On reviewing in a misogynistic, homophobic society

I want to be a better reviewer. I want to make insightful comments about a book’s successes and shine a light on all the areas where it fails, but the latter is hindered by the fact that I still see many failures as defaults.

Case in point: Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon.

I liked it. I reviewed it saying so, pointing out a few faults – but I had come away from the book with a mostly positive feeling.

And then Requires Hate pointed out some rather glaring problems and then went back to point out some more. And the thing is? She’s right.

The women are filtered through the male gaze, even in their own narratives. The girl immediately starts caring about her looks when she encounters an attractive young man. She loses her ability to shapechange when menstruating. Women cry often and men rarely. A woman’s serious problems are dismissed in favour of a man’s lesser ones. (Losing your entire tribe vs losing your house. Hmm.) Women think almost exclusively about men, while men think about everyone. And so on. The book is also completely heteronormative: not a whisper that gay people exist.

When I read Throne of the Crescent Moon, I didn’t notice this – because the above treatment of female characters is entirely the norm. No queer people? Pretty unremarkable, really.

While it’s predictable that as a white Brit I’m going to miss out on cultural fails – such as the failure to depict Muslim women’s complex network of female relationships – I’m a woman and a queer person, yet I missed the problems that Requires Hate highlighted, not because they’re not actually there but because I’m so used to them that they don’t jump out at me as particularly problematic.

This is misogyny and homophobia at work. This is what our society does.

Define women by their looks, mark them out as “special” (the bad kind of special) for menstruating, separate them from one another, have them only think about men, have them turn to men for support, subject them to male sexualisation (but don’t have women sexualising men – instead, ignore or shame female sexuality), have them use patriarchical tools against each other, have a man’s casual misogyny go unquestioned, have mothers killed off and fathers honoured – do all this, and the act of seeing it and critising it becomes a daily struggle because it’s everywhere, it’s in the air we breathe, it’s the background radiation of our lives.

Don’t even mention gay people – and the appearance of gay characters remains exceptional.

I’m tired, so tired, of not noticing this, of treating it as normal. And then I feel that I’m a bad feminist and queer person for not noticing it – when the only people who should feel bad are the ones perpetuating it.

My reviews can’t be perfect. I will miss things – lots of things, sometimes. I hope that I will get better at noticing and talking about failures, as well as celebrating excellent books and providing a starting point for discussion of both failures and successes.

I’m not sure I can hope that misogyny and homophobia – and all other fails – will go away.

Always Coming Home by Ursula K Le Guin

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Always Coming Home is not a novel: it is a glimpse into a possible future, in its rich, complex entirety.

It is built around the story of Stone Telling, an old woman of the Valley, who is sitting like a stone telling what has happened in her life. But the three pieces of her story are short, and around them are: poems and songs written by the people of the Valley, romantic tales and histories and dramatic works and other people’s life stories and an excerpt from a novel, all written by people of the Valley, nonfictional information about the lives and deaths of the people of the Valley, as well as a few metafictional remarks about chronicling the life of these people. It is a brilliant array of voices, each speaking in their own way.

It is definitely the kind of book you have to be in the mood for. Several times I had to put it down to read more conventional narratives – but I always came back to it, I always wanted to learn more about this world and its people, and I was always rewarded for doing so.

With references to flooded cities, lingering chemical/radiation poisoning in the land (which shortens lives and leads to a widespread terminal disease) and the existence of an AI network that provides information to humans but otherwise ignores them, it is clear that Always Coming Home is in the future of our world, specifically of our California. It is a future in which small groups of people have organised themselves in new ways and live far closer to the land than a lot of people do today, and Le Guin is that rare author who makes things like the Valley people seeing animals as people not feel trite.

The patterns of the Valley people’s lives are like none I have encountered in SFF.

It is not always easy to understand – it is, I find myself saying again and again, real. This is worldbuilding. Le Guin has better worldbuilding in her little toe than most SFF writers do in their whole bodies.

Living – from the important milestones of a person’s life to the layout of towns – is built around the idea of a hinge-point, which serves as a metaphor for turning, balance, bridging and contrast. Then there is the naming: a person often takes 3 names in their life, one as a child, one as an adult and one as an older person. Others take just 2. The names come to a person at important points in their lives. A person goes to certain Lodges to learn skills, although there are also skills learnt at home. Family is not always defined by blood/marital relationships. There are several patterns of kinship, complete with incest taboos that would frustrate and confuse many of us today – and they frustrate some of the young people dealing with them. Spiritually, a person may go on walks into the hills – into the animals’ Houses – or may experience visions, or may have very little interest in spirituality. Throughout the year there are celebrations and dances. The people are not entirely disinterested in technology – they go to the Exchange, where they can gain information from the AI network and talk between communities – but they are primarily concerned with their lives, which do not need most technology.

What makes it work so well is that there’s a lot of detail. The culture is not defined by one or two important elements: it is lived differently in each town or village, it changes (eg: the foundation and dispersal of the Warrior lodge), and individuals interact with it differently. Some embrace every convention, some struggle with convention, many problems come from individuals’ personalities and decisions rather than the society, some people elsewhere to solve their problems, most stay and grapple and live.

The Valley is, every now and then, pointed out to be matriarchical and female-focused, which – I don’t actually support the dominance of women, just as I don’t support the dominance of men. Duh? But sometimes, as a woman who reads in a genre that seems to delight in keeping women in their place for the sake of “historical accuracy” (we can imagine dragons and mages, but not egalitarian societies?), it is fun and calming to have the tables turned in our direction for a change.

Fish were supposed to be prejudiced against men: ‘For her I rise, from him I hide.’ A good deal of the fishing in the Na and its tributaries was done, with hook and line and handnet, by old women.

:>

Always Coming Home is also not without Le Guin’s pointed wit, as in this excerpt, which really ought to be required reading for large swathes of the internet:

Ethical counsel from the Under White Mountain people, far down the eastern coast of the Inland Sea, was not very well received. They advised: ‘Do not fight these sick people, cure them with human behavior,’ to which Rekwit responded tersely, ‘You come up north here and do that.’

:> :> :>

So what of Stone Telling’s story, around which this work is built?

It is a story of belonging – or not belonging. Stone Telling is the child of a Valley woman and a Condor man. Raised in the Valley by her mother and grandmother – as her father left long ago – she is often told that she is only half a person. With the hindsight that her latter-life narration affords her, she is aware that as a child – then called North Owl – she failed to connect with the education and spirituality of the Valley. When her father suddenly returns, she finally feels whole.

When I came up to bed I took my bedding out on the balcony so that my mother and father could have the rooms to themselves. I was happy thinking about that as I went to sleep, and the noise around town did not bother me at all. Other children slept on the balcony or in another household when their parents wanted to be by themselves, and now I was like those children.

Then, only months later, her father leaves again, because the Condor people are at war – but he promises North Owl that he will return. Confused and upset by this quick upheavel in her family, she clings to this promise. So it is not surprising that when he does return again, she – an adolescent, recently thwarted in happiness by a relationship that failed before it could truly begin – declares that she will go with him. To the reader it is obvious that she won’t be happy – her father even tells her this, knowing the difference between his people and the Valley people – but she has the foolish determination of an adolescent and her father has about as much spine as an invertebrate. To the Condor city she goes.

The Condor people are a fairly typical fictional sexist society: women are kept indoors unless chaperoned, their marriages are decided by their fathers, they must be virginal upon marriage, they must veil themselves in the company of men. Only men are in charge – and their thirst for making war is undoing them. It is certainly not Le Guin’s most nuanced society. I’ve seen it described as a strawman society, which it is, but I like some of the things Le Guin does with it, although the fact that it seems to evoke Muslim tropes – especially with the veiling – is problematic. I appreciated the fact that their terrible ways are having real consequences for them. I also appreciated that such a society is not considered the default for this future world, or at least this part of the future world. In a genre that defaults to women-hating societies, it is refreshing to find a book that treats one as an abhorrent absurdity.

Raised with every freedom, she clearly does not belong here, although she survives – as women have done in such societies for millennia – by forming close relationships with other women and, later, her infant daughter. Her survival in the city is far more interesting than the city itself – unlike many other writers, Le Guin doesn’t assume that women in such societies lead silent, uninteresting lives. The women are important to one another. They are worthy of the narrative’s attention, far more so than the men.

After a number of years, she finds a way to leave and returns to the Valley, where she remains for the rest of her life: more at home than in the Condor city, but still struggling to belong.

I love this story, even though some of the details could be improved, but I wish it had been longer. As I said earlier, Stone Telling’s story is only a very small portion of this quite hefty book, and while it’s a beautiful story of boundary-crossing and belonging, it’s so brief – it’s more of a sketch than a deeply imagined story. It is pleasantly true to the idea that a person is narrating it (although, of course, there’s dialogue), but in this case I found that a loss. I could have read a whole book about Stone Telling alone.

I also had a problem with the depiction of her mother. While I understood North Owl’s reaction to her father’s appearances and disappearances, the way that her mother is upset by them – broken, really – bothered me. Women can be made deeply unhappy by a failed relationship, but there is a disappointing lack of nuance in her mother’s characterisation, especially considering that this is Le Guin. The presence of many other women’s stories – which show that most women do not act this way – lessens the blow of this considerably, but I can’t go without mentioning it.

I would also have liked to see an exploration of homosexual relationships in this world, but I suspect the book’s age is the telling detail here: it was originally published in 1985. Nonetheless, it manages not to be 100% heternormative, which is more than I can say for a good number of books being published today. In one or two places it is quietly mentioned that same-sex couples exist and are able to live together. But aside from that, the stories and cultural details emphasise male-female relationships and gender division (and I didn’t see any mention of genderqueer people). I wanted more, but, 1985.

But I’m willing to forgive Always Coming Home its few issues because, oh, the worldbuilding of the Valley. I am such a sucker for a well-built world. And it’s so full of women! And the Valley is a place where women are safe. It’s such a delight to learn about it and read the women’s stories.

Above by Leah Bobet

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Above is our world. Safe is below: a place where the mentally and physically other can live away from doctors and institutionalisation and forced surgery. A place they can be safe.

I use the word other because what is important about these people is how they have been judged and treated by the people living Above. They range from schizophrenic to intersex to people with crab-claws and lion-feet and the ability to turn into a bee – the words mentally ill or physically disabled are not right for many of them, although they are all treated as such Above. (I personally found the inclusion of fantastical conditions alongside real-world ones non-problematic because the novel treats them as entirely real: the people who have them are mistreated alongside those with real-world conditions, and are no more special or magical or mistreated than someone who is intersex or has Tourette’s.)

Bobet is indeed making a point about the way our society treats those it considers other.

But Bobet goes beyond this point – not that it necessarily needs to be gone beyond, but she makes it well, in my opinion, and goes beyond it – to question the rigour of the world she creates. So these people dig out a home underneath Toronto and manage to keep it watered, lit, aired and fed. What then? What happens when people are people? Because even people who have been ostracised and othered by society are going to treat each other shittily from time to time. So these people place storytelling at the heart of their society. What happens when the stories are wrong?

The book’s young protagonist, Matthew, the first person to be raised from birth in Safe, is confronted with these questions throughout the book. He is sure that Safe is safe and right and Above is dangerous and full of evil. He is young.

Corner, exiled from Safe when Matthew was a child, is back: with murderous shadows and a desire for revenge. Matthew manages to flee Safe with his sort-of-girlfriend Ariel (who can turn into a bee) and Jack. They must find any other survivors and figure out how to save Safe, but in the meantime Matthew learns more about the true history of Corner’s exile – and the true nature of the world – than he wants.

Matthew is faced with some particularly tough questions that undermine his entire worldview. What happens when Safe isn’t the best solution for everybody? When it isn’t the best solution for the girl he loves? What happens when the leader of Safe has done something irreparably, unforgivably cruel? Bobet does not presume to suggest that therapy or institutionalisation are always right and Safe is wrong – reality is not that straightforward. Some people benefit from therapy. Some people are harmed by it and by the horrible intent of doctors. If Above makes any pronouncements, it is that, where at all possible, the person in question must be able to make their own decisions about the management of their health and body. But, of course, not everyone can make their own decisions – and how do we define the ability to make decisions? These are questions that need to be asked by everyone. I suspect that this aspect of the novel will provoke a wide range of responses from readers, but I personally thought it well-handled. (I am, however, aware of my own privilege as someone who is very able-bodied by society’s standards and mostly neurotypical.)

I also appreciated the uncomfortable way that Matthew grapples with Ariel and his desire to have agency for her: to care for her, because he perceives her as being unable to care for herself (and largely she cannot, but not wholly). Ariel is an abused and mentally unwell girl (and thankfully the former is not suggested to be the cause of the latter) who struggles to give shape and words to her wants – but she has wants, and Matthew is not the sun around which her wants orbit. Ultimately, though the viewpoint remains with Matthew, the narrative itself (as well as Matthew) respects her own agency, her own needs. Like many YA books, the main relationship is incredibly unbalanced – but Above shines a strong light on how uneasy and damaging that imbalance is. And it does not make Matthew a romantic hero at all.

Unfortunately, I did not find the ending quite so well-handled. There is some dithering around the right thing to do about Corner, which is – as with many other questions this book raises – not immediately given an easy answer. But then it is, sort of, with a sudden lack of complexity that left me disappointed.

Another weakness in Above is structural. At the end of each chapter, under a separate header, is a character’s story of how they came to Safe or contributed to it in some way. Matthew, as the Teller of Safe, is the repository of these stories. While these stories expand the reader’s knowledge of the characters and often relate to the main narrative in some way, they sit like big rocks impeding the flow of that narrative. As much as I enjoyed them, I wish they had been better integrated.

In all, Above is a prickly, interesting book, flawed but thought-provoking. It makes a point and tells a story at the same time. It resists offering too many easy solutions.

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

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Throne of the Crescent Moon is a fantasy adventure in a Middle Eastern inspired world. What’s not to like?

Indeed, there is a lot to like in this book.

It is mostly set in the city of Dhamsawaat, which is one of the realest cities I’ve encountered in the genre. Not just because of the pleasing (and less-pleasing) sensory details, from spices to excrement, monumental architecture to crowded streets, but because it is inhabited by people of all backgrounds. It is a full and lively and sometimes unpleasant city, rather than a decorative adventure ground for the very rich. Saladin Ahmed is well aware of the realities of life for the less privileged inhabitants of Dhamsawaat, evidenced very neatly when Miri, a female brothel-owner, says:

And a war inside the city? Almighty God forbid it. Do you know what happens to whores in a war, Doullie? Of course you do. I’ve got arson and rape on the one hand and a clinking coin purse on the other, Doullie. For me and mine, it’s an easy choice. I’ve got a house full of innocent girls to protect here.

It is also a city in flux, as the book takes place during the rise in popularity of the Falcon Prince, a Lord of Thieves type character who wants to overthrow the hereditary leaders. I enjoy a changing world, especially one that calls into question the rightfulness of hereditary rule – it is a refreshing change from most adventure fantasy, which is notorious for maintaining the status quo, usually by restoring the “rightful” person to the throne. While the Falcon Prince isn’t who I would choose to a rule a city either, that’s not really the point: the city is questioning its ways and changing, because that’s what cities do.

However, the Falcon Prince’s plot against the throne is not the main focus of the plot. That lies with Adoulla, the last ghul hunter, who is old and tired and wants only to retire, except that duty means he keeps heeding the call to action.

Adoulla has now been called to fight more ghuls, but these ones are more ferocious than anticipated – and controlled by someone with terrifying powers that threaten Dhamsawaat and the whole world beyond it. Adoulla and his young devout Dervish assistant Raseed must join forces with Zamia, a young desert tribeswoman determined to avenge her family who were killed by the same ghuls, and two of Adoulla’s old friends, Litaz and Dawoud, to find a way to save Dhamsawaat.

Unfortunately, after opening with a fun sequence of Adoulla and Raseed leaving the city, fighting the ghuls, meeting Zamia and returning to the city, Throne of the Crescent Moon starts to plod. For several chapters, different characters set out across the city to have an important conversation or acquire an important item: Adoulla talks to Miri, Raseed goes to buy an alchemical ingredient, Dawoud tries to get an audience with the Khalif to convince him of the danger Dhamsawaat faces. While all of these individual pieces are interesting and sometimes exciting (Raseed encounters the Falcon Prince, Dawoud’s audience does not go well), they do not cohese into a well-paced whole. Finally, in the third act, the pace kicks up again as the group set out to fight the power behind the ghuls, which takes some interesting twists along the way (although I found some aspects of the resolution a little too easy).

This may sound like I found Throne of the Crescent Moon disappointing, but that is happily not the case: it is an enjoyable book for other reasons.

One of these is the women. As the quote from Miri hopefully hinted, the women of Throne of the Crescent Moon have opinions and strengths – an array of strengths, even. While Miri is only a minor character in terms of the narrative, she affects the main male character, Adoulla, and causes him to make a significant decision: she is important to Adoulla, and the narrative does not treat her impact as trivial or negative. I hope we see more of her in future books. That she provides a voice for sex workers in her brothel and treats them as working people worth defending and caring for is an additional, excellent touch. Sex workers are not there for male titillation: they are people, potentially very vulnerable people if war breaks out.

Litaz, the other mature woman, is a pleasure to read: competent and collected, she provides wisdom alongside Adoulla and Dawoud, and in contrast to hot-headed Raseed and Zamia. She is not a warrior woman, preferring to use her alchemy as a defensive weapon if she must get involved in violence, although she also carries a dagger. Clearly she would rather not get involved at all, but the dangers facing Dhamsawaat call for her. But, though she wants to defend Dhamsawaat from evil, she has her own, personal wants too, chief among them a desire to return to her birth-land before her husband is too old and unwell to travel: she is more than what the immediate narrative demands of her.

Zamia and Raseed are the hot-headed youngsters, usually the focus of an adventure fantasy, but in this case are paired up with calmer, older people (to the sporadic frustration of both parties). It is another way in which Throne of the Crescent Moon is refreshing: it is not wholly about young, able-bodied warriors.

I liked Zamia a lot. She’s tough and powerful and passionate, with a quest for revenge that she won’t let anyone get in the way of. In her band, she was given the role of protector despite her youth and her gender – women aren’t even supposed to have her shape-changing abilities. I would have liked to hear about her mother or her relationship with other women of the band, though. Zamia’s childhood trips a little into the One Cool Girl trope, in that she doesn’t really seem to think about other girls or women and is closest to her father. In Dhamsawaat she gravitates towards Raseed, because of their closeness in age and her fascination with how devout he is – and, quickly and very predictably, their mutual attraction.

While I found the speed at which they fell in love rather ridiculous, I liked the reason: it is not just physical but spiritual, as they are drawn to each other’s devoutness. They also have a couple of fun awkward moments, my favourite being when Zamia takes Raseed aside and points out that if he does want to marry her, he’ll have to ask her directly, because her father is no longer alive. Cue a very flustered Raseed. Can we have a small cheer for the woman being the more direct, assertive one of the two? Yes, let’s have a small cheer. (Spoilers for the ending: I like that they don’t get together, because they both have other paths to take that are more important than romance, although I think it’s quite clear they will be together by the end of the series – but by that point they will be more mature, worldly people, which is infinitely more interesting than going from 0 to Teen Love & Marriage in just a few hundred pages.)

There was, however, one woman-related moment that made me side-eye the book:

Before she could get her dagger up, the man punched her in the face. Stars of red light and burning tears filled her eyes, and blood flowed from her nose. She was a woman. God had not made her body for this.

Erm. Being punched in the nose does that to everyone, no matter the configuration of their body. Really. I got taught in self-defence classes to palm-punch attackers for that very reason: it fucking hurts and it brings tears to the person’s eyes, hopefully buying the puncher some time to run away. And I’m not sure why Litaz, who has thus far shown no signs of internalised misogyny – indeed, Dhamsawaat seems to be vaguely egalitarian, although the issue is never specifically addressed – is suddenly spouting off this idea that women aren’t built for fighting.

Zamia’s character makes it clear that this isn’t factually the case – and Litaz is far from helpless, in her own way – which meant this rather came out of nowhere.

The spiritual aspect of Throne of the Crescent Moon is another of its strengths. Faith is omnipresent and unquestioned, while being quite individual: Adoulla and Raseed have very different relationships with God, much to Raseed’s endless dismay. (The dynamic between the two is good fun.) It is a very real faith, a part of life, as vital as eating, and that too is rare in a genre where vague paganism or nods towards the existence of a church are much more common. It is also a faith based on Islam, which is rarer yet.

So there’s a lot I liked about Throne of the Crescent Moon. I wish I could have loved it. It’s certainly a fun read and refreshing in several ways, but at its core it’s a light adventure novel – and while I have nothing against light adventure novels per se, I found myself wondering if Throne of the Crescent Moon could have been funner, or chewier, or something more than it was, which at times felt a bit thin despite the great city and diverse characters. That said, I did enjoy it and I look forward to seeing where Ahmed takes the characters in the second book: though I’m slightly underwhelmed, I still want to read more.


Now see this note about reviewing books in a society that encourages the internalisation of misogyny and homophobia. While I enjoyed this book as I read it, I missed a lot of problems because they are thoroughly normalised by our society. To read about the problems in detail, I refer you to Requires Hate: Part 1 and Part 2.

Interfictions 2 edited by Delia Sherman & Christopher Barzak

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Interfictions 2 is an anthology of “interstitial” writing: writing that does not conform to typical genre expectations, writing that breaks, transcends, ignores, crosses boundaries. I love the idea of this. Setting boundaries around art is, surely, missing the point of art, which is to express oneself and one’s relationship with the world, and how can we put that in boxes? The problem with Interfictions 2 is that it seems to be aching to showcase the kind of fascinating fiction you will never find elsewhere, and that simply isn’t the case; it is, instead, disappointingly mediocre.

This is not true of every story. The short opener, Jeffrey Ford’s “The War Between Heaven and Hell Wallpaper”, is pleasantly strange: an apparently autobiographical account of a weird pre-sleep vision of his wallpaper coming to life followed by a dream inspired by that vision and by events several days earlier. It simultaneously captures the odd illogic of dreams and the quite logical way in which events and dreams connect.

My favourite in the anthology is Carlos Hernandez’ “The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria”, which is mostly a flashback to a young Cuban boy living in the USA who learns about Santeria in order to help his father find love again after the death of his mother. Complicating matters is the fact that his mother occasionally comes back from the dead to talk to him and his father. The story unapologetically contains conversations in Spanish and, as the title suggests, it delves into the difficulties of being a Cuban in the USA. I’m close to saying it’s worth buying the anthology for.

It is followed by Lavie Tidhar’s “Shoes”, which is a meandering recollection of a man being stolen from Vanuatu to work in Australia. While not as engaging as Hernandez’ story, it casts a light on a part of the world and an ugly part of its history that we in the West would rather not consider. Brian Francis Slattery’s “Interviews After the Revolution” then examines the disconnect between Western developers in poorer nations and the people of those nations: the former want profit and see themselves as bringing something good to this nation (while not actually, you know, employing the local people or in any sizeable way benefiting the local economy), the latter want to live well and change their home for the better and view the Western development as an odd intrusion.

Interfictions 2 pleasantly surprised me by having quite a few science fiction stories in it, with my favourite being Alaya Dawn Johnson’s “The Score”, a collection of emails, interviews, news clippings and more that detail the development of conspiracy theories and attempts to tell the truth surrounding the suspicious death of a protestor in police custody in New York. It goes into the near-future, where the world has taken an unsurprising turn for the worse – and people are still trying to muddle through and understand the truth. The story also takes a surprising turn, in having the friend of the dead protestor form an odd but ultimately very friendly relationship with the conspiracy theorist who would usually be dismissed as being too “nutty” to take seriously. Johnson makes this story – familiar to anyone who follows the news – a very human, personal one, while casting a critical eye on the current state of world politics.

The rest of the stories did not engage me as much as these.

Some actively pissed me off. There’s a peculiar number of stories dealing with the loss of a family member or friend and quite a few of these are stories about dead women. This does not inherently bother me (see Hernandez’ story, although that’s helped by the mother not being entirely dead), but sometimes it does. Take, for example, William Alexander’s “After Verona”. It is about a young man dealing with the loss of his friend, Verona, who was beaten to death in her apartment. It is a story about a woman’s violent death that is actually about a man’s pain. Given the way our media and culture dismisses and distances itself from female narratives in these contexts, this story made me really uncomfortable: it takes the focus away from Verona, just like almost every story of a woman’s violent death.

Another story about a woman’s death is Will Ludwigsen’s “Remembrance is Something Like a House”, about a house that heaves itself up and walks across the USA to tell the truth to its former inhabitants about the woman who died in their house. I’m going to spoil the ending here: the man who was arrested, imprisoned and executed for killing the girl was innocent, because the girl actually died by accident. What makes me hate this story is that the man is a Polish immigrant. The revelation of the truth is at the very end: plot twist! I think the house’s guilt is meant to stand in for the guilt we should feel for quickly jumping to conclusions about immigrants (and it is implied that the police did just that), but it doesn’t work for me.

What both stories do that bothers me is attempt to make good points – it is bad that women are beaten to death! it is bad that immigrants are too quickly accused of crimes they didn’t commit! – but they do it by killing those people, by doing the very negative thing they are speaking out about in order to make their point. (It also bothers me that William Alexander is not a woman and, to my knowledge, Will Ludwigsen is not Polish.) I don’t know. Stories can do this well, but, thinking about it, they are stories about the people who are being oppressed or discriminated against, while these two are about the man and the house. Maybe that’s the difference: that when writing about injustices to people, writers need to be telling those people’s stories directly, not telling them via a privileged or non-involved party. Compare to Hernandez’ story, which is from the Cuban boy’s perspective. Compare Slattery’s, which has interviews with the Westerners (mostly to show how ridiculous they are) and with the local people.

Then we get to M Rickert’s “Beautiful Feast”, which is one of those ~delightful~ American perspectives on the Vietnam War: it was bad, so bad, for the Americans and maybe a little bit for the Vietnamese people but mostly for the Americans. Wait, I don’t mean delightful. I meant racist, vile, imperialist.

Scanning the Table of Contents, I remember the other stories as being mostly mediocre. Some were a bit interesting: Shira Lipkin’s “Valentines” is about navigating the disjointed memory loss associated with epilepsy, Elizabeth Ziemska’s “Count Poniatowski and the Beautiful Chicken” is about a Polish man time-travelling in an attempt to stop the rise of Nazi Germany and the death of his family, Lionel Davoust “L’Ile Close” is a really awesome look at how the tales of Arthur repeat themselves, over and over, right until the end which made my eyes roll out of my face (THE DEVIIIIL is not a good twist, just saying). The others, however, were often a chore to read.

Is this interstitial fiction? At the end of it, I don’t really know. Certainly there is a blending of literary and genre flavours to the stories, as well as a blending of forms. Certainly there are tales of people who are themselves liminal and boundary-crossers. I do feel that there is more to be examined here – hopefully, with a better selection of stories. As a collection of fiction, Interfictions 2 has a few gems but largely stumbles and falls into mediocrity. (I did like how the stories all seem to dovetail into one another, though. That’s some nice anthologising.)

Black Sun Rising by Celia Friedman

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I usually give bad books ample opportunity to improve before dropping them. Short stories I’ll skip after only one or two boring pages, but books usually get 50, even 100.

Not this one. The 8-page prologue was enough.

The premise is that humans colonised a planet called Erna about a thousand years before Black Sun Rising begins. Then, due to problems, their contact with other humans was cut-off, leaving the people of Erna to fend for themselves. It’s a pretty well-used scifi trope, which hasn’t stopped authors like Maureen McHugh doing excellent jobs of it. This, however, is not an excellent job. Not even a passable one.

Look, I don’t expect every scifi novel to have the cultural depth and well-crafted thoughtfulness of Mission Child, although I certainly wish more did. I just… can authors give just a moment’s thought to what cultures in the future will look like? How, in some ways, they will be fundamentally not like ours? How the people in them will face different problems as well as familiar problems? How the people will think similarly and differently to us? I am coming to really appreciate a well-thought-out future-culture, as in Mission Child, as in certain aspects of China Miéville’s Embassytown (although other aspects, such as the Anglo-dominance, are questionable), as in Liz Williams’ Winterstrike (matriarchies on the moon!), as in Kameron Hurley’s amazing God’s War and Infidel (again, not without their problems, but HOMG my love for these books is a burning thing, and partly because she has put so much thought into how those future-cultures will work).

So, Black Sun Rising.

After however many hundreds/thousands of years it took humans to reach and colonise Erna, after a thousand years of isolation, the society depicted in the prologue is… pseudo-medieval Europe.

lolwhut

That’s just not even possible or logical or anything approaching sense. Thousands of years in the future and the culture goes back to medieval Europe, complete with castles, an organised church (called the church, even), what looks like a medieval-ish class hierarchy, medieval-ish dress, horses (sorry, unhorses)? And, naturally, everyone appears to be white. I can believe a reversion to a simpler way of living, as in Mission Child – it is practical, in such a harsh environment, to live as Janna’s people do, in common with many Arctic peoples on our world – but there’s a certain kind of complexity in the social organisation of medieval Europe that doesn’t organically grow from the environment; it is not the only good option, far from it. So, why? Why medieval Europe? Why not something new? The only explanation I can reach is a complete and utter lack of imagination on the author’s part, not to mention a side-order of that specifically Anglophonic presumption that the future will be utterly ours.

And that is why I will not be reading any more of Black Sun Rising.

Yume no Hon by Catherynne M Valente

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Valente is probably best known for her excellent duology The Orphan’s Tales and her crowdfunded children’s book The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making , as well as Deathless, Palimpsest and the Prester John trilogy, but back in the mid-00s she had a few short novels published by Prime Books – and one of these, Yume no Hon, remains my favourite of all her books to date.

Put a truce to any thoughts of departure. I am she who glides through the sky when the snow is falling fast, the lady of snow and darkness. I am a ghost, which is not to say I ever lived. I am a memory, which is not to say I ever died. I begin at the moment the ice on the river begins to crack like bones of glass. I am a silence written on pulp-mash paper, in ink drawn from village-wells.

Yume no Hon is about loneliness and madness and the ways we turn our lives mythical to escape mundanity.

It is about an old woman who is the spinx…

It would, of course, be as true to say I stood outside the Theban wall whose mud-bricks are the color of pages and asked riddles with lips of verdigris.

who is being turned into a temple…

There is much activity on my body, and they have poured the foundation of the Palace from a blood-mash of cartilage. The miners tap, tap, tap at my jaw through the night, piling up teeth like cairns, piling them up in wheelbarrows and crates, in baskets and slings. I have heard Mountain suggest seventeen balconies. River plans a tower from which to view the History, when it is finished.

who climbs a ruined pagoda…

I have become accustomed to the second floor of the dream-pagoda. A few centipedes, with bodies of jointed rubies, have made my acquaintance. The floorboards have fallen through in places. Dust and flecks of paint hang suspended in the air which is often gold these days, under a haze of low clouds that suggest the sun.
Ayako moves more slowly now, as though she/I cannot connect to her body. I hope that when the dream of the villager comes again I will be able to catch him – I think another dream might cure the creaking of her bones. I hate the sound. The other women do not creak.

who speaks with the landscape around her…

“Tell me a lesson about water, River,” I murmur, for River has always been my tutor, less stern than Mountain in his dreaming heights. And when River speaks, his voice is yellow and blue, the fringe on an Emperor’s sedan chair, rustling imperceptible gold into the wind:
When you put your white foot into me, I part for you. But when you drink, though it is cool and sweet, you part for me.

who is mad and lost; all and none of the above.

It is Valente’s prose at its wildest and most rich, mining the mingled depths of experience and myth – and quantum physics and the 72 Heian-era calendar divisions – to blur the line between small and large stories.

I love Yume no Hon. I could quote it forever. It manages to capture the personal enormity of being alone while taking diversions into the Enuma Elish and the lifecycle of cicadas. In its many voices, it reveals the complexity of one woman. It is heady and real all at once.

There is nothing traditionally grandiose about it – no nations are re-shaped, no heroes are set on grand quests. There is a woman and the grandness of her self.

That is it. That is everything.

There is no way for me to be objective about this book.

If you want to buy Yume no Hon, you’re best off buying her omnibus Myths of Origin, which collects all 4 of early short novels in a single edition. It’s cheaper than the hardcover Yume no Hon and it contains 4 novels instead of 1 – get to it!

Among Others by Jo Walton

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Among Others is a very personal book. It is about a teenaged girl trying to find her place in a world that doesn’t understand her and, when faced with trauma and other difficulties, seeking solace in books. I think that this either speaks to a reader or it doesn’t; it either resonates or leaves the reader uninterested.

It is also a very British book, although I doubt that you have to be British to connect to it. It made me love it even more, though.

There is more to Among Others than the lonely geek’s narrative, which by itself would probably have bored me (even though, as someone who tried to ignore friendlessness by immersing myself in Anne McCaffrey and Tamora Pierce, I identified strongly with Mor’s loneliness). Before the book’s opening, Morwenna and her twin sister Morganna faced off against their mother, Liz, a mentally ill witch who planned to wield a terrible magic spell. They won, but at great cost: Morganna was killed and Morwenna crippled. The surviving Mor used the social care system to escape her mother and wound up with her father, who abandoned their family shortly after the girls’ birth and who now sends her off to an English boarding school, Arlinghurst.

There, Mor’s life is almost normal: ostracised for being foreign (Welsh in an English school) and different and smart, unable to relate to the other girls, grappling with her sexuality, reading books to cope. But she is also coping with her grief at Morganna’s death, her decreased mobility, her loneliness – and with the lack of fairies in the un-wild land around Arlinghurst and, then, with her mother’s attempts to contact her from Wales.

Magic is a thread woven through Among Others, and it is deftly, wonderfully done, but it is not the only thread.

There is a bitter reality that runs throughout this book too. Mor laments that the strict rules of the social care system helped her escape her mother, but wouldn’t home her with the aunt who effectively raised her. No, she must go to her father, because as the closer blood-relative he is obviously the better fit despite his abandonment of her family years ago. Mor encounters unpleasant as well as well-meaning-but-foolish attitudes towards her disability, even from people she otherwise likes, and she longs to run again. Doctors make decisions about her, not with her. In a period of particular loneliness and depression, she reacts to unwanted sexual attention (which she manages to deflect) by wondering if she should be grateful that someone likes her that way.

There is grief, understated – because the narrative is in the form of Mor’s diary, and it is clear (to me, at least) that she actively tries not to write about it – but present. Sometimes it overcomes her. Sometimes she manages to put it to one side. Life goes on – but Mor never stops grieving for her twin.

There is joy in reading, specifically reading SFF, which is one of the novel’s most visible elements and will probably elicit strong reactions in readers – whether eye-rolling or love. I haven’t read many of the books discussed, or I have different opinions to Mor (Lord of the Rings is deathly dull, in my opinion, but Mor loves it), but I definitely related to the joy she finds in other worlds.

And, through all this, the magic: Mor remembering past spells, to destroy a factory or deter a creepy boy; trying to communicate with the local fairies and understanding their warnings; dealing with her mother. It is entirely possible to read the magic as mental illness and/or imagination, but I never believed that for a moment. It feels like real-world magic, mostly small-scale as far as the wider world is concerned, but potentially devastating for individuals. It fits naturally alongside the bitter reality, grief and teenaged loneliness and joy.

Not everything in Among Others works perfectly. The diary format does, as is always the case, strain reality a little bit – she has a far better memory for events than I do, let’s just say, even if we assume that she’s paraphrasing dialogue.

I was also… impressed and made a bit incredulous by the open lesbianism in the school. I went to an all-girls school (albeit not a boarding school) and it was the kind of place where no one came out, no one made subtle moves on one another as in Among Others, no one even hinted at not being interested in guys; I had my first lesbian dream there and started being interested in other girls’ bodies, but totally freaked out because NO HOMO. I didn’t kiss a girl for two years after leaving that school. While I wouldn’t say that anyone at Arlinghurst is out as we understand that term today, there is open lesbian interest among some girls and Mor is able to consider her sexuality and decide that she’s straight, rather than default to it because NO HOMO. Maybe there are schools as open as that – I hope so, because it was lovely to read – but I found it a bit difficult to believe.

I was generally skeptical of Mor’s analytical abilities, whether criticising texts or considering her own life. Granted, she’s been through a lot more than the average teenager, which tends to accelerate maturation and self-reflection. But as with her very comfortable thoughts about her sexuality, she sometimes feels like a much older, wiser person.

All that said, I loved Among Others. It beautifully makes magic a part of reality, and Mor’s reality is not always comfortable, not always kind. I wanted her to find her place in the world. Among Others may not speak to all readers, but it spoke to me.

The Bestiary by Nicholas Christopher

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The Bestiary is one of those books that makes me want to take whoever wrote the back-cover copy outside and have stern words with them for making it sound far more interesting than it turned out to be. Take this:

Xeno turns his early fascination with animals into a personal obsession: his search for the Caravan Bestiary. This medieval text, lost for eight hundred years, supposedly details the animals not granted passage on the Ark—griffins, hippogriffs, manticores, and basilisks—the vanished remnants of a lost world sometimes glimpsed in the shadowy recesses of our own.

A strange, lost bestiary! A lifelong search for it!

The problem is that you really need to pay attention to this sentence:

The Bestiary is ultimately a tale of heartbreak and redemption.

This is what the book is actually about: a young man’s inner journey guided by his quest for the bestiary. And this might have worked, if Xeno Atlas was a remotely interesting man.

There are certainly interesting moments in his life. The death of his grandmother, very early in the book, is one.

“He said there are other animals like that,” she went on. “‘The lost animals,’ he called them, that didn’t make it onto the ark at the time of the Great Flood. One day these animals are gonna be discovered, and all of their stories told, and the great mysteries will come clear.” She closed her eyes. “That panther promised me that soon my spirit’s gonna move on. If you’re lucky, it doesn’t live in heaven – forget all that – but inside another creature on earth. Otherwise, it becomes a lost soul, like one of those seabirds that tries to fly to the moon but instead falls into what my grandmother Silvana called il mare di tempo – the sea of time – and never returns. When I was a girl, and we went to Messina, we waited in the dunes all night for a look at those birds. I don’t have to wait long now, Xeno, no matter where I’m going.”
“Don’t say that, Grandma.” I choked back tears, but she was happy with the thought, and she pulled me close and kissed me.
That last night, I was eating a sandwich in the kitchen when I head a glass break in her room. Then Re started barking. Evgénia had just stepped out the front door, on her way home, and I cried out to her as I raced down the hall.
At my grandmother’s door, I stopped cold. Her bed was empty. Re was barking at the window, where the red fox I had seen years before was slipping out onto the fire escape, into the snow.
I turned to Evgénia as she reached my side, and when I looked back into the room, the fox was gone and my grandmother was lying in bed.

She opens up the possibility of a world far bigger and more magical than Xeno previously perceived.

A short while later, a teacher’s offhand remark sends Xeno to the school library, where he begins his lifelong interest in bestiaries, specifically the lost Caravan Bestiary. Guided by this teacher, people met later in life and various fortunate selections of reading materials, Xeno fills gaps in the bestiary’s history and brings forward the date of its disappearance from the historical record.

Where he is researching the bestiary, I loved the book.

Aristotle was intrigued by fantastical animals, and while completing his Anamalia, wrote a book about them, Peri Mysterion (“Mysteries”), which inspired the first compilers of the Caravan Bestiary. The original disappeared in the fire at the Great Library, but traces of it were said to have survived. Hoping to find them, I turned to the chroniclers who annotated the Animalia and all of Aristotle’s other works. Most of these medieval texts were only available on microfiche; the originals were in Europe. In one of the most obscure, least promising tracts, written in 1382 by a prelate from Languedoc named Guy Pelletier, I stumbled on the crucial clue that marked the real starting point of my search for the Caravan Bestiary.

…and…

Among the books I found right away were: Nicholas of Cusa and Roman Cosmology by Michael Brox; The Illuminated Books of the Alpine Monasteries and Guillaume Heinault & Henri Metz: The Techniques of Illumination by Madame Faville; and a bizarre monograph by Niccolo Cava entitled Empedocles’s Theory of Evolution. Of course only Madame Faville’s books had any relation to the Caravan Bestiary (I learned about the monks’ writing instruments, vellum, and methods of transcription), though she never mentions it specifically. It was more difficult to track down some early essays by Cava and Faville that pertained directly to the bestiary, presenting their respective theories about sources that predated Physiologus. For Cava, it was obscure chroniclers like Tatian, a second-century heretic whose animal catalog has disappeared, and Ctesias the Cnydian, court doctor to King Artaxeises II in the fifth century B.C., who set out to write a treatise on falconry and ending up cataloging the animals of Central Asia. Madame Faville was also intrigued by Horapollo, a fifth-century A.D. Egyptian who at various times was a grammarian, clairvoyant, spy, and high priest in the great Temple of Isis. In Book II of his famous study of hieroglyphics, Hieroglyphica, he wrote eighty-six chapters on animals that became the European template for allegorizing animals.

Isn’t it marvellous? :3

The problem is that the bestiary ends up not being the most important thing. That honour goes to Xeno’s life – and, to borrow a friend’s excellent phrasing, it is a very frictionless one. Losing a beloved grandmother and having an emotionally distant father (and no mother, as she died in childbirth for maxmimum angst) are not easy experiences for a child, and it is as a child that Xeno is most relatable. But as a student and an adult, he lives a surprisingly easy life.

His wealthy, distant father sends him money for university. He serves in Vietnam and gets shot at for a while, but he doesn’t seem to have any lingering effects. (Naturally, it is a Vietnam narrative with only American perspectives, EUGH FUCK OFF.) He gets sent to Hawai’i to recuperate, meets his retired teacher, and accidentally finds a book that gives him a clue towards the Caravan Bestiary’s location. Most of his research is like this. Someone digs up information for him or he happens to read the right book. While writing about the genuine academic slog would not necessarily make for a good read, this bypasses the stress and strain of research in favour of other people’s work and some lovely coincidences; the text does mention the amount of reading Xeno must do in-between making discoveries, but I never got the impression that his research stressed or upset him in any particularly serious way. Later on he inherits a whole ship, saves some animals for his girlfriend and then sails off for the Aegean to follow the Bestiary’s trail personally.

Really? I’m really meant to care about this guy’s life? Oh, he feels uncomfortable about his father handing him money; oh, he angsts a lot. But there is so little genuine strife. Xeno doesn’t really have to work for anything in his life; it drifts away or gets handed to him regardless of what he does. Nor does he ever seem to have strong, tangible emotions. He sits on the page, listless and uninteresting.

(Compare to, say, Onyesonwu of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, who puts herself through genital mutilation in order to make friends and has to continually fight to get the training and respect she deserves. There are some happy coincidences along her journey, but damn, that woman has to fight for so much; there is such a difference between a character like her and a drifting, easily treated character like Xeno.)

I do love how The Bestiary treats the fantastical as part of reality; it is a book suffused in myth, from an offhand mention of a fox being able to leave tracks in one direction while travelling in another, to people turning into animals. It tries, it really does, to be wonderful.

But it keeps being tripped up by Xeno, who – even at the very end, an ending that I otherwise liked for its balance of realism and result – is dull as concrete. Here are the final lines of the book:

Later, poised to snap the last shot in my camera, I was puzzled to find it had already been taken. When the film was developed, there were all the photographs of the mural and then one of Lena and me in the sea, shot from the beach. Everything was as I remembered it: the clear water, the heavy clouds, her shining hair. We remained in the sea the rest of the afternoon, naked, weightless, riding the swell, before swimming in at twilight and returning to the dock where the launch was waiting, the pilot at the wheel, his cap pulled low, his cigarette glowing when he raised it to his lips.

This is it. This is, quite literally, the snapshot we are meant to have of Xeno after the book is complete: a distant face bobbing the sea. Well, it’s appropriate for him. Not, however, for what is supposed to be an intensely personal quest. I wanted to feel something more than his vague, distant contentment.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

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Nnedi Okorafor is one of the most interesting writers working in SFF today, blending fantasy with science fiction and situating her narratives in Africas of the future. She recently won the World Fantasy Award for Who Fears Death – which is awarded in the form of a bust of Lovecraft, notorious racist, anti-Semite and various other flavours of bigot, to which Okorafor responded with beautiful incision.

I read her novels Zahrah the Windseeker and The Shadow Speaker before coming to Who Fears Death, and by now I’ve noticed a narrative trend in her work: a girl or young woman comes into her magical abilities while finding/forging friendships and travelling to a strange land to effect important changes. Her newest novel Akata Witch, not yet out in paperback, appears to have the same basic narrative; I do not know about Long Juju Man.

While I would love to see what Okorafor does with different narratives, I really can’t complain about this one. It’s female, it’s about strength and courage and friendship, it’s about making changes to the world – a black woman making changes to the world. How often do we see that narrative in SFF?

Of the three books I’ve read so far, Who Fears Death accomplishes this narrative most effectively.

Who Fears Death is also the darkest of the three, as Onyesonwu, the eponymous main character, is the child of rape, and she recounts for the reader her mother’s narrative of that rape. Because Okorafor is a) a good person and b) a good writer, it’s violent and gutting and not remotely sexualised. The recounting is done from her mother’s viewpoint, making it entirely her story – one, ultimately, about her survival.

“You don’t fool me, Najeeba. Get up,” Amaka said. The left side of Amaka’s face was blue-purple. Her left eye was swollen shut.
“Why?” Najeeba said in her new voiceless voice.
“Because that’s what we do.” Amaka held out a hand.

Onyesonwu’s mother, Najeeba, eventually gets up, although there is another woman, Teka, who chooses not to. Women respond differently to such violence, after all.

How Najeeba reacts is to walk home, where her husband rejects her, and then into the desert to die. But upon realising the rape has resulted in a pregnancy, she chooses to stay alive, although she spends much of that time away from herself, as Alusi: “the desert spirit who loved to wander off to distant places.” (Later, it is clear her life has opened up further, becoming fuller and happier – but in the immediate aftermath, she is raw with hurt.)

Then she gives birth.

Hours later, the child emerged. Najeeba could have sworn the child was shrieking even before it came out. So angry. From the moment the child was born, Najeeba understood that it would dislike surprises and have little patience. She cut the cord, tied the belly button, and pressed the child to her breast. A girl.

Female anger runs throughout this book, throughout Onyesonwu’s life, and it is that anger and determination and courage that will change the world. Wonderful, strong anger. Do you know how often women are told to calm down in discussions about sexism? Who Fears Death pisses on anyone who says that: anger is held up as a reality, a source of strength, a woman’s tool against the world.

Ultimately this is Onyesonwu’s narrative, not Najeeba’s, and there are many troubles for Onyesonwu to face. Firstly she is Ewu, a child of rape, physically different to her Okeke people because her mother was black – a full-blooded Okeke woman – and the rapist was white – a Nuru man, whose race have been oppressing the Okeke for a long time, according to the dictates of a Great Book which establishes the oppression of Okeke by Nuru as the right way of life. Some Okeke starting to fight back has caused war across the land, which is what led to the rape of Najeeba and the other women of her village. Ewu people are tolerated among the Okeke but they’re not made to feel welcome. It is believed that, as the product of violence, they too will be violent, a perception that Onyesonwu has to grapple with often. In many places, they are treated with more violence. This is a complicated world.

Onyesonwu is also female, and this world is also a sexist one.

In the village that she and Najeeba have settled in, girls undergo circumcision in their 11th year. As Ewu, Onyesonwu is outsider enough – she goes against her mother’s wishes and gets circumcised, and that way becomes friends with the three other girls undergoing the rite at the same time.

The lies they are told about circumcision are painful to read. As a result of the mutilation, arousal causes them pain – but that will stop when they are married, they are told, for it is only a curse to protect them before their marriage.

Training in magic, meanwhile, is for men, so Onyesonwu must fight to be taught.

This day, I’d been a vulture for over half an hour and that sense of power was still with me when I returned to Aro’s hut as myself. … I gnashed my teeth as I walked up to the cactus gate for the second time in my life. As I passed, again one of the cactuses scratched me. Show your worst, I thought. I kept walking.

Anger, wonderful anger.

She literally does fight, in a later encounter, and by physically overpowering Aro (a man) she wins his training, because being polite won’t get her any-fucking-where.

After seeing visions of her biological father and experiencing the full magical initiation, she sets off on a mission: to fight her father and change the situation between Nuru and Okeke. She is joined by Mwita, a young Ewu man who has become her boyfriend, her three friends from the circumcision rite, and the fiancé of one of those young women. They travel across a difficult landscape: the harsh desert, towns where Ewu are considered good for prostitution only and a group of men try to rape Onyesonwu (she, fortunately, is able to unleash a great deal of violent magic and stop them), towns where her friends are attacked for travelling with Ewu, and eventually the Nuru cities. They face death – and some of them find it.

While I enjoyed their journey greatly, I find that Okorafor’s narratives are littered with very meaningful random encounters, and Who Fears Death is no exception once they begin travelling to the Nuru lands. This both works and doesn’t work for me. On the one hand, life itself is very random. On the other hand, there are lot of meaningful random encounters. Of course they meet long-lost relatives of a woman they know. Of course they meet the desert tribe who live in sandstorms. Of course they find a cave of old computers from a time before (implied to be our time – Who Fears Death is set in a magical future Africa). It manages to feel a bit directionless and disjointed even though there is a very concrete direction, and I say that as someone who usually enjoys meandering plots.

It also suffers a little from being so focused on Onyesonwu. Najeeba, we find out, has received magical training in her absence and aids Onyesonwu by casting her spirit-form ahead of Onyesonwu’s journey to alert them to her arrival, acting as a kind of prophet and inciter. This is great – but because it comes out of nowhere to Onyesonwu, it comes out of nowhere to us, too. Again, this is realistic – there is more to the world than just Onyesonwu’s actions – but I would have liked to see a bit beyond Onyesonwu’s viewpoint. This might be veering into the territory of personal preference, though.

However, through it all, the relationships in Who Fears Death develop in very real, complicated ways and this I loved. Onyesonwu’s friends get angry at her and each other, they resent one another, they cause each other hurt. Her friends make unpleasant, unthinking remarks about her Ewu status and sometimes Onyesonwu doesn’t have the energy to call them on it. Mwita is sometimes disgusted at her for being so loud and forceful and tells her to be a quieter person; though he is Ewu too, he has male privilege. Yet at many other times they are wonderfully supportive of one another. It is understandable that Onyesonwu loves Mwita, because most of the time he treats her excellently.

Other things are similarly complex. The day after she is told about her mother’s rape, Onyesonwu goes to the library and finds a book about the Nuru language so she can learn it, although she hides this from her mother because she knows it will make her angry. That feels so like something a real person would do, bewildered by what she has just learnt and unsure how to process the information that by blood she is half-Nuru.

There is yet more I loved about this book, but I’ll leave that for you to discover. It is such a wonderful book, full of strength and struggle and raw truths.

We cried and sobbed and wept and bled tears. But when we were finished, all we could do was continue living.

Yes.

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