Archive for the ‘Critical Hit’ Category

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

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

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

Here is what the stickers looked like:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I just.

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

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

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

For fuck’s sake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you know who does have chemistry with Frank?

MacGregor.

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

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

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

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.

Every so often, the opening line of a book review smacks you so forcibly around the temples with its galaxy-brained perception of SFF that you have to take several moments to recuperate. Such was the case when, after seeing the headline of Tom Shippey’s review of Sarah Kozloff’s Nine Realms series for the Wall Street Journal floating about on Twitter, I decided to investigate. Says Shippey:

Perhaps seeking to take advantage of the ever-increasing gaps between volumes of George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” series, sci-fi publisher Tor has decided on a different marketing strategy for the four volumes of Sarah Kozloff’s “Nine Realms” tetralogy. “A Queen in Hiding” (496 pages, $12.99) came out in January, followed by “The Queen of Raiders” (509 pages, $16.99) and “A Broken Queen” (446 pages, $16.99) in February and March, with “The Cerulean Queen” (509 pages, $16.99) bringing the whole sequence rapidly to a climax in April.

Having now recovered from the psychic damage dealt by this stunning opening paragraph, here is some relevant information to aid the casual reader in parsing it:

  • George R. R. Martin’s series is not published by Tor, but by Bantam and Harper Voyager;
  • The series in question is called A Song of Ice and Fire; the TV series based on that series is called Game of Thrones, and while this might be a pedantic point to make, as the names are often colloquially interchanged, Shippey has put me, shall we say, in something of a pedantic mood;
  • The last volume in A Song of Ice and Fire, A Dance with Dragons, came out in 2011, which is to say: nine whole years ago;
  • Tor doesn’t publish exclusively sci-fi as distinct from fantasy like Kozloff’s, as Shippey’s description implies. They publish in a wide range of subgenres, including but by no means limited to both science fiction and fantasy, and have been doing so for quite some time now – but even were that not the case, citing the publication of one (1) fantasy series in 2020 as being in response to the nearly decade-long gap between Martin’s last volume and now would seem to be wildly out of step with reality.

Shippey then goes on to refer to Kozloff as “Ms Kozloff” throughout his review – which is, admittedly, positive, if written so blandly as to be easily mistaken for gruel – while calling various male authors by their full names. His piece ends as follows:

Fans have spent decades trying to organize the adventures of Conan into some kind of consistent chronology—a task which Ms. Kozloff, a professor of film at Vassar, and her publishers have spared them. Just the same, the “Nine Realms” sequence has the scope and much of the gusto of Robert E. Howard’s famous Hyboria. Its characters, however, in particular its scarred but defiant heroine, have emotional range and emotional depth as well. It’s good to see that, like Cerúlia in this final volume, fantasy has grown up.

Fantasy has grown up! I’m so glad Tom Shippey, whose last experience with the genre appears to have been in 2011 at best, is here to tell me so! No need to think about any of the amazing, groundbreaking work that’s been produced in the last decade alone, both from Tor and elsewhere! Honestly, it’s such a relief to know that an old white dude I’d never heard of until today believes that the modern genre I’ve been reading, critiquing and working in since before the publication of Martin’s last novel has now graduated from childish pablum to being worthy of his notice!

The irony is, of course, that fantasy began the process of growing, not up, but away from its narrowly white, straight, Eurocentric and overwhelmingly male conventions quite some time ago. That Shippey appears not to realise this – or, if he disagrees with the sentiment, to be sufficiently aware of that longstanding discourse to be in conversation with it – is a serious strike against his credentials as a reviewer. Do I care that the man is evidently a Tolkien expert? Not especially, no, as this isn’t the same as his being a good critic – a fact to which the life of Tolkien himself can attest, as his brilliance at creating languages and mythologies was hardly reflected in his lecturing. As Diana Wynne Jones, who attended Tolkien’s classes, once amusingly noted:

When I was a student I imagine I caused Tolkien much grief by turning up to hear him lecture week after week, while he was trying to wrap his series up after a fortnight and get on with The Lord of the Rings… I sat there obdurately despite all his mumbling and talking with his face pressed up to the blackboard, forcing him to go on expounding every week how you could start with a simple quest narrative and, by gradually twitching elements as it went along, arrive at the complex and entirely different story of Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s tale” — a story that still contains the excitement of the quest narrative that seeded it. What little I heard of all this was wholly fascinating.

As SFF seethes with ongoing revelations about serial harassers and predators; as publishing across the board reckons with deep-seated racial inequalities and biases thanks to the What Publishing Paid Me hashtag; in a year where we’ve already seen both the racefail and scandal around American Dirt and the functional implosion of the RWA due to systematic abuse and double standards around race, there is something both egregious and maddening about Tom Shippey’s decision to tell us all that the genre is only just now Grown Up. Worse still, he appears to think of fantasy as being functionally Eurocentric, claiming, in praise of Kozloff’s evidently European-inspired fantasy setting, that:

It is, however, a general rule in heroic fantasy that you have to combine two elements in your world-building. First, a medieval world, with swords and halberds, battles and executions, but along with it, a magic strain, spells and witches, amulets and curses.

If I don my most charitable glasses for the reading of this statement – if I squint just so – I can allow the construction of an argument to the effect that Shippey is simply trying to define fantasy as belonging to a pre-technological era where magic is also present; that the Eurocentric terms he uses to make this case are merely meant as examples and not his desired parameters. I can allow the creation of this argument, but I don’t for a second think it holds up; partly because it’s lazy and reductive as hell, as it ignores the many fantasy works which take place in more imaginative settings than this, but mostly because words have meanings, as any professor and professional critic should know. The history of mistaking the European for the universal – both in literature and elsewhere – is long and terrible enough that Shippey cannot possibly be unaware of it, and even if his invocation of it here were to be characterised as a “lapse” of some sort, that doesn’t excuse him for defaulting to it here.

Is it any wonder that marginalised writers of all stripes are frustrated with the state of SFF publishing in particular and literature in general, if Shippey is representative of what publications like the Wall Street Journal is looking for? In the words of exasperated Australians everywhere: mate, fucking spare me.

This is not a post I ever thought I’d be writing, and I certainly didn’t expect to be writing it now, when there’s so many terrible things going on in the world. But the SFF writing and publishing community is not an island: we impact and are impacted by the world in turn, and it’s because of this relationship that I’m speaking now. This is a small matter in comparison to the ongoing protests over the extrajudicial murder of George Floyd and the egregious police brutality with which those protests have been met, but it is still, to me, an important matter, as how the SFF community responds to racism and bigotry in other contexts will always relate to how it deals with internal gatekeeping. After what’s happened, I don’t feel that I can in good conscience continue to remain silent.

Last week, Dawn Frederick of Red Sofa Literary, who lives in Minneapolis, tweeted that she had called the police about “looters” at the gas station near her house in the wake of protests about the death of George Floyd. When other people pointed out that calling the police could potentially result in more violence towards Black people in particular – the Minneapolis protests were peaceful until police turned water cannons and rubber bullets on the crowd, precipitating the riots through a series of violent escalations – Fredrick doubled down in defense of her actions. When one of her agents, Kelly Van Sant, announced her resignation from the agency over the matter, Frederick posted a statement to the Red Sofa Literary website, insisting that there were “zero protesters” present at the gas station, just “straight up looters.” (How she could be certain there was no overlap between the two while watching from a distance is, presumably, unknown.)

Since then, two more Red Sofa agents, Amanda Rutter and Stacey Graham, have likewise resigned from Red Sofa in protest, while several of Frederick’s clients have dropped her. It was only after this that Frederick published a second statement, apologising for her actions; she has also deleted her twitter account. As as a result, I have seen many members of the SFF community debating whether or not the reaction Frederick received was proportional to her offence, with some asserting her credentials as a long-standing advocate for diversity in the SFF community as a reason why she has been treated unfairly.

It is for this reason that I have decided to speak publicly about my own past experiences with Dawn Frederick.

In 2014, I signed with Red Sofa Literary to be represented by Jennie Goloboy, an agent who subsequently left Red Sofa in 2017, not long after the events I am about to describe. While I don’t know for certain that what happened with me precipitated Jennie’s decision to leave Red Sofa, the timing of her departure has never struck me as being coincidental. At the very least, I suspect that what happened to me was a factor in her decision, and while I can’t say that my relationship with Jennie ended on good terms, I do believe that, at the end, her actions were severely constrained by Fredrick.

This is going to be a longish story, but the early details are important to the later context, and so I hope you’ll bear with me.

In December 2016, I received my edits for A Tyranny of Queens, the second novel in my Manifold Worlds duology, published with Angry Robot. As my original editor was unavailable at the time, a different editor had been brought on board, one who was also, coincidentally, an employee of Red Sofa. When the edits came in, I was upset to discover that the editor had made several problematic suggestions regarding diverse themes in the novel. In particular, she wanted me to use a different pronoun for a nonbinary character, stated that a neurodivergent character was insufficiently sympathetic because of their neurodivergence (“I love seeing that in a character, but it does make them very hard to present in a warm manner… It might be nice to present a little more of his confusion about how people interact, his fear… to assist with reader sympathy”), and said that giving the protagonist a notable PTSD symptom, after her PTSD is developed throughout the first book, was “a step too far,” describing the PTSD itself as something that should “be the focus of a whole novel” rather than a small subplot”.

I’m quoting these details now, not because I want to shame or attack the editor nearly four years after the fact – aside from anything else, it has always been my belief that these comments were the result of ignorance, not malice, and that the editor has since done active work to improve her understanding of these issues – but to explain why I was, at the time, both unhappy and stressed. I wrote an email to Jennie outlining my concerns, and later had a Skype conversation with her about it in greater detail: her response was, essentially, that everyone gets edits they disagree with sooner or later, and that I should just do my best. I didn’t feel as though this addressed the problems I was having, and I was additionally concerned that the editor being a fellow employee of Red Sofa was, if nothing else, putting Jennie in the awkward position of having her client complain about a colleague, but I was on deadline, so I set it aside and kept working on the book.

Four months later, in April 2017, fellow nonbinary writer JY Yang wrote a twitter thread about editorial pushback they’d received for using the singular they as their pronoun of choice for nonbinary characters, while also talking about how the personal blindspots of editors around issues of diversity is an element of gatekeeping in SFF publishing. Recalling what had happened with the editing on A Tyranny of Queens, and acting under the (as it turns out, incorrect) belief that Jennie had passed on my concerns to my editor back when I’d originally made them, I decided to chime in, piggybacking off Yang’s thread to share my experiences. I was careful not to name the editor, though I reiterated my belief that she was well-meaning. I hoped that my speaking up would help to further the conversation about diversity in publishing, and left it at that.

At this point, it’s important to note that, whereas Red Sofa Literary is based in Minneapolis, in 2017, I was living in Brisbane, Australia, meaning that Jennie and I were operating in very different timezones. As such – and as I’m a habitual night-owl – it wasn’t unusual for me to hear from Jennie in the evening. Even so, I was surprised and stressed to receive a DM from her after 1am my time, when I was already in bed and noodling around on my phone, saying that she wanted to talk about my tweets, which I’d posted earlier that day (my time). Our subsequent conversation went as follows:

jg tweets 1

jg tweets 2

 

At this point, I got out of bed, got dressed and went to Skype Jennie. I stated that, while I was sorry for causing upset, I didn’t think taking the tweets down would help, as traditionally, deleting tweets in the era of screenshots only tends to make an issue blow up. Jennie replied by saying that, to her, my tweets read like I was dissatisfied with Angry Robot and the final version of A Tyranny of Queens (I wasn’t), and that this was what she thought needed addressing.

And then my four-year-old stopped breathing.

More specifically, he started wheezing desperately, frighteningly for air, so loudly that I could hear him several rooms away. It woke my husband, who dashed in to look after him, and I have a very vivid memory of the last thing I said to Jennie on that call being a panicked, “I’m sorry, I have to go, my son isn’t breathing.” I shut the laptop on the Skype conversation and ran into my son’s room. He was terrified and struggling to breathe. We called an ambulance. The ambulance came, and determined the issue was serious enough to merit a hospital visit. I carried my son out to the ambulance at nearly 2am, and as I ducked my head to lift him in, I badly wrenched my lower back.

The EMTs injected him with steroids on the way to the hospital, and this did a lot to help his breathing. (He had croup; he’d had it before more than once, but never so badly, and not while he was old enough to understand what was happening.) Even so, we had to stay at the hospital for several hours to get him checked out properly. It was stressful and exhausting, both emotionally and physically, and sitting in a hard hospital chair made my back pain even worse. Still, there is not a lot to do in a hospital, and once the immediate danger had passed, I checked twitter to see what was happening. To my surprise, I found that the editor had replied to my tweets, identifying herself as their subject, apologising for her blind spots, and promising to do better in future. I was touched and pleased, and thanked her for her words, which I believe were sincere.

Eventually, at around 5am, my husband insisted I get a cab home and go to sleep, as he’d had several hours of rest to my none, and it looked like our son wouldn’t be discharged for a while yet. I did so, tweeting in the cab that I’d been in hospital and hurt my back, but that my son was okay. When I got home, I took some painkillers and got into bed, but before I fell asleep, I used my phone to send a quick email to my then publicist at Angry Robot, asking if the publisher was unhappy with me, apologising if I’d caused them any difficulties and offering to tweet a clarifying statement if they wished. Then, exhausted, I fell asleep, and stayed asleep for most of the day. I woke up a couple of times and glanced at my phone when I did so, but I was loopy on pain medication and didn’t really process anything beyond “shiny screen have words.”

It was late evening by the time I woke up properly, and when I did, I found I had an email from Dawn Frederick, head of the agency. The only other time I’d emailed with her directly had been when I signed my contract with Red Sofa. The tone of the email was blunt and aggressive. It read as follows:

Foz,

As you know, we’ve been trying to get ahold of you with the situation of the Tweets you wrote over 24 hours ago.  Jennie has tried to reach out to you repeated times, but alas it seems you’ve not gotten back in touch with her.

We need to talk. Not tomorrow. Today. I would appreciate 15 minutes of your time, I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Thanks in advance,

Dawn

Startled, I checked my twitter DMs and found that Jennie had sent me several messages while I’d been asleep:

jg tweets 3

At this point, I was starting to feel extremely anxious. Having already established both in writing and verbally with Jennie that I wouldn’t be taking the tweets down, I didn’t know what the rush to “resolve” things was, especially as she was aware of the trip to hospital. I emailed Dawn a reply, explaining why I hadn’t been available, but stating that I would get dressed and come to the computer if she wished to speak to me. When Dawn didn’t immediately reply, I hopped back into my DMs with Jennie, where we had the following exchange:

jg tweets 4

On the basis of this exchange, I stayed awake, believing that I would be skyping privately with Dawn. Instead, I ended up on a call with both Dawn and Jennie that ended up lasting nearly an hour.

And for almost the entirety of that hour, Dawn shouted at me.

It was the worst experience of my professional life. When I opened the call by trying to explain, once again, that I hadn’t been available because of the hospital incident, Dawn said, “This is not about [your son] right now.” (She did not ask if he was okay, though she made sure to tell me that, as Jennie is a mother and because Dawn likes kids, I couldn’t accuse them of being unsympathetic.)

At any time when I tried to talk, either to ask questions or to defend myself, I was shouted down. Jennie said very little, chiming in only once or twice: overwhelmingly, the person speaking (shouting) was Dawn. She told me that my professional conduct in tweeting about my editor was the worst she’d ever seen; that she had Trump-voting relatives in Tennessee with whom she managed to get along, so therefore I had no excuse for criticising my editor in public. She repeatedly claimed that what I done was bullying; that I was a bully. Over and over again, she said I had “thrown her [the editor] under the bus.” When I tried to say that the editor had apologised on twitter, she exploded at me that of course she had, what else could she be expected to do, when everyone knew she was being talked about? I expressed surprise at this, as I hadn’t identified her; Dawn claimed that “everyone knew”.

When Dawn said how unacceptable it was to raise the issues I’d had in public, out of nowhere, without giving the editor a chance to reply, I was baffled, pointing out that I’d clearly raised them with Jennie months earlier. Jennie said yes, but she hadn’t passed them on to the editor, as I hadn’t expressly asked for that to happen. (I’d assumed that, as my email had essentially culminated in me saying I didn’t want to work with that editor in the future, this would happen as a matter of course.)

Dawn then proceeded to tell me that Angry Robot was “furious” and wanted the tweets removed – so much so that they were considering pulling my book a week before it was due to launch. She said that Red Sofa was one of the most author-friendly agencies in the business, “and if you can’t work with us…” she said meaningfully, leaving the sentence hanging so as to imply that, if they dropped me, I would have no future in SFF at all. Dawn accused me repeatedly of lying about the fact that I’d been asleep earlier in the day, saying that she “knew” I’d emailed Angry Robot and therefore had clearly been awake and ignoring Jennie’s messages. Any time I tried to advocate for myself, I was told to stop speaking or risk being dropped by Red Sofa , as she “[didn’t] want to represent that.”

At one point, she tried to frame my criticism of the editor as an un-feminist act, something I should’ve known better than to engage in, “because we’re all women here.”

“Excuse me,” I said, “but I’m genderqueer.”

Dawn made a scoffing noise. “That’s not what this is about.”

(It kind of was, actually, what with the editor wanting to change the nonbinary pronouns I’d used, but when I tried to mention this, Jennie asserted I’d never brought them up with her at all. Ironically, though I’d originally mentioned this as one of my issues while drafting my December email, I’d ended up taking it out of the final version, worried at being seen as hypersensitive about gender identity. Instead, I’d raised it with her verbally when we’d Skyped about the email, which she said she didn’t remember. I tried to argue that being genderqueer was part of my lived experience, something might know less about than me in this instance, but Dawn became angry at the implied criticism. “Of course we believe in diversity! We wouldn’t have signed you otherwise!”)

At one point, Dawn’s shouting was loud enough to wake my husband, who was asleep in the other room. (It was approaching midnight our time by then.) He wandered in, an appalled look on his face at what he was hearing, but he was just as tired as I was, so I gestured for him to go back to bed. At another point, I tried to suggest that there was a conflict of interest in Dawn and Jennie advocating so strongly for the editor, who was also a Red Sofa employee, despite the fact that I was a Red Sofa client; Dawn became absolutely furious at this, denying it completely, and yelled me back into silence.

In the end, Dawn gave me an ultimatum. I had twenty-four hours to post an apology to the editor, or Red Sofa would drop me as a client.

When the call ended, I was numb and shaking. (I’m shaking now as I write this.) I rested, inasmuch as I was able to rest, and then I wrote the apology. Posted it. Received confirmation from Dawn and Jennie that they approved, and that I could keep my representation.

I was still deeply shaken, but by that time, I’d calmed down enough to realise that I still hadn’t heard anything directly from my then publisher at Angry Robot. The publicist I’d emailed, however, had responded, and their (friendly, courteous) email implied Red Sofa had been the ones to contact Angry Robot, and not the other way around. This was confusing, as it seemed to go against what Dawn had told me on the Skype call, so after consulting with an excellent, level-headed writer friend, I tentatively reached out to the publisher to get their take on things.

To my relief, the publisher happily agreed to speak to me. Unlike the call to Red Sofa, my Skype with Angry Robot was calm and professional – and extremely enlightening.

According to the publisher, it was indeed Red Sofa who reached out to Angry Robot about my tweets, something they apparently did before I ever received my first DM from Jennie. Not only that, but Red Sofa also didn’t tell Angry Robot about my December email, letting the publisher believe that my comments about the editor had, indeed, come out of nowhere. The publisher’s understanding of things was that Dawn and the editor were Facebook friends: having seen my tweets, the editor had posted privately to Facebook about how upset she was, as she’d been proud of her work on the book (it was also, apparently, her birthday, which I hadn’t known). Dawn had been so incensed on the editor’s behalf that she’d gone straight to contacting Angry Robot, reassuring them that she would “get to the bottom of it.” The publisher also confirmed that, while they’d been a bit miffed about the tweets, they hadn’t asked for them to be taken down, nor had they ever been going to pull A Tyranny of Queens. I thanked the publisher for taking the time to talk to me – they were gracious, calm and forthcoming – and we ended the call on mutually good terms.

It was at this point that I looked back over my original DMs with Jennie and noted, with a certain painful irony, that almost the first thing I’d said to her was that I didn’t want to be shouted at. I hadn’t actually thought that Jennie would shout at me; I’ve just had enough hot-tempered, unreasonable bosses in my officeworker life that my anxiety wanted me to make sure it wouldn’t happen. My mental health, at the time, was garbage, something I’d also discussed with Jennie in the past. I felt vile: maybe Jennie hadn’t shouted at me, but she hadn’t stopped Dawn from doing so, either – but then, Dawn was her boss, and had clearly given her little to no say in the situation, either.

Up until this incident, I’d never had a single negative experience with Red Sofa, which was part of why the whole thing was so jarring. It was the first time I’d done anything to make the agency unhappy with me, and Dawn reacted so violently that even now, years later, just seeing her name crop up when I’m not expecting it gives me a sharp adrenaline spike and leaves my hands trembling.

I’m still not sure how much I blame Jennie for what happened, because the truth is, I don’t know the extent to which Dawn, as her then-boss, was dictating her actions. But knowing that they’d lied to me about Angry Robot’s role in things, and feeling strongly that Jennie hadn’t been advocating for me as a client, I didn’t feel I could trust either of them going forward. As such, I dropped Jennie as my agent and Red Sofa as my agency, though it still remains the agency of record for my Manifold World duology.

Three years later in 2020, I still don’t have a new agent. I’ve got plenty of works in progress, but I don’t have anything finished that I can shop around, and part of the reason for that – aside from yet another international move, parenting a small child, and dealing with a series of health issues, both physical and mental – is that, ever since my experience with Red Sofa, I haven’t felt as though I’m welcome in the SFF industry. I’ve been demotivated, struggling to push myself to finish a first draft, because what’s the point? How can I belong in an industry that doesn’t want me to speak up when I encounter something terrible?

Because that’s the real crux of it; that’s why my experience with Dawn and Red Sofa has felt so catastrophic. It’s not just that I encountered a horrible person who treated me badly in a professional context; it’s that the culture of silence in SFF is such that, when I spoke privately to colleagues about what happened with Dawn, even when people were horrified by her actions, their overwhelming consensus was that speaking about it publicly would risk me being seen as a problem author, someone nobody would want to represent in the future, and that I’d be setting my career on fire – in other words, making myself exactly as unrepresentable as Dawn had said I was, because if you can’t work with us… 

Since leaving Red Sofa, I’ve spoken to and heard about other former clients who have also had negative experiences with Dawn, and who have likewise been advised to keep quiet about it. And perhaps I would’ve stayed quiet, too, but after this past week, I feel it’s important to make it clear what kind of person she can be behind the scenes. I have no evidence for the claim that Dawn’s treatment of me resulted in Jennie switching agencies, but I suspect it was a motivating factor, and on that basis, knowing how willing she was to muscle in and take over from one of her own agents, I’d be deeply unsurprised if it turned out that Van Sant, Graham and Rutter all had additional, pre-existing reasons for wanting to leave Red Sofa in addition to Dawn’s tweets. I don’t say this to take away from the significance of three white agents choosing to depart on the basis of their support for the Black Lives Matter movement – that is a powerful statement, and something to be applauded. But as I’m already seeing their actions described as hypersensitive and disproportionate, I think it’s important to consider that, when something like this happens, it’s never just about a single thing said publicly, but about everything that has preceded it in private.

I don’t know what the future holds for Red Sofa Literary, but I wish Van Sant, Graham and Rutter all the best in finding new agency positions, and hope likewise that Dawn’s former clients find new and better representation. In speaking now, my intention isn’t to take attention away from the protests over the death of George Floyd, but rather to add my voice to the conversation around how real-world politics and actions continue to impact gatekeeping in SFF publishing.

Update, 1 June 2020, 7:00pm: 

Since publishing this piece, I’ve been privately contacted by another former Red Sofa agent, one who was with the agency during the period when I was represented by Jennie. With their permission, I’m sharing the message they sent me:

Hey, I wanted to say thank you so much for writing about Dawn. I’m horrified you had to go through that. I’m not sure if this is worth adding to your account, but both Jennie and Dawn, separately, communicated to me that your tweets had come out of nowhere (with no mention of the email), painting you as unreasonable, over-sensitive, and maybe even unstable. They didn’t even tell me about the Skype call. Only about a “polite ask” and you blowing up at them. I apologize for my part in this, in accepting their stories a face value. If there’s anything I can do to help and support you, please let me know. You’re brave and strong and you belong in SFF, and have more friends and power in the community than dawn ever did. One thing I’m certain of is that they didn’t tell people beyond the agency their version of events, so I’m confident you weren’t smeared anywhere.

In other words, not only was I lied about to Angry Robot, but also to other members of the Red Sofa staff. During the Skype conversation I had with Jennie following my original December email about the editorial issues, it was clear that she didn’t take my complaints seriously; that was frustrating at the time, but it’s even more so now to learn that I was being characterised as potentially unstable for raising those issues in the first place.

Update, 1 June 2020, 7:30pm:

Also with permission, I’m sharing this additional account of Dawn’s behaviour, which was sent to me privately by another former Red Sofa author:

I am so sorry Dawn put you through that. I had my own, but not nearly so awful experience with her. Shortish version: I had a different Red Sofa agent. Things started off fine, but a couple months into submission, the agent seemed to zone out. She’d give me contradictory info about editor replies, or she simply dropped into a black hole. When I got a R&R from Harper Voyager, I sent my agent the revised ms. but she never replied. I told her I needed her to be better about communication, and if that wasn’t possible, we needed to talk. The next thing I knew, Dawn emailed me, all shouty, saying the agency policy was to give updates only twice a year, and if I didn’t like that, she’d fire me as a client. I bit my tongue because…middle of submissions and all that. The book and its sequel sold, but my agent got more and more flaky. I finally parted ways with them, but Dawn was also a major part of my decision.

Warning: total spoilers for both Knives Out and Ready or Not

Periodically in Hollywood, I’m never quite sure why, it so happens that two films with strikingly similar themes are released within months of each other. Such is the case with Ready or Not and Knives Out, which hit cinemas in August and November 2019 respectively: a pair of blackly comedic yet emotionally affecting genre films whose shared, central thesis is that rich people are the literal goddamn worst. Each film follows a female protagonist of humble origins – Grace (Samara Weaving) in Ready or Not, Marta (Ana de Armas) in Knives Out – who finds herself the target of a rich family when events beyond her control see her cast as a threat to their power. She must then survive their attempts to remove her – quite literally, in Grace’s case – while figuring out which family members, if any, she can trust to help.

Of the two films, Ready or Not is undeniably the darker. Equal parts black comedy and survival horror, we’re introduced to Grace on her wedding day, when marriage to fiance Alex (Mark O’Brien) will see her join the La Domas gaming “dominion,” as the family call it. However, as part of her initiation into their number, Grace must join her new relatives for a midnight gathering on her wedding night. Forced to draw a card from a mysterious box as per the legacy of Mr Le Bail, their historic benefactor, Grace must play whatever game her card names – but when she draws Hide and Seek, the rules abruptly change. Now, in accordance with a demonic pact forged by their great-grandfather, the La Domas family must hunt and kill Grace before sunrise, or else risk death themselves. What follows is a tense hunt through the La Domas mansion, as the family – by turns brutal, bumbling, selfish and sociopathic – attempt to eliminate Grace, who must scramble to survive.

By comparison, Knives Out is much lighter viewing, yet shares the central conceit of a rich family whose wealth comes from success in the entertainment industry: in this case, the murder mystery novels of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), whose apparent suicide the night of his 85th birthday is nonetheless being investigated by a whimsical private investigator, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Originally hired to be Harlan’s nurse, our heroine, Marta, soon became his friend, too: a refuge from his backbiting, selfish descendants. His esteem for her was such that Harlan made her the sole heir of his estate; but when a fatal mix-up with Harlan’s medications made it possibly for Marta to be held accountable for his death, thereby voiding his will, he went to the extreme of committing suicide to protect her, leaving Marta – who cannot lie without throwing up – to weather the aftermath alone, avoiding both the suspicions of Blanc and the ire of the Thrombey family.

In both films, the means by which the families originally became rich – horror games and murder mysteries – are echoed in the plot structure, creating a neat genre parallel. Similarly, both films have their respective protagonists emerge alive and triumphant: Grace survives, albeit bloodied and battered, while Marta is exonerated and claims her grand inheritance. Each final scene involves the heroine in front of the mansion in which the bulk of the film has taken place: while Grace sits on the steps of burning La Domas home, Marta stands on the balcony of the Thrombey estate, looking down on its former inhabitants.

Thematically, I’d argue that Knives Out is the more ambitious film, in that it attempts a more complex understanding of race, class and privilege: Marta, her mother and sister are undocumented immigrants, and for all that the lily-white Thrombeys claim to love Marta as part of the family, she is constantly subjected to their microaggressions. A prime example is the failure of any Thrombey to know her country of origin, which is variously stated to be Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador and Brazil. However, while this “joke” is clearly meant to highlight the Thrombeys’ racism rather than being at Marta’s expense, the fact that the audience is left to share their ignorance, with her real nationality never being confirmed, unintentionally suggests that it doesn’t actually matter – which attitude is why the Thrombeys get it wrong in the first place.

By the same token, and as much as I enjoyed seeing Daniel Craig chewing the scenery as Benoit Blanc, my one critique of the film is the inescapable feeling that writer/director Rian Johnson, who is white, has gone so far out of his way to paint Marta as a “good” Hispanic that, by having Blanc speak for her at critical moments, he robs her of both her agency and her anger. The fact that Marta can’t lie without vomiting makes for a clever plot detail, as she’s constantly required to bend the truth in creative ways to avoid detection, and yet it also feels like an exaggerated way to reassure the (white) audience that Marta is an exceptionally good person. Similarly, at the climax of the film, we learn that Harlan’s grandson Ransom (Chris Evans) is ultimately responsible for the medical mix-up, not Marta – he knew she’d been named sole heir and wanted to frame her for murder, so that she’d be disinherited under the slayer rule. As such, there’s a moment where Marta, who still doesn’t know her own innocence, is ready to confess and apologise to the Thrombeys, even though they’ve been abusing and harassing her: a true angelic act. It’s Blanc who, having realised the truth, swoops in and yells at them on her behalf, pointing out how awfully they’ve been treating her – and as much as Marta’s goodness is central to the plot, I can’t help feeling that the story would’ve been stronger if she was allowed to be both good and angry, caring and assertive.

To be clear: I think Marta is a fantastic character, and I love that, even in a cut-throat, murder mystery setting, her inherent goodness and kindness are allowed to win out. However, given how overtly the film discusses race and racism as a factor in her mistreatment – which is firmly to its credit – I can’t help feeling that Johnson has shied away from doing anything that might risk Marta being even a little bit unsympathetic. When Harlan comes up with his harebrained scheme to commit suicide and thereby “save” her – a gambit that ultimately turns out to have been unnecessary – the narrative implication is that Marta is correct to play along because Harlan told her to; her agency in evading capture is “permitted” because it was sanctioned by him. That she’s also trying to protect her family – their undocumented status will be discovered if she’s arrested – should be a valid motive all by itself, and yet she’s still ultimately willing to risk their safety to come clean to the Thrombeys at the end, because she feels she owes it to them.

In my perfect version of the film, Marta is allowed to be angry at how she’s been treated; allowed to resent being shut out of the funeral, constantly called “kiddo” and then pressured to give up the inheritance. Instead of Blanc calling out the Thrombeys, I would’ve loved to see her speak for herself in that moment, and then to have it revealed that she was innocent all along – instead of, once again, having a powerful white, male character step in to validate her existence. (It also rankles that Blanc is repeatedly situated as being smarter and better informed than the actual detective assigned to the case, who happens to be black.)

That being said, the class criticism in Knives Out is otherwise spectacular. Having first established the Thrombey family as being split along political lines – some are far right, others more left-leaning – Johnson then makes clear that their real political allegiance is to money. When Marta is named sole heir, suddenly the family closes ranks against her, and while the most liberal Thrombey, Meg (Katherine Langford) is emotionally manipulated by her mother, Joni (Toni Collette) into helping them get dirt on Marta – Joni says that they won’t be able to afford Meg’s college anymore if Marta inherits, conveniently omitting the fact that her own embezzlement of Harlan’s funds is the reason why they were cut out in the first place – it still matters that she chooses money over principle. And all along, we’re treated to Ransom, who’s been the black sheep of the family for years, getting close to Marta and pretending to be on her side, because even though he hates the other Thrombeys, he still loves money foremost and is desperate to claim his share.

By contrast, the family wealth in Ready or Not is depicted as being, both literally and figuratively, blood money. Ever since their great-grandfather made his pact with the demonic Le Bail, the La Domas clan have murdered anyone who violates the established rules. Refusing to play the midnight game at your wedding is just as much a death sentence as drawing the Hide and Seek card, and at one particularly brutal moment, we see Grace fall into the literal charnel-house where the bodies of dissenters are thrown. Indeed, the film opens with a haunting flashback to the last time Hide and Seek was played, as Alex and brother Daniel (Adam Brody), then children, run through the house as their aunt’s new husband is hunted down. After stashing Alex in a wardrobe, Daniel is approached by the bleeding groom, begging for help, and in a moment of childlike terror calls out “He’s in here!” to his family, resulting in the man’s capture and ultimate ritual sacrifice. “I’m so proud of you,” his mother says; a scene later echoed between Alex’s sister Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) and her own young son, who confesses to having shot Grace in the hand because he was trying to copy the grownups.

An alcoholic, Daniel has clearly lived a haunted life, for all that he’s never stood up to his family; his wife Charity (Elyse Levesque) is far more bloodthirsty. Like Joni Thrombey, she married into her wealthy clan, and having endured an upbringing implied to consist of extreme poverty, violence or both, is willing to do anything to keep her comfortable life. Throughout the film, Daniel alternates between apathy and resignation, not wanting to kill Grace himself but not quite able to let her go, either – right up until the very end, when he works to set her free and is shot and killed by Charity for his troubles. In a terrible parallel, it ends up being Alex who finally recaptures Grace: having worked throughout the whole film to try and free her, once he realises that she’ll never stay with him after what she’s endured, he echoes the fateful line of his brother and nephew and calls his family: “She’s in here!”

Though Ready or Not is class-critical, in that it explicitly situates wealthy people as being amoral assholes who’ll do anything to hang onto their money, no matter how heinous, it also uses the deaths of three maids – two of whom, Tina (Celine Tsai) and Dora (Daniela Barbosa) are women of colour – as part of its dark comedy. Both Tina and Clara (Hanneke Talbot) are killed by Emilie, who’s so coked up that she accidentally shoots them both (in separate instances) and has to be comforted by her parents. Dora, discovered hiding in a dumbwaiter by Grace, immediately tries to turn her over on learning that Grace is who the family wants; she then ends up crushed when the doors close on her torso. This cavalier treatment of their bodies as disposable, comic props isn’t mitigated by the fact that Grace, like them, doesn’t come from money: we’re told that she grew up in foster homes and – tragically, given the plot – has always wanted to join a family. At the same time, the stark difference between how the family treats the bodies of the maids and the bodies of their own is meant to emphasise their cruelty: as patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny) says to Grace, anyone not a La Domas is just another “goat” for the sacrifice.

It also helps that, by the end of the film, every single La Domas has died: after a brief moment of comedic uncertainty on the issue, it turns out that Le Bail has been real all along, and when dawn comes with Grace still alive, she watches – bloody, shocked and laughing – as her surviving in-laws explode, one by one. It’s gory and hilarious, especially when a frantic Alex, the last to be left alive, tries to plead with Grace for a reconciliation, telling her that she changed him for the better and that therefore, he must get to live; she watches, nonplussed, as he explodes all over her, then takes his mother’s beautiful cigarette case and goes out to smoke in front of the now-burning mansion.

In both films, the message is clear: until or unless you’re truly considered “one of the family,” the obscenely rich are only your friend if they can securely think of you as a lesser human being. Only fellow family members are equals, and therefore entitled to family protection: get in the way of that logic – either by inheriting ahead of them or invoking the murderous clause of an ancient demonic pact – and they’ll come after you with knives out, ready or not. For all that I’ve nitpicked parts of both films, they’re two of the best offerings I’ve seen in their respective genres in recent years, and if you’ve got the time, I highly recommend watching them as a double feature.

Warning: significant spoilers for Docile

Trigger warning: talk of rape, sexual assault and sexual slavery

In a near-future Baltimore, Maryland where all debts are generationally inherited, 21-year-old Elisha Wilder sneaks away from his impoverished family to auction off their collective 3 million dollars of debt by becoming a Docile – a debtor who sells their labour to a rich individual or corporation, called a Patron, for a set term. Most Dociles choose to take Dociline, a drug developed by Bishop Laboratories, which renders them pliant, happy drones for the duration of their service, and which, once their time is up, leaves them with no memories of the experience. As such, a great many Dociles are used for sex by their Patrons: their sexual health is a guaranteed right, but their sexual autonomy is not. But Elisha, whose mother continues to act like an on-med Docile years after her own term of service ended, intends to refuse Dociline. The only trouble is, his Patron is Alex Bishop: the heir to Bishop Laboratories, whose family is pressuring him to prove that he can publicly manage a Docile as a prelude to taking over the company – and without Dociline to help keep Elisha in line, Alex resorts to other methods of control.

K.M. Szpara’s Docile is a complex, incredibly pacy book about which I nonetheless have mixed feelings. At first blush, it’s a gripping, emotional, highly accomplished debut that I finished in a single sitting: a queer rebuke of capitalism whose central thesis is an investigation of debt slavery, autonomy and consent. And yet, the more I probe at it, the more that thesis is undermined by holes in the worldbuilding; a mixture of glaring omissions and smaller slips that sit less easily with me the longer I have to think about them. At the same time, Docile is also an unapologetically sexual book, which I think is to its credit: in addition to putting queerness front and centre, it doesn’t flinch from portraying the emotional complexities and power imbalances of Elisha and Alex’s relationship, and makes a point of showing how sex is a part of that.

As someone whose primary exposure to queer romance and erotica comes via fanfic, seeing what I’ve come to think of as fanfic tropes appear in traditionally published SFF works is still a slightly weird (but ultimately satisfying) experience. When it comes to particular tropes, however, I’ve discovered that there are things I’ll happily read about in fanfic which I struggle to enjoy in other mediums, not because of any difference in the quality of the writing or level of darkness involved, but because the knowledge that a thing is fic as opposed to canon allows me to process it differently. Partly, this is the result of tagging, which works to reassure me that the author knows the dynamic or context they’re writing is fucked up and is exploring those themes on purpose; but mostly, it’s that fic, for me, exists at an extra level of remove from reality. A dark fic about a particular pairing isn’t the defining story of their relationship; it’s just one extrapolation among many. If it makes me uncomfortable, I don’t have to invest in it, because a plethora of other, gentler stories about the same characters coexist alongside it. And no matter how good or bad they may be, I don’t have to pass critical judgement on the themes and worldbuilding of such stories, because that’s what the canon is for: the fic is an escape from that, which means that I’m primarily here for the feelings.

But when the same tropes appear in an original, canon story, I can’t turn off the analytical part of my brain that wants to poke and probe at the background details, the rules of the setting, and judge how well they work. I have a greater desire for the narrative to justify its logic and decisions, because there’s no pre-existing enjoyment of a separate, existing story to act as a Because Reasons shortcut for accepting why these particular characters are being treated a certain way, or why their world functions as it does. To take some classic fanfic AU examples, when I’m browsing my way through AO3, I don’t need an in-depth explanation for how magic can openly exist in the real world, or a treatise on why every human person is either a sub, dom or switch, or a set of detailed biological diagrams to explain a particular version of A/B/O in order to enjoy a story, even if the writer feels moved to provide such information. Because it’s fanfic, I’m happy just to accept that The Setting Is Like This, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense, and to focus instead on the characters. But in an original work – and especially in a work of SFF – those other details are vital: they’re the lens through which I’m meeting the characters for the first time, and therefore integral to understanding them properly. If the world or the plot is inconsistent, it can make the characters feel inconsistent – and that, in turn, impacts my ability to invest in them.

With all that being understood: Docile is a story about sexual slavery. For many people, this is, quite reasonably, a hard limit, and one I’ve discussed before, when reviewing C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy. Though structured like a romance, with different chapters showing us the first person POVs of Elisha and Alex respectively, the ending isn’t a HEA; nonetheless, the main sexual, emotional relationship is functionally master/slave, and while that’s not the Patron/Docile terminology used in the book, that’s functionally what it is. That the vast majority of the book is spent interrogating the fuckedupedness of this relationship in particular and the nature of consent in general is certainly important – tags or no tags, Szpara understands exactly what he’s writing about, to the extent that the book itself has a trigger warning on the back cover – but even so, that doesn’t obligate anyone to be comfortable with it.

In order to control Elisha without Dociline, Alex establishes rules for Elisha’s behaviour. For his own sexual and aesthetic benefit, he also decides what clothes Elisha wears, gives him a set exercise regime and personal trainer, has him learn to cook and determines what food he should eat, sees him tutored in piano, history and languages, and – of course – teaches him what he wants in bed. If Elisha disobeys, there are three types of punishment: writing lines, kneeling on rice for a set amount of time, and confinement. Throw this all together, and what develops is an inevitable Pygmalion situation: without understanding the full consequences of his actions, Alex brainwashes Elisha into being his perfect boyfriend, someone who is wholly dependent on him in every way, and doesn’t realise what he’s done until he starts wanting Elisha to interact with him autonomously and finds that he can’t. That Alex doesn’t set out to break Elisha doesn’t exonerate him in the narrative: his initial callousness to Elisha’s situation is what causes him to set the rules in the first place. It’s only when Elisha fully becomes his creation that Alex cares enough to see him as a person and, consequently, to be horrified by how broken that personhood is.

As such, I’d argue that this section of the book is – at least in part – a thinly-veiled rebuke of the toxic BDSM “romance” in E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Like Anastasia, Elisha is a subby virgin whose body and life are fully controlled by a dominating rich man; but unlike James, Szpara is fully aware that this is an extremely imbalanced, unhealthy dynamic that doesn’t magically become acceptable because the parties have feelings for one another. Unlike Christian Grey, when Alex finally realises what he’s done to Elisha, he’s appalled with himself. He pays Elisha’s contract in full and sends him home – but Elisha, still brainwashed, doesn’t want to go and is devastated to think himself rejected by the man who’s become the centre of his world. What follows is a protracted, emotional aftermath: after a near catastrophe, Alex realises that, even though he’s the one who damaged Elisha, he’s done so in such a way that he can’t simply expect him to heal in his absence. Along with members of Empower Maryland, an anti-Dociline activist group, Alex tries to help Elisha recover – but when the Bishop family realises what he’s doing, Alex winds up in his powerful father’s crosshairs, leading to a climactic showdown in court.

Without wanting to spoil the novel in its entirety, Szpara does an excellent job of showing how Elisha and Alex come to reconcile. The ending between them isn’t romantic – which I think is the right decision – but it ends in a place of catharsis, with the potential for change in the future. A major part of why this works is the narrative acknowledgement that trauma, desire and identity are fundamentally complicated. Elisha knows that what Alex did to him was wrong, but he also can’t stop being the person who had those experiences, nor would it be healthy to hate his new self just because of its genesis. Instead, he has to negotiate: to figure out who he is on his own terms while still accepting aspects of his identity – his sexually submissive nature, his love of music – that Alex brought to the surface. Elisha doesn’t have to know with 100% certainty which parts of him are untouched by Alex and which are not; the more important thing is to like himself, to have autonomy, and to have that autonomy respected by those around him. Alex, in turn, has to learn about the blinkered nature of his privileged upbringing: how his staggering naivety has done harm not only to Elisha, but to others in his life, and how throwing money at a problem isn’t the same as understanding why it exists in the first place.

This is the heart of Docile, and the overwhelming strength of the book. The emotional intimacy of the narrative, the excellent pacing and the real engagement with questions of consent, identity and autonomy make it a fascinating read, and one I wish I could recommend without any reservations.

But.

The thing I cannot get past – the thing I kept expecting to find throughout the book, but which never appeared, and which I think is a baffling elision in a story of this nature – is the fact that actual American slavery isn’t mentioned. Not ever. Not even once. A story about slavery in near-future Baltimore – a story which features multiple black characters, many of them anti-Dociline advocates – doesn’t mention black slavery. I understand that debt slavery is not traditionally motivated by the same appalling racism that underscored the trans-Atlantic slave trade (though it can still exist within racist paradigms, as happens with a lot of people-smuggling), but the two concepts are still related, especially when it comes to the functional sale of bodies, and I can’t believe that no character mentions it at all.

Especially given that the alternative to being a Docile is ending up in debtor’s prison, the threat of which motivates Elisha to sell himself in the first place, it’s striking that the fate of such prisoners isn’t ever explained in text, either. Given that modern American prisons are literally run as businesses, with prisoners often working for a pittance to make innumerable goods for the American market – another toxic facet of the captialism Szpara is rebuking, which ensures that paid workers in those fields can’t compete with what is effectively slave labour – the lack of explanation about what they do in the world of Docile niggles. I don’t believe there’s any accurate way to discuss intergenerational poverty, debt and incarceration in modern or near-future America that doesn’t include an analysis of race and the systematic racism with which slavery was replaced, and as such, its absence from the text felt not only glaring, but broke my immersion in the worldbuilding.

In establishing how the world of Docile came to be, there is no mention of existing debt slavery; of how fines and fees are already used as a means to incarcerate poor Americans who are overwhelmingly POC. There is no mention of plantations or sharecropping (although we see that Dociles are used for manual labour), no mention of white supremacy (although the majority of the hyper-rich characters are white), no mention of the history of human trafficiking (although this is how debt-slavery frequently manifests itself in the modern world, with workers shipped overseas and promised jobs, only to find their wages increasingly garnished to “pay” for the cost of their transport, lodging and innumerable other things, thus keeping them from becoming independent). The only historical precedent given in-narrative for the Docile system comes from ancient Roman history.

Elisha only has an eighth grade education; Alex has been raised by bigoted trillionaires who view their wealth as deserved. As Szpara never states how far in the future Docile takes place, it would be wholly consistent with the existing narrative to establish – even if only in passing, via something said by a secondary character – that the history of slavery is no longer properly taught, leaving the reader to infer that neither of the protagonists understands the historical legacy of the system to which they now belong. The idea of this history being suppressed, leading to the cyclic perpetuation of an old wound, would’ve made the book a thousand times more powerful without any need to change the central narrative. But to include multiple black activist characters who never once mention real slavery while talking about their fight against fictional slavery? To include a diverse cast, but not explore race or racism as a factor in class and poverty, or to even so much as hint at explaining why that analysis might be absent in a crapsack captialist future that is otherwise extrapolated from our present reality? Feels bad, Scoob.

The lack of discussion around race feels most salient in the case of a black Docile, Onyx, who we eventually learn is only pretending to be on Docilium in order to spy on trillionaires who won’t guard their mouths around him. When Elisha finally starts to break free of Alex’s brainwashing, it’s Onyx who helps him safely start to explore his sexuality, identity, submission and autonomy, which means that the two talk a lot about boundaries and stress. In order to uphold his cover as an on-med, Onyx has been having public sex with other Dociles and Patrons, and while the story doesn’t go deep into the practicalities of this performance in any case, it feels like both a misstep and a missed opportunity that Onyx never mentions the personal, racial implications of being a black man feigning slavery to an audience of mostly white Patrons. Given how gross and dehumanising the trillionaire class is portrayed to be towards their Dociles, I find it inconceivable that racism never enters the mix – however far in the future the story is meant to be set, it doesn’t seem remotely far enough for racism to be so long a thing of the past as to never be mentioned – and yet, it never does.

The other such omission, which feels less charged than the issue of race while still being significant, is the lack of any reference to any religion, particularly Christianity. In a future America where Dociles are used as sex slaves, it completely breaks my suspension of disbelief that nowhere, not even in passing, is there any reference to Evangelical protests about sin and immorality, or how faiths of any kind reacts to the Docile system, and I cannot help but view this as a failing. Again, I’m not asking for the central narrative to be overhauled: it’s just that, in a setting which is meant to be politically and socially derived from the USA at present, in all its megachurch-having, faith-based political glory, it feels like a hole in the story.

There are other issues with the worldbuilding, too. Why, for instance, is there seemingly a practice of putting children and young adults into the Docile system? At the start of the novel, Elisha sells the family’s debt in part to stop his thirteen-year-old sister from having to do so; but given that Dociles are so often used as sex slaves, the uncomfortable implication is that paedophilia is an established part of the system. Similarly, we learn of two characters who were on Docile from ages 7 to 12, and who’ve been in therapy as adults to deal with the trauma of it. But how can children that young, even Docile, be expected to sell their labour? What could they actually do at that age to work off the debt? And given that Docilium leaves you with no memories of your time spent taking it, how would this impact child users, who’d presumably “awaken” to their former mental age once going off-med instead of developing normally? This feels like it should be a much bigger aspect of the novel – a foundational grievance against the Docile system for the Empower Maryland activists, if no-one else – and yet it’s never mentioned except in passing, as though the reader should be horrified by it, but not curious about how it actually works.

With all of these issues already in place, smaller gripes become magnified. Why does Alex sign Elisha to a lifetime contract when he’s only getting a Docile under duress and clearly doesn’t want one long-term? How is the sexual health of Dociles protected, as we’re told it is under law, when they’re sexually shared with each other and their Patrons instead of being sexually exclusive? Why, when Elisha’s mother’s ongoing Docile condition is so central to the plot, is her case the only one of its kind we encounter, instead of being one of many? Why is thirty years of continuous, 24-hour Docile labour seen as a generous contract for paying off a 3 million dollar debt, when this works out to an annual salary of $100k? Even with living expenses paid for by the Patron, this doesn’t seem like a good exchange. What other jobs exist, or don’t, and how does the Docile system change their availability?

Similarly, the fact that queerness wasn’t overtly discussed in the narrative, only depicted as normative, struck me as being oddly unsatisfying, given the context. Returning to the issue of my differing standards for worldbuilding in original content vs fanfic, I’ve enjoyed endless fics where everyone is happily out and queer in settings where, realistically, the opposite is true, and never raised an eyebrow, because the how and why of those stories is vastly less important to me than the characterisation. At the same time, I don’t believe that depicting homophobia or overtly discussing queerness is necessary to establish realism even in stories set in the present day, let alone the near future. But Docile is explicitly meant to be a dystopian rebuke of capitalism, and one of the weirder aspects of being a queer person living in a capitalist society that’s slowly being dragged, kicking and screaming, into queer acceptance, is watching things like pride events and rainbow decorations suddenly being monetised by corporations who, not so long ago, went out of their way to avoid being seen as For The Gays.

It left me wondering: how, then, is queerness marketed, perceived and understood in the world of Docile, and how would this intersect with other aspects of identity that the book doesn’t tell us about, but which must logically exist? We’re told explicitly that things still suck for disabled people, for instance: aside from medical debt and widespread poverty, Patrons are responsible for paying for medical care for their Dociles, which makes it much, much harder for those who disclose a chronic illness or disability to find good contracts. So if prejudice still demonstrably exists in the setting, then why don’t we hear about it otherwise, even when it must clearly impact the characters? Why are the awful Bishop family, who value lineage and legacy above all else, more concerned with Alex finding a man to marry or a Docile to manage than with his producing an heir? Where are the hypocritical conservatives protesting that having gay sex with Dociles is against god’s law while simultaneously arguing that the hetero alternative is just fine, because something something Old Testament concubines something? And why, when it’s clear that Dociles are treated like objects by their Patrons, do we never hear about the handful of rights they’re granted being abused or broken? Even if Dociles technically have the right to refuse Dociline, what’s to stop a Patron from forcibly injecting them and then bribing or blackmailing not to report it the next time they check in with their caseworker? The premise left me with dozens of similar questions, and while I wouldn’t expect to see all of them answered, the more social elements were left absent or unexamined in text, the more I wondered why the book was set in America at all.

I can understand Szpara wanting to have a tight narrative focus on capitalism as a metaphoric vehicle for discussing bodily consent; I can also understand his wanting to tread carefully around issues of race, faith and culture. If Docile were a work of fanfiction, I wouldn’t care nearly as much about everything he’d left out or the details that don’t make sense, because I’d already have a pre-existing, canonical context in which to situate the characters. An AU setting would be understood foremost as an excuse to explore a specific relationship in a new way, with no need to be self-supporting otherwise. But when you tell me that a story is set in a near-future America, that implies the use of our present reality as a starting point – and if major aspects of that reality are absent from the worldbuilding without any explanation, while other details stand out as being weird or contradictory, then I’m going to find it hard to buy in to the premise.

The Hunger Games is technically set in America, but in a future so distant that there’s no need to connect it to our present, let alone any deeper history, in order for it to stand on its own. The alt-reality TV show Kings was intended as a clear thematic stand-in for the modern US, but as it was set in its own world, it wasn’t tied to historical specifics. And there are any number of narratives set in fully science fictional settings – space stations, colony planets, ambiguously situated cities with familiar technology but no clear ties to modern Earth – that manage to discuss capitalism and other such social institutions without invoking the specifics of our present reality. Had Szpara chosen any of these options for Docile, the book wouldn’t feel remiss for failing to discuss black slavery, religion or anything else particular to the USA, because they wouldn’t have been a contextual part of the setting, but as things stand, the omissions really bothered me.

It’s frustrating to have been so captivated by the pace and intense emotions of a novel, only to want to smack the setting firmly upside the head. Which is why, to return to my earlier point about tropes and fanfic, I can’t help feeling that Docile is, functionally, written as a fic, and that while this does extraordinary things for the pacing and characterisation, it comes – in my opinion – at the expense of the themes and worldbuilding.

I don’t mean that as an insult to fanfic, which I love wholeheartedly; nor will I criticise any reader who, unlike me, is perfectly content to argue that the details of Docile’s premise are ultimately less important than the characterisation. Certainly, I can’t claim to speak for how a POC might react to the text, except to be certain that no group is a hivemind: as a white queer reader, I was more inclined to accept Docile’s lack of homophobia precisely because, even when realistically present in a narrative, it’s personally upsetting to me. As such, I can imagine that some POC might similarly enjoy the lack of racism and racial analysis in an SF story which still boasted a diverse secondary cast.

But at the same time, and without wanting to lay down any hard rules about who is allowed to write what and under which auspices, I feel more comfortable with Szpara choosing to remove homophobia from a (real-world, albeit futuristic) story on the basis that Szpara is queer himself, and therefore representing his own, very reasonable desire to not have to deal with that bullshit in his own writing. Choosing not to acknowledge racism and slavery, however, feels dicier for the same reason – it’s less in his lane, and while neither he nor I gets to tell any POC readers how to feel about that, it nonetheless impacted my enjoyment of the novel.

All that being so, while the ficreader in me loved the twisty, emotional heart of Docile (AO3 tags: rated E, modern AU: slavery, rape/noncon, dubcon, under-negotiated kink, abuse, mindbreak, suicide attempt, suicidal ideation, dark yet weirdly tender, the real big bad is capitalism and also privilege, Lex Bishop’s A+ parenting, hopeful ending), my SFF reader/reviewer brain wanted more from the setting than the book could provide, especially regarding the elision of historical slavery from an American slavery novel. I’ll be interested to see what Szpara writes next – on a technical level, his writing is superb, and he has a compelling grasp of characterisation – but while I’d still recommend Docile to others, I can’t do so without reservation.

Warning: mild spoilers

Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted, a novella about librarian spies in a weird west setting, begins with the protagonist, Esther, stowing away in the back of a wagon to avoid an arranged marriage. Discovered after two days of hiding by Bet and Leda – Librarians whose job it is to deliver Approved Materials to remote settlements – Esther shakily reveals her predicament: she’s a woman who isn’t attracted to men, and her domineering lawman father just hanged her best friend and lover, Beatriz, after finding her with seditious Unapproved Materials. Together with Cye, their Apprentice Librarian, Bet and Leda take unexpected pity on Esther and agree to bring her to Utah, where they’re set to deliver a mysterious package. But life with the Librarians is more complicated than it first seems, and Esther is soon caught up in a dangerous adventure which, at every step, challenges not only what she thought she knew about the world, but about herself.

Written in a style that succeeds in being simultaneously whip-smart, pacey and heartfelt, Upright Women Wanted is a story about queer self-acceptance: about what it means to grow up believing that your orientation has doomed you to evil, unhappiness and a bad ending, and to shrink yourself to fit that narrative, only to discover – painfully, brutally, beautifully – that it isn’t true and never was; that you have only ever been as small as other people forced you to be. It is also a story about fascism – not in the past, as one might first expect from the western setting, but in the future. Though Gailey’s far-ranging horseback Librarians are reminiscent of the Pack Horse Library Project, which saw female riders delivering books to remote Appalachian communities in the thirties and forties, Upright Women Wanted is gradually revealed to take place in an era with drones and videos, but where diesel rationing has rendered cars a thing of the past. The United States is divided into quadrants; there is always War, and what little fuel exists is given as a priority to the tanks that fight in the beleaguered Central Corridor.

Viewed in this light, the authoritarian insistence on Approved Materials – and the lessons these stories have taught Esther about herself, about people like her – becomes even more sinister. Like the infamous Hays Code, which determined (among other things) that homosexuality could only be depicted on screen if it was made clear to the audience that it was morally wrong and its practitioners destined either for tragedy or villainy, the Approved Materials exist to indoctrinate under the guise of spreading unity. Esther knows about people like Cye, who goes by they instead of he or she (unless they’re in town, for reasons of personal safety), but only from stories that paint them in the same bad light as women like her. This leaves the audience free to fill in the blanks about what might’ve happened to lead society in such a terrifying backwards circle; blanks which, at the present historical moment, are frighteningly easy to envisage.

In its deliberate evocation of a past era recreated in new shades of misogyny and fascism, Upright Women Wanted is reminiscent of Catherynne Valente’s Fade to White, where a post-nuclear, Macarthyist USA puts a smiling, fifties spin on matchmaking fertile youngesters, and where teenage Sylvie has to hide her Japanese heritage in a white nationalist state. Both stories highlight the terror of difference, and the frightening ease with which propaganda shapes culture, society and self-perception. Fade to White is the bleaker story, ending on a note of poignant despair – and to deliberate, chilling effect. But while Upright Women Wanted doesn’t go full Star Wars, the rebels triumphant and the evil empire defeated, it nonetheless lands us in a place of powerful hope, with Esther aware of her strengths and determined to fight for herself and others.

Given its status as novella rather than novel, there are details about the wider setting of Upright Women Wanted – about its history, culture and characters – that go unexplained, or which an eager reader could be forgiven for wondering about, but these omissions are never due to bad writing or inconsistencies. Rather, it’s that the story is a greyhound, sleekly muscled and pointed straight down a set track: the core and soul of things is Esther’s journey, both literally and thematically, establishing her as a microcosm reflective of a greater whole. Even so, there is plenty of room left for further stories set in this universe, and I for one would be very happy to read them. Upright Women Wanted is a queer heartpunch, reminding us of the ways in which simply existing happily, without shame or abnegation, is a rebellion all its own. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Plus and also: queer librarian spies. I’m not made of stone!

I’m not putting a spoiler tag on this. It’s fucking Cats. Get a grip.

I saw Cats today. Voluntarily. On purpose. It’s important you know that I wasn’t coerced in any way, nor was the friend who accompanied me. Of our own free will, being of sound mind and body, we exchanged real human money for the experience of seeing Tom Hooper’s Cats on the big screen, in the company of other real human strangers. Not that our session was packed – aside from the two of us, there were only five other people in attendance, all older to middle-aged women – but the two ladies sitting near us not only cried during Jennifer Hudson’s bifurcated rendition of Memory (more of which shortly), but applauded during the credits. Their happy reactions, audible in the theatre’s yawning silence, added a further layer of unreality to what was already a surreal and vaguely disturbing experience, but once we emerged in the aftermath, stunned and blinking like newborn animals, their enjoyment helped us cobble together a theory about who, exactly, Cats is for – if such a film can truly be said to be for anyone.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

Here is the first thing you need to know about Tom Hooper’s Cats: the cats, who are played by human actors in CGI catskins, are meant to represent cat-sized cats, such that all the human-sized props and settings are likewise meant to loom proportionally large around them. Meant to being the operative phrase: instead, the film’s sense of scale and proportion are those of an Escher drawing, consistently inconsistent. It’s a problem of props as well as backdrop: in one scene, a cat wears a ring as an oversize bracelet, while in another, the cats are big enough to stand at a human-sized bar. No matter how comically big the chairs or tables or other accoutrements compared to the cat-actors, the surrounding space – height, depth and breadth – is never enlarged accordingly, such that the intended atmosphere of cat-sized actors playing in human-sized spaces is never achieved. Coupled with the frequently cartoonish designs and colour palettes of the – sets? CGI backdrops? mixes of same? who knows! – the impression is rather of human-sized cat-people inexplicably playing with giant novelty items, while the bad CGI adds acid-trip levels of confusion to what their bodies are doing at any given time.

Here is the second thing you need to know about Tom Hooper’s Cats: the entire musical has effectively been re-engineered around a new star character who – and it physically pains me to type these words – is functionally Tom Hooper’s genderbent Mary Sue catsona. Look into my tortured eyes: I have been in the goddamn trenches of the Mary Sue Discourse Wars, and I do not want to use this term in this particular manner. Nonetheless, the facts are these: our new Protagonist Cat, Victoria, is introduced in the opening when The Token Human throws her away in a sack. She is a beautiful white cat who all the other cats are immediately in love with. She shares in all their musical numbers, is hit on by all the handsome boycats, interrupts Grizabella’s rendition of Memory with her own, new song, comes up with the idea of having Mr Mistoffelees rescue Old Deuteronomy from Macavity, singlehandedly brings Grizabella into the Jellicle Ball, starts singing Memory for her to get her started again, and is then made a Jellicle at the denouement. She’s like Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way and Bella Swann’s cowritten fursona, and I hate that I’ve been on the internet long enough to write such a highly cursed sentence, but here we fucking are.

As this terrible knowledge came to me in the cinema, I flashed back to seeing Cats on stage as an impressionable pre-teen, and to watching a VHS recording of the 1998 performance a year or three later. Amygdala twitching desperately, I recalled the presence of a pretty white cat in both these versions – one of the kittens, who might have been called Victoria – who was the first to touch Grizabella when implored to do so during the climax of Memory. Possibly this is so; just as possibly, I was having some sort of seizure brought on by the endless parade of smooth, befurred Ken Doll crotches gyrating beneath CGI tails that twitched the way cat tails only do during sexual pleasure or territorial spraying. I could Google it and find out, but I fear what terrible images I might encounter in the process. Either way, I stand by my assessment: regardless of whether Victoria is a pure OC or a background NPC elevated to protagonist status, functionally and emotionally, she is Tom Hooper’s catsona, and I look forward to a member of the furry community gently sitting down with him in the coming months to answer whatever questions he might have.

Here is the third thing you need to know about Tom Hooper’s Cats: by trying to explain the musical via Victoria’s journey and some original snippets of dialogue, aided and abetted by the terrible CGI, Hooper draws constant attention to the fact that Cats makes no fucking sense and never has, thereby breaking the cardinal rule of any good Cats production. As a stage show, the success of Cats lies in the initial establishment of atmosphere: mystical, dreamlike, weird and a little bit magical, so that when the spandex-clad performers finally slink onstage, we’re ready to just accept it as a Coherent Thing instead of asking questions of it; questions like Is the Rum-Tum-Tugger DTF? and What the fuck is a Jellicle?. There’s always been a certain ambient horniness to Cats, but when you can physically see a troupe of talented actor-singer-dancers flinging themselves about while belting out Andrew Lloyd Weber numbers, it’s not the only thing you have to focus on. But in Hooper’s Cats, the CGI is so terrible that it constantly obfuscates the physical effort of the actors, clumsily blurring their bodies so that, even if something impressive is being done, it still looks like that scene in The Matrix: Reloaded when Neo fights all the Agent Smiths.

At very least, you’d hope you could retreat into the sountrack, but aside from a couple of decent performances, the best I can say of the music is that it was clearly audible. The nature of this particular gaffe made more sense to me when I remembered that Tom Hooper was also responsible for the 2012 version of Les Mis, which managed to star two men (Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe) who cannot actually sing in the range required for either of their characters. In restructuring Cats to make space for both Victoria and the new spoken dialogue, Hooper changed which cats sing about themselves, as opposed to being sung about, and has done this without paying any real attention to whether the actors cast in those roles can carry a tune in a bucket. It almost has the feel of a casting retcon, like he went in wanting big names for Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) and Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), but only realised afterwards that Dench, not famed for her singing voice, had been given a traditionally basso male part with some of the biggest, deepest lines in the show, while Wilson, who can technically sing but is usually cast as someone who does so with more enthusiasm than talent (as per Pitch Perfect), is more sung about than singer.

As such, we get a Deuteronomy whose lines are warble-spoken, not truly sung, and a pratfalling Jennyanydots who’s given extra spoken asides to make up for her minimal singing time. (One of these lines is a snark that, as the Rum Tum Tugger is hitting some very high notes, he must’ve been neutered – not an original joke at the best of times, but when your audience is already trying desperately not to think about all the Blank Cat Genitalia being crammed into their eyeballs, it’s especially unwelcome.) Robbie Fairchild does a decent job as Munkustrap, and my personal dislike of James Corden’s stock-in-trade Bumbling Man aside, he’s at least well-cast as Bustopher Jones. Jason Derulo has a lovely voice as the Rum Tum Tugger, but the rhythm of the song is missing, the beats given over to visual rather than vocal gags, and giving the traditionally dark, smoky Macavity number to Taylor Swift’s Bombalurina, who performs it with a studied, high-voiced breathlessness, is a waste of both song and singer. Idris Elba, who actually is Macavity, barely sings at all; he does, however, spend the first half of the movie brooding in an oversize fur coat, so that when he finally strips it off, you’re doubly struck by the sight of his vacant cat-crotch.

Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae) is about what you’d expect but with more tap-dancing, and is inexplicably the only cat who wears pants, which outfit makes him look like a very specific type of highly caffeinated theatre twink on Instagram. (I tell a lie: Jennyanydots briefly wears clothes, but only after she unzips her actual fur and then eats some cockroach-people with human faces who look like early PS1 Harry Potter graphics, oh god why my EYES.) Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, performed by Danny Collins and Naoimh Morgan, is shifted into an entirely different key and comes across more like recitative than not, and as with Dench’s Old Deuteronomy, Ian Mackellan’s Gus the Theatre Cat is more quavery-spoken than sung, with no chorus singer to frame and contrast his original parts of the melody. Laurie Davidson’s Mr Mistoffelees, rather than being suave and confident, is stammering and shy, and while I might’ve appreciated that in a different production, here it means just one more song that isn’t sung on tempo or with passion.

And then we come to Memory, performed by Jennifer Hudson, which ought by rights to be the showstopper – and indeed, if you ignore the disconcerting visuals of Hudson’s Grizabella sobbing through her CGI catface as she sings, vocally, it’s far and away the strongest, most affecting performance in the film. But because Victoria Raven Way Swann is our protagonist, Hooper literally CUTS MEMORY IN HALF so that she – or rather, Francesca Hayward, the actress bringing life to Hooper’s catsona – can sing an entirely NEW song called Beautiful Ghosts, which is… a Thing, after which there is a considerable interlude before Grizabella gets to sing Memory again.

I’m tired, guys. I’m so very tired. The light is fading, and I have but little strength.

The fourth and final thing you need to know about Tom Hooper’s Cats is that, as you watch it, your mind starts to latch onto small, specific incongruities as a way to deal with the overwhelming madness of the visuals – things that do not matter in comparison to everything else, but which nonetheless shine as vividly as the last hallucinations of a drowning man. Around the time that Old Deuteronomy first appears, for instance, the doubtless underpaid and overworked computer people responsible for executing Tom Hooper’s CGI vision stop giving the actors hand-fur and claws, so that Cat Judi Dench has people-hands throughout (as do various others who previously had paws). I don’t know what experience Tom Hooper has with directing in CGI, but I suspect it to be minimal, and have thus developed a mental image of him as a Monty Python directorial caricature, bescarfed and smoking a cheroot, yelling across the soundstage in an old-timey Hollywood accent, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll get it in post!” while his more knowledgeable underlings pray quietly for death. Mungojerrie, a boy cat, is depicted as a calico, which is technically possible, but very unlikely. I applaud the genderflipping of Old Deuteronomy in principle, but because Hooper is a goddamned coward, it came at the expense of cutting the line about him – or her, rather – burying nine wives, because god forbid Naked Cat With People Hands Judi Dench be a lesbian. Idris Elba’s Macavity is brown-furred and well-built, a fact we can see even as Taylor Swift sings about him being thin and ginger, just as Mr Mistoffelees, who describes himself as being all black, has a white bib, hands and face. All the cats get stoned on catnip, but only some wear shoes. Why is this? What have we done with our lives, collectively, to bring us to this point?

As Grizabella ascended to the Heaviside Layer in a floating chandelier balloon and the happy ladies in our row began to applaud the credits, I had a realisation about Cats that came sharply into clarity the moment I sat down with a much-needed tankard of frosé. Though ostensibly meant for general audiences, Cats is, in reality, a highly niche film meant for fiftysomething+ fans of the original musical who haven’t seen anything CGI-heavy since they accompanied their formerly tweenage children to a matinee showing of Mortal Kombat in 1995, and who thus look upon Hooper’s efforts as a revelation. These moviegoers aren’t internet-savvy, either; they don’t know what a furry is, and as such can look upon Rebel Wilson scratching her invisible cat vagina, legs spread wide, without flashing back to goatse or 4chan or something they saw on tumblr at a tender, more formative age (or last week, for that matter). They just want to see some singing cats, and are gloriously unburdened of any modern cultural baggage surrounding Hooper’s presentation of same that prevents them from enjoying his great works.

I am happy for them, this joyful group of viewers who emerged from Cats not only unscarred, but moved. Meanwhile, my friend and I staggered out as if from a recitation of Vogon poetry and went promptly to the nearest bar, which blessed us with its tender liquid mercy.

Enough. I can write no more. Remember me fondly to mother; I can hear the angels calling.

DON’T SEE CATS.