Archive for May, 2011

Thanks to the awesome of Twitter contests, I recently won an ARC of Catherynne M. Valente’s new book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which officially has the Best Title Ever. Apart from the usual squee that accompanies the acquisition of a new book, I was particularly excited by this one, having been utterly blown away in February by Palimpsest, which makes reference to Fairyland as a sort of book-within-a-book. Let the record also state that any story featuring a wyvern-library hybrid – that is to say, a wyverary – is destined to occupy a special, warm nook in my heart, in much the same way that delicious chocolate placed within easy reach is destined to be nommed. That being said, approaching anything with greater-than-usual expectations always brings with it the proportionate fear of greater-than-usual disappointment. We do not want to be betrayed, and yet we brace for it, just in case, preparing to heal our hurt hopes by denying we ever had them.

Fairyland does not disappoint.

In fact, it is fair to say, it exceeded my expectations so profoundly, so beautifully, that I was left breathless. Here is the thing about fairy tales: you grow up with them, know them and love them, but even when you try to keep them close – even when you endeavour to remember them – somehow they still slip away from you, because childhood is transient. Even its strongest passions fade and splinter with time. The truths we believed in then are like stained glass windows, and as we age, they grow dirty, or break, or are cast in shade; glass falls away from the leading, and brightens only when some stray sunbeam fires the colours again. Adulthood makes us into archaeologists and scientists, probing at the things we used to love, asking what they mean and how they work, and even though such knowledge is worthwhile, it also changes us: we cannot unsee, unfeel, what it makes us recognise.

Or at least, we can – but only when someone like Catherynne Valente gives us a book like Fairyland. Because as much as the story of September, a girl from Omaha picked up by the mischievous Green Wind and taken to Fairyland, is written for children and young adults, it is also written for all of us who grew up – willingly or not, consciously or not, yet always inevitably – and never stopped wondering how it happened. Fairyland is not folklore as we remember it, but rather a successor tale to Alice in Wonderland: a story on the cusp of things, where adult knowledge has taken the simple rhythms of once upon a time and embroidered them into something richer, stranger: an allegory for everything we used to feel intuitively, but now have learned the hard way. Which isn’t to say that folklore itself is devoid of allegory or hard lessons – far from it. Rather, the resonance of those lessons is for other times and other places, cautionary tales about worlds and mores that no longer exist, so that even if we have been lucky or persistent enough to read the unsanitised versions of Little Red Riding Hood or Rapunzel, we take away only a sense of resonant history, and not a warning about the dangers of our own time.

But Fairyland is written now: its dangers apply to our own world, our own time. September faces fairy-perils, yes, but underneath, the real monsters are bureaucracy, fascism, censorship, prejudice, caste systems, detention and fearmongering; and though she wields fairy-weapons and is helped by fairy-friends, September’s real allies are courage, agency, egalitarianism, fairness, feminism, free speech and compassion. Late in the book, when the titular moment – circumnavigating Fairyland in a self-made ship – finally arrives, it is utterly piercing, an act of beautiful bravery. As September builds her raft from every material to hand, she is left, despite all this effort, without a sail; until she remembers that her own skin is nothing to be ashamed of, and gives up her dress to make one. ‘My dress, my sail!’ she declares, and when I read that, I closed the book and cried, because sometimes there is a truth to words that goes beyond their construction. I can count on one hand the number of stories that have had that effect on me. Fairyland is one of them, and I will never forget it.

Reading this book was like wrapping myself in a blanket. I didn’t read the words; they read themselves to me, and the voice in which they spoke was my mother’s, my father’s, my favourite teacher’s – a synthesis of everyone who read me stories at primary school, in class or the library or putting me to bed, and I suspect that I won’t be the only adult reader to have had that experience. Some stories go to the core of you, and this is one of mine.  The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is an amazing, beautiful, funny, moving, frightening, powerfully imaginative book, and if parents are not reading it to their children five generations from now – or if, at the very least, Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t beg on bended knee for permission to adapt it – then there is no justice in the world.

I’ve just been reading the transcript of Kenneth Clarke’s recent interview on rape sentencing in the UK, which has left me feeling angry and flabbergasted. For a while now, I’ve had problems with the idea of statutory rape: not only does it result in some teenagers being branded as sex offenders for sleeping consensually with their slightly younger partners, but by virtue of lumping such consensual (yet illegal) acts together under a non-consensual heading, the terminology has opened the door for what seems to be a sliding scale interpretation of forced rape. Nowhere has this latter problem been made more apparent to me than in Kenneth Clarke’s stumble-tongued assertions: reading through his statements, it is painfully obvious that he views some kinds of rape as being worse than others – and more, that different ‘kinds’ of rape should merit lighter sentencing. When told, for instance, that the average sentence for rape is five years, he defended the statistic by saying:

“That includes date rape [and] 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15-year-olds”.

I’m sorry, but in what possible way is date rape comparable to consensual sex between teenagers? One is unequivocally rape; the other is not. And yet, despite the fact that the majority of rapists are known to their victims – a statistic that the phrase ‘date rape’  was originally intended to publicize – it has somehow become twisted in our cultural vocabulary as a means of distinguishing rape that is somehow less “distressed”. According to whom? From calling one kind rape distressed and another not, it’s a very short step indeed to assuming – as Mr Clarke evidently has – that a smaller amount of physical distress during the rape itself (because, you know, the woman is drugged or drunk or otherwise unable to say no, and therefore less likely to incur the same injuries she would by fighting back) must logically equate to the victim feeling less emotionally distressed afterwards.

This is what I mean by a sliding scale: the idea that the circumstances under which a rape takes place must always be a mitigating factor in how horrific that rape is considered to be. From his comments, Mr Clarke seems to hold that the most terrible form of rape is universally one in which the perpetrator is violent and unknown, and where the woman fights back to no avail, despite the fact that – crucially – she has done nothing at all to provoke a sexual response in her attacker. (Take careful note of that word, provoke: we’ll return to it shortly.) For people who hold to the sliding scale, either consciously or unconsciously, this is what makes date rape different from forcible rape: that the women in question had willingly entered a sexual arena as (however tenuously, however potentially) willing sexual partners; that they dressed a certain way, or dared to become intoxicated, or both, or neither; perhaps even that they consented to kiss, touch or otherwise romantically interact with a man they didn’t want to sleep with, or who they subsequently changed their minds about.

It is not different. A rapist who assaults his victim without attacking her beforehand should no more win points for his ‘considerate’ methods than the law should consider a victim who wasn’t beaten or tied up to have been somehow less raped than a victim who was. Rape is rape, Mr Clarke. Funnily enough, it’s why we call it that.

And then we come to the age-old and sadly non-antiquated question of provocation. Was she asking for it? Did she dress like a slut? Let me give you a hint as about answering these questions: a woman wearing a FUCK ME shirt doesn’t want to be raped any more than a man in a SHOOT ME shirt wants to be shot. However distasteful or improbable you might find these hypothetical shirts to be, the point is that clothes are many things, but an open invitation to assault is not among them – and if that’s still true in an instance when FUCK ME is actually written on someone’s outfit, then you can pretty much assume that the logic holds universally. No, I don’t care how much skin a woman is showing, what fabric her clothes are made of, what she wears on her legs and feet, what her profession is, what time it was, where she was or with whom, or whether she thought to change into a skirt. Anyone still confused by the issue should read Ben Pobjie’s excellent piece, How Not To Rape People: A Handy Guide For Modern Men And Footballers. It’s actually very simple!

For the life of me, I don’t understand why women’s clothing is considered relevant to rape cases. Where does it end? Women who wear bikinis rather than one piece swimsuits are asking for it! Topless sunbathing should be legally reclassified as an unequivocal sex invite! Schoolgirls, nuns and nurses who walk through red light districts deserve to be mistaken for sex workers! Women who dress up for a night on the town in accordance with their own individual tastes all want to have sex with strangers!  Oh, wait…

To carry the argument further, trying to assert that women who join nudist colonies do so because they want to have sex, or because they crave sexual attention, or because they’re tacitly asking to be raped, or for any other reason other than that they like being naked, would be ludicrous. And yet part of our culture persists in asserting that women who dress a certain way must only do so because they want to have sex, or because they crave sexual attention, or because they’re tacitly asking to be raped. Take note of that phrase, a certain way: how bloody subjective can you get? As judged by whom? (One only hopes it isn’t Kenneth Clarke.)

The recent wave of SlutWalks began when a male police officer in Toronto suggested that women should avoid dressing like ‘sluts’ if they didn’t want to be raped. Our culture should be beyond this sort of idiocy – the fact that we aren’t saddens and sickens me. Rape does not work to a sliding scale. Women do not ask for it by dressing a certain way. Rape is rape.

It really is that simple.

Here is a think I hate about the UK: being carded at the supermarket for daring try and buy wine with my shopping. I hate it with the fiery vengeance of a thousand flaming suns. Not just because my only form of photo ID is my passport, which for obvious reasons I don’t carry with me at all times, and not just because I’m inevitably carded on the basis of what I’m wearing. Work clothes? Never carded. Velvet coat, gothy skirt, geeky t-shirt and/or hooded jacket? Hellooooo, humiliation!

Because that’s what I really hate about the whole experience, and the reason why I am currently furious: being carded is fucking humiliating. No, I do not care that it’s a “compliment” to be told I “look” under 25, because how I look shouldn’t matter, and in any case is such a ludicrously subjective measurement as to be rendered utterly useless – and that’s even before you get to the mind-boggling nannyism of stopping people based on a standard that requires them to look at least eight years older than the legal drinking age.

But look. I get that countries have stupid laws. I really do! And after the first few incidents, I started taking that into account. Either I take my passport shopping, or I choose my line at the checkout based on the age of the person serving (I have never been carded by anyone in their teens or twenties, and was once able to negotiate a purchase from a sympathetic employee in her thirties). If all else fails, I can now accept my circumstances with a graceful laugh and move on.

Or at least, I could. Until I went to Morrisons today, passport in hand, and was still refused service. Why, you ask? Because two weeks ago, Morrisons was apparently handed down a verdict from some trade commission or other – I rang their customer service line for details, and the woman on the other end didn’t seem to understand it either – specifying that, in order to keep their particular kind of licence, they could only accept a UK ID as proof of age. This is because, to paraphrase the bemused service rep, “it’s not possible for Morrisons staff to learn to accurately recognise the passports of the world.” I tried to ask her why this standard seemingly applied only to Morrisons, and not, for instance, to any other supermarket on the planet, but answers were not forthcoming. Thus, I made my complaint, hung up, and went to put away the bottle of wine I bought at Aldi  on the way home (the twentysomething employee didn’t card me), thinking vindictive thoughts about how at least, despite the inconvenience of having to visit two separate supermarkets, I’d managed to save £1.20.

There’s a special humiliation that accompanies being carded in the UK, in that it only ever seems to happen at supermarkets. You’re in there doing your weekly shop, you think of grabbing a bottle of wine – and all of a sudden, you’re overcome by a nagging, uneasy guilt, as though you’ve done something wrong. It’s like that momentary fear you get passing through the theft detectors on your way out of a shop: the everyday paranoia that worries they’re going to go off even though you haven’t stolen anything. Except in this case, it isn’t momentary. It poisons every trip to the shops I take, fearful of the inevitable humiliation. Perhaps if I were still a teenager, or if I was used to being carded, I wouldn’t care. But in the entire time I’ve lived in Australia and bought alcohol there – that is, from ages 17 through 24 – I have been asked for ID exactly once: outside a packed nightclub in the Rocks, on a Saturday night, when I was nineteen. That’s one carding in seven years.

Over here, it’s a different story. Including our visit in 2009, I’ve been in the UK for roughly ten months. In that time, I’ve been carded at least once in every single supermarket I’ve entered more than once. In the past week and a half alone, it’s happened twice. On one occasion when we were shopping together, my husband was carded because I was with him and he was the one paying, despite the fact that he is a fully grown man in his thirties. I cannot even begin to describe how angry this made me. Now, every time we shop together, I’m scared to be the one who pays, just in case the cashier decides to ask for ID. I am a married woman. I am twenty-five years old. I am not a student, though I reserve the right to dress like one without fear of having my age estimated downwards. STOP FUCKING CARDING ME.

And while you’re at it, stop carding my friends, too. A twenty-four-year-old friend was carded recently because she was buying a pair of scissors and was deemed to look under sixteen. (Scissors! WHAT THE FUCK!) Another friend, a PhD student in her late twenties, is repeatedly carded and refused service because her ID is international, even when she isn’t shopping at Morrisons. In fact, I’m starting to think that being female is a handicap all by itself, which is possibly unfair, but as one male friend pointed out, he at least can grow a beard to look older.

At the risk of upsetting the good half of the status quo, why am I never carded in pubs? Are pub servitors simply better at guessing my age? Are they more pragmatic than supermarket servers? Does the law apply differently on pub grounds? Or is it a combination of all three? What bothers me in this is the element of hypocritical absurdity: that right now, I could walk into any pub in the UK and buy a round of double tequila shots without anyone batting an eyelid while being simultaneously unable to purchase a single bottle of cider along with my groceries.

God only knows how I’ll cope if we ever visit America.

Warning: spoilers ahoy!

I’ve just finished catching up with Doctor Who, watching  The Curse of the Black Spot and The Doctor’s Wife back to back. The former was depressingly unoriginal: not only did we have to listen to hackneyed, unironic pirate dialogue, but for at least the third time in recent memory, an alien medical program turned out to be responsible for everything. (More of the latter later.)

Now, I didn’t grow up with Doctor Who –  the reboot served as my introduction to series. My husband, however, was a childhood fan, and at his recommendation, I’ve watched a large number of Tom Baker episodes as well as the two movies. Setting aside obvious points of comparison like special effects budgets, modern technology and so on, what distinguishes the classic episodes is the fact that the Doctor really does just travel about randomly. He has personal moments, yes, and he inevitably saves the day wherever he ends up, but the scope of these adventures is almost always local – by which I mean, the fate of reality itself does not hang constantly in the balance. So even though I disagree with the rest of his argument, I’m inclined to side with Pete May of the Guardian when he says of the new series:

“The Doctor should be a maverick wanderer, a rebel with a Tardis console, not a superhero. Now every plot seems to centre round the Doctor or his companions as being crucial to the very fabric of the universe.”

It’s a valid criticism, and not just in terms of actual plot content. The one thing I’ve found offputting in the new series is the melodrama: David Tennant’s absurdly long farewell, the regularity with which sidekicks are imperiled, put through the wringer, wangsted and woobied. Look: I love heart-wrenching decisions, tragic endings and emotional baggage as much as the next person. In fact, they’re pretty much my favourite narrative tools! But if you’re going to keep upping the ante week after week, season after season, in such a way that there must Always Be More And Bigger Drama, then in order to ensure that the strings of my heart are tugged rather than hardened, your story must meet three very simple requirements. They are:

1) Internal consistency, because nothing harshes the vibe of an emotional climax quite like the sudden realisation that the plot makes no sense;

2) Good writing, because if all your secondary characters are cardboard cutouts and all the leads are lumbered with cliched dialogue, I will swiftly cease to be in a mood for lovin’; and

3) Humour, because tragedy leavened by laughter is both more powerful and uplifting than the regular kind, and also, paradoxically, sadder.

These should not be impossible things! But as keen readers of this blog may recall, I was not impressed with the start of Season 6, primarily because they failed at hurdle number one. The Curse of the Black Spot was likewise felled by its recycled plot, and took a second stumble in terms of writing. Sufficed to say that, when the time came to watch Neil Gaiman’s episode, provocatively titled The Doctor’s Wife, I was very, very nervous. I like Neil Gaiman. I like Doctor Who. The idea of disliking the effective combination of these two things did not sit well with me – and yet, I was fearful, because while I still love the show, the first three episodes have left me apprehensive about its future.

And then the awesome started.

Because Neil Gaiman, among his many talents, does language. Part of what made The Curse of the Black Spot so very disappointing was the fact that Matt Smith’s dialogue lacked the flair and craziness synonymous with his character. Not only was the Doctor wrong about everything several times, he wasn’t even interestingly wrong. But from the very first moments of The Doctor’s Wife, we have secondary characters whose speech patterns and vocabulary set them apart. We have rapid-fire exchanges and glorious mad oracle ramblings from Idris. Just as importantly for my inner fangirl, we have references to Douglas Adams, author of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and several episodes of classic Who. Throughout the episode, Gaiman riffs on a memorable dinner conversation between Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and finishes it up by having the Doctor tell House, “Brain the size of a planet, but still so small on the inside!” – a reference to the constant refrain of Marvin the Paranoid Android. Even the villain – a sentient planet – recalls Adams’ classic The Key to Time episode, The Pirate Planet, whose villain captained a moving planet he used to destroy or shrink other worlds.

Yes, we can pick the resolution ahead of time, but it doesn’t actually matter, because let’s face it: you pretty much always know the Doctor will triumph, some sciencey-sounding words will be trotted out to explain whatever has happened, and a slice of the future mystery will be hinted at in passing. Very few episodes of Doctor Who are designed such that the audience is given regular clues and encouraged to solve the mystery before the characters do, primarily because solutions involving alien technology and unknown cultures cannot sensibly be inferred without the use of a plot-spoiling infodump. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to try, of course, nor that we’re unable to make narrative leaps based on our knowledge of the kind of show we’re watching rather than sticking solely to what we’re shown. But if you start judging the success of individual episodes based on how little you understood of what actually happened, as seems to be the case with fans of the first three installments, you run the risk letting actual gaffes go through to the keeper just because they didn’t make sense, in the mistaken belief that therefore, somehow, they must do. All of which is a way of saying that, in this instance, being able to pick the ending was a good thing. After so many stories that begged more questions than they answered, it was frankly a relief to encounter an internally consistent episode, one where everything you needed to know – and wanted to know – was provided.

I loved Idris, too: not just the idea of the TARDIS in a human body, but the recognition of the fact that she really is the Doctor’s one true love – his ‘wife’, in the way that all great captains are married to their ships. We’ve heard the TARDIS referred to as a ‘she’ before; we’ve seen the Doctor talk to her – pleading, praising, admonishing, laughing – and watched as the other characters tease him for it. In the last moments when her matrix simultaneously inhabits the ship itself and the dying body of Idris, allowing her to say a first and final hello to the man she stole nearly a thousand years ago, the communion between TARDIS and Doctor is oddly reminiscent of the last episode of Firefly, when River Tam speaks for Serenity, addressing the crew in her voice. It’s a resonant concept: ship as lover, as mother, as friend – a silent, unchanging character, and the vehicle for stories without which there could literally be no vehicle.

When, in the closing scene, Rory asks the Doctor if he has his own bedroom on the TARDIS, he doesn’t answer, because there’s no need: the control room is his, the room of his heart, and that’s where we leave him, communing with a ship he now knows is listening – has always been listening – and who alone of all creatures left in the universe shares his backwards/forwards perception of time. The Doctor’s Wife is a gorgeous, clever, funny, touching episode that embodies everything I’ve come to love about the show. I only hope that the rest of the season lives up to it.

I’ve just been reading this interesting post over at Katharine Kerr’s blog about trying to define what constitutes a work of literary fiction, as opposed to a work of genre fiction. She also talks about the dangers of arguing against litfic and the literary establishment by way of derogatory strawman arguments, not only because this is exactly the kind of negative pigeonholing SFF fans and writers have always railed against when it’s turned our way, but also because it’s unhelpful in trying to understand what literary fiction actually is. It’s an interesting question, but in trying to answer it, I ended up in quite a different place to where I started. Rather than hijack the conversation, therefore, I’m going to take the comment I left as a starting point for answering a slightly different question: how might a lack of named literary subgenres be impeding the success of women literary writers?

As a casual glance at the blogsphere will reveal, there’s been considerable recent debate in SFF quarters about the feminisation of epic fantasy and the nihilism of gritty fantasy, conversations that have been in no small part facilitated by our ability to distinguish between the different SFF subgenres. We know that Tolkien is the Mitochondrial Eve of fantasy writers: one way or another, all our works descend from his. But as with the human race, things have grown more and more diverse with successive generations, such that trying to use fantasy as an exclusive, catch-all terminology has become, except in the most general sense, both useless and inaccurate. Without a language of subgenre terms with which to discuss these differences, it seems inevitable that SFF writing would automatically default to using Tolkien as a blueprint for all new stories – and indeed, up until very recently, we can see that this was the case. Only when writers started trying to break new ground did an alternate language spring up to try and describe their efforts. Partly, it must be admitted, this happened as a means of distancing such heretical works from their canonical predecessors, but also because it was suddenly necessary to look back over everything that had happened since Tolkien and ask whether fantasy could – or should – be more than just the same old Eurocentric, medieval vision of elves, dwarves, men and halflings fighting a succession of ultimate Dark Lords over and over again.

Suddenly, fantasy ceased to be a universal term, and once we started talking and thinking in subgenres, it became easier to understand why new types of story were arising; to pinpoint the tropes their authors wanted to address or change, and for what reasons. True, it also became harder to classify individual works, and the need to fit each and every book into a particular box is something we’re all still arguing about. But the fact is that language is important. Naming a thing allows us greater control over it, and that’s true regardless of whether we’re talking about the magic of Earthsea or the politics of Earth. Consider, for instance, this article by feminist philosopher Jennifer Saul, wherein she talks about the significance of language in feminism. To quote:

“Languages may also lack words for things that matter a great deal to women. This sort of gap is another way that a language can be seen as encoding a male worldview. The term ‘sexual harassment’, for example, is a recent feminist innovation. Women’s discussion of their experiences led them to see a certain common element to many of their problems, and as a result they invented the term ‘sexual harassment’. Once the problem was named, it became much easier to fight sexual harassment, both legally and by educating people about it.”

Which brings me to the matter of the Orange Prize – or rather, to the recent suggestion that an equivalent award is necessary to combat sexism in the Australian literary scene. It’s none too encouraging a sign when women take steps to set themselves apart from men, not because they want or ought to, but because discrimination has left them with no other means of achieving success. For an intelligent and comprehensive rundown on the issue, I highly recommend this excellent piece by writer Benjamin Law, wherein he says, among other things:

“If you take Brookner’s insistence that a meritocracy exists, what are you supposed to make of the raw figures? Books written by women are reviewed less. Women win fewer literary prizes. If that is a meritocracy, then you have to buy into the argument that books by women must be inherently inferior. I can’t accept that. The danger on relying on meritocracy is assuming one actually exists.”

But what, I hear you cry, does any of this have to do with SFF subgenres? Only that women SFF writers seem to have a stronger platform from which to argue their case for equality, simply because their dialogue about content, bias and narrative is so much more linguistically robust than in the literary community. This is not to say that the problems outlined by the recent VIDA statistics on the representation of women vs men in literary reviews are absent in SFF; indeed, it has been demonstrably proven that they aren’t. But when it comes to the question of awards, it doesn’t seem unduly optimistic to say that change is in the air. The Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel in 2011, for instance, are all, with one exception, women, and the situation is identical when it comes to the Nebula. The 2010 Campbell Award was won by a woman, Seanan McGuire, and for the purposes of my argument about subgenre, it doesn’t strike me as irrelevant to note that McGuire’s debut novel, Rosemary and Rue, was the first work of urban fantasy to win its author the Campbell, nor that it did so in competition with another female-authored UF novel: Gail Carriger’s Soulless.

So much of the debate I’ve seen about the disenfranchisement of women literary writers centers on anger at the perception of women’s novels as being “domestic” (where such a label is pejorative) compared to those written by men, which naturally deal with Big Themes and Important Issues. What has always struck me about this complaint – aside from the fact that it appears to be correct, both intuitively and in terms of critical perception – is the difficulty these writers seem to have articulating the problem. They talk about literature and literary fiction as a single entity, grasping after a magical phrase that will allow them to explain simultaneously why women might indeed be more prone to writing about domestic topics, why this is not a bad thing, and why it still counts as literature. Because such amorphous justifications are exactly what subgenre terminology exists to prevent, allowing us to acknowledge that two different types of storytelling are related to one another, that they share a common ancestry and ultimately a common genre, but that their conventions and approaches may nonetheless be very, very different. As in the case of last year’s Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel, it allows us to put vastly different works like China Mieville’s The City & The City, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest on the same ballot, despite the fact that the first is heavily noir/New Weird, the second is dystopian SF, and the third is urban fantasy/mythpunk.

It also puts the SFF community in an excellent position to discuss tropes and archetypes. A communal, cultural resource like TV Tropes provides a go-to lexicon for discussing narrative structure in shorthand, with many such terms finding their way into the mainstream dialogue as a matter of course. Perhaps it’s because the origins and inspirations of SFF are so heavily rooted in jargon-heavy areas like mythology, science, linguistics, pop culture and folklore that the community has taken so readily to isolating and naming its parts; alternatively, it seems reasonable to assume that any group of people who spend a significant proportion of their intellectual lives reading made-up languages, interpreting new cultures and memorising invented systems of magic will inevitably come to appreciate the deep precision and relevance of language. Whatever it is, the literary community doesn’t seem to share it – or if it does, then to nowhere near the same extent.

As more than one would-be inventor of slanguage has come to realise, there’s no telling which new terms will enter our collective vocabularies or die a series of quick deaths. But as corny and New Age as it might seem, it strikes me that the writers most deeply concerned with the state of literary fiction and its biases against women could do a lot worse than trying to coin some terms of their own: to name the archetypes they wish to invert or criticise and thereby open up the discussion. If authors can be thought of as magicians in any sense, then the root of our power has always rested with words: choosing them, arranging them and – most powerfully – inventing them. Sexism won’t go away overnight, and nor will literary bias. But until then, if we’re determined to invest ourselves in bringing about those changes, it only makes sense to arm ourselves with a language that we, and not our enemies, have chosen.

‘Duty Calls’, xkcd 386

Ever since I became a published author, I’ve been struggling with the necessary tensions of belonging to the community whose output I most want to critique. Internally, the questions I’ve been asking myself have ranged from Should I write paid reviews to supplement my income? to What’s the best response to a book that enrages me? I’ve said before that total self-censorship is not an option I feel comfortable with – at least, not at this point in my life. After all, I’m still new to the authoring game; old habits are hard to break, and if I’ve been writing stories for longer than I’ve been reviewing or thinking critically about them, then it’s not much longer. To phrase the scenario as crudely as possible, I comprehend the wisdom of not shitting where one eats, but at the same time, I feel deeply uneasy with the idea that being an author means I’m no longer allowed to be moved by books, to be angered or disgusted or made quizzical by books – or rather, that I can be all these things, but only on the proviso that I’m secretive about it, as though my native reactions to narrative have somehow become shameful.

This is a difficult tightrope to walk. Stories of authors reacting to criticism on the internet abound, and are seldom remembered in a positive light (though frankly, I think we’re all on Neil Gaiman’s side when it comes to the whole pencil-necked weasel thing). Then there’s the mafia issue – which, for all it exaggerates the power of individual authors to affect someone else’s career, is nonetheless a salient footnote on the etiquette of criticism, regardless of which side of the fence you’re on. Way back in the mists of time (2008) when I started this blog, my second ever post was on editorialising in the media: the creeping intrusion of personal opinion into factual content, such that the two are now almost irreversibly blurred. I said then, and maintain now, that a large portion of the blame for the current state of our news media can be fairly apportioned to a public thirst for sensationalism – or rather, to the perceived public thirst for sensationalism. I mention this because, while artistic opinions of any kind are always going to be subjective, certain regions of the internet have developed a taste for snarky, pejorative book reviews, which I’m coming to think of as being inimical to good criticism in the same way that editorialising is inimical to facts.

That’s not to say I don’t read snarky reviews. I’m not even claiming never to have enjoyed them, however guiltily. But I am saying that the general inability of readers, reviewers and writers to distinguish between critical reviews, humorous reviews and pejorative reviews  is becoming a genuine problem, particularly in a culture where blogging, social media outlets and review sites like Goodreads are all so deeply interconnected as to constitute a single hivemind. Anything you say in public is both easily attributable to you and, as such, open to yet more criticism. This can become something of a viscious circle, and while many disputes are tiny storms in tinier teacups, the blogosphere itself is a super-sized coffee mug as broad across as the internet is deep, its viscous contents routinely stirred by a combination of citykilling typhoons and the sorts of electrical disturbance usually found in Star Trek nebulae.

Or, to put it another way: shit you say on the internet gets read. Possibly only by that one guy who found your blog by accident that one time, and possibly by every adherent of every major online publication after the guano is flung at the rotating turbine. Anonymity is only the default right up until it isn’t, and the important thing to take away here is that you don’t get to choose what piece gets noticed. As John Scalzi so succinctly put it, the failure mode of clever is asshole, and as alluded to by xkcd, someone is pretty much always wrong on the internet. (For extra credit, refer to: Rule 34, Dante’s InternetGodwin’s Law, The 18 Types of Internet Troll, and any site involving fanon, slashfic or religion, particularly if it combines all three.)

So, for the purposes of attempting to enable a happier, safer, more constructive internet, here is a rough dissemination of the difference between critical reviews, humorous reviews and pejorative reviews, respectively:

1. Critical Reviews

Contrary to what you might think, critical reviews are not necessarily negative. Rather, they involve an awareness of literary conventions (pacing, writing style, structure, plotting), a demonstrable familiarity with the genre in question, and a knowledge of standard tropes and plot conventions. As much as possible, they endeavour to be written in the spirit of informative objectivity. By which I mean: no personal vendettas, no ad hominem attacks, no profanity (exceptions made in the case of positive usage, i.e: this book is fucking brilliant), and no snide remarks. Given the native imperfection of human beings, a cultural preference for humour and the fact that sometimes, in our honest opinion, a book just doesn’t work, your mileage may vary when it comes to enforcing these points; at the very least, our own views frequently lead us to be more lenient or strict with a particular review depending on the extent to which we agree (or disagree) with its conclusion. Note, too, that while I certainly think reviews of this kind are important, they can also be somewhat bloodless, especially when it comes to books we actually like. Thus, while critical reviews as characterised here can certainly be either positive or negative, I’ve chosen my guidelines with negativity in mind, if only because there’s a world of difference between laughing with and laughing at. Which leads us to:

2. Humorous Reviews

Ranging from gentle, tongue-in-cheek send-ups to gleeful mockery, humorous reviews are generally written with mirth in mind. This doesn’t prevent them from containing critical insights, however – they’re only couched differently. For me, the most successful humorous reviews are positive in tone. The best books infect us. Like viruses, they mutate our cells and turn us into replicators, instilling the urge to go forth and infect yet more people. Humour is an excellent means of transmitting this enthusiasm precisely because it overwhelms our objectivity with laughter and story-greed. When used in more negative reviews, it can serve the purpose of attracting readers, not to the book in question, but to the reviewer, displaying their personality and particular taste while still providing critical feedback on a novel’s pros and cons. Though sometimes verging into snarkish, schadenfreude territory (see above, re: your mileage may vary), a funny-yet-critical review will support its jibes with reasoned analysis and, where appropriate, balance the tone with lighthearted humour, ensuring that the end result doesn’t read wholly as a joke at the book’s expense. For all that I’m a fan of critical reviews, I tend to prefer them as one-off reads, or as tie-breaker votes when other, more subjective sources disagree. But when it comes to choosing a regular reviewer, humour is what wins out for me: not only because it affords a greater sense of who the reviewer actually is, but because even a negative review can still make me curious about a particular book – and if there’s one thing I don’t want a reviewer to do as a matter of course, it’s make me feel like a cretin for enjoying something they disliked. Which leads us to:

3. Pejorative Reviews

Often, pejorative reviews are based on adversarial reading by a hostile audience. Maybe the reviewer just doesn’t like the author, or the genre, or the voice. Maybe they think the premise sounds ludicrous. Whatever the reason, unless they’re willing to be talked into a full face heel turn, there’s a good chance that the outcome will be just what they expected – and, finding this to be so, they’ll be even angrier at the end than they were at the outset. Alternatively, they’ve gone in as hopeful, willing readers, and had that trust betrayed: their berserk button is pressed, and the result is an irate, shouty review full of capslock and swearing. Note that this is not, of itself, an inappropriate reaction, nor does it automatically make for a bad review. Sometimes, issues are important enough to get angry about, particularly when we feel our perspective is otherwise being ignored. But while such pejorative might be objectively understandable, it can also undermine its own critical significance, simply because of the difficulties inherent in disentangling venom from facts. So often when something makes us angry, we don’t slow down to explain why that anger is justified – or at least, not in a way that’s comprehensible to someone who hasn’t already read the book. This can lead virgin readers to assume incompetence on behalf of the reviewer – and if we want our views to be taken seriously, this is clearly a disadvantage. A further consequence of adversarial reading is the snowball effect: past a certain point, being reasonably annoyed with several things in particular easily leads to being irrationally irked by many things in general. For instance: while I might be perfectly willing to overlook one or two small typos in a brilliant book, their presence in a lesser story suddenly becomes a noteworthy factor in my judging it as such. Combine this with attacks on the author and an openly disparaging attitude to anyone who disagrees, and even the most eloquent vitriol is still tarred with the brush of being, well, vitriol. We might seek it out when a book disappoints us, desperate to know that we weren’t the only ones to feel that way, but overall, pejorative reviews tend to be of the least help, both to readers and to the wider literary community.

So! It is now late, and I have done my blogging duty for another day. Internets, what do you think about reviewing?

Reading through the second book of Ally Carter’s excellent Gallagher Girls series, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, on the bus home yesterday afternoon, I was suddenly struck by how the representation of schools in YA writing is, in many ways, reflective of the wider problems of modern education. Now, when it comes to the subject of education generally and high school in particular, I am not what you would call an objective commentator: I have passionate opinions, and I like to share them. I mention this by way of establishing from the outset that my perception of modern education and its problems are not necessarily universal. (I like to think it should be, but that’s another story.)

The point being, high school is problematic, and regardless of differing opinions on why that is or how it might be fixed, the simple assertion that  problems do exist is not a controversial statement. And so, while reading a book about a spy academy for teenage girls, it occurred to me to wonder why some types of school are held up as interesting, awesome and excellent in YA novels, while others either blend into the background or, at worst, are depicted as hateful, prisonesque institutions. At first glance, this is something of a ridiculous question: YA is about teenagers, teenagers go to school – is it any wonder, therefore, that depictions of education in YA should vary, too? Well, no: but probing a little deeper, it’s possible to discern an interesting pattern about the types of school on offer.

To start with, let’s consider the cool schools. These are places where the actual content of various classes is depicted as positive and interesting, not only to the characters, but to the readership – and more, where the skills they teach are of demonstrable use to the protagonists. These are the schools that cause real-world teenagers to read about them and think, man, I wish I went there, and what should be instantly significant about this is not that such schools exist, even hypothetically, but that their status as such is contingent on the combination of three factors in varying ratios: glamour, agency and relevance. Dealing with the foremost of these, it’s undeniable that cool schools train their students to be, well, cool. Carter’s Gallagher Academy is a school for spies; J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts trains witches and wizards; and, though they don’t attend schools in the modern sense, Tamora Pierce’s heroines nonetheless learn to be knights and police officers in institutional settings.

Undeniably, then, glamour is a factor: to borrow Monty Python’s favourite example, who wants to read a book about a school for chartered accountancy? But even so, there’s something significant in the narrative success of schools whose aim is to churn out graduates with qualifications for a particular career: the idea of educational relevance. Beyond the novelty of reading about single-focus schools, all these stories show students being trained for an identifiable purpose, taking on difficult assignments not just through their own adventuring (though this also happens), but because the structure of the institution demands that they do so. Regular homework, genuine danger, obedience to teachers and repetitious training are never omitted or skimmed for the sake of making school look like a cakewalk: instead, they are emphasised, because in a setting where teenage protagonists are allowed to have personal ambitions – and more, where these can be actively pursued through school – then all those educational necessities which in the real world are seen as tedious, pointless and intrusive suddenly become interesting, worthwhile and relevant. Put bluntly, it’s one thing to sit resentfully through hours of geography class without the slightest idea of when it might ever be useful, and quite another to read about a scenario where, in order to prepare for their future career as a globe-trotting spy, a teenage protagonist sits down to memorise all the world’s countries and capital cities. Sure, actually doing the memory work would be difficult, time-consuming and perhaps even dull, but the end reward – being a spy – would more than compensate for it.

And then there’s the question of agency: the fact that teenage attendees of cool schools are not only expected to know what they want from life, but are frequently allowed leeway in their efforts at pursuing it. By and large, cool school teachers don’t care about standardised testing: they care about the material, about preparing you for the real world; they stand up for their students, support independence, encourage critical inquiry and – most importantly – treat teenagers as though they’re intelligent enough to have real opinions. As a result, the students of cool schools get to have genuine adventures without being constantly told that doing so is impossible, illegal or irresponsible. Which isn’t to say that their actions never have consequences, or that no one ever gets punished for breaking the rules, or even that adults never call them idiots. What it does mean, however, is that there’s a general acknowledgement that the most important, powerful and significant moments of one’s secondary education do not necessarily take place in class or as a result of school-sanctioned activities, and that a certain amount of disobedience is to be, if not actively encouraged, then certainly expected as part and parcel of growing into an independent adult. Thus, while Professor McGonagall has no compunction about taking house points or assigning detention (for instance), we never see any evidence that particular crimes at Hogwarts have lasting consequences beyond the (drastic, rarely issued) threat of expulsion. At cool schools, there is no such thing as a permanent record, and if you can’t see the link between the freedom to make mistakes without endangering your whole future and an assertion of teenage agency, then I’d be so bold as to suggest that you’ve forgotten what high school is like.

So, to recap: cool schools have glamour. They make the students work hard, but towards well-defined goals that are actually relevant, both to the real world and to their personal ambitions. They are understanding of error: punishments are personal and immediate, rather than long-term and general. They have good teachers and interesting subjects, with an emphasis on curiosity and independent research. Students at cool schools have agency, and are treated like adults-in-training rather than merely teenagers. This, to my way of thinking, distinguishes cool schools in YA fiction from most actual schools, but you’re allowed to disagree. (Note: real world schools can still have awesome teachers. If I’m asserting any dissonance in that regard, it’s that awesome teachers in cool schools never have to answer to an underfunded, over-nannied bureaucracy and are actually well-paid for their services. Which, you know. Matters.) Hopefully, though, you’ll agree that the characteristics listed above, with the exception of glamour, are all good things.

It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that writers – that is to say, intelligent, creative people working in a profession that cares absolutely nothing for their school marks or qualifications  – have a tendency to question the current educational system. Without wanting to assume my own experiences to be even vaguely universal, I can’t have been the only teenager who knew that they wanted to write stories for a living (or play sport, or be a musician or an artist or a dancer), and who therefore dedicated thousands of hours throughout high school to personal projects utterly unconnected with anything on the curriculum. Quite arguably, the fantasy of cool schools is as much for the authors as it is the readers: what would our teenage years have been like if, instead of being forced to learn things we’ve never found a use for and have subsequently forgotten, we went to schools specifically structured around our interests? What if our passions hadn’t had to compete with our coursework – if every school was like the one in Fame, only geared to our personal interests? What if we’d been taken seriously as teenagers?

It’s a rosy-lensed hypothetical, to be sure. Back here in reality, even radical educational reform would never allow for the kind of schools we all secretly yearned to attend. But even so, our desires come through in our writing: testing the waters, trying to see what school could be like if people like us were in charge. Both Liar and How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier play with the idea of different secondary systems: in Liar, the protagonist attends a class called Dangerous Words, where censorship and media dishonesty are discussed, while in Fairy, subject-centric schools are run on lines designed to foster traits valued in their particular professions, so that the rules of a sports high emphasise teamwork, discipline, obedience, punctuality and coordination over everything else. It goes without saying that YA novels feature a certain amount of escapism, but while the base assumption about teenagers is that they all want to escape from school all the time, the idea that they might be taking refuge in stories about better schools is not nearly so normative.

And when, in such novels, the teenage protagonists do rebel against school, it’s usually for very good reasons: either the school itself is terrible, or it has become terrorised. In Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, for instance, Marcus sets himself up in opposition to authority because his rights are being violated: government politics are interfering with freedom of speech, his best teacher is being muzzled, and the principal has started using particular students as informants. In Libba Bray’s trilogy about Victorian schoolgirls, Gemma Doyle and her friends use magic, courage and cleverness to make lives for themselves beyond what society expects of them as women, escaping the confines of a college that, for all its sorority, only wants to turn them into wives. To quote the final book, The Sweet Far Thing:

“They’ve planned our entire lives, from what we shall wear to whom we shall marry and where we shall live. It’s one lump of sugar in your tea whether you like it or not and you’d best smile even if you’re dying deep inside. We’re like pretty horses, and just as on horses, they mean to put blinders on us so we can’t look left or right but only straight ahead where they would lead.” 

Which brings us, finally, to the traits of mediocre schools in fiction: how are they characterised? Usually, it’s enough that the characters have more important things in their lives than what goes on at school: that they’re learning elsewhere, and – more particularly – that such external subjects are of greater interest and relevance than the content of their classes. The characters in Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller, for instance, are both exceptional individuals and largely self-taught: Betty is a master of disguise, Luz is an inventor, DeeDee a chemist, Oona a hacker, and Ananka an observant intellectual. While it would be foolish to ignore the glamour factor of these interests, what’s important is that the girls are independent, resourceful and clever, pursuing their passions in their own time precisely because a traditional school environment would only limit them.

As I’ve previously had cause to mention, science tells us that the human brain continues to develop throughout our teenage years and doesn’t actually settle until sometime in our twenties. The upshot of this information – or at least, one of the social upshots – is that many adults consider their suspicions about teenage childishness to be correct. This is why schools and universities are compared to daycare centers: because students cannot be trusted to act like adults, must be coddled and protected and talked down to, protected from agency and relevancy and all the danger that comes from actually acting like an independent person held to be responsible for your own actions. Never mind that the same research about brain development talks about the power of teenagers to sculpt their own identities by exercising their intellect – by thinking, by acting, by engaging with the world – and the far from radical notion that a good way to encourage this behaviour might be to, you know, treat teenagers like adults. Oh, no: their brains are not ready! No one should do anything that matters until they’re twenty-five!

But how can the brain develop if the person attached to it is only ever treated like a child?

And this is why, to come to the long-awaited point, the depiction of schools in YA is so reflective of the current problems with Western education: both narratively and in terms of the real world, writers and readers understand the disconnect between what school is meant to achieve, and how it actually works. Passionate students must follow their interests outside the classroom. Adventurous, inquisitive, questioning students are disproportionately punished in the long term for misdemeanours that are, at base, attempts at critical thinking and independence – skills that schools are theoretically supposed to foster, but which in practice they actively suppress . Average students drift through classes without a sense of either purpose or agency, unable to find meaning in lessons that most of us forget by the time we’re twenty, and which have no bearing on anything they might care about otherwise or be interested in doing.

And so they turn to fiction: stories where the schools are genuinely good; or where, outside of school, there’s a means of learning relevant, interesting things with friends; or where, if the school is terrible, there’s a way of fighting back. Over and over, we tell ourselves stories of how things could and should be different, to the point where novels – and through them, authors – are in a sense picking up the shortfall left by school itself: suggesting interests, provoking passions, encouraging dreams and critical thinking and courage and independence, proving that there are at least some adults who understand that the way things are is not necessarily the way they ought to be.

So governments: if you’re out there, and you want to really improve your education systems? You could do a lot worse than asking some YA authors (and – gasp! – teenagers) what they think. Because in the end, we never resented  school for being school. Instead, we resented it for all the things it should have been, and could have been – but wasn’t.

As has been mentioned previously, I took it upon myself last month to reread all fifteen volumes of Katharine Kerr’s excellent Deverry series – or rather, to reread the first thirteen books in preparation for broaching the final two. Reaching the end of a story you’ve been following since adolescence is always a precarious act: for any number of reasons, the potential for betrayal and disappointment is enormous. I won’t lie, internets. I was nervous. But despite those fears, the ending made me cry, the plot was skillfully was closed out, and I walked away with a feeling of profound satisfaction. Roald Dahl once wrote that “no book ever ends when it’s full of your friends”, and I’ve never felt this to be truer than in the case of Deverry, if only because the entire premise is one of reincarnated characters – as long as they keep being born, their stories will always continue. In final paragraphs appended to the glossaries and pronunciation guides of almost every volume, as well as in quick asides throughout the narrative proper, Katharine Kerr has adopted the voice of Cadda Cerrmor (as the last book names her) – a writer inhabiting modern-day Deverry who she credits as the ‘real’ author. It’s a small detail, but one which lends a wonderful balance to things. Through all its twisting timelines, the series is as much about the history of Deverry itself as it is the myriad lives of the characters, and by providing a glimpse of that country’s future, Kerr has imbued it, not just with a sense of lineage, but potentiality.

In that sense, there’s tremendous significance in the small details which help to close out the series. Though Branna’s invention of the spinning wheel and Neb’s discovery of germs might seem like small things when placed alongside dragons and the end of the Horsekin war, we still experience a little frisson of excitement on hearing them mentioned:  a recognition of the seeds of modernity, and an unshakable sense that Deverry is one of those rare worlds which keeps on turning even in the absence of a reader. Though there are battles, false goddesses and magic aplenty in Kerr’s series, we’re never fooled into thinking that the fate of all Deverry hangs on any one of them – or rather, if it does, then not in the traditional way.

The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right. Tolkien, as always, gets something of a free pass for having invented the trope, but even in his case, the whole point of Middle Earth’s elaborate backstory is that everything has already happened: the climactic battle with Sauron is literally the last hurrah of a world in decline, a handover between a magical, imagined past and our own, human future. But where Tolkien was fully cognisant of the shape of his own story, many subsequent authors copied his pattern without, perhaps, a full appreciation for its consequences. Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

The different cultures and races present in Deverry, while seemingly cast in traditional molds – humans, elves, dwarves, dragons, shapeshifters and hordes – are each dealt with in respectful, original ways. Though the elves have long since lost their fabled cities and are reduced to living as nomadic plainsdwellers, Kerr doesn’t fall into the trap of making their previous civilisation a perfect one, even though we still mourn its loss. Rigidly maintained caste systems and a fearsome body of magician-priests stood side by side with beautiful architecture and advanced magics, contrasting sharply with the comparative egalitarianism of their nomadic descendants. Though an elven royal family has been maintained even down the long years of exile, it has never held any special power, being more a ceremonial acknowledgement than anything else. As the elves grow settled again, reuniting with their lost colonies and living openly alongside humankind, there’s a sense of genuine loss: not just for the end of an era, but in the slow, encroaching return to their old monarchy, as Prince Dar becomes increasingly important in response to the Deverrian respect for kings.

At the other end of the scale, the Horsekin and Gel da’Thae, while cast as the villains both historically and in the more present struggles, are never reduced to the role of bogymen. Though undeniably savage in parts, their culture is whole and internally consistent, and as much damaged by their past actions in some respects as was the elven civilisation they destroyed. The bard Meer is a beautiful example of this, not only because he’s a genuinely compelling character, but because his blind devotion to false  lore confronts us with the damage that results when knowledge is lost or destroyed, or when actions are undertaken in ignorance. To a greater or lesser extent, all the cultures of Deverry suffer this particular affliction. Records have been lost, oral traditions have become mired in half-truth, and the steadfast commitment of one character or another to their chosen way of life is always threatened when they encounter other cultures. Just as the shapeshifting Drwgi contrast the dwarves both elementally and in terms of identity, so too do the differing human communities – the free, isolated families of the Rhiddaer, the feudalistic Deverrians and the democratic yet slave-trading Bardekians – contrast each other. Though some practices and thoughts are held almost universally in contempt or esteem, there are always exceptions. Despite what the characters might believe, nothing is fixed.

This sentiment comes out particularly in how the series handles religion. Just as Raena and Rocca, devout priestesses of Alshandra, display pure, heartfelt faith in a being who, unbeknownst to them, only ever pretended to be a goddess, Meer’s trust in his sacred traditions provides a sharp counterpoint to the faith of Deverry men and women, whose deities, if not actually malevolent entities in disguise, were still only ever a product of belief, and not the other way around. Though the only true zealots we ever encounter are devotees of either Alshandra or Aranrhodda, we’re nonetheless forced to ask ourselves why we find their beliefs so discomforting. It’s not just the content of the rituals which matters, nor even, to a certain extent, the violence with which those beliefs are pursued. Rather, it’s our knowledge of whether particular beliefs are true, beneficial, benign, false and/or hostile which ultimately shape our reactions. The dweomer of the Light is both true and beneficial- representing the great Light that shines behind all the gods – while the worship of most established deities, if ultimately false, is still benign. Aranrodda’s worship is equally false, but hostile, concerning itself with vengeance and malfeasance; the same is true of Alshandra, but to a much greater extent. At the far end of the continuum is the dark dweomer, being both true – the actual counterpoint to the Light – and hostile in its practices. As Deverry is a fantastic place, we are in a uniquely objective position when it comes to passing such judgement on the beliefs of other people. In the real world, of course, things are never so simple – but then, the people of Deverry are all real in their own minds: they cannot judge as we do, and so act largely in ignorance of truths they cannot possibly know.

Sexuality – particularly as relates to feminism – is another main theme of the books. Though there is no one definition of strength, many of the strongest characters are female, almost all of whom must struggle to follow their own desires in opposition to various cultural demands. A throwaway Cadda Cerrmor line in one of the later books, noting that the stories are set in a time before women learned to control their pregnancies through the dweomer, pointedly underlines the reality of life without contraception. If the series can be said to contain a dearth of women who are willing mothers, this is only because we’re witnessing a society in which willingness has absolutely nothing to do with motherhood, even for those who embrace it. Lacking any control over their own pregnancies in a society where producing heirs is paramount, women have children as a matter of course: not only is doing otherwise almost impossible, but wanting to remain childless is unthinkable. By focusing on women who actively challenge this mentality, Kerr might seem to modern women, who have a choice in childbearing, to be pushing an agenda: but in fact, she only demonstrates the process by which they came to have that choice. However we might judge a character like Dallandra, for instance, we cannot help but be pierced with rage and sympathy at the plight of Bellyra, a fiercely intelligent queen driven to suicide by a combination of royal imprisonment, a well-meaning but careless husband and, significantly, post natal depression.

Though possessed of original magic, brilliant characterisation and memorable storytelling, in the end, it’s the worldbuilding, history and cultural commentary I love most about Deverry. By creating a world with a unique sense of its own past, present and future, Katharine Kerr has succeeded in building a real place – a sprawling, fascinating realm adjacent to our own, and made accessible through the mother roads of mythology, imagination and truth.

Warning: spoilers! 

There’s several things I’ve been wanting to blog about these past few days, but in light of just having watched the first two episodes of Season 6 of Doctor Who, I’m going to put them on hold in favour of performing a narrative vivisection. It’s been a while now since Season 5: long enough that many of the small, crucial details hinting at Steven Moffat’s arc for Matt Smith’s Doctor have doubtless slipped my mind. What I do recall, however, is that the final episodes didn’t make a lot of sense to me at the time. Or, wait: let me rephrase. I don’t watch Doctor Who because it makes sense, and I’m fairly sure that’s the case for most viewers. I mean, when your basic premise is a species of open-door, case by case worldbuilding with full retconning options and an ad-hoc magic system masquerading as science, continuity and inherent logic are always going to be, to paraphrase one Shepherd Book, a mite fuzzy.

I say that with love, of course. After all, if you want to watch a witty Brit poncing about the multiverse in a police box, Doctor Who is pretty much your only option. But there’s a difference between nonsensical plots and plots which literally make no sense, and while I appreciate that Moffat is very much a creature of the long game, Day of the Moon comes perilously close to falling into the latter category.

But first: The Impossible Astronaut. Good premise, nice creepifying vibes, though I could’ve done without the prolonged image of Amy sobbing over the Doctor’s body. Also – and yes, I do realise that it represents a significant portion of the setup for Season 6 – I wasn’t keen on using his eventual death as a plot device. For one thing, it’s an annoying way to start an episode: the Doctor was always going to reappear again via some miraculous means, and in the interim, we waste time watching the characters grieve for a loss we already know isn’t final. For another, and more importantly, it’s a problematic means of garnering emotional investment in the series. If the death we’ve seen is truly an irreversible event, then Matt Smith must be the last Doctor – which, yes, is possible, but given the show’s popularity and the sheer length of its reign, I just can’t see that fact being flagged with such canonical finality so early in his tenure. Which means it’s probably going to be reversed at some point, or prolonged, or altered, or changed, or whathaveyou, and while I’m certainly interested in seeing how that happens (probable answer: Timelord magic!), I can’t feel any uncertainty about the fact that it will happen. Which makes it something of an empty threat, particularly as it’s been left to hang over the whole season.

Unless the death does stand and the show really is slated to end with Matt Smith. In which case: well played, Mr Moffat! Well played.

Monster-wise, the Silence were genuinely freaky, and a very well-seeded threat from Season 5, though as has been pointed out elsewhere, Day of the Moon was rather rough and ready when it came to how their powers worked. It’s a fridge logic problem, the sort of thing that only niggles in retrospect without really altering the fabric of the narrative: an omission of some facts and a blurring of others, rather than an outright contradiction. What I’m less forgiving about is the idea that an alien species, capable of space travel, who have demonstrably menaced multiple worlds and who, by River Song’s reckoning, have access to at least eight different types of alien technology while on Earth, had to engineer the moon landing because they needed someone to invent the space suit. Because, seriously? No. Even if they’re incapable of creating things on their own, they still have access to alien technology. I’m pretty sure there are alien space suits, you guys!

And while we’re on the subject of continuity being carried over from Season 5: haven’t we already established that there are colonies of lizard people living under the Earth? You know – another technologically advanced race that’s been sharing the planet with humankind since the dawn of history? Possibly I’m just being picky, but seeing as how the Silence also live in a network of tunnels running beneath the surface of the entire planet, it feels kind of odd to think that the two have never encountered one another. Oh, and if the Silence really are responsible for all those strange jitters people feel in empty places, the sensation of being watched – all that stuff – then can we assume that they’ve been working in tandem with the Vashta Nerada? All right, maybe that last one’s a stretch, but the point is, for a race of villains whose coming has been foreshadowed for some time now, the Silence feel underdeveloped to me. Yes, they’re frightening, but how do they fit into the wider Whoniverse as a species? (And why do they look curiously like knock-off copies of Joss Whedon’s Gentlemen?)

The other problem is Amy’s pregnancy-that-isn’t, though maybe that’s only a problem for me, given my stated position on Magical Pregnancies of any kind. Right now, it looks like Amy’s eventual daughter will kill the Doctor (somehow), steal his regenerative powers (somehow) and be reared in an abandoned orphanage in 1969 (somehow) by a creepy caretaker under alien control. With a photo of Amy on her dresser (somehow). Though when she does see Amy face to face, she doesn’t recognise her (somehow). Also, she’s not quite human (the TARDIS effect?) and super strong – strong enough to rip her way out of the space suit (somehow). Except, if she could do that, then why didn’t she do it ages ago? And how, if she is Amy’s daughter, was she stolen away? I’m struggling with all these things. I know it’s the long game, or rather, I really, really hope that it’s the long game, and the only reason it doesn’t make sense is because there’s more to come. But so far, it doesn’t feel like it.

That being said, I love River Song, I love theorising about the possible arcs and reveals of awesome TV shows (theory: River is Amy and Rory’s daughter!) and because I embrace the senselessness, I love Doctor Who even when it appears to make no sense, if only because Matt Smith is so magnificently daft. So despite my doubts and wonderings: bring it on!