Archive for February, 2021

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.