of such a marriage. But when an ugly confrontation reveals Velasin’s preference for men to the Tithenai envoy, the envoy proposes a very un-Ralian solution: that Velasin marry the lord of Qi-Katai’s son instead.

Caethari Aeduria has known for years that marriage lay in his future; he just didn’t think it would happen with the Ralian man intended for his sister. When Velasin arrives in Qi-Katai, it soon becomes clear that an unknown faction is set against their union, while Velasin himself is wrestling with more than culture shock. As the danger escalates, Caethari and Velasin must learn to trust each other in order to survive—and maybe even make their arranged marriage a loving one in the process.

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Author’s note: much of the content detailed here has already been covered in a Twitter thread I started yesterday; however, as events have continued to unfold, the length of the thread has become unwieldy, and so I’ve opted to set things down in a more accessible fashion.

Early yesterday, author/agent Ashley Herring Blake and agent Molly Ker Hawn independently reported on Twitter that they’d been contacted by a hitherto unknown site called YA Book Ratings, requesting that they rate their respective YA titles – Herring Blake’s own forthcoming novel and the works produced by Ker Hawn’s agency – using the site’s rubric. The aim of this, as evidently expressed by YA Book Ratings, was to label these books according to their “cleanliness” (per Ker Hawn) and fit them into “appropriate” categories (per Herring Blake). At least two other authors also reported receiving similar emails. Though these categories no longer appear on the website, which is temporarily down as of the time of writing, they initially appeared in the following YA1 to YA4 format:

According to the site, the eventual aim was to produce stickers bearing these ratings to booksellers and other interested parties; however, according to the FAQ, as the site owners – listed yesterday as Jolie Taylor, Liz Wilson and Rachel Hill – wouldn’t have time to read every book in order to rank it personally, they were relying on others to do the ranking for them, which would seem to be born out by their decision to contact various agents and authors and ask them to rank their own work. In other words: Taylor, Wilson and Hill hoped to make money in the long term from the sale of their stickers while outsourcing the majority of the labour required to apply them to unpaid strangers.

Here is what the stickers looked like:

It’s a minor issue in the scheme of things, but the design of these was puzzling to more people than me. What is each symbol meant to be, and what does it have to do with the content it supposedly represents? Is YA1 a cloud or a flower? Is YA4 a sexiness rating, or does it refer to hellfire? And why is YA3 just… a box? Your guess is as good as mine.

More worrying were the guidelines offered for determining which books belonged in which category. The fact that sexual assault merited a lower rating than consensual, on-page sex was particularly noteworthy, as was the bizarre weighting of swearwords, even the mildest of which were censored (slurs weren’t mentioned at all). “No underage alcohol use besides sip by MC,” a YA2 guideline, is both weirdly specific and pointedly judgemental, while also failing to take into account the fact that different countries have different drinking ages. By contrast, the inclusion of “extreme gore” in YA4 is downright incongruous for YA in general – but then, I suspect that Taylor, Wilson and Hill are working from a different definition of “extreme” than those of us who routinely mainline horror content, given that they’ve placed it in the same category as “excessive alcohol use and partying.” Excessive by whose standards? And what is “justified violence” as listed in YA2? What does any of this mean, practically? And how does one use this system to rank a book that contains elements from all four categories – say, a book with no underage drinking and no sexual topics, but with an instance of the word shit, an MC who vapes once, and some gore? Do you scale it up or down, and either way, why? And – most pressingly – with each of these four categories meant to represent such a wide range of content, such that a given book might tick one box or all of them or just a few, how could a single sticker on the spine be more practically useful than the actual blurb?

Exploring the YA Book Ratings site-as-was, which originally included information about Hill, Taylor and Wilson, one thing leapt out at me: all were white women seemingly married to their childhood sweethearts, all had either 4 or 5 children, and all were educated in Utah, with Hill’s degree coming from Brigham-Young University. Together with the clear moralising of the proposed ratings system and the fact that Hill and Wilson’s book review podcast, Two Babes and a Book, boasted its provision of “cleanliness ratings” on the landing page, it seemed reasonable to conclude that all three were Mormons, or at very least strongly influenced by Mormonism. And, well: as a queer person already eyeing that “in-depth sexual topics” yardstick in the highest-rated YA4 category and wondering if it was a coded way of saying “gay stuff happens,” this was, uh…. unsettling, shall we say.

Here’s why this is an issue, particularly in the context of YA book ratings: Mormon ideals of moral cleanliness, as put forward by the temple, especially around sexuality and sexual thoughts, are… let’s go with deeply unhealthy, to say nothing with the intense homophobia advocated for by Mormon leadership. To quote Twitter user Kayla Thatcher, who was raised Mormon, “I internalized the rules of my culture as a kid. I was in no way a rebel. That meant that I felt a lot of shame and guilt every time I encountered anything “inappropriate” in literature… There was no sense of gradually growing into adult media. If media had swearing, it was bad. If it was sexual, it was bad. If there was too much conflict, it was bad. If it was gay, well, none of us would have heard of it.”

To be clear: this is not a blanket denunciation of every Mormon ever. The red flags here come specifically from the proximity of apparent Mormonism-masquerading-as-objectivity to the moral ranking of sexual and other normal teen behaviours presented by a site whose ultimate aim is to have those categories used and disseminated by booksellers (to say nothing of the aim of feeling the need to rank YA thusly in the first place). And that, to me, is a problem.

As I and others reacted online to the categories and the morality behind them, however, the site’s owners took notice. First to vanish was the page listing Hill, Wilson and Taylor as its creators; by evening, Taylor’s Twitter account – which, as best I could tell, was tagged into the discussion by exactly one person – had been deleted, and the site itself was reduced to nothing but a landing page, which was, by this morning, also gone, replaced by a 404 error message. Even Taylor’s Instagram account was gone, though the Two Babes and a Book Instagram and Facebook page are both still up. The deletion of the site felt strange to me: as I said at the time, why would three people, apparently in tune enough with YA book blogging to have between them an established podcast and a very popular TikTok account – the latter is Taylor’s, with over 38k followers – invest so much time and effort in the creation of their site, even going so far as to create a trademark and logo, only to delete everything the second they were criticised? Had they genuinely not anticipated any pushback, or were they just regrouping? What was happening?

That question was answered in part this afternoon, when Liz Wilson posted a lengthy Instagram story to the Two Babes and a Book account addressing the proposed ratings system. For my own ease of reference as much because of the inherent impermanence of Insta stories, I posted a transcript of her video here, and was immediately struck by several things about it:

  1. At no point does Wilson openly acknowledge the chain of events that led her to post the video. She talks about the site as a “project” that she and Hill are “working on,” and mentions the site is down while they “revamp” it, but never says that the project already went live and was taken down. Jolie Taylor isn’t mentioned at all.
  2. Though Ker Hawn and Herring Blake both reported use of the words “cleanliness” and “appropriate” in the correspondence they received from the YA Book Ratings site, Wilson claims explicitly that “we just want people to be aware of what’s in the book, and we wanna avoid things like, this is clean, this is not clean, this is appropriate, this is not appropriate, but really from a standpoint of ‘this is the content that’s in the book,’” while speaking from an account that – once again – literally talks about cleanliness ratings in the byline. That she later goes on to ask whether the podcast ought to replace the word “cleanliness” with something else does nothing to retroactively remove it from the original correspondence, nor its shadow from the YA categories originally listed on the ratings site.
  3. Wilson goes on to describe the aim of the site as being much more akin to diversity support than anything else, providing a way for readers to avoid triggering content or find characters with a particular disability or sexual orientation, yet still frames this in terms of a rating system. She does not explain how these two things mesh: by definition, a rating conveys scale, a subjective assessment of whether something is least, middling, more or most by whatever rubrics apply, but triggers and inclusion cannot usefully be ranked this way, and they certainly can’t be dealt with using group criteria, as was present in the original YA1-4 schema (which, tellingly, she doesn’t mention either).
  4. Despite this apparent emphasis on diversity and triggers, Wilson brackets the video by asking why books don’t have ratings when TV, movies and video games do.

Later, however, Wilson returned to Insta and added what is, to me, the most telling part of her argument. “We know that it’s a sensitive topic and we just want people to be more aware before they pick them up and read,” she says, while a black textbox floats on the screen to her left, reading: “and I might add parents since we are referring to young adult novels; children as young as 10 or 11 years old are reading YA books.”

This, right here, is the crux of the issue: because whenever someone proposes ratings systems for YA books, it’s ultimately less about helping kids and teens than it is about helping adults to police them. And where ideas of moral cleanliness are lurking in the background, nine times out of ten, what that means is parents restricting access to queer content, to sexual content, to stories that mention drugs or homelessness, police violence or white supremacy; anything they think might be a “bad influence” on their kids, even or perhaps especially if it’s something those kids might benefit from experiencing or be eager to read about in a safe, controlled way. This policing doesn’t even have to be the end goal of Wilson, Hill and Taylor to be the most likely upshot if their revamped site succeeds, though I’d be surprised if it didn’t factor into at least some of their thinking, even if only subconsciously.

Here’s the thing about YA: it is already, all by itself, by virtue of being distinct from both middle grade and adult fiction, a type of classification. It is both young and adult, meaning that it features teens developing into adults – and that is always going to be a messy, imperfect transition involving both young and adult themes, which is why the genre is definitionally broad. This is where blurbs, book reviews and promotional materials step in, telling prospective readers what a given title might be likely to feature – and though Wilson seems unaware of it, publishers and authors are increasingly taking the step of including trigger warnings on published books, listing the most common forms of content, such as abuse and sexual violence, for which readers might want to be forewarned.

Now: I have absolutely no doubt that Wilson is right, and that kids as young as 10 and 11 – or, hell, even younger – are happily reading YA. But I don’t think for a minute that this justifies employing a YA ratings system. Why? Because those kids are reading up. They are exploring material meant for older readers, just as many tweens and teens have, since time immemorial, explored adult books alongside their YA and middle grade favourites. This is part of growing up, and while an involved family might well choose to sit down with their precocious reader, touch base on what they’re reading and perhaps discuss any more advanced topics in a constructive way, this process will not be helped by the addition of a ratings system, whose reductive nature is simultaneously useless as a real content warning while appealing to the most restrictive, knee-jerk of adults – no, that’s too old for you – without encouraging further investigation. Imagine trying to introduce a ratings system for adult books on the basis that teens might read them – what purpose would that serve, really? If you, a concerned parent, are worried that a particular book isn’t appropriate for your child, you have plenty of options: read it yourself, look up reviews of it (which do exist outside of Goodreads, contrary to Wilson’s apparent belief), discuss it with their teacher or librarian, or even just ask the kid what they think of it, or why they want to read it. A ratings system does nothing but provide a handy excuse to yank a book out of a kid’s hands without having to think twice about it.

According to Wilson’s Insta video, the current plan is for the YA Book Ratings website to go back up by the end of the week. Even should she, Taylor and Hill try to parlay the site into some sort of diversity index/database, as Wilson’s video suggested, I will remain deeply skeptical of their efforts, not least because they’re seemingly either unaware or uncaring of the fact that such resources already exist. On their original FAQ page, for instance, they said:

Setting aside the absurd idea that rating a book is somehow less negative than giving a trigger warning or using a content label on its own, the stated goal of “providing a faster and more concrete system for readers to know the content contained in books” is notably unsupported by any evidence. How will the site be faster? How will it be more concrete? And on whose shoulders will the diversity search function of YA Book Ratings be standing, if and when it’s implemented? An immense amount of work has already been done by groups like We Need Diverse Books, Disability in Kidlit and the Queer SFF Databse to promote, review and record works both by and about marginalised people; will YA Book Ratings be contributing to these communities, or stealing from them? Or will they simply ask busy, marginalised people, as they already set about asking agents and authors, to perform free labour for them?

The whole thing has left a bad taste in my mouth. At base, the original categories were bizarre, moralising and functionally unusable, while Wilson’s video subsequent to their removal has neither acknowledged what they did in the first instance nor reconciled the jarring disconnect between “we just want to promote diversity and all-purpose content labels!” and “we need to protect young children from reading Inappropriate Stories,” all while actively lying about the use of “cleanliness” and “appropriate” in their initial correspondence. I’m going to keep an eye on the site and see if it progresses, but here’s where we are for now, and folks: I am Tired.

I watched Disney’s Jungle Cruise last night. It’s my own fault; we wanted a family movie, and I was too lazy to heed the meh-to-critical reviews I’d glimpsed flitting by on social media. How bad can it be? I thought. After all, I’m a fan of trashy action. My expectations were low. Sure, it’s based on a Disney ride, but so was Pirates of the Caribbean, and even the sequels were mostly watchable. Why not try it?

With the benefit of a day’s hindsight, I can say with confidence that there are three things I liked about Jungle Cruise, and three things only:

  1. the startlingly incongruous but nonetheless excellent re-recording of Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters;
  2. the fact that Jack Whitehall’s character, MacGregor Houghton, is canonically (and fairly unambiguously, even though they don’t actually use the goddamn word) gay; and
  3. the CGI leopard, Proxima.

Otherwise, Jungle Cruise is a bloated, nonsensical slog, attempting to sew together the various narrative beats of The Mummy (1999), Tomb Raider (2001) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) in a vain attempt at recapturing past magic while simultaneously managing to be more regressive than films made thirty years ago. The 127 minute runtime is a vivid red flag: if you cannot make Emily Blunt and the Rock doing jungle cruising fit a tight 90, or at the very least less than two hours, then you’re doing something fundamentally wrong.

The plot: In 1916, Englishwoman Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) drags her foppish brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) to the Amazon in search of the Tears of the Moon, a legendary flower said to be able to cure all diseases, but which was supposedly hidden away by the Puka Michuna tribe after a group of Spanish conquistadors tried and failed to steal it 400 years ago, and were cursed for their hubris. The Houghtons sign on to sail the river with Frank (Dwayne Johnson), a charming but untrustworthy jungle cruise captain, but are pursued by the avaricious German Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), who wants the Tears of the Moon for himself. (There’s also an entirely redundant subplot starring Paul Giamatti as Nilo Nemolato, the harbourmaster at Porto Velho, but we’ll get to that shortly.)

Structurally, Jungle Cruise is a mess: there are three different antagonists, multiple plot points either peter out into nothing or are never fully addressed, and the characterisation is woefully inconsistent, such that it has the distinctive feel of a frankenscript, cobbled together out of the butchered remains of various drafts without too much care as to how they fit together. Given that the film boasts three listed scriptwriters and four story credits for a total of five different writers, plus a whopping six producers, none of whom are also the director, I feel confident stating that, at the very least, there was no coherent overall vision, which sounds wanky as hell when talking about fucking Jungle Cruise, but it’s always grating to watch a bunch of mediocre dudes rake in millions of dollars for the kind of end product that wouldn’t merit a passing grade in a college-level scriptwriting class.

Take Paul Giamatti’s character, for instance. We’re introduced to Nemolato as someone to whom Frank owes money, such that Nemolato is trying to claim his boat in payment. Lily initially meets Frank when he’s broken into Nemolato’s office, mistaking him for Nemolato. Frank plays along to get the job, but is very quickly revealed as a fake. Then there’s a string of action sequences where Frank first fake-fights his pet leopard (though we don’t yet know she’s a pet) to make Lily choose him as captain, and then a big getting-onto-the-boat-while-being-chased bit, where Frank is chased by Nemolato and Lily is chased by agents of Prince Joachim, who then shows up in a submarine to have at them. They get away eventually, and then… Nemolato completely vanishes from the narrative, only cropping up briefly at the finale. We never learn why Frank owed him money and there’s no closure to any of it, rendering the entire subplot completely pointless.

Similarly, it’s never clear why Lily, an apparent doctor of botany, believes so fervently in the magical tale of the Tears of the Moon. We know that her father told her the stories when she was little, but not why they’ve continued to matter to her as an adult, or what scientific basis she has for thinking there’s truth in the legend about the conquistadors. This apparent tension between a woman of science obsessed with a fairytale is never so much as addressed, let alone resolved: we’re just meant to trust that Lily is right because she’s the protagonist, ignoring how her actions serve to undermine her apparent expertise. That MacGregor also makes a passing reference to their uncle being the one to try and disown him when he admitted to being gay, rather than their father, feels like a vestigial hint of backstory from an earlier draft that was subsequently altered; likewise the fact that the Royal Society is apparently happy taking money from the German Prince Joachim during the height of the war, without this evident treason ever being raised again, let alone brought to catharsis. We get multiple scenes of Lily and Frank filming each other with a black and white silent camera, whose recordings we see on screen, but this is never brought up again, either. Even the fact that Lily can’t swim, which is introduced early on in true Chekov’s Gun fashion, never goes anywhere meaningful – even though she eventually has to try, the conditions for Frank to effect a dramatic rescue are present independently, in that she ends up stuck in an underwater cage while operating an ancient mechanism to reveal the Tears of the Moon.

The mechanism itself, of course, also makes no narrative sense. We’re told early on about the existence of a Special Magical McGuffin Arrowhead that somehow unlocks the way to the Tears of the Moon, which Lily steals from the Royal Society during a daring escapade. When the history of the arrowhead is finally explained, we’re shown a magical sequence where a morally wounded tribal chief, with his dying breath, does something to hide the Tears forever – but when Lily and Frank come to find them, there’s a massive secret structure built to keep the thing safe. So what did the chief actually do, beyond hide the key? Who knows! It would only take a single line of dialogue to explain the apparent incongruity, but apparently, nobody could be bothered to include it. And then there’s the bit about how the jungle will reclaim the cursed conquistadors (who are mostly portrayed via CGI, as monstrous half-human creatures made of snakes and bees and other jungle-dwelling creatures) if they ever leave sight of the river… except they do leave the sight of the river, multiple times; it’s actually just that they can’t go too far. But how far is too far? Who knows! And what does reclaim mean, in this context? We’re shown the men being pulled back into the jungle by vines, but they end up trapped in stone for hundreds of years because they get tricked into a big hole where the jungle can’t bring them to the water, even though the hole is in the jungle, which… I guess means they were previously getting taken back to the river if they went too far from it? But the same magic that makes them into snake-and-bee people is apparently flummoxed by a hole? But if they get turned to stone, the Tears of the Moon can lift their curse somehow? Who knows!

It’s a mess, is what I’m getting at, and while I hardly went in expecting vivid historical accuracy, it’s a mess made worse by the fact nobody involved would appear to have any deeper knowledge of the places and period in which it’s set than could be gleaned by smoking a blunt and scrolling through Pinterest moodboards.The fact that we’ve got a cackling, villainous German prince in WWI is almost the least of these problems, though as was also the case with Wonder Woman (2017), I’m uncomfortable with Hollywood’s recent trend of retconning pre-1920s Germany into The Unambiguous Bad Guys, as though WWI was always meant as an opening gambit in the rise of fascism instead of a global clusterfuck. Neither is it explained how MacGregor has managed to avoid conscription; even a throwaway line about family connections or being a conchie would work, but instead we have him addressing the Royal Society on Lily’s behalf about how the Tears of the Moon could be used to cure soldiers at the front without anyone mentioning why he hasn’t been sent there himself.

At one point after being knocked out, MacGregor comes to mumbling wistfully, “I dreamed I was lunching at Boodles,” a line nobody could write if they’d taken two seconds to double-check what Boodles actually is: now as in 1916, it remains a high-end jewelry store, not a restaurant. It’s the same sort of careless error that gives an English toff a Scottish surname for a first name, presumably because the American writers think of Britain as a homogenous lump. (The fact that they accidentally chose a name with a particularly loaded history is, by contrast, merely funny. Probably they were just thinking of Ewan.) Similarly, a frustrating amount of fuss is made over Lily’s decision to wear pants – this is mildly understandable coming from Frank, who’s been in Brazil forever (though the repetition is still tiresome), but much less so from MacGregor, given that, in 1916, pants-wearing women were a vastly more commonplace sight than before the war, as civilian women took over traditionally male jobs and began to dress accordingly. It ought to be a minor point, but the film makes such a big deal of it in Lily’s case without ever mentioning the context that, for me, it came to be representative of larger failings: specifically, the decision to set a film in WWI while almost completely erasing anything of relevance to it. Even Prince Joachim cutting about Brazil in a submarine and wanting to be Kaiser forever is completely detached from the war effort: his character could be a pirate, a British nobleman or literally anyone else, and it wouldn’t impact the story in the slightest, except for making his ownership of a submarine just a hair less plausible.

Which is where we run up against the real reason why all these small anachronisms and incongruities really rankle: imperialism, and the various ways in which the film treats it as merely a colourful backdrop against which to set an uncritical, unresearched romp. Which, to be clear: I am very much in favour of romps, in general! The Mummy (1999) is one of my go-to trashy action comfort watches, and it is likewise set in the waning years of British imperialism, with Western characters seeking to uncover a magical artifact in another part of the world. But while, with my critical hat on, I can acknowledge the various ways in which The Mummy is flawed in its portrayals, in addition to having strengths in other areas, it also has a coherent sense of being set in the 1920s, acknowledging the wars which have shaped both the narrative context and, as such, the characters, even minor ones. Jungle Cruise, meanwhile, lacks this in spades: our introduction to Frank shows him giving an Amazon river tour to a boatload of wealthy British tourist families, adult men as well as women and children – I repeat, it is 1916, there is a fucking war on, the fact that Brazil remained neutral until 1917 by no means made travel there from England either safe or a common holiday destination – part of which involves an “attack” by an apparent “cannibal” tribe, the Puka Michuna, who are later revealed to be working for Frank to help sell the atmosphere during his tours.

It’s at this point that I need to deliver a spoiler, if you can fairly apply the term to a film like Jungle Cruise: after a certain amount of signposting, Frank is revealed to be Francisco Lopez de Heredia, one of the conquistadors who tried to steal the Tears of the Moon 400 years ago, but who broke with his fellows when they started attacking the Pika Michuna, preferring to defend the tribe who’d saved them from certain death. The curse has kept him alive ever since, and now he gives river tours.

At a crucial point in the film, the protagonists are “captured” by the Puka Michuna – a trick Frank had originally arranged to help scare Lily away, and which he wasn’t able to cancel once he realised she was carrying the Special Magical McGuffin Arrowhead. As part of the act, the Puka Michuna leader, Trader Sam (Veronica Falcón), demands that Lily give back the arrowhead, which is important to her tribe; but when her friendship with Frank is revealed, she’s happy for Lily to keep it, going so far as to translate it for her to help her continue her quest. That the arrowhead was only recently brought to London, where Lily stole it, is never mentioned; we don’t know how the Royal Society came into its possession, but the question of giving it back to the Puka Michuna is never raised. At one point, Trader Sam refers to the tribal outfits Frank has them wearing as “ridiculous costumes,” and there’s also a cringy scene where MacGregor teaches various tribespeople how to use his golf clubs, cuing the inevitable callback scene where one of said tribesman rescues him during a fight by hitting his assailant with one of them, proudly naming the club – “driver!” – as he does so.

And I just.

Both in attempting to fix the racism of their original Jungle Cruise ride and in the film’s portrayal of the Puka Michuna, Disney is clearing the lowest possible bar by not portraying its indingenous characters exclusively as savage, headhunting cannibals. As such, there’s a glimmer of an attempt at positive representation in having Trader Sam and the Puka Michuna turn out to be the good guys – and in fairness to Veronica Falcón, she does a great job with the little she’s given to work with. But hanging a lampshade on a trope is not the same as subverting it, and especially not when the apparent alternative to “savage headhunters” is “native tribe who calls their own traditional clothing ridiculous costumes, are cartoonishly awed by Western inventions, and happily hand over sacred sites and relics to Western adventurers.” The comments made here by writer Michael Green are particularly revealing. To quote the article:

“What we felt we could still play with is a lot of false preconceived notions,” Green says of the scene. “At the time when this film takes place, a lot of people coming from where those tourists were coming might think of those natives as backwards tribes. And we could instead be poking fun at people’s expectations of it.”

In other words, Green’s way of giving his indigenous characters “the dignity they deserve” is to completely detach them from their own culture: see, they’re no longer “backwards,” because they’re helping the white people! See how cute it is, that they liked the golf clubs? And look, now nobody’s making the white characters feel awkward about taking their sacred relics and invading their sacred sites, because they don’t care anymore! Now they’ve got a job working for a former conquistador playing parodies of themselves to ensure that white tourists keep thinking of them as savages, which they definitely aren’t, because they like white people now! Isn’t progress wonderful?

For fuck’s sake.

Which brings me back to the whole cursed conquistadors thing: once Frank’s secret is revealed, we get a flashback sequence where he narrates his past, explaining that the reason the lead conquistador, real historical figure Lope de Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) came searching for the Tears of the Moon in the first place was… to save his dying daughter. Coincidentally, it’s this scene that gets the rad Metallica redo of Nothing Else Matters playing in the background, which I guess is meant to subtly emphasize how Nothing Else Mattered To Aguirre But His Daughter, which is very much a Cool Motive, Still Murder moment, on account of how the Aguirre in the movie goes on to commit a massacre of the natives on her behalf, while the actual real historical Aguirre – you know, the dude someone associated with this film presumably Googled at least once, if only to spell his name right – was nicknamed the Wrath of God for his acts of cruelty and violence, which coincidentally included murdering his daughter, albeit so she wouldn’t suffer at the hands of his enemies when he was finally brought down.

Naturally, then, the wikipedia page for Jungle Cruise describes Aguirre’s mission as a “noble expedition,” which is a very fine and normal and not at all horrific way to describe the presence of any conquistador in South America, let alone one historically famed for his violence. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone edits it out in the future, but here’s a screencap showing that part of the current entry, just for posterity:

So, you know. Choices were made, there! Interesting narrative choices, to completely erase the context of what a conquistador was and why they spent so much time massacring the indigenous peoples of South America, while reframing a famously violent individual who murdered his daughter as just a doting dad who snapped. Truly inspiring stuff.

With all that being so, the final nail in the coffin is the film’s emotional continuity. By far the greatest offense on this count is Frank’s apparent desire to die: he wants the Tears of the Moon, we learn, because he wants to end the curse and pass on. Which ought to make sense for an apparent immortal, except for how it’s completely incongruous with every other aspect of his character the film has shown us up until that point. He loves his leopard, Proxima; he’s invested enough in his business to be fighting with Nemolato about money; he has friends and a burgeoning love interest in Lily; and he’s never shown as world-weary. Even once we get the reveal about his origins, there’s no regrets about his past life as a conquistador, not even in the movie-friendly terms of his betrayal of Aguirre, when he chose to defend the Puka Michuna against his friend. He just… suddenly wants to die, and it comes out of nowhere – and is also ultimately proven insincere: when Lily uses the Tears of the Moon to break the curse after he turns to stone (how does any of this work again? oh, forget it), he has no emotional response to having his wishes countermanded. Case closed.

And then there’s Lily herself, who, despite apparently being a doctor of botany, is never once shown to act within her field of competence, such that it ends up feeling like a wholly irrelevant detail. We get her naming a couple of flowers at one point in passing, but that’s it. All her motivation is tied to the myth rather than the science, but so much emphasis is placed on her initial desire to go through the Royal Society, to whom she even submitted a paper on the subject, that her motivations never make sense at all. When magical things start happening before her eyes, there’s no talk about her reconciling them with science, even though she’s surprised – the implication is that she was somehow expecting this, or something like it, all along. As such, I can’t help but compare her unfavourably to Evie Hammond of The Mummy (1999), played by Rachel Weisz. Unlike Lily, Evie’s field of competence as a librarian and student of ancient history and languages is acutely relevant, while her initial disbelief in magic and ghost stories is part of what drives the plot along, both literally and emotionally. But even though a great many beats from that film have been borrowed by Jungle Cruise – including the iconic introductory scene where Evie topples and sways on an unsupported ladder, here repurposed for Lily’s break-in and escape from the Royal Society – they’ve been copied soullessly, without any real understanding of what made them work the first time.

Which is perhaps why the chemistry between Lily and Frank is so sexless: they feel like two adversarial bros becoming friends, not developing lovers. Oh, there’s a great deal of angry banter and occasionally quippy back-and-forth, but it’s missing that certain essential something between the actors and in the dialogue to make it feel more than platonic. There’s some attempts at soft moments and meaningful conversations, but either they come off stilted or the directorial emphasis is elsewhere, as when Frank recounts his true history while narrating a flashback, which looks cool on screen but robs us of any emotional connection over the truth between him and Lily.

But you know who does have chemistry with Frank?

MacGregor.

When Lily and MacGregor first come aboard Frank’s boat, it’s MacGregor he has the heated yet oddly playful argument with about his excessive luggage, most of which gets tossed in the river (though not his booze, which Frank agrees can stay). Early on, we saw a boatload of tourists groan at Frank’s terrible puns; but then he tries one on MacGregor, who goes all soft and genuinely loves it – unlike Lily, who rolls her eyes. While Lily is off elsewhere, it’s MacGregor who has a quiet, confessional conversation with Frank about why he’d follow her “into a volcano” – because when he refused marriage to a woman and effectively told his family he would never marry, because his interests lay “elsewhere,” she was the one who stood by him.- In response to hearing MacGregor say he was shunned for “who I love,” Frank makes understanding eye contact, raises a glass and says, “to elsewhere.” It’s MacGregor, not Lily, who bonds with Proxima, Frank’s beloved leopard, and MacGregor who undergoes the most character development, starting out hesitant and unhappy, but progressing into enjoyment. To draw yet another comparison to The Mummy (1999), it’s MacGregor who most resembles Evie Hammond, though I suspect the writers meant to model him more on her rakish, reckless brother Jonathan, played by John Hannah. It’s just that, narratively, the opposite is true: it’s Jonathan and Lily who find the MacGuffins that kick off their respective adventures, with Evie and MacGregor the ones who follow along; Evie and MacGregor who get the requisite “makeover by the locals to look hot for the love interest” scene, as MacGregor steadily undresses in the heat and ends up with Puka Michuna tattoo ink on his face, which Frank, not Lily, grins and teases him about.

And given the lack of chemistry between Lily and Frank, when the moment came for Lily to risk her life’s work to save one man with MacGregor looking on… it was very hard not to think about an alternate reading, where the sister who defied the family to protect her queer brother was willing, once again, to take a risk for him, to save the man he loved. Instead of an ending where MOC Frank goes back to rigidly class-and-race-conscious England to live with Lily, we might’ve had an ending where MacGregor escaped his homophobic nation to keep exploring less judgemental parts of the world with his new Spanish boyfriend – but Disney would no more have made that movie than have reimagined Lily’s character as biracial and indigenous, on a quest to recover a relic of her mother’s people from the Royal Society with the aid of her highly-strung but well-meaning white half-brother, which would’ve been a vastly better story. So far (which isn’t very far at all), but no further: that’s the measure of Disney’s progress these days, and at times like this, it’s largely worthless.

Anyway! Jungle Cruise sucks, but even though Metallica still slaps, happily, you don’t have to watch the movie to listen to them. Cool CGI leopard, though.

I am ecstatic to finally announce that I’ve made a book deal with Tor! A Strange and Stubborn Endurance is an m/m fantasy romance focused on an arranged marriage between Velasin vin Aaro of Ralia and Caethari Aeduria of Tithena, and I cannot wait to share it with you. Click through to Tor.com to check out the full announcement, which also includes a bonus excerpt featuring Cae and Vel!

AAAAAAAAAAA!

Warning: full spoilers for The Echo Wife

Trigger warning: discussion of grooming, manipulation, and domestic abuse

Doctor Evelyn Caldwell is an award-winning researcher in the field of cloning, a pioneer whose creation of the Caldwell Method for imbuing clones with memories has won her professional acclaim. But at the pinnacle of her career, her success is marred by the knowledge that her soon-to-be-ex-husband and former collaborator, Nathan, has stolen her research to clone himself a more docile, submissive version of Evelyn to be his new wife. As she works to keep the full details of Nathan’s betrayal a secret, however, Evelyn’s efforts are undermined by her clone, Martine – who might not be as docile as Nathan hoped for after all.

Since I finished The Echo Wife last night, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it; and it is also – beautifully, brilliantly – the kind of book I can’t properly discuss without spoiling it utterly. From the outset, nothing went as I’d expected it to: instead of having the reader discover Nathan’s infidelity along with Evelyn, her narration begins at a point where she already knows what her husband has done. The shock realisation comes when Evelyn agrees to meet with Martine and discovers that she’s pregnant: something which shouldn’t be possible, not least because the existence of a fertile clone threatens the tightly-drawn ethical parameters within which Evelyn is allowed to work. But before Evelyn can fully grapple with the implications of Martine’s pregnancy, the stakes are changed again when Martine kills Nathan in self-defense and calls Evelyn for help. Furiously aware that, if Martine’s existence and Nathan’s death are discovered, her own career will be irreparably damaged, Evelyn agrees to help Martine – first to bury the body, and then, when it becomes apparent that Martine can’t lie to Nathan’s colleagues about his absence forever, to clone a replacement Nathan.

Told from Evelyn’s perspective, the main events of The Echo Wife are interspersed with the fraught recollections of her own personal history: not only her marriage to Nathan, but her relationship with her parents, which is steadily revealed to hold up a dark, horrific mirror to Evelyn’s adult life. That Nathan has been an abusive partner to Evelyn is clear, as is the fact that her father, too, was violent to her and her mother. Yet Evelyn herself is not a sympathetic character: for all that we’re never in doubt as to how fundamentally her upbringing has shaped her fears, her mannerisms and motives, this doesn’t excuse her mistreatment of the people around her – most notably Martine and her assistant, Seyed – nor does it compensate for how she sees the clones she creates: as tools when living, biowaste when dead. The process by which Evelyn “conditions” the clones to better resemble their progenitors – to give them the same scars and imperfections as their originals – is as brutal as you might imagine; Evelyn notices with distaste that she’s lost a great many assistants who couldn’t handle seeing it. Only Seyed has lasted, because only Seyed is able to understand that the clones aren’t really people, however closely they might resemble them – except that, as we eventually discover, this has never been true at all.

Showing up at the lab with Martine after hours to start their work on Nathan’s clone, Evelyn is shocked to discover that Seyed has been stealing supplies from her – at first, he says, to sell to pay off his student learns. It’s this which prompts Evelyn to tell him the truth about Martine, the death of Nathan and their plan to clone his replacement to conceal both crimes; trapped by Evelyn’s professional power over him and her ability to ruin his own career by reporting his thefts, Seyed has little choice but to assist her in return for silence. Later, however, as he becomes increasingly upset by Evelyn’s callousness towards Martine, Seyed confesses to a darker truth: not only was he really stealing for Nathan, but he’d helped him work on a project he now knows to have been Martine’s creation. By this point, Seyed has almost completely unraveled due to the trauma of the situation, revealing that he’s always believed the clones to be people and has participated in their deaths regardless; Evelyn, however, is without sympathy, either for his opinion or his decline.

Throughout the weeks that Evelyn and Martine spend together recreating Nathan, Evelyn develops a sort of cognitive dissonance about Martine’s existence and identity. While still thinking of clones as disposable un-people, she takes to thinking of Martine as human-with-a-qualifier. Evelyn is horrified by each new discovery she makes about Martine’s situation, and rightly so: though created in large part to give Nathan the child that Evelyn never wanted, she has been kept away from doctors and knows little about her own pregnancy; she cannot sleep until 9:30pm and wakes unfailingly at 6am, the better to be the perfect domestic helpmeet; she is constantly passive, waiting to be given instruction to act, or to stop once having started, to the point of being unable to attend to her own needs without permission. When Nathan tried to murder Martine – the act that led to her killing him in self-defense – he did so because a conversation with Evelyn had prompted Martine to ask, for the sake of her own curiosity, whether wanting a child was something she had a say in; if she was allowed to want differently, even as a hypothetical. Just asking the question made Martine a failure in Nathan’s eyes, all of which is deeply – and understandably – unsettling to Evelyn. And yet this doesn’t cause her to reevaluate her belief that clones aren’t people: Nathan’s actions are upsetting because of what they say about him, about the man Evelyn lived with for so many years, and because Martine is, in her eyes, different, not because clones have a personhood and autonomy that ought to be respected otherwise.

Despite Seyed’s deterioration, Evelyn successfully clones a new Nathan, who just as successfully is sent home with Martine, his circumstances and incomplete memories explained with a story about having been on a last private holiday before the baby’s birth that ended with a car accident. (A car accident, Martine reveals, is the same story the original Nathan told her when she first woke up, to explain the gaps in her memory; she didn’t know she was a clone until Evelyn told her.) Four months pass: Martine’s baby is born and Seyed resigns, his lips still sealed by a pact of mutual destruction. Yet Evelyn is off her game, frustrated that Nathan’s creation – her greatest success – is one she can’t reveal publicly. And then she receives another frantic call from Martine, who has uncovered the original Nathan’s darkest secret: that Martine was not his first attempt at recreating Evelyn, but his thirteenth. While replanting their garden, Martine has unearthed the bodies of her twelve failed predecessors. Eleven of the clones, Evelyn discovers, are physically deformed, while the twelfth looks perfect and, thanks to the fact that clone flesh decays much more slowly than the regular kind, looks only newly dead despite having been in the ground for at least two years.

Digging through Nathan’s old files, Martine and Evelyn find his workbooks and learn that each of the previous clones not only had a name, but that each name corresponded to a letter of the alphabet: Martine’s name begins with an M because she was attempt thirteen, while the first clone had an A name. The same notebooks also imply that Nathan had been planning, eventually, to dispose of Evelyn herself. With Martine refusing to live another day with the clone of a serial killer – albeit one who doesn’t know about the bodies in the garden – and Evelyn refusing to kill her greatest work, a last minute plan is concocted to salvage the situation. Recovering the uncorrupted body of Martine’s most recent predecessor, the women wash her, dress her in Martine’s clothes and stage a hanging, hoping to fool Nathan into thinking his new wife is dead – though to Martine’s deep distress, in order to sell the deception, she is forced to leave her baby, Violet, behind.

Within a month, during which time Martine suffers without her daughter as a guest in Evelyn’s home, Nathan shows up with Violet, begging Evelyn to help him care for her – despite the extraordinary lengths to which his original went in order to acquire a child, without a helpmeet wife on hand to take on the primary burden of childrearing, clone-Nathan cannot handle parenting alone. To his shock, Evelyn agrees, and installs herself, Martine and Violet in her childhood home in the country – the home where, we have finally learned, Evelyn’s own, submissive mother once killed and buried her abusive husband in the garden, hidden beneath the roses, just as the original Nathan and his twelve dead failures are hidden by Martine’s horticulture. With Nathan still none the wiser about Martine’s continued existence, Violet splits her time between living with him and Evelyn/Martine. With Evelyn now installed in her father’s old study, she has started to study Martine in exchange for letting her keep Violet, yet also teaches her, just as her father once taught Evelyn. The novel ends on Evelyn’s chilling satisfaction with this state of affairs: she doesn’t feel, now, that anything should ever have to change.

At first glance, it’s easy to assume that the titular echo wife is Martine, being a softer, secondary version of Evelyn herself. Yet as the novel progresses and the parallels between Evelyn’s parents, Evelyn and Nathan, Nathan and Martine, Martine and Evelyn become apparent, it’s clear that Evelyn is as much an echo as Martine, while Martine is equally an echo of Evelyn’s mother. Like Evelyn’s mother, both women have endured a marriage to an abuser; yet Evelyn, like her father, also ultimately becomes one. Both Martine and Evelyn’s mother have buried their husbands under the rosebushes, that classically feminine flower maintained by hard work and careful pruning – “stress stimulates growth”, Martine’s mother once told her of gardening – itself a powerful metaphor for both familial nurture and the more brutal, synthetic accomplishments of Evelyn’s Caldwell Method, her in-lab conditioning. By the end of the book, we understand, the final act of violence which precipitated Evelyn’s mother’s murder of her husband was his breaking Evelyn’s wrist; consciously or unconsciously, the first time Evelyn breaks the bones of a clone, she also chooses the wrist. Echoes within echoes, just as Evelyn has, from the very first, resented the ways in which Martine resembles her/their mother.

Clones are not people, in Evelyn’s eyes. She has brutalised and killed hundreds of them, thinking of it as little more than the disposal of unfit tools, of medical waste. Her horror at Martine’s discovery of Nathan’s twelve dead would-be brides is as much because he viewed them as brides, not tools, as because they resemble her – and yet, when Martine articulates exactly this hypocrisy, pointing out that if Nathan had done what he did with permission, in a laboratory setting, to people who weren’t cloned from her, then Evelyn would be fine with it – Evelyn brushes it off. She deliberately takes advantage of Martine’s docile programming to force her to let the clone-Nathan live, even though this forever ties an unwilling Martine to him via Violet’s existence; even though a pre-programmed killswitch would enable them, this time, to make his death look like natural causes. This coercion is not new to Evelyn, whose suppressed rage and violence towards Martine she recognises as mirroring the worst of her father’s personality. I’m not a monster, she says, more than once – because the clones aren’t people, and therefore killing them doesn’t count; because she doesn’t act on her more savage desires to hurt Martine, whether physically or emotionally (though she does still hurt her emotionally); because, by the end of the book, her tutoring sessions with Martine are not limited by the hourglass timer her father used when teaching her.

And then there’s Seyed, whom Evelyn breaks emotionally while only ever thinking of her own disappointment at his betrayal of her, the inconvenience of having to replace him. Crucially, at the moment when she discovers his thefts and makes the decision to tell him the truth – to make him an accessory to her own illegal activities so as to prevent his reporting them – she notes the possibility that he might choose to report her regardless:

I didn’t know what I would do if he said anything outside of the very narrow field of good answers available to him.

I suppose I would have done whatever was necessary.

In this moment, however veiled her internal language, Evelyn is potentially ready to kill Seyed, just as Nathan was once potentially prepared to kill her. That Nathan wrote of his intentions in a similarly ominous yet non-specific way – “The only thing left to decide is what to do about Evelyn” – only highlights the similarities, the terrible echo, between them. Abuse is cyclical: the majority of those who are abused do not go on to become abusers in turn, and yet some do. From the very first page of The Echo Wife, we bear witness to Evelyn’s struggle not to turn out like her mother – not to fidget, not to flutter – and yet, until the end, we don’t understand the full horror of her choice to adopt her father’s mannerisms instead. It’s her father that Evelyn copies for her survival – never look back, never apologise – and yet it was her soft, fluttering mother who finally killed him, a lesson which remains opaque to Evelyn even as she takes up residence in his study, apeing his role in her household built of Martine and baby Violet.

What are childhoods, but programming and conditioning laid upon a person a more randomly, less calculatedly than that achieved in a lab? Nathan wanted a child so badly that he created a clone-wife whose body and personality were geared towards providing one, and yet the clone-Nathan who decides that Violet is too difficult to raise without Martine’s help is still, in every important respect, the same Nathan who buried twelve women to acquire her. Evelyn aborted a pregnancy during her marriage rather than bear a child she didn’t want, and yet she accepts the patriarch’s role in the home she makes with Martine and Violet, content for Martine to serve as sole caretaker in exactly the way that Nathan intended of her. When Evelyn and Nathan fought about her abortion, him blaming her for his choice to take an academic job in anticipating of supporting their family, Evelyn recalls her response:

I told him that he was a coward, seeking refuge in the comfort of a child who would admire him without question, and colleagues who would never know how sloppy and useless his labwork was, how limited his dreams were.

Evelyn believes that this criticism doesn’t apply to her by the end, as she still takes little interest in Violet – and yet, quite arguably, this denunciation applies to her relationship with Martine, whom she installs on the other side of her father’s desk, taking up the child-Evelyn’s role as Evelyn replaces her father: a helpmeet and colleague intelligent enough for Evelyn to bounce ideas off of, just as Nathan intended, but not so smart as to surpass her. That the situation is ultimately of Nathan’s doing doesn’t change the hypocrisy of Evelyn disdaining in Nathan an impulse she justifies in herself. We see this, too, in her judgement of the original Nathan’s failure to have formed any close relationships with his colleagues, such that none of them see anything amiss when clone-Nathan replaces him; none of them, Evelyn surmises, truly knew him. Only Martine could claim that much. Yet at the same time, she holds herself aloof from her own colleagues and, once clone-Nathan is out in the world, laments the fact that, if she were to be likewise replaced, only Martine would truly notice the difference.

But then, in Evelyn’s estimation, Martine is a tool that Nathan has made; she thinks of her explicitly in these terms, and sees no shame in using that tool to its (her) purpose. Why should she feel guilty for doing so, when she didn’t bring her into the world? And here we have yet another parallel: that of clones with children, clone-makers with parents. Martine has been made from Evelyn without Evelyn’s permission; and yet, despite that lack of consent in her creation, Evelyn still, on some level, considers Martine hers, because she comes from her. She is not autonomous, just as the clones in Evelyn’s lab are not autonomous – they exist at the will (we assume; the matter isn’t greatly explored) of their originals, who have the ultimate say over whether they live or die. Though Evelyn’s practices are legal, they are equally as disturbing and coercive as the actions of her father, who believed that his child was his to mold, her wrist his to break; a man who, like Nathan, did not think his docile wife’s programming extended to bloody self-defense and bodies in the garden.

Sharply written, disturbing and thought-provoking, The Echo Wife is the kind of book that lingers with you long after you’ve finished reading it. Though the subject material will be understandably too dark or upsetting for some, for those who can stomach it, the story is extremely worthwhile, and should definitely be in contention come awards season.

As is attested to by my extensive history of yelling about it on the internet, bad literary reviews are one of my personal bugbears. As a fiction writer who also commits acts of criticism, I feel keenly aware of the labour, both creative and emotional, that goes into creating any book; but as someone who cares enough about stories to love analysing them – and whose monetary and temporal resources are frequently short enough that I appreciate knowing beforehand if I’m likely to enjoy a given book – I have a deep respect for good reviewing. Whether the reviewer’s ultimate judgement is negative, positive or something more complicated, a well-argued piece of criticism will tell me something, not only about the book in question, but about the reviewer’s personal taste, which will in turn help me to better engage with any future reviews they might write. As it’s impossible to be purely objective, a good reviewer will (in my opinion) acknowledge their own biases, limitations and preferences while nonetheless striving to asses the work before them. This admission of subjectivity is why a negative review might yet entice the audience to read a particular book, or why, conversely, a positive review might turn them away: having a sense of the reviewer’s taste enables us to view their assessment, not as something sterile and detached from all outside influences, but in relation to our own.

A bad review, however – or rather, a bad reviewer – takes no care to contextualise the works they read, whether within such narrative or cultural frameworks as apply or with regard to their own biases. A mediocre review might gesture towards these things, but if a bad review attempts them, they will do so in ways that are as frustrating as they are unhelpful, rote at best and hostilely misapplied at worst.

Witness, then, the opening lines of Katharine Coldiron’s Locus review of The Ikessar Falcon, the second book in K.S. Villoso’s Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, wherein she says:

“I did not read the first instalment in K.S. Villoso’s Chronicles of the Bitch Queen before reading the second, The Ikessar Falcon. I honestly don’t know if reading The Wolf of Oren-Yaro would’ve changed anything about my opinion of its sequel. The Ikessar Falcon is epic fantasy, leaning closer to a saga in the way it moves and unfolds, and although it’s addictively readable, I barely understood what was going on. I wondered often whether reading the first book would have given me more insight into the workings of this one, or whether I would’ve been just as lost, only with more words in my head.”

And I just. The fucking hubris. The absolute gall of any reviewer to start with the second book in a series and then complain that they don’t understand what’s going on, as though this is somehow the fault of the text! It shouldn’t need to be said, but I’ve read The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, a book whose plots and politics are both deep and intricate – as, indeed, one might expect from the first book of a projected series! Of course Coldiron had no idea what was going on. Which begs the question: why, if she had no intention of reading the first book in the series, did Coldiron feel the need to review the sequel – and why, even more pressingly, did Locus decide such an abysmal review was worth publishing in the first place?

With such a terrible starting point, it’s hardly a surprise that the full review – which is not yet available online – gets worse as it goes on. That Coldiron repeatedly gets a main character’s name wrong (Rayyan instead of Rayyal) is a minor sin in comparison to describing a book whose setting is explicitly based on the pre-colonial Philippines as a “richly imagined world [that] resembles England before the Norman Conquest.” That Coldiron somehow made this error this despite the customs, nomenclature and general everything about Villoso’s world is bizarre; to quote a different review, “This world isn’t your pseudo-medieval European world. It’s unequivocally Filipino with inspiration from other sources in Southeast Asia. Not once does Villoso allow you to believe this is anything but a fantasy set in a world inspired by the Philippines.”

Over and over, Coldiron talks about how difficult it is to keep track of various details of a narrative which – and I cannot stress this enough – is the sequel to a book she has not read, without ever stopping to consider that this is her problem rather than the author’s. Villoso, she says, “can’t quite differentiate supporting characters to the degree required for epic fantasy of this scale,” as though Coldiron isn’t missing an entire fucking book’s worth of secondary character development. “Its dizzying array of inadequately meaningful subplots and characters make The Ikessar Falcon a difficult book for the casual reader,” Coldiron concludes, as though she has any means of gauging whether subplots that seemed meaningless to her were in fact deeply relevant to the events of the first book. At every level, this review is a staggering act of oblivious contempt and – yes – white privilege. It matters that Villoso is a woman of colour while Coldiron is white, not only because such a bad faith review is insulting and unfair to Villoso, but because this represents yet another instance where an apparent bastion of SFF, Locus, is paying for white mediocrity at the expense of a writer of colour. Any editor worth their pay should’ve looked at that first sentence and said “no,” but Locus didn’t – and that matters.

Are there series out there whose individual volumes can be happily read out of order? Certainly! But epic fantasy sagas are a very different beast to, say, the adventures of Bertie Wooster, which is something you’d expect a seasoned, paid SFF reviewer to know about and account for. As a tweenager, I once tried to read the third volume in Robin Hobb’s seminal Assassin Trilogy prior to having read the other two – I’d bought it secondhand because of the dragon on the cover, and figured I’d give it a go. Lo and behold, it made absolutely no sense, but even at the age of eleven, I had the basic sense to realise that this was my fault for reading the fucking thing out of order, and not some failing of Hobb’s. If Coldiron wanted to write a whimsical review where the whole conceit was seeing what she could make of book two by leaping in unprepared, that would be one thing, but I cannot get past the decision to blame her lack of comprehension on the book itself. What – and I cannot stress this enough – the actual goddamn fuck?

If this was a question of just one incredibly ill-conceived review by a reviewer whose track record was otherwise solid, I’d be wrapping up about now. The fact that Coldiron is a white reviewer showing this level of disrespect to the work of a woman of colour would still be nauseating and wrong – and let me be crystal clear, before I continue: Coldiron’s disrespect here is not in failing to like Villoso’s work, but in starting at the second book in a fucking multi-book series and then blaming the text for her own lack of comprehension – but it would not, of itself, demonstrate a pattern of bad-faith reviewing. No: that pattern, rather, comes from Coldiron’s other Locus reviews, which collectively serve to demonstrate a jaw-dropping quantity of both bad faith engagement, microaggressions and, in that confluence, racism.

For starters, The Ikessar Falcon isn’t the first time Coldiron has reviewed a sequel while neglecting the first book in the series. In an otherwise largely favourable review of C.L. Polk’s Stormsong, she writes:

The biggest problem with Stormsong is its dependence on Witchmark. I read at least the first 50 pages without understanding much of what was going on. Presumably the worldbuilding in Witchmark was solid enough to launch Stormsong directly where the prior book left off, and I’ll wager that the third book in the series will do the same. Stormsong ends immediately before a gathering of witches and mages to ward off a big storm, which would have been a great set piece to end this installment, but is likely going to open the next.

That comprehending a sequel depends in any way on having read a prior book in the series cannot sensibly or fairly be described as a problem; nonetheless, Coldiron once again frames her own failing as one that belongs to the book. It would’ve been an easy thing to acknowledge that her difficulties were down to her own ignorance of Witchmark, but no. Instead, it’s Polk’s fault for daring to write a sequel that, you know, functions as a sequel. (It’s worth noting that Polk, like Villoso, is also a woman of colour.)

More damningly, Coldiron frequently treats diversity as a check-list item in the works she reviews, praising its inclusion while insulting, minimising or actively misunderstanding its actual role in the story. In reviewing S.L. Huang’s Burning Roses, for instance, Coldiron writes:

Its diversity is very welcome, but its execution is lacking…

[Rosa’s] life is one fairy tale after another: she is Red Riding Hood whose grandmother is eaten; she rescues Goldilocks by slaying the three bears; she must withstand the sarcasm and watchful eye of Goldie’s companion, Puss in Boots; her lover is Beauty promised to the Beast. This would be cool and fun, except that the queer and diverse twists S.L. Huang implements don’t really add anything to the discourse around fairy tales. These recognizable stories have just been altered a little bit and strung together, not used to subvert or reimagine anything in particular…

I cannot speak to how well Huang has integrated or reworked the Chinese fairy tales in this book, whether imaginatively or less so, but I suspect that intertwining these two traditions might have been more successful if Huang had given her characters more to do than battle and talk to each other, or had given any of these tales more room to develop new, 21st-century truths…

Both Rosa and Hou Yi are queer, older women, and the only white character in the book seems to be Goldie. Of course I am pleased that Huang has written so passionately about queer women of color, and I applaud Tor.com for upping the quotient of diversity in fantasy literature, but the quality of a diverse book matters too.

So: Coldiron wants Huang’s work to “develop new, 21st-century truths,” but the “queer and diverse twists” she’s included somehow don’t count towards this or “add anything to the discourse around fairy tales” because… why? Queer retellings of fairytales are a massive part of the current SFF discourse around the genre, as is the fusion of Western fairytale traditions with those from the rest of the world. Coldiron’s line about “upping the quotient of diversity” is gross enough – the implication being that Huang’s work here constitutes the most strawman sort of diversity hire, the WOC given a deal because of her box-checking credentials but despite her lack of talent – but it’s maddening to see her lament a lack of textual depth while failing to explain why none of the diversity on offer apparently qualifies. It’s as though Coldiron views diversity as a selection of sundae toppings: something added on as an extra treat, but which fails to materially influence the substance of a story.

This issue crops up again in her review of Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand, which begins:

A reliable way to revive epic fantasy, which seems to be going through many of the same motions it’s been tracing for 60 years, is to set it in a culture other than a West­ern one – other than a thinly disguised United Kingdom, to be uncomfortably specific – but if a white writer does this, she lays herself open to charges of exoticism and appropriation, which is why it’s such a good idea for fantasy and SF publishers to bring out more books by writers of color; in one stroke, it brings fresh ideas to stale genres, and it centers voices that have been marginalized for too long.

Perfect example: Empire of Sand by British Punjabi novelist Tasha Suri. It’s set in an alter­nate-universe Mughal India, in which a young woman with the blood of both a noble, ruling family and an oppressed, magical clan in her veins must claim her power in order to survive. Every single element of Empire of Sand is pleas­ingly exotic to a Western white reader like me, but Suri does not play all this up as a gimmick, nor does she contribute to the orientalism Edward Said cautioned against. She is writing a culture she knows, and it’s a culture white audiences don’t know. That makes her work fascinatingly new, but not exploitative.

How is the book itself, aside from this mul­ticultural freshness? It’s good.

Presumably, Coldiron intended this jaw-dropping slew of microaggressions to read as positive – she is, after all, attempting to praise the book – and yet her tone reminds me of nothing so much as negging. While acknowledging that, yes, it’s good to both center marginalised voices and “bring fresh ideas to stale genres,” Coldiron first hitches this statement to a classic diversity hire dogwhistle: “but if a white writer does this, she lays herself open to charges of exoticism and appropriation.” By suggesting that a primary reason for publishers to hire POC is to avoid backlash, rather than because their work is good, Coldiron is slighting Suri before the review has even begun – and once she does begin, things only go downhill. By noting that Suri “does not play all this up as a gimmick,” Coldiron implies that it’s reasonable to suspect diverse stories of gimmickry; that she praises a lack of “the orientalism Edward Said cautioned against” in the very same line is breathtakingly ironic, given her own description of the book as “pleasingly exotic” and possessed of “multicultural freshness.”

This is what I mean when I say that Coldiron’s failure to understand diversity as more than a buzzword gets in the way of her reviewing, even when she’s trying to say something complimentary: ignoring the fact that praising Suri for failing to exotify herself is paternalistic at best, you’d think that someone who claims to know what orientalism is would likewise know not to use the word “exotic” as a selling point – and yet Coldiron plainly doesn’t. This is highlighted when she goes on to compare the deeply religious, spiritual dancing that protagonist Mehr performs to the movie Dirty Dancing, completely failing to understand the significance of the thing she’s writing about, both within the text and in reference to the real-world cultures the story is based on.

It is striking, therefore, that Coldiron seems to have a very different approach to diversity as present in books by white authors: which is to say, she either fails to notice it or declines to comment on it. This hit me powerfully while reading her review of Mazes of Power by Juliette Wade, a book whose politics are foundationally concerned with castes, race purity, ableism, misogyny and hierarchy, and which has two queer POV characters, one of whom is also a complex mix of neurodiversity and sociopathy. And yet the word “diversity” doesn’t appear at all in Coldiron’s review, neither to praise its inclusion nor critique its portrayal, even where doing so would be deeply relevant to the text itself. In talking about Nekantor, the queer, neurodiverse antagonist, Coldiron writes:

 Our hero, Tagaret, is the son of a monster and the brother of another. His father, Garr, is a sneaky, grasping, sadistic man, while his brother, Nekantor, is twisted with both ambition and genuine mental illness… Nekantor is as power-obsessed as Garr, and much more unstable, but his obsessive compulsions make him pitiable: “He touched the buttons on his vest, top middle, bottom. He straightened his cuffs, looked back to the watch. Tick, tick… better, better. He would not scream. He would stay in the game.”

Reducing such a complex, difficult portrayal of mental illness down to instability, twistedness and “obsessive compulsions” not only does the book a grave disservice, but fails utterly to explain that Nekantor is a young teen, raised in a society that views any type of mental “weakness” through a eugenicist lens that would, if made public, see both him and his family shamed. It’s disturbing that Coldiron sees no problem with saying that mental illness makes a character “pitiable,” but in the specific context of Mazes of Power, where Wade is using Nekantor as a biting, difficult commentary on the blurry lines between nature and nurture, internal morality and societal pressure, it’s hard not to think that she’s missed the whole point of the narrative. “Pitiable” is what the worst masters of Nekantor’s world think of the mentally ill; that Nekantor is nonetheless striving to be one of them – that he has internalised the need for power and control at all costs; that he has taken his sadistic father’s lessons as gospel – is simultaneously chilling and heartbreaking. Coldiron, however, seems not to have noticed.

Notably, Wade’s complex worldbuilding is wholly original: though you might point to various real-world cultures as inspiration for the in-depth caste systems she’s created, Mazes of Power isn’t reminiscent of a single specific history in the way that, say, Empire of Sand is – and perhaps it’s this factor, along with Wade’s whiteness, that has caused Coldiron to completely unsee the concept of diversity as relates to the novel. If the author isn’t a person of colour and the setting doesn’t ape a familiar type of “exotic,” then surely she need not take out her Diversity Lens! Thus Coldiron feels perfectly comfortable saying that “the worldbuilding is good but somewhat ostentatious, with characters invoking their gods and goddesses and other ways of life much more often than was realistic,” as though, in the absence of a specific cultural touchstone, the universal yardstick for religious reference becomes the modern, semi-secular West.  

And then there’s the line about wanting to see “whether our hero would get the girl in the end,” Tagaret’s queerness completely elided by the throw-away line about his “affair with his best friend,” ignoring the fact that the friend in question is male. Indeed, Coldiron makes no mention of Tagaret’s queerness or Nekantor’s, despite the fact that, once again, the homophobia of their society is integral to their respective, secret relationships and thus to the plot, which hinges on the trade, suppression and protection of such secrets. That Coldiron takes the time to mention the queerness present in Huang’s novella – even and especially while claiming that it adds nothing to the plot – yet completely ignores the deeply salient queerness of Wade’s work speaks volumes. If Coldiron thought the queerness in Mazes of Power was, like the queerness in Burning Roses, mere window-dressing with no real influence on the plot – which seems to be the case, given that she hasn’t thought it relevant enough to mention in her review – then why is Huang rebuked for that inclusion, while Wade is not? Answer: because Wade is white, and therefore need not be held to the same check-box standards of Doing Diversity Right as Huang – or Suri, for that matter.

Compared to all this, Coldiron’s throwaway claim in her review of Empire of Sand that “Suri needed a much more attentive editor” ought to be a minor thing – and yet, when it comes to books written by POC, I can’t help but notice that Coldiron has a habit of taking specific issue with their various writing styles. If I could make out a clear preference for a particular style of writing, this wouldn’t be an issue; instead, it comes across as an unduly harsh, constantly-shifting criticism of POC in particular, nitpicking language as a way to conceal that her real dissatisfaction with the story lies elsewhere.

Returning to the review of Huang’s work, for instance, Coldiron says:

Since the language in all the Tor.com Publish­ing novellas I’ve read has been innovative and confident, Huang’s overuse of abstract emotions, rather than evoking those emotions through action and reaction, felt rudimentary and out of place. She uses “some” modifiers frequently (some, something, somehow), always a sign of an unready draft. “Some sort of emotion welled within Rosa, flowing out with her tears like an unchecked mountain spring – not gladness, exactly, and not unlike a heart-stopping fear, but also something very much like hope.” This is mundane, clichéd language, and it adequately communicates the lack of imagination with which Huang has assembled the rest of the novella.

Personally, I wouldn’t consider the quote Coldiron has used to support her criticism of Huang’s writing as doing anything of the sort; at the very least, such a harsh denouncement feels wildly disproportionate to the given example. That being so, it feels significant that Coldiron negatively compares Huang’s work to that of two other Tor.com writers – Emily Tesh and Kerstin Hall – both of whom are white. This becomes even more puzzling when you consider that Coldiron’s review of Hall’s novella, The Border Keeper, which is overwhelmingly negative, contains no praise of Hall’s language or writing at all. That being so, I couldn’t help but compare her apparent issues with Huang’s prose to her adjacent review of Andrea Hairston’s Master of Poisons, in which she writes:

This book is truly one of a kind, a completely unique vision for how epic fantasy should look and feel, and it’s crafted as intricately and beautifully as a glass mosaic. However, such originality bears a significant cost. Master of Poisons is a slog. Every sentence is stripped of unnecessary articles and formed as lyrically as possible, which makes reading a page tiring; the book has five hundred of them. The reading experience moves like an ice skater, gliding continuously on fast-moving scenes, never allow­ing the reader to pause and take a breath. And the characters undergo such pain and heartbreak that the reader may lose her taste for the story long before it ends. Although I walked away from this book with overwhelming awe and admiration for it, I found it exhausting and difficult to recommend…

The most obvious way in which Master of Poisons departs from the usual run of epic fantasy is its lan­guage. Hairston writes almost in dialect, dispensing with articles both common and possessive: “Awa forgot throbbing feet and hugged this prospect to her heart.” “Blossoms burnt by desert wind bear no fruits, no seeds… Rotten groundnuts and berries mean songbirds starve.” “Void-smoke drifted from vacant eyes as the fiends fed feverishly.” The speed of such language would be breakneck in another book, but this one takes its time unfolding, and grounds its action in the natural world. Hairston also uses terrific turns of phrase: “friend bees” is a repeated adjective-noun combination, and one character’s belly is described as “a dumpling burial ground.” On a sentence level, the book is a stunning accomplishment – I haven’t even mentioned the multiple languages, and the repeated phrases in those languages that build the mythology of the Arkhysian Empire and forecast its salvation – but one much more suited to the brevity of a poetry collection, not a long novel…

At a sufficient distance, these flaws don’t re­ally matter… Yet I can’t say it’s a book for everyone. It’s tiring and obtuse, and there’s no way I can minimize these issues in order to recommend the novel with a full heart.

Immediately, it’s striking that, where Coldiron criticises Huang’s writing for not being sufficiently “innovative,” she likewise faults Hairston for “originality [which] bears a significant cost.” In the space of a single paragraph, she first complains that Master of Poisons is a “slog,” only to lament that it is also “continually [sic] fast-moving… never allowing the reader to pause.” This is an utterly nonsensical assessment: by definition, a slog is not fast-paced. I’m sympathetic to finding a book emotionally exhausting, as Coldiron says next, but this is not the same as the writing being a slog. If I was being charitable, I’d think she’d simply conflated the two things, except that, at every turn, Coldiron’s assessment once more feels like negging, if only because that’s the easiest way to reconcile the seeming contradictions in her complaints. The writing is too fast, but also too slow; the book is “crafted as intricately and beautifully as a glass mosaic,” but is also “tiring and obtuse;” the sentence-level construction is stunning, except where it’s a slog; Hairston’s writing goes above the norm for epic fantasy, but that same style is also more appropriate for poetry than a novel. It’s almost as though Coldiron can identify qualities in Hairston’s writing that she thinks she should like, but doesn’t, and chooses to blame this dissonance on the text. That being so, rather than stating that the book is good if you like a particular style of writing, with the caveat that it didn’t work for her personally, she turns herself in knots to both praise and censure the exact same things for the exact same reasons, producing a review whose fundamental incoherence stems from the reviewer’s inability to be honest with herself.

This same issue crops up again in her review of Daniel José Older’s The Book of Lost Saints, where Coldiron is once more either unwilling or unable to distinguish between emotionally taxing concepts and exhausting prose: “The Book of Lost Saints feels much longer than its page count; the material is often so intense, or the prose so compressed, that reading more than a few pages of it is exhausting. I was wrung out by the time I reached the end, and not in a good way.” Note this claim that the prose is “compressed,” as in the very next paragraph, Coldiron complaints of the opposite:

Plus, the book’s constant swerving between styles gives the reader whiplash. When deeper inside Marisol’s consciousness, Older writes quite lyrically: “The simple physics of emptiness and the thick lines around it offer up whole libraries of information I never could have imagined – histories, both banal and grand, and the flow and sweep of emotions that trail behind each of us in elegant, phosphorescent capes.” However, when Marisol moves to the background and Ramón and his friends are closer to the surface, the style is more like commercial fiction, broad and clean: “And it’s an unbelievably slow day. No one to restrain or tussle with. No righteous fuckup to direct his burgeoning anger at. Nothing. It’s probably for the best. Ramón is a gentle giant, self-aware enough to be cautious with his mighty limbs, even when provoked by the direst of insults….”

Nothing in these examples demonstrates “compression,” while the “swerving between styles” that Coldiron evidently dislikes might be better described as a deliberate change in voice: even without having read the book, it seems obvious that the contrast between lyricism and plain language is meant to highlight the difference between the ghostly Marisol and her flesh-and-blood nephew Ramón. Coldiron, of course, is under no obligation to enjoy the contrast, but it’s striking to me that she fails to identify the reason for it, writing as though Older’s decision to give his characters different narrative voices is some strange, unprecedented act of authorial caprice, and not an established literary device.

It would take more time and energy than I’m willing to expend to go through all of Coldiron’s Locus reviews in detail, but even when skimming, the same problems keep cropping up. While reviewing Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread, Coldiron describes a character as being sent “into a weird, benign kind of slavery,” as though benign slavery isn’t an atrocious contradiction in terms, let alone when used in reference to a Black woman’s work. While panning Storm of Locusts, the second volume in Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World series, Coldiron offers a blithe complaint that the sequel is “written more like a YA novel, with an accompanying lack of density.” (One day, we as a society will progress past the need to reflexively sneer at YA as a means of insulting something else, but today is not that day. Tomorrow doesn’t look good either.) Regarding Echoes of Understorey, the second book in Thoraiya Dyer’s Titan’s Forest trilogy, Coldiron writes of the character Anahah that “his character journey is beyond bizarre, and creates gender challenges the novel does not answer.” As a genderqueer person myself, this complaint cuts close to home: Anahah is an AMAB male character who, thanks to his shapeshifting abilities, is able to grow a womb within himself to carry the child he longs for, but which his divine master forbids him to have. His maleness is never questioned by the narrative; that Coldiron thinks this a flaw says far more about her than it does about Dyer’s writing.

Though Coldiron has also produced glowing reviews of work by POC – she is effusive about Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby and Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune – it’s jarring to see them set alongside what she’s written about the works of Huang and Suri, Dyer and Wade, Villoso and Older and Hairston. Taken collectively, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that what I’m looking at is someone who has rote-learned the importance of diversity sufficiently to, on occasion, present as a top-tier ally, but whose greater body of work is rife with microaggressions and hostility. If the more problematic reviews came earlier in Coldiron’s career, the better ones later, such that a trajectory of growth and improvement was evident, that would be one thing; instead, it’s all over the place, and clearly still ongoing – as attested to by her still-too-recent-for-the-internet review of Villoso’s work, which is what drew my eye (and ire) in the first place.

If Coldiron was posting her reviews on a private blog, or at any venue less esteemed than Locus, it’s doubtful that I’d have bothered to write this piece; or at the very least, to have written this much. The real problem, though, is not Coldiron herself: it’s that Locus has failed to notice the regularity with which her reviews rebuke POC for things she either praises or lets pass when written by white authors; has allowed the inclusion of racism and microaggressions within her work without apparent editorial oversight; and has now seen nothing wrong with publishing a wildly unprofessional review that blames a sequel volume for the reviewer’s failure to have read the first instalment. It’s maddening and upsetting in equal measure, and at a time when both SFF and the wider literary community are ostensibly trying to do better by marginalised writers, it’s a sign of how thoroughly white privilege still blinds so much of the industry to its failings, even among those who consider themselves well-intentioned.

Because that’s the other thing that stands out in Coldiron’s reviews: how frequently she reviews diverse authors, and how she is, on some level, really, genuinely trying to support them. It’s just that having a rote understanding of diversity isn’t the same thing as actively confronting and working through your own biases, and in the apparent absence of sensible editorial oversight, Coldiron has been left to stagnate – and in that stagnation, it’s authors of colour who’ve suffered.

The literary community has seen more than its fair share of bad takes and ugly discourse this year, and with only a handful of days remaining before the start of 2021, you might’ve thought we’d be spared another. Enter Meghan Cox Gurdon’s recent opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Even Homer Gets Mobbed, in which she both laments and lambasts the existence of the #DisruptTexts movement. Led by Lorena German, among others, #DisruptTexts exists to challenge the continued dominance of the white, Western literary canon in schools, with a particular eye to teaching students more modern and inclusive works. To quote their website:

Disrupt Texts is a crowdsourced, grass roots effort by teachers for teachers to challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve. It is part of our mission to aid and develop teachers committed to anti-racist/anti-bias teaching pedagogy and practices…

Each week, join us for the #DisruptTexts slow chat on Twitter as teachers from across the country and world come together to apply a critical lens on a central text. We’ll discuss how to disrupt traditional pedagogies by suggesting alternative titles and approaches through thoughtful pairings, counter-narratives, and inclusive, diverse texts sets.

https://disrupttexts.org/lets-get-to-work/

In other words, #DisruptTexts is drawing attention to something that many teachers – and, indeed, students – have struggled with for decades: the massive disparity between the lived experience of students now and the world portrayed in the books they’re given to study, which is often compounded when such works are taught uncritically. This does not mean, as Cox Gurdon and others seem to fear, that #DisruptTexts views all classic texts by white authors as valueless or bad, such that these works must be summarily rounded up and burnt; rather, it’s questioning their usefulness, both individually and en masse, for teaching teens about language and literature.

It is a fact born out by immense amounts of data that, when children do not see themselves positively reflected in stories, they suffer for it. When the historical default in film and television is for white, male-dominated casts with perhaps one token girl or non-white character thrown in, whether animated or live action, we know there has been a profound and negative impact on how everyone other than white boys is taught to see themselves: as secondary, invisible, unimportant. That being so, it should be equally obvious that teaching teens a literary canon written almost exclusively by white men will have similar consequences. Beyond the extremely salient issues of how race, gender, queerness, disability, sexuality and other such issues are portrayed within the texts themselves – beyond, even, how placing the literary canon above all else frequently turns teens away from reading, away from writing, by virtue of doing nothing to show them what books and literary styles are like now – what lesson do aspiring writers of colour take from English class, when only white-authored works are held up as worthy of study? What lesson do young queer kids take, when confronted with texts that either elide them entirely or paint them as stereotyped villains? When Jane Eyre is taught uncritically or without nuance, how does Bertha’s portrayal feel to students who are mentally ill, or women of colour, or both, especially if their teacher fails to treat the subject with nuance?

Increasingly, it feels to me, the obsession with enforcing the literary canon in schools is a last-ditch effort to enforce its relevance – relevance here being distinct from value, though canon devotees often conflate the two – in order to perpetuate the idea that only a certain kind of writing (and, said quietly, a certain kind of writer) has value. When racism, sexism and other historical biases are acknowledged, it is harder to maintain the claim that the canon is the canon for reasons of objective literary quality and ongoing relevance rather than, as is actually the case, because it represents a specific narrow tradition, with its overwhelming white-straight-maleness handwaved as an irrelevant coincidence. As Lorena German rightly points out, it matters that so much of the canon was written before diverse voices were given a platform at all – and as that platform is still less than secure, made narrow and conditional and subject to threats, it likewise matters that the obsession with teaching only the literary canon is functionally used to push back against diversity.

It is therefore with extreme bad faith and piercingly high-pitched dog-whistling that Meghan Cox Gurdon begins her piece against #DisruptTexts:

A sustained effort is under way to deny children access to literature. Under the slogan #DisruptTexts, critical-theory ideologues, schoolteachers and Twitter agitators are purging and propagandizing against classic texts—everything from Homer to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Dr. Seuss.

In dealing with this claim, it is helpful make use of DARVO. First, denial: according to Cox Gurdon, #DisruptTexts has no valid complaints and is agitating purely out of spite. Second, attack: the idea that “agitators are purging and propagandizing” is aggressively loaded language, conjuring up images of burned books and spittle-mouthed zealots yelling from pulpits, as opposed to a thoughtful, committed group of teachers engaging critically with the content of classic literature as they work to improve their classrooms. And third, reverse victim and offender: the entire point of #DisruptTexts is to increase children’s access to literature by teaching more and different texts; by contrast, it is detractors like Cox Gurdon who want #DiverseTexts shut down, which would functionally deny students a wider range of learning opportunities.

She continues:

Their ethos holds that children shouldn’t have to read stories written in anything other than the present-day vernacular—especially those “in which racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hate are the norm,” as young-adult novelist Padma Venkatraman writes in School Library Journal. No author is valuable enough to spare, Ms. Venkatraman instructs: “Absolving Shakespeare of responsibility by mentioning that he lived at a time when hate-ridden sentiments prevailed, risks sending a subliminal message that academic excellence outweighs hateful rhetoric.”

Again, this is a bad faith claim and glaringly inaccurate: the ethos of #DisruptTexts has nothing to do with “present-day vernacular;” Cox Gurdon is dog-whistling again, implying that such modern books are inherently lesser. It’s also telling that, although she cites Padma Venkatraman’s piece in the School Library Journal, she doesn’t link to it – presumably because doing so would expose that she’s deliberately ignored the context of the piece, which begins:

Lately, I’ve heard from several parents, educators, and librarians who want to prevent white children from imbibing prejudice. When I suggest that one simple step we can take is to proactively encourage young people to read diverse books, there’s agreement. When I suggest another equally easy step is to stop supporting racist classics, I meet resistance.

Immense and complex problems face us as a nation today—and I’m not trying to trivialize them. Changing the stories we read (or don’t read) won’t change society overnight, but I do believe it will help curb insidious biases from perpetuating in future generations. If we’re serious about preventing children from growing into adults who indulge in exclusionary behavior or ignore supremacist institutions and traditions, we must take small steps that are within our control, while demanding larger changes.

Venkatraman was writing in June of 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, with an eye to addressing a question she’d been asked about the germination of racial and other biases in white students. She was not writing in a vacuum, as Cox Gurdon’s elision of context aims to suggest, nor is she randomly calling for the death of classics purely on abstract grounds. Rather, she is speaking specifically about racist classics and the harm they can cause when taught uncritically. That Cox Gurdon has taken this to mean all classics – and has immediately leapt to their defense regardless – rather makes Venkatraman’s point. It’s worth quoting Vekatraman’s piece at length, as she makes a clear, intelligent case for the issues posed by uncritically keeping classics in the curriculum. To give her comment about Shakespeare its full context:

Racism in classics can’t be negated merely by alerting young readers to its presence. Unless we have the time, energy, attention, expertise, and ability to foster nuanced conversations in which even the shyest readers feel empowered to engage if they choose, we may hurt, not help. Pressuring readers of color to speak up also removes free choice and can be harmful.

Even if we establish safe environments for discussion, classics privilege white readers. If we say that we love Mary of The Secret Garden, who considers Indians to be Blacks and says that Blacks “are not people—they’re servants,” we’re excusing and overlooking her openly expressed hatred. To Kill A Mockingbird exemplifies the white savior stereotype. Uncle Tom’s Cabin broke out of the horrifically narrow confines of the era when it was written—but can it be considered progressive today? Isn’t it more important to pay attention to books written by more recent Black authors, and include both titles that speak about the history of enslavement, and also, equally, books that celebrate Black joy? Consider whether, if Holden Caulfield had been a dark-skinned teen, his behavior (which includes hiring a prostitute) would have been considered threatening, inappropriate and even criminal—or if he’d have received the level of approbation and adoration from white readers that he’s enjoyed. Ask if absolving Shakespeare of responsibility by mentioning that he lived at a time when hate-ridden sentiments prevailed, risks sending a subliminal message that academic excellence outweighs hateful rhetoric.

Insisting on exposing diverse children to racist classics in which they see characters like themselves demeaned, or, at best, entirely excluded, is not just insensitive, but downright cruel. Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie endorses terrible historical injustices. It also, like most fairytales, perpetuates the myth that dark skin isn’t beautiful. Such ideas can damage the self-esteem of readers with diverse backgrounds.

Reading can be a key to success. If we want to nurture readers of color, we must get rid of racist classics in homes, bookstores, and English classrooms.

I’m not advocating we ban classics. Or erase the past. Classics are undoubtedly examples of excellent writing, or they wouldn’t have survived the test of time. I’m just suggesting we study classics in social studies classrooms, where inherent ideas of inequity are exposed and examined; where Huckleberry Finn may be viewed as an example of literature that showcases the white lens. Delay the study of classics until readers are mature enough to question, debate, and defy subtle assertions. Dissect classics in college by setting aside time to delve into both literary merits and problematic assumptions. Redefine parochial notions of what “well-read” means; after all, British children are unaware of many celebrated American authors.

When we defend classics, we’re sometimes just defending childhood memories. I wholeheartedly agree that Pippi Longstocking has many merits, but before putting her on a pedestal, re-read the series, while imagining you’re dark-skinned or reading an unabridged version aloud to children with diverse backgrounds. Mightn’t Pippi move aside to make place for other spunky characters whose fathers aren’t white kings of black cannibal tribes?

It’s precisely this sort of nuanced, knowledgable thinking that Cox Gurdon sees as “the subtle complexities of literature… reduced to the crude clanking of “intersectional” power struggles.” But then, the role of critical thinking in literary analysis is far too often something more preached than practiced in schools, especially when it comes to assessing the worth of a text at the individual level. During my own high school career, I found it ironic that, while purporting to teach us critical thinking, my teachers would punish me for disagreeing with the textual analysis laid out by the curriculum. It didn’t matter if I could cite the basis of my objections and personal interpretations using the text itself: we had to stick to what the module wanted, and any critical deviation would be viewed, I was told more than once, as “cheeky.” I’d aspired to be a writer long before my English classes forced me to read Tim Winton and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but it was their texts and teaching that so burned me out on my best and favourite subject that, by the time I reached university, I went into history instead.

Says Cox Gurdon:

Thus Seattle English teacher Evin Shinn tweeted in 2018 that he’d “rather die” than teach “The Scarlet Letter,” unless Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel is used to “fight against misogyny and slut-shaming.”

Outsiders got a glimpse of the intensity of the #DisruptTexts campaign recently when self-described “antiracist teacher” Lorena Germán complained that many classics were written more than 70 years ago: “Think of US society before then & the values that shaped this nation afterwards. THAT is what is in those books.”

Jessica Cluess, an author of young-adult fiction, shot back: “If you think Hawthorne was on the side of the judgmental Puritans . . . then you are an absolute idiot and should not have the title of educator in your twitter bio.”

An online horde descended, accused Ms. Cluess of racism and “violence,” and demanded that Penguin Random House cancel her contract. The publisher hasn’t complied, perhaps because Ms. Cluess tweeted a ritual self-denunciation: “I take full responsibility for my unprovoked anger toward Lorena Germán. . . . I am committed to learning more about Ms. Germán’s important work with #DisruptTexts. . . . I will strive to do better.” That didn’t stop Ms. Cluess’s literary agent, Brooks Sherman, from denouncing her “racist and unacceptable” opinions and terminating their professional relationship.

Before dealing with the wider issue surrounding Cluess and what happened next, let’s take a moment to marvel at Cox Gurdon’s ability to roundly contradict herself within the space of three sentences. Though evidently horrified by Shinn’s desire to tackle misogyny and slut-shaming when teaching The Scarlet Letter, she approves of Cluess’s claim that Hawthorn himself is critiquing the puritanical judgements of the Pilgrims – in other words, their misogyny and slut-shaming. The only difference between Shinn and Cluess’s interpretation of the text is that, whereas Shinn is thinking critically about the role of classics in his curriculum, Cluess was arguing vehemently against so much as questioning them – but even then, Shinn’s objection doesn’t extend to all of Hawthorn’s writing. In the very same tweet, he goes on to say, “Hawthorne wrote dope short stories. Black Veil, Birthmark?! Do better.” Ignoring this is yet another act of bad faith on Cox Gurdon’s part.

Which brings us to Jessica Cluess and the twitterstorm she created last month. It’s telling that, while Cox Gurdon quotes one of Cluess’s ad-hominem attacks on Lorena German, she paints the backlash against her comments as due solely to her opinions about Hawthorn. This ignores the fact that, in addition to calling German an idiot and questioning her credentials, Cluess went on a lengthy and subsequently deleted rant that was as much an attack on German personally as it was a defense of classic literature. Responding to German’s tweet, Cluess also wrote, “This anti-intellectual, anti-curiosity bullshit is poison and I will stand here and scream that it is sheer goddamn evil until my hair falls out.” How anyone can keep a straight face while characterizing a mild enjoinder to question the status quo as “anti-curiosity” is beyond me; nonetheless, in addition to calling German and her ilk evil, Cluess also told her to “sit and spin on a tack” and “stop taking drugs.” It was the ad-hominem racism of her comments that got her into trouble, and for these remarks specifically that her apology was made, not her defense of the classics. Once again, Cox Gurdon is deliberately mischaracterizing events to better paint herself and her cause as victims of persecution.

Taking an enormous leap with her next paragraph, Cox Gurdon says:

The demands for censorship appear to be getting results. “Be like Odysseus and embrace the long haul to liberation (and then take the Odyssey out of your curriculum because it’s trash),” tweeted Shea Martin in June. “Hahaha,” replied Heather Levine, an English teacher at Lawrence (Mass.) High School. “Very proud to say we got the Odyssey removed from the curriculum this year!” When I contacted Ms. Levine to confirm this, she replied that she found the inquiry “invasive.”

Dear Ms Cox Gurdon: if removing a book from a school curriculum qualifies as censorship, does this mean every book that teachers have been prevented from teaching has likewise been censored? Asking for all the marginalised authors whose work you adamantly insist has no place in a school English curriculum.

She continues:

“It’s a tragedy that this anti-intellectual movement of canceling the classics is gaining traction among educators and the mainstream publishing industry,” says science-fiction writer Jon Del Arroz, one of the rare industry voices to defend Ms. Cluess. “Erasing the history of great works only limits the ability of children to become literate.”

For those who haven’t heard of him, Jon Del Arroz has a long history of harassing people in the SFF community, including the use of racism, misogyny and homophobic slurs. Given how often he’s instigated virulent twitter attacks against people he dislikes, it’s telling that Cox Gurdon, who takes issue with the “online horde” who responded to Cluess’s racism, would view him as a benign ally. As with her self-contradicting view of Hawthorn, it’s clear that Cox Gurdon is less concerned with making a case for the classics than she is with yelling uncritically at people and ideas she personally dislikes, regardless of any overall coherence (or lack thereof).

In closing, she writes:

He’s right. If there is harm in classic literature, it comes from not teaching it. Students excused from reading foundational texts may imagine themselves lucky to get away with YA novels instead—that’s what the #DisruptTexts people want—but compared with their better-educated peers they will suffer a poverty of language and cultural reference. Worse, they won’t even know it.

And here we come to the crux of Cox Gurdon’s bias: the idea that only the classics are worthy. Students who study them will be “better-educated” than those who “get away with YA novels.” Why? Because reasons, none of which she deigns to provide beyond “a poverty of language and cultural reference.” I could write a whole separate essay about how a host of other novels, both YA and adult, modern and classic, are better suited to cultural reference than the current canon as taught in schools, but that wouldn’t answer Cox Gurdon’s point; because for her, I’d argue, cultural reference is another dog-whistle, one that refers to a specific type of white, Western cultural supremacy. Were schools to start teaching non-Western classics like Dream of the Red Chamber, for instance, she might couch her objections in different terms, but they would still be objections: her ultimate love of the classics isn’t about the age and objective worthiness of the books in question, but their whiteness and Westernness; their confirmation to a certain view of the world. Likewise, the assumption that “poverty of language” lies outside the walled bounds of the canon is elitist nonsense – as though nothing in the last seventy years has been written with skill and beauty!

Clinging to the canon in the name of a classical education makes as much sense as insisting that all students learn Latin – and I say this as someone who chose to learn (and was sufficiently priviliged to be able to learn) Latin for four years. At this point, maintaining the classics in schools is a type of literary isolationism – and as with the equivalent political policy, it’s a tactic that doesn’t work in the long term, and which ultimately speaks more to a desire for control and exclusion than to the quality of what’s being protected. After all, if the classics were obviously and unassailably better than everything that’s been written since, their status wouldn’t be threatened by the inclusion of newer works, which would automatically suffer in the comparison. That their “betterness” has to be taught to be recognised is a sign of how meagre and subjective a thing it ultimately is.

By design, the canon doesn’t teach quality, but an orthodoxy whose standards are profoundly rooted in bias. Throw it out, and let Cox Gurdon and her ilk find different hills to die on.