Posts Tagged ‘Book Review’

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!

Warning: spoilers

In many respects, Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth is a superb, original novel; in others, it is a needlessly frustrating one. In the days since I finished reading it, my thoughts in each of these directions have met, overlapped and – for the most part – separated out again without resolving the dissonance, leaving me to wonder which aspects of storytelling I most value in a work, and why. If I skew towards the negative, am I being unduly harsh on a novel which I ultimately enjoyed and whose sequels I plan to read? If I skew towards the positive, am I being overly kind to a story whose discrepancies come more sharply into focus the longer I have to consider them? What matters more to my stance as a reviewer: the feelings I had while reading a book, or my tempered analysis of it? In this case, I’m honestly not sure, but I hope that writing this review will be clarifying for someone, even if it isn’t me.

Gideon the Ninth begins with its titular heroine trying and failing to run away from home to join the cohort, aka the space army – trying, because the home in question is the Ninth House, a sect of necromancers set on a desolate planet in a system run by same; failing, because Gideon, who is not a necromancer despite being raised by them, knows too many House secrets to be allowed to leave. Her planned departure is thwarted by the Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus, aka Harrow, her sole age-mate in the Ninth after a terrible plague wiped out all the other children during their infancy. Harrow, a highly skilled necromancer and heir to the Ninth, is a constant thorn in Gideon’s side, and has been for their entire lives.

But as it turns out, Harrow has need of Gideon. The immortal Emperor of the Resurrection – a man who became God and a God who became a man, who has ruled for ten thousand years – has sent a missive to the Houses asking for each necromantic heir and their sworn cavalier to come to Canaan House on the First planet, a planet of ruins and mystery, to undergo trials to become Lyctors: the immortal, most powerful Hands of the Emperor. Or, almost immortal: after nine thousand years, the existing First Lyctors have dwindled in number – hence the need for trials to attain replacements. In order to attend, survive and pass the trials, Harrow needs a cavalier primary: a swordsman, bodyguard and confidant. And as her existing cavalier is manifestly not up to the task, that leaves Gideon to fill the gap.

Arriving on the First, Gideon and Harrow – and, by extension, the audience – are soon introduced to the representatives of the other Houses, all with their own agendas. Under the guidance of the enigmatic Teacher and a literal skeleton crew (because necromancy), the necromancers and cavaliers are given one single rule to start them on the journey to Lyctorhood: open no locked doors in Canaan House without permission. But the First is a dangerous place to be, and when people start turning up dead, the stakes are raised: it’s not just about becoming a Lyctor any more – it’s about surviving.

For the first two thirds of the story, Gideon the Ninth is a tense, characterful and wholly original species of locked room mystery. Though Gideon has grown up around necromancers, she has no real understanding of the various theorems and methods they employ, and as such, the readers learn these details along with her. Rather than making this an excuse to infodump, however, Muir uses Gideon’s ignorance as a deliberate tease: though the system of necromancy feels both compelling and well thought out, it maintains a tense mystique by dint of being under-explained, discussed primarily by experts who, with few exceptions, have no reason to give a 101 rundown of their discipline. As a narrative technique, it reminds me most of the way we slowly learn about gems, fusion, the diamonds and the history of Homeworld in the early seasons of Steven Universe: an organic, background tuition that rewards an attentive audience with glimpses of a hidden, but nonetheless coherent, whole.

In this context, the trials that Gideon and Harrow start to undergo – to say nothing of the process by which Harrow works out what the trials are – make for gripping reading. We’re given enough identifying glimpses of the other characters to get a feel for them without being led by the hand, and as their motives start to become more distinct, this characterisation – with what is ultimately revealed to be one glaring exception – bears up admirably.

And it’s here that we enter true spoiler territory: because while the first two thirds of the book are exceptional, it’s the final third that gets a little dicey. For me, this was exacerbated by the fact that, until I reached the end of Gideon the Ninth and saw that it was book one of a series, I’d been thinking of it as a standalone novel. In my defence, until you finish the final chapter, there’s nothing printed anywhere in/on the physical copy to indicate otherwise, which I’d argue is a discourtesy to the reader: knowing whether a book is part of a series changes your expectations of its structure, and it was confusing in the extreme to feel that the build-up of the first two thirds, all of which centred around the mysteries of Lyctorhood, had suddenly become secondary to a different, belatedly-revealed conflict. This would’ve been forgivable if said conflict had made sense; instead, however, it has the unfortunate effect of making certain key aspects of what came before feel weird and illogical.

Specifically – and to those who want to remain unspoiled, turn away now – the problem lies in the Big Reveal about Dulcinea Septimus, the chronically ill necromancer of the Seventh House. At the finale of the book, we learn that Dulcinea is not who she pretends to be: instead, she is Cytherea, one of the Emperor’s still-living Lyctors who, for reasons that don’t really parse, has decided to try and kill off the would-be Lyctors. To quote the explanation she gives to Palamedes Sextus, one of Gideon and Harrow’s allies:

I knew that if I ruined his Lyctor plans – killed the heirs and cavaliers to all the other eight Houses – I’d draw him back to the system, but I had to do it in a subtle enough way that he wouldn’t bring the remaining Hands with him. If I had arrived in full force, he’d have turned up on a war footing, and sent the Lyctors to do all the dirty work like always. This way he’s lulled into a false sense of… semisecurity, I suppose. And he won’t even bother coming within Dominicus’s demesne. He’ll sit out there beyond the system – trying to find out what’s happening – right where I need him to be.

As a statement viewed on its own, the logic of this hangs together. In the context of the novel up until this point, however, it manifestly does not, which makes the nearly forty page long, emotionally fraught battle sequence that follows ring frustratingly hollow once you’ve had a spare moment to think through the implications.

For instance: we are told, over and over again, that there is no communication allowed between Canaan House and anywhere else in the system, even in the case of an emergency. During the trials and until their completion, the First is meant to be functionally cut off. This only changes by accident, when the members of the Second House, frightened by the ongoing deaths and affronted by the seeming lawlessness that permits them to happen, kill Teacher and send an illicit transmission, which only reaches the Emperor because it’s not strong enough to reach a neighbouring planet and because his ship, for undisclosed reasons, is the only one close enough to hear it. During the Emperor’s brief appearance at the finale, we’re given no reason to believe he suspected Cytherea of treachery prior to this point, and by the same token, we’re also told he either can’t or won’t set foot on the First again – so why was he near the system at all? How was Cytherea’s plan meant to work, if she couldn’t possibly count on the Emperor showing up in response to her disruption?

And if, as seems to be implied, Cytherea wasn’t already suspected of treachery by the Emperor, then why not simply attack him elsewhere instead of constructing a needlessly elaborate plan to draw him back to the First? It’s hinted at that the Emperor can’t be killed except on the First (or possibly by the being entombed forever on the Ninth; the details are deliberately hazy, presumably for future plot reasons) but if so, there’s good reason to have been clearer on this point, just as it makes no sense to emphasise the lack of outside communication and then hinge the whole finale on its ultimate necessity.

Working backwards from this point, we end up with yet more questions about Dulcinea/Cytherea’s actions prior to being exposed. Most pressingly: how was she able to send her murderous bone construct after Gideon and the two members of the Fourth House when she was under constant medical supervision by Harrow, Palamedes and Camilla? The logical answer is that the construct was acting autonomously – but if so, then why, when Gideon and one of the Fourth were sleeping in the same room, did it only murder one of them? It’s hinted that there’s a long-game reason for this – “You don’t even know what you are to me,” Cytherea tells Gideon, along with, “I’ve spared you before,” – but given that, to all intents and purposes, Gideon dies during the finale, an act of self-sacrifice that elicits no reaction from Cytherea, who was literally trying to murder her at the time, this feels like an inadequate explanation. And as whatever special feelings Cytherea might have for Gideon presumably don’t extend to Harrow, the fact that Dulcinea helped Harrow on multiple occasions – not just to understand the trials, but to survive them – further muddies the water.

Throw in the fact that Cytherea’s appearance is the first time we learn anything at all about the existing, original Lyctors, and it’s hard not to feel frustrated. To all intents and purposes, she’s a reveal that comes out of nowhere, taking the existing emotional conflict and mystery the book had worked so hard to build – the megatheorem, Ianthe’s ascension – and steering it in a different direction. Without such a hard left turn at the end, I might have been content to ignore other, seemingly minor questions about the worldbuilding, but when the narrative rug gets yanked out from under your feet, it’s human nature – in my case, anyway – to wonder if that ultimate instability was hinted at in earlier, smaller missteps.

Such as: if Cytherea was the only threat to the trialgoers all along, then why was Teacher so adamant that other, dangerous entities were lurking in Canaan House? If Gideon was raised by people who feared and hated her on an isolated, desolate planet with no access to anywhere else, then where did she get her comics, sunglasses and pornography? What’s going on in the rest of the empire, and how much of it does Gideon know about? If the Emperor is actually as benevolent as the ending implies (which, that’s a whole other area of potential criticism re: imperium, albeit a sidebar to the plot of this first instalment) then why is he constantly at war? And why, in a space-age setting with guns and magic, are cavaliers expected to learn swordplay? It’s the kind of detail that seems like it should have some minor in-world justification – I’m honestly not picky; swords are cool and I’m very hyped to see them here – but none is ever provided.

(Also, I could do with fewer descriptions of eye colour. Don’t get me wrong, I am 100% a sucker for Interesting And Pretty Eyes, but given how striking Muir’s descriptions are otherwise compared with how repeatedly she describes the same people’s eyeballs, it ends up being a little too much of a good thing.)

All these nitpicks don’t mean much on their own, but taken collectively, they’re not so much grating as disappointing – as, indeed, is the aforementioned part of the ending where Gideon seems to die. I say seems to, because there’s so much about Gideon’s mysterious backstory that we don’t yet know – to say nothing of the fact that we’re dealing with literal necromancy – that I don’t trust for a hot second that she’s actually permadead. If she is, my queer ass will be pissed as hell, because giving me an awesome snarky lesbian protagonist and then killing her is profoundly Not Bros; but if she’s not, I still have a deep and abiding dislike of the Surprise Cliffhanger Death trope. Making Harrow think Gideon is dead for an emotional gut-punch is one thing; making the reader think so too is quite another. It feels like a gotcha! moment to me, an unwelcome flirtation with the dead lesbian trope – and if it’s not a flirtation, then that’s even worse, because AUGH.

And yet – and yet! – the reason this is an emotionally bifurcated review, despite how much time I’ve spent laying out my grievances, is because the rest of the book – the parts that work – are absolutely amazing. Both in terms of the narration and the character banter, Muir has gone all-in on a mixture of modern snarkasm and gothic shade, the effect of which is equal parts hilarious and (in a good way) disturbing. The descriptions of necromancy and bone magic are graphically vivid in the most linguistically skilled and memorable ways; the plotting is tight, and – I cannot emphasise this enough – the concept of angry lesbian necromancers in space is so goddamn appealing, it’s hard to put into words. It’s like our collective inner teenage gothgirl got to rub her little queer hands all over science fiction, and I love how unapologetically For The Aesthetic the resulting story is, both thematically and narratively.

The real strength of Gideon the Ninth, however, is the enemies to friends to almost-dating arc of Gideon and Harrow. Their banter is crisp, their emotional histories, both singly and when intertwined, are complicated and tragic, and Muir does an absolutely spectacular job of making you root for the two of them – not just as a couple, but as individuals. I’ll be genuinely, heartbreakingly angry if it turns out that Gideon is permanently dead, but despite my misgivings about the end of the book, it’s a measure of how much trust Muir’s writing earned otherwise that I’m confident enough in my happier suspicions to be eagerly awaiting the next volume.

Gideon the Ninth: it’s a hell of a debut novel, and while the structure is buggy near the end, there’s a great deal of scope for future instalments to rectify matters, or at least to clarify them. I’d still prefer to have that clarity now, of course, but the bulk of the narrative does so much right that, until I can judge the whole series in its entirety, I’m willing to give the wobbly parts the benefit of the doubt. I don’t recommend it without reservation, but I do recommend it strongly – and that, I think, is the most important thing.

Trigger warning: referenced child abuse

In the land of Uztar, falconry is everything. From the ruling kyrgs in their castles to the commoners who trap and train birds for a living, Uztari culture is centred on birds of prey. Yet one bird is feared and revered above all others: the legendary ghost eagle, a massive raptor whose strange, psychic cry exposes the worst selves of all who hunt it. Many falconers have died in pursuit of the ghost eagle and the glory it represents – including Yzzat, an abusive drunkard whose cruelty has forever scarred his children. Now free from their father, twins Kylee and Brysen are finally close to escaping out from under the debts he left behind – until Brysen’s boyfriend, Dymian, lands in trouble with the Tamir family. To save him, Brysen makes an impulsive promise: a ghost eagle in exchange for Dymian’s life. As the threat of war between the Uztari and the feared Kartami, extremists who revile all falconry, begins to shape wider events, Brysen and Kylee must negotiate their own troubled relationship in order to save their future. But what chance do two teenagers have against the ghost eagle?

Every so often, I find myself drifting away from YA as a genre, until a book comes along that drags me back in and reminds me what I love about it. Black Wings Beating is such a book: beautifully worldbuilt, exceptionally characterised and deftly written, it packs a lot of feeling into a compact, pacey package. It also hits that (for me) perfect sweet-spot of magic fantasy adventure meets queer romantic feelings: though queerness is normative and accepted within the setting, Brysen is still allowed to struggle with romance and identity along a different axis, neatly paralleling Kylee’s quest to accept and understand her gift for the Hollow Tongue, an ancient magical language that bestows control over birds.

Told with alternating third-person focus on Kylee and Brysen and interspersed with glimpses of wider political happenings, Black Wings Beating is, at its heart, a novel about abuse, autonomy and survival. Since childhood, Kylee and Brysen were pitted against each other by their father, Yzzat, who yearned to exploit his daughter’s gifts while reviling his son’s comparative lack of talent. Though furious with and frustrated by Kylee’s disinterest in falconry and her refusal to use her magic to his advantage, Yzzat still dreamed of winning her to his cause and, through her, obtaining prestige. As such, his physical abuse was reserved for Brysen alone: whippings, beatings and worse that left Brysen desperate to prove himself useful. And so the dichotomy between the twins was set: Kylee, reluctant to use her talents and thereby see her brother further diminished, forced to carry the weight of the world along with the care and management of her family; Brysen, rushing headlong into any opportunity to shine without realistic planning, dreaming big to cover how small he feels and the knowledge that, if he stops to think, he’ll remember to hate himself.

It’s an achingly real dynamic, and one that sees the reader rooting for both siblings despite – or perhaps because of – how often their feelings and shared-yet-different experiences put them at odds. London has a nuanced grasp of psychology and characterisation that makes even his minor characters feel fleshed out, and when combined with his vivid portrayal of falconry and its place in Uztari culture, the effect is powerful. Reading Black Wings Beating, in fact, I was finally able to articulate something I’ve been struggling to pin down in terms of YA novels generally: the distinction between a story in which potentially difficult teenage behaviours are excused, and one in which they are explained.

In the former instance, neither the text itself nor the events it depicts make any real judgement or commentary about the characters’ actions: whether they’re being kind or cruel, sensible or impulsive, hesitant or brash, and if this ultimately has a positive or negative effect on those around them. Rather, we’re shown how their motives are justified to them, such that it’s easy to conflate the character’s feelings with the author’s approval of their actions – sometimes correctly, sometimes not, but in either case due to the lack of textual evidence for a different interpretation. In the latter instance, either the text or the events it depicts, or both, are used to make us think critically about the characters, such that, even when we understand their self-justifications, we’re encouraged by the text – and, by extension, the author – to form our own conclusions.

To be clear: I’m not saying that the former type of story is bad, or that this dichotomy between stories that lack or feature authorial commentary exists only in YA. However, in the specific context of the teenage characters in YA SFF, who are often called upon to act in extraordinary ways or participate in world-altering events, and whose youthful impulsiveness is often used to propel them through their adventures, reading Black Wings Beating has confirmed my preference for the latter type of story. Over and over again, both Brysen and Kylee make terrible choices while only sometimes being aware of it. But while London shows us their rationalisations, he doesn’t present them as being objectively rational. Both Kylee and Brysen are trying their best, but their abusive childhood has twisted their relationship, their judgement and their self-perception in different ways, such that, even when they know they’ve made a bad decision, they don’t always know what the right one would’ve been, or even if there was a better choice to be made at all.

Set over the course of a few days, Black Wings Beating uses Kylee and Brysen as an intimate lens through which to view the incipient struggles of Uztar as a whole. Though we only catch glimpses of the power-hungry kyrgs and the coming Kartami threat, these parts of the story all fit neatly together, so that our focus on the twins looks like a convincing telescopic zoom-in on the localised details of a wider landscape. And throughout it all, the influence of falconry – of the eternally unrequited love of a falconer for their birds – is incorporated into the narrative. Just as Brysen’s existing relationship with Dymian, a falcon master, is contrasted with his newfound bond with Jowyn, a bone-white boy who lives with the mysterious Owl Mothers, so is Kylee’s friendship with Vyvian, a spy for the kyrgs, contrasted with her feelings for Nyall, a long-time friend who loves her despite her indifference to romance.

The love a falconer has for their bird will never be reciprocated, the story tells us, and yet that love – the willingness to care for a creature that may only hurt or disdain you – lies at the heart of falconry. It is this love which the Kartami despise as weak, but it is also central to the strength both Kylee and Brysen show: the courage it takes them to love at all – to love themselves, to love others, and to contemplate being loved – despite the abuse they’ve endured.

Though Black Wings Beating is clearly the first volume in a planned trilogy, it nonetheless ends on an emotionally satisfying note. I can’t wait to see what happens in the rest of the series, and I look forward to reading whatever else London writes in the future.

Do you like Hayao Miyazaki? If so, then Fran Wilde’s Updraft is the book for you.

That’s a big claim, so let me back up and explain it. The first volume in Wilde’s Bone Universe series, Updraft is narrated by Kirit, a young woman who lives in a city of living bone towers high above the clouds. Eager to past her wingtest and become a trader, Kirit’s dreams are abruptly derailed when she breaks Tower Law and encounters a skymouth, one of the invisible, tentacled monsters that periodically threatens her home. Taken by the Singers, the mysterious order who governs from the Spire, Kirit must struggle to make sense of her city and its secrets in order to survive – and to save the people she loves.

All the way through Updraft, and despite the clear originality of the setting – invisible creatures! bone towers! – I had a niggling sensation of familiarity. And then it struck me: Miyazaki. Across all his many films, certain elements are consistently present, if not always exhibited in the same ways: single-person flying machines, capable young heroines whose primary relationships are platonic or familial rather than romantic, tentacled monsters, lost history. All these elements are central to Updraft, and given the skilful pacing and construction – to say nothing of how neatly everything hangs together at the end while still leaving enough unanswered questions to explore in subsequent novels – the overall effect is like reading a novelized Miyazaki story.

The setting, in particular, is an extremely visual one, and it’s a testament to Wilde’s skill as a writer that she manages to so clearly convey such a unique visual space and its occupying society in such clean, quick prose. Small details like the use of bone scraps in lieu of paper, the breeding of batlike flying creatures and small spidery insects by tower residents, the use of symbols and songs as teaching tools and the construction of the ubiquitous wings used to traverse the city are all incorporated seamlessly into the narrative, fleshing out the environment like a series of accomplished panning shots. It’s exactly the sort of novel that not only deserves, but structurally begs for an adaptation, and were such a thing to happen, I’d be first in line to see it.

Updraft is an amazing first novel, and I highly recommend it. Wilde has created a truly captivating setting, an intriguing culture and a memorable set of characters, and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

Sometimes, the most compelling books to read are also a fascinating mess, in equal parts frustrating and subversive. Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On is such a book, and even having finished it, I’m still not sure which I want more: to fling it against the wall or recommend it.

Much like Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Carry On began life as a metastory, one the author invented and referenced within an earlier novel: Palimpsest in Valente’s case, and Fangirl in Rowell’s. What makes this even more fourth-wall in Rowell’s case is that, in Fangirl, the stars of Carry On – Simon Snow and Basilton ‘Baz’ Grimm-Pitch – are the hero and antagonist, respectively, of a Potteresque series of YA novels about whom Fangirl’s protagonist writes queer romantic fanfic.

And when I say Potteresque, I do mean that quite literally: Simon and Baz are students at a magical boarding school in England (Watford), to which Simon (a magical orphan in the Normal world) was brought at age eleven by its powerful headmaster (the Mage) because his power was prophecied. The parallels are many, obvious and intentional. Even if you haven’t read Fangirl – in which, rather than being a wholesale Potter surrogate, the Simon Snow books are inserted as an equally popular peer series – the native similarities hang a lampshade on the comparison all by themselves. (Almost recursively so, at times: it’s lampshades all the way down!)

While this is understandable, it’s also slightly awkward. No matter how immersed I was, I never quite lost my background awareness that the only reason any of it existed was because Rowell couldn’t slip Harry x Draco into Fangirl without finding herself on the business end of a lawyer. Which is, simultaneously, both Carry On’s strength and weakness: strength, because the story is intended as a subversive take on the Chosen One trope, with specific reference to Harry Potter; weakness, because it never quite develops into anything more original, despite the central queer relationship.

So when I say that Carry On reads like fanfic, I mean that as neither censure nor compliment, but rather as an objective description of narrative style. I happen to love fanfiction – have spent a not inconsiderable portion of the last eighteen months immersed in both writing and reading it, in fact – which is why I feel qualified to make the comparison. By virtue of referencing characters, settings and concepts the readership already knows, in whose central relationship they already feel invested, fanfics have a natural tendency to skip over setting and worldbuilding – not because they’re badly written, but because, more often than not, such information is contextually extraneous. It’s what lends the genre such an addictive, compelling immediacy, like picking up a favourite book at the most exciting chapter – the purest distillation of that much-vaunted piece of Writing Advice, to start the story when something is really happening. Easy to do, when your readership already knows the backstory of even minor characters by heart, but trickier far to execute if you’re simultaneously building a world from scratch.

That Rowell manages to achieve this feeling with original characters is due in part to how heavily she leans on her audience’s peripheral Potter-knowledge, but that’s hardly a bad thing; is rather, I’d argue, a sign of her willingness to treat her audience as intelligent. Given the cultural dominion of Harry Potter, surely only a snobbish or oblivious fantasy writer would assume their readers ignorant of the narrative, and as commentary on said story is half the point of Carry On, it makes sense to assume a trope-literate audience and work from there. Even so, it’s skill that makes it work: Rowell’s writing is clean and comic, buoying the story along at pace, and while the story is flawed – as I’ll soon discuss – it’s certainly never boring.

As you might expect, Carry On’s strongest aspect is the romantic relationship between Baz and Simon, which is executed with humour, warmth and nuance. Forced together as roommates via a magical selection process in their first year at Watford, both boys have spent the majority of that time purporting to despise each other, caught on opposite sides of a magical divide: Baz, the talented scion of an old, prestigious family at odds with the new regime, and Simon, the poor upstart ward of the Mage, apparently destined for greatness but unable to marshal his power. In a literary tradition where, for ostensibly non-homoerotic and visibly sexist reasons, male heroes are often depicted as having more nuanced, complicated relationships with their antagonists than with their apparent female love interests, it’s deeply satisfying – and wholly enjoyable – to see the trope so thoroughly queered up. It calls to mind Kate Beaton’s excellent comic about a pirate and his nemesis: true to the old dictum about love and hate being opposite sides of the same coin, there’s a point at which constantly obsessing about another person’s whereabouts and motives bleeds into caring about their wellbeing, and Rowell hits that junction right in the narrative sweet spot.

Baz and Simon’s relationship is the solid heart of the story; everything else, however, feels either sparse, rushed or both. Where Harry Potter’s story is told in seven novels, Simon Snow’s is crammed into one, as though our familiarity with the layered details of Rowling’s story means we don’t need the other six books of Rowell’s. As such, it works exceedingly well as commentary, but falls somewhat flat on its own account. This is particularly disappointing when it comes to the political complexities of Rowell’s world. Given more scope, the Mage’s actions, motives and betrayal could have cored a devastating punch; instead, the other characters are never given the poisoned catharsis of knowing the whole picture, while the wider consequences of Simon’s existence are conveniently elided at the finale.

Structurally, then, Carry On succeeds or fails depending on how you grade it. By the standards of most comparable original works, it’s undernourished, but still good comic, romantic fantasy fun; by the standards of fanfic, it’s T-rated excellence. As I enjoy both types of writing, that leaves me somewhat stumped for judgement – or would do, if not for the existence of Noelle Stevenson’s NimonaReleased some five months prior to Carry On, Nimona portrays the same sort of complex, antagonistic, morally grey and (ultimately) queer relationship between male nemeses that Carry On does, to poignant effect. Likewise, thanks to the graphic format, it conveys an original setting in brief, but without feeling thin as a consequence – and as it isn’t directly riffing on a specific prominent work, but rather subverts a general knowledge of fairytales, it stands more strongly on its own merits.

And Nimona, unlike Carry On, doesn’t base a central subversive premise – that of queer male romance – on a slew of sexist tropes.

At its most basic level, Carry On has a Women In Refrigerators problem. Both Simon and Baz have conspicuously dead mothers – Lucy and Natasha, respectively – and while both speak from the grave in the course of the story, this is hardly great representation. Natasha barely appears except as motivation for Baz, and though Lucy gets some POV sections, when she actually tries to speak to Simon, who doesn’t know who she is, her visitation comes so hard on the heels of Natasha’s that he naturally confuses her with the other dead ghost mother, a mistake that’s never corrected. The fact that Lucy’s silent narrative is key to the whole story doesn’t quite mitigate the fact that none of the characters hear it, nor does it make her history any less tragic.

And then there’s Agatha, Simon’s ex-girlfriend: blonde and beautiful, longing for Normalcy, and woefully underdeveloped. The problem isn’t that Agatha, with her dreams of escape and travel and her mediocre magic, is an unrealistic character; it’s just that, as she spends the whole book wanting to be somewhere else, her participation in the actual plot is minimal. Which is deeply frustrating, not only on its own account, but because she’s the character who comes closest to figuring out who Lucy is and why she matters, yet never shares her findings with anyone. Given that Agatha is both afraid of dying because of Simon and of being the one to watch him die, the fact that she believes the lie of Lucy’s escape to America – that she identifies with it to the point of going there herself, when Lucy is really dead in a way that would horrify Agatha – is a symmetry I found more ugly than not, yet all over representative of her wasted potential. Yes, there’s something positive in Agatha living when Lucy died, but as Agatha’s escape at the finale is enabled by the death of yet another innocent woman – and one who, for some reason, appears to accept her own murder as justified at the last second, which, what? – any positive parallels are rather grossly ruined.

By contrast, Penelope Bunce, Simon’s best friend, comes across more vividly, if only because she gets so much more stage time; otherwise, she’s decidedly Hermione, but without the activism. That she’s a non-stereotyped person of colour – as is Baz, for that matter – is a significant point in the book’s favour, but at the same time, her POV sections are often so immediate as to deny her vital introspection. She has a boyfriend in America, but though she mentions him, we never really see her think about him, even though he’s clearly significant, and while we’re given a reason why her life is so Simon-centric, I couldn’t help wishing that we got to see more of her own her own terms. It doesn’t help that her relationship with Agatha is largely defined by jealousy over Simon: the only chapter in which the two interact away from the boys is literally described, in text, as a Bechdel pass – “It’s good to have a life that passes the Bechdel test,” her mother says of them, prompting Penelope to respond with a grumbled quip about her mother’s lack of female friends – and in a novel full of gratuitously hung lampshades, this one is arguably the most glaring.

Partly, the problem is one of length: if Rowell had fleshed out Agatha and Penelope, instead of leaning on their underlying archetypes, then we might have a better sense of who they are in relation to themselves and each other, instead of just seeing them next to Baz and Simon. Yet even so, the novel’s comparative shortness didn’t need to be an issue. The problem isn’t that a story about a queer male relationship dared to put a lesser emphasis on its women, but that it opted to do so in ways that reinforce sexism – which is to say, dead mothers, female sacrifice, and girls more rivals than friends because of boys. Penelope’s mother Mitali, Baz’s aunt Fiona and the goatherd Ebb were all good, meaty characters, but their perspectives and roles were limited, rendered less significant in the long run than their seven years of history with the characters could merit. Which, on a practical level, I understand: given the obvious Potter comparisons and the nature of the project, I can’t imagine Rowell would’ve wanted to write a full Simon Snow series instead of just the effective final volume. But as narrative tradeoffs go, it’s hard not to note the downside.

And then there’s the bi erasure.

Look: I am a bisexual person. I exist! There is a word for me! But Carry On, despite being a story wherein words are literal magic, is apparently unwilling to consider this as a concept. Baz, we’re told, is gay: has never been with anyone but Simon, and is unattracted to women. But Simon, who’s dating Agatha at the start of the book – is contemplating being with her forever, in fact – is never allowed to use the word bisexual to describe himself, nor is it applied to him by anyone else, even in passing. Which… look. Being closeted is a thing. Not understanding your own sexuality is a thing. The world is full of people who thought they were straight, or were thought to be straight, who later came out as gay, even after they dated or kissed or slept with or married or had kids with someone – or ones! – of the opposite sex. This is absolutely a valid narrative! What feels decidedly less valid, however, is the fact that bisexuality is never once considered as a possible explanation for Simon being attracted to both Agatha and Baz, even though Simon himself is demonstrably unclear on the subject. Instead, we get this:

“And I don’t think I’m gay,” I say. “I mean, maybe I am, at least partly, the part that seems to be demanding the most attention right now…”

“No one cares whether you’re gay,” Baz says coldly.

And I just… partly gay? As in, attracted to more than one gender? As in fucking bisexual, or pansexual, or literally anything other than the “I don’t like labels/nobody cares/let’s not call it anything” school of weasel-wording bullshit consistently used to enforce the idea that gay and straight are the only options? In the Potteresque language of Carry On, it seems, bisexual has the same impact as Voldemort: the preferred term in both instances is that which shall not be named, the better to render it palatable. Throw in Simon’s bizarre pejorative at the end about dancing being “well gay… even when it isn’t two blokes” – which, why the fuck is there any need to include that line in a supposedly queer-positive novel at all, let alone voiced by a character who hasn’t expressed any homophobia, internalised or otherwise, in 522 pages? – and the death of an underutilised queer woman at the finale – to say nothing of the fact that the only queer female relationship is one that happens off screen, only referenced  when one or other of the characters is complaining about it – and I am moved to look askance at Carry On in its entirety.

Because, here’s the thing: as much as I enjoyed Fangirl – and as refreshing as it was, to see both fanfic and fan culture rendered in such a positive light – it shied away from acknowledging the problematic aspects of the community. Such as, for instance, the fetishising of queer male relationships and the elision of female characters, and while I won’t go so far as to say that Rowell is guilty of this – and as much as I enjoyed the dynamic between Simon and Baz – Carry On reads to me like an outsider take on queerness rather than a heartfelt exploration of it, the subversion born of novelty, not need, and so made superficial.

Which is ultimately what bothers me about the novel’s resolution. As compelling as it is to make the Mage the ultimate villain – or ultimately responsible for what’s gone wrong, at least – his status as a supposedly progressive reformer who secretly broke everything is never really addressed. From the outset, it’s clear that, as in the world of Harry Potter, historical issues of magical privilege and exclusion have lead to Watford’s discrimination against various less powerful groups – biases that the Mage’s reforms, like Dumbledore’s egalitarian attitudes, are meant to try and rectify. Nimona, too, deals with similar themes: as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the institution supported by the apparent hero is an oppressive, abusive state, yet even knowing this, the morality is never rendered as binary. Similarly, and despite the presence of an evil Dark Lord, Rowling makes an effort to show the complexities of her world: Dolores Umbridge is often cited as being more terrifying than Voldemort for being more recognisable, the sort of sadistic bureaucrat we pray is never responsible for our future, while the Lovegoods, for all their faith in Harry, still give credence to any number of clearly false conspiracies.

But in Carry On, the political threads are left hanging, either handwaved at the finale or ignored completely. The fact that the Mage levies taxes on the powerful old families is cited as a negative behaviour equal to his coercive raids on their homes, for instance, yet we never quite see a distinction drawn between them, nor get any sense of how this works in a wider sense. If Rowell was trying to make a distinct point about the hypocritical evils of left-wing revolution – if the characters had actually discussed the politics of it in any depth, or if the consequences were rendered at more than a background level, like the familial crises caused by Penny’s brother serving in the Mage’s Men – then that would be one thing. I might disagree with such politics, but at least it would feel purposeful, consistent. As it stands, however, the novel feels blandly unconcerned with its own implications, and that doesn’t sit well with me.

In that sense, the English setting, as rendered by an American writer, feels like a metaphor for the novel’s failings: seeming ahead of substance. As an Australian who’s been living in the UK for almost five years now, and who was raised with many British cultural staples, there’s something quite jarring about Rowell’s inconsistent use of British idioms and references, like someone who’s so delighted by the novelty of usage that they haven’t stopped to think if it hangs together. Little things, like Simon using both ‘wicked’ and ‘cream-crackered’ while having no visible dialect – with accents never discussed, in fact, despite their clear significance – or Baz joking about Simon having ‘chavvy’ friends, as though ‘chav’ is synonymous with ‘poor white trash’ instead of referring to a specifically garish urban middle-class subset without an obvious American equivalent.  Even the title, Carry On, gives me pause: within the novel, it’s rendered as callback  to the lyrics of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and as such, I’m not sure if Rowell is even aware of the Carry On films and their place in British culture, let alone why her allusion to them, intentionally or otherwise, is somewhat incongruous.

Given the paucity of representation offered to various groups in mainstream narratives, it’s understandable that we sometimes tend to criticise the ones that do appear with disproportionate fervour: with so few comparable offerings, our emotional investment – and thus our corresponding potential to be personally disappointed – is far higher than when watching Hollywood’s latest straight white Chris explode things onscreen (for instance). But then, that’s the paradox of descriptive criticism: the fewer similar stories you have, the more there is to be said of them individually, while the more similar stories you have, the more there is to be said of them collectively. The only way to react to something in general terms, with general ambivalence, is if it’s abundant enough to be common: otherwise, your words and reactions are always going to be, of necessity, specialised, with just a touch of jargon. And while the clear solution is to make more things, that’s often easier said than done – especially if the burden of proof is set so high that none of us can bear to get it wrong, or to risk getting it wrong, and therefore never try at all.

Carry On, then, is something of a mixed bag. It’s messy in some respects and delightful in others – a product of the times, with all the praise and caveats that implies – but as a publicised queer fantasy romance from a bestselling author at a major press, it’s also a rare enough beast to be important. Parts of it annoyed me greatly, but on balance, I enjoyed it: to paraphrase the greatest ever review of Jupiter Ascending, it is my garbage. It is garbage for me,  and given that I’m otherwise capable of squealing over garbage that manifestly isn’t for me, just because I’m halfway resigned to entire genres treating me like an alien thing, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Carry On, despite its flaws, is definitely worth reading.

 

Warning: spoilers.

When I first sat down to write a review of N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, all I managed to produce was a narrative about my own queerness. This is my second attempt, and even now, I’m struggling not to make it personal. I feel – defensive of queerness, I think, or maybe just tired. A few months ago, I finally realised I was genderqueer as well as bisexual, which epiphany I’m still fully processing, and it’s left me feeling raw. It’s disorienting to suddenly look back over nearly three decades of your life and realise, with a sort of belated weariness, how hella fucking repressed you’ve always been – how repressed you still are, in fact, because identifying your own reactions doesn’t magically change them – and as such, I’m on something of a hair trigger as regards queer tragedy in narrative.

It doesn’t help, of course, that there’s a lot of queer tragedy going around these days. I loved Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs, but I could really have done without the dead queer man at the finale. Being queer and a fan of Supernatural is an exercise in masochism at the best of times, but then Charlie Bradbury winds up slashed to death in a bathtub, and you start questioning your choices all over again. I was looking forward to The Traitor Baru Cormorant for ages, but I couldn’t even get through the first two chapters without screaming internally.

And now there’s The Fifth Season, and I just –

Look. This is a really hard review to write, okay? Because I fucking love Jemisin’s books, and in terms of technical execution, The Fifth Season is her strongest yet.  The worldbuilding is phenomenal; ditto the characterisation, the writing, the plot. Her decision to write Essun’s sections in the seldom-used second person immediate is a stylistic gamble that absolutely pays off, forcing the reader to not just identify with, but to be addressed as a complicated, powerful, competent woman of colour – a woman mourning the murder of her son, no less – and if I have to explain to you why that’s an inherently radical thing right now, then clearly, you haven’t been watching the news. I devoured the whole book python-style, and even as we speak, I’m still making mental grabby hands for the sequel. The Fifth Season is very expressly a novel about oppression; about the monstrous things people do when they stop believing this group or that is fully, truly human, and why you cannot collaborate with or usefully work to change from within a system that’s fundamentally predicated on your inborn inferiority. In the world of the Stillness, orogenes – magic-users who control seismic activity – are both feared and hated, either killed outright for their differences or brutally enslaved, and right from the get-go, zero punches are pulled. The story begins with a mother, Essun, reacting to her husband’s murder of their three-year-old orogene child, and throughout the story, the ways in which children especially are brutalised, abused and dehumanised by a system that deems them monstrous from birth is depicted with a chilling internality: the descriptions aren’t graphic, but then, they hardly need to be.

Far more insidious than overt displays of physical violence are the ways in which such children – and, by extension, the adults they become – are taught to fear and hate themselves. Essun often thinks of herself as a monster, as less than human, and whereas Seth Dickinson, at the start of Baru Cormorant, failed to convince me of how and why a homophobic culture could so thoroughly and swiftly indoctrinate children into mistrusting their own loving families, the orogene self-hated of Jemisin’s world is utterly believable. It’s not just evident in the cruelty and intolerance of the pervading culture: it’s that trained orogenes are denied a full understanding of their magic, not just intellectually, but linguistically, constantly struggling to articulate core parts of themselves for lack of a language tailored to their experiences. Though Jemisin’s world is racially diverse and, in some ways, egalitarian – both men and women can be designated Breeders or hold Leadership positions; trans individuals are accepted in some castes, but not in others – orogenes are slaves, and though they might lie to themselves about it, accepting what they’re taught, that doesn’t make their oppression any less vicious.

Which is, I suspect, why the treatment of the queer characters rubs me so raw. Being orogene is metaphorically representative of various forms of systematic oppression; but as queer characters in this setting still explicitly suffer for and with their queerness as well as for being orogene, it’s much, much harder for a queer reader to maintain a healthy degree of emotional distance. And thus, the problem of Alabaster: a queer man repeatedly forced to have sex with women as part of, effectively, an orogene breeding programme. All his past relationships with men have ended, it’s either implied or stated outright, in tragedy. Not, of course, that any orogene in this setup is exactly free to choose their partners, but whereas Syenite, with whom he’s asked to produce his latest child, is coerced into sex she doesn’t want only by dint of being orogene, Alabaster is additionally coerced to act against his own sexual orientation – a fact of which Syen, and therefore the reader, is initially unaware.

Which leaves me torn: because, on the one hand, it’s important that Jemisin has acknowledged the additional, heteronormative burden of sex in these circumstances – that is, where two parties are being forced to produce a child at someone’s request, regardless of their own desires – as imposed on queer orogenes; but on the other hand, it means you’ve got queer characters being subject to an extra layer of oppression. And if the story ended differently, then I’d be applauding right now, because genrewise, The Fifth Season is arguably a fantasy dystopia, and I am 9000% done with the recent trend in sexually coercive dystopias that are too solidly fixated on magical straight romance saving the day to even bother acknowledging queerness at all, let alone prominently.

But.

Alabaster just broke my fucking heart. Which isn’t to say the rest of the story didn’t move me; it did, powerfully so. Jemisin doesn’t flinch from dark subject matter, and being as how The Fifth Season is the first book in an apocalyptic series, it was hardly going to end on a cheerful note. Nobody in this novel gets a happy ending, partly because the narrative hasn’t actually ended yet, but mostly because there’s nothing happy about it. Essun’s son is still dead, her murdering husband has still absconded with their daughter, the world is still ending, and orogenes are still hunted and feared. I wasn’t expecting Alabaster to prove the exception to the rule just because he’s a queer man, you know? I just didn’t want him to suffer in ways that are explicitly related to – inextricably bound with – our narratives of queer tragedy. He could have suffered in parallel to his queerness, rather than because of it, or in ways that were compounded by it, without compromising the thematic integrity of the story.

But this is what happens instead: his lover, a bisexual man, is brutally murdered, his family is destroyed, and when he shows up at the finale, we’re told he’s dying, physically incapacitated by a sort of magical illness-slash-transformation that’s steadily turning parts of him to stone, leaving him in excruciating pain, and I just – that is the fucking essence of queer tragedy, you know? Dead lover, no family, physically debilitated, terminally ill. And I know, I know this is a book about oppression, I know it’s literally Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies all round, but nobody else in the novel suffers explicitly racist, explicitly sexist persecution in the same way the queer characters experience explicitly queer persecution, like Tonkee being kicked out of her family for being trans or underage Jasper being publicly shamed and outed and punished for enjoying it (we’re told) when an older man touches him sexually: everyone else is persecuted just for being orogene, and while we’re never explicitly told that queerness is bad, we’re never shown any positive iterations of it that don’t end in tragedy, either.

So: The Fifth Season is a powerful, important novel with a lot of intelligent, lamentably relevant things to say about structural violence, bigotry, dehumanisation, colonisation, historical erasure and systematic oppression. But as much as I love the rest of it, I can’t overlook the queer tragedy elements; because in a novel where every ugliness of persecution is being put under the microscope and subversively examined through the lens of orogeny, it stands out that this one trope still holds true. And from the bottom of my poor queer heart, I really wish it didn’t.