Black Leopard Red Wolf is the second novel I’ve read by Marlon James, and in it he crosses genres into fantasy, a land that I often think of as being inhabited by the sorts of true believers who resent those not approved by the Tolkien groupies. That’s not so true, as writers like Samuel R. Delany and Stephen Donaldson attacked the generic boundaries early in its incarnation as popular fiction, and BLRW continues the exploration that those two began.
- It took me longer than I expected to get into this novel. I’ve been excited to read it since I finished A Brief History of Seven Killings, but the sort of casual way that James introduces us to his characters felt haphazard, and the various plot threads felt way too spread apart.
- By the end, for what it’s worth, I couldn’t put it down.
- The narrative point of view is fairly amazing. We spend much of the novel inside Black Wolf’s head, a pretty unusual point-of-view from a fantasy novel perspective. At times he becomes so embroiled in his own rage and lust for revenge (his mantra is “fuck the gods”, if you are curious about his motivations) that he acts in ways that we could consider not all that heroic, especially if your definition of heroism includes piety.
- Curiously, James never apologizes for Tracker’s bloody ways, even in the ways that the novel ends. He doesn’t magically transform (although his motivations for revenge, the vampire killing a bunch of children whom the Tracker was a father-figure too, feel pretty primal and in some ways justified) into some sort of redemptive figure.
- In fact, Tracker does not even get the kill (you knew the evil folks were gonna die, right?).
- Black Wolf is a tracker (and he’s known in the novel as Tracker, not Black Wolf, in case Black Panther fans get too worked up), an archetype that does not constitute any previous fantasy hero’s identity as far as I can recall. For instance, Aragorn was often called the best tracker of his age, but that characteristic simply helped us understand how different he was from previous kings, establishing his worthiness.
- The general ways that James uses archetypes from African mythology is fascinating and really cool, and I am working on another project that attempts to map these figures onto to the deeply nordic base of most fantasy fiction.
- The setting is also intense – deep forests, ancient cities, sort of standard in interesting ways.
- I will need to figure out the boy who would have been king at some other time. Suffice it to say that patrilineage, matrilineage, and the increasingly chaotic nature of government by nobility is a backdrop to what is coming next.
- The novel also sets the next stage, with the appearance of the inhuman white scientists, and the god-killer figure warning Tracker that an entirely different threat is coming, soon. The threat looks suspiciously like colonialism.
I am looking forward to the rest of the series…
Jo Walton’s Necessity trilogy continues to delight me. The Philosopher Kings is book two in the series, and it starts twenty years after the final debate in The Just City, the one in which Athene, angry because she lost the argument and her Just City – based on Plato’s Republic – breaks up the experiment because the Republic was not working out as she imagined.
- Walton’s fiction experiments in interesting ways with all kinds of big ideas, and the factions that result from the end of the last debate (and Athene’s taking of all but two of the Workers with her) provide a glimpse at the drive to set forth and find lands of our own that motivated the continuous development of colonies that was ancient Greece.
- This set of colonies is imbued (burdened?) with the foreknowledge of what is to come, since in the original plan Athene simply plucked anyone who had thought of her out of their current time and plopped them as a Master in the Just City.
- Her portrayal of the gods is fascinating – she fully invests in the ancient Greek idea that gods have immense powers and yet are more fully realized humans. They can be capricious, loving, horrible, intensely empathetic, and a bunch more, and seeing how those characteristics play out in the mundane world is pretty cool.
- The consequences of time travel come into play here as well. The inhabitants do not want to destroy what is come because of what they know, and this concept gets really confusing with the advent of Christianity, since Christians still want to be saved and go to heaven.
- Walton does not give up what Hades is actually like in this configuration…no cheating I guess…
- There is far less dialogue in here, and a lot more action (of the traditional variety – I think dialogue is action, but I’m a nerd). I missed the dialogue, but I also miss Simmea.
- Oddly enough, she inhabits nearly the entire novel through Apollo’s love for her.
- As the inhabitants of the Just City leave to form new colonies, they come back for one thing – art. The potency and power of art in this type of city (which Walton sets up in direct contrast to Plato’s oft-expressed concerns about art’s power to invoke emotion in people) drives people to war.
- Some would say that anything drives people to war…
- I am really curious what the next novel will do with the notions of citizenship that Walton is just starting to explore at the end of this novel. In my reading of The Republic determining who is a citizen (and the whys and hows) causes a bunch of problems.
- I am also wondering about economics and material necessity. This series intensely examines what we think of when we think of the soul, and it gives us some looks at the material conditions that people face. As the material reality of the next landscape manifests itself perhaps we will see more of the economics of The Republic (esp. since Walton has effectively eliminated both slaves and Workers/robots).
On to Book Three…
Lila Savage’s Say Say Say immerses us as readers in two very tightly-delimited spaces, and she does so in a way that illuminates and heightens the intensity of both those spaces and our own worlds. If this is Savage’s debut novel, her future looks pretty bright…
- Both spaces we are immersed in are domestic – the protagonist, Ella, is a home health care worker who works with the elderly, and we spend time in the apartment where she lives with her partner Alix in a happy marriage. We spend even more time in the house of Bryn and Jill, so much so that Ella gets nostalgic for the ways that the dust motes hit the afternoon light after her job ends when Jill is moved to a residential care facility.
- We are also immersed in the world of home health care, particularly as we see what Ella does while working with Jill. The title is the product of Jill’s dementia, as she often repeats herself three times – say! say! say! is the way Savage characterizes this speech pattern in the novel – although it also provides a sense of the novel’s tone.
- Ella could be sort of Disneyesque – she feels like a lightweight in a lot of ways, but my guess is that that’s just the way she tries to understand her world, as Jill’s case, with its unstoppable plunge towards the ending that we all face coloring every scene.
- Bryn’s grief is horrific. He’s a retired carpenter, and he’s the one who hired Ella (she’s experienced at this, but Jill is a particularly trying case), but he flits in and out of scenes almost like a fly or bee. He doesn’t know what to do with the sheer exhaustion of his life, and he’s constantly grateful to Ella for the amount of time she’s there, even if she’s being paid.
- In a sense grief boomerangs from Bryn to Ella (and perhaps back), as they try to prevent Jill from hurting either herself or the house, and Ella gains brief glimpses into just how badly this hurts Bryn to watch the woman he has shared his life turn into something he doesn’t recognize.
- And there is no redemption or transformation – Ella doesn’t use this experience to paint more effectively or more fiercely (she’s an on-again, off-again artist), and Bryn doesn’t find happiness ever after – it all just is.
- There’s a lot going on here with the sudden immersion of a paid stranger into families, the dispersal of work that used to be done by a family or a community and that is now handled through a monetary exchange, and so on. The gig economy for the win…
- We also see Jill’s world in the only way we can in novelistic form – through those who observe her.
- I’m tempted to compare this to Butler, Moshfegh,Emezi, Eisenberg, or Berlin, all women who write intensively and unforgivingly about domesticity and mental health, and the comparison is fair, although Savage is much less interested in the point of the view of the patient than she is those who watch the decline.
- And, like all these authors, Savage is capable of achingly beautiful prose. A couple of quick examples:
Jill no longer carried herself with the burdensome knowledge of continual assessment womanhood so often brings. (35)
Was Ella naturally kind and gentle, or had the culture made her so, worn her down like beach glass, pushed her to her knees, forever eager to please? (68)
Their roles were stripped genderless through a wildfire of loss, standing stark where lush growth might have hidden predators, there was only charred and shivering sufferer and co-sufferer, lover and beloved. (69)
The strength it must have taken to contain that suffering, so that only the edges showed, so that a stranger’s glance wouldn’t exactly read them but might snag on something ambiguously raw in his bearing or his voice, it amazed Ella. It also put her in the peculiar position of being able to let the whisper of it fall into the background when she didn’t have the energy for empathy. (91)
It was love as anticipation of loss, it was love as shared burden of pain and embarrassment. It was pain transformed into gratitude, for without the ache, a stained tablecloth was merely flawed, merely unlovely, but the ache was like a caress on her grandmother’s wrinkled cheek, a comb straightening the crooked part. (153)
There are many more.
Despite my love of sci-fi and fantasy, I’m starting to think that I have a thing for novels that simultaneously inhabit and explode the limits women find themselves bound by…
The Power that Preserves is the last novel in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever trilogy. Donaldson completes, sort of, Covenant’s travels in the Land, and allows him to rescue it, although not in the ways that fantasy novels ordinarily approve of.
Re-reading this trilogy after forty years makes me thankful for Donaldson. I’ve spoken of this in the reviews I did of the first two novels, but as a teenager I was so frustrated with Covenant – we know what fantasy heroes are supposed to do (hell, Joseph Campbell knew what they were supposed to do, as he chronicled in work he was doing while Tolkien is publishing the series that starts it all). Looking back on Donaldson’s trilogy makes me think that it is a necessary corrective, one that when viewed with Samuel R. Delaney’s Neveryon series starts to move fantasy away from its potentially fascist, northern European worlds to ones that reflect the world as it is.
Donaldson’s series is far different than Delaney’s, both less and more subtle, but the direction it moves fantasy is no less important I think. The reason adolescent me knows how Donaldson should act – the reluctant Gandalf who gathers allies to confront Sauron, or Aragorn not pronouncing himself king before the ruined gates of Minas Tirith until the people force him to – is because I had hungrily devoured those series multiple times, looking for some sort of understanding of the world that corresponded with my own. Donaldson forcibly refuses to let us indulge in this part of the fantasy, only letting Covenant act the hero after much destruction, some of which he is responsible for, and even in acting the hero he doesn’t, you know, act the hero.
- I’m still shocked about the rape, and I’m perhaps even more shocked that Donaldson never lets Covenant forget about it and even makes him pay in ways that are cruel – he actually gets to feel like a father for the daughter who is the product of the rape, only to see her die, and he chooses to travel with the woman he raped, much later, who as an old woman is obsessed with him and actually dies trying to protect him. This is not the behavior of an epic hero as we think of them.
- The Land is portrayed as this pristine agrarian, craft-oriented utopia – look, they’re like elves with the ways that they keep warm by magically heating rocks and live in trees without damaging wood. And yet Covenant never fully believes in it – even as he defeats Lord Foul at the end he finds power as much in his disbelief as in any of the emotions we agree are part of the generic conventions of fantasy.
- That lack of belief may come from his identity as a writer, but at the very least it never lets us as readers immerse ourselves completely in the world of the Land, no matter how brave and cool they are, how much we want to be like them.
- There’s much more to be said, but I’m pleased that the re-read was worth the time I invested. The series doesn’t necessarily feel modern or contemporary – instead, it feels inspirational, driving those who have pushed the genre even further – Martin, Erikson, Esslemont – to push these boundaries even further.
The Just City is part of her Thessaly trilogy, and the first novel I have read by her since Among Others. It’s the story of Athena’s attempt to see if Plato’s idea of the just city (taken from The Republic) would work in actuality. It sort of does, and sort of doesn’t, but I’ll let you read to find out.
Jo Walton’s first book, Among Others, featured a young girl who could talk with faeries. My review is here, and I’m not all that proud of it, but posterity is posterity after all.
I thought much more highly of this book, even if it’s not necessarily my cup of tea. My thoughts are below:
- The novel proper features three points of view – Simmea, Maia, and Apollo in mortal form. Simmea is the daughter of Egyptian farmers, purchased from slavers for the purpose of populating the just city at the age of ten. Maia was transported from Victorian England, mostly because she expressed an admiration for both Athena and Plato. Apollo has discovered that mortals understand some things, like agape, better than he does, and so he takes mortal form in order to better know what he is missing.
- The island that she chooses to locate the city on is Atlantis, chosen by Athena because it will disappear into the sea in a few millennia and thus not leave awkward-to-explain ruins behind.
- The only violence we see in the novel happens before the island is founded. Walton clearly believes that at a minimum the just city provides a way to resolve differences peacefully. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a goddess who can destroy any ships that might get near.
- Sokrates shows up, and is his usual irritating self, but her portrayal of him is very sympathetic, and what he adds to the city is a necessary voice that asks questions that need asked. He’s both funny (especially when he mocks Plato) and empathetic, which are qualities that I hope the original Sokrates had.
- The two downfalls of the city are probably the ones that an astute reader of The Republic might guess – agape and slavery. Walton complicates the slavery issue by having a time traveling Athena bring “workers,” robots from about our time (rather than human slaves as existed in The Republic), but Sokrates helps discover that they have a language and some sentience, and the city has to account for them.
- Agape is just as hard, as The Republic assumes a breeding program designed at making sure that all children are raised communally, and that they all love the city itself. Apollo is the one who blows this, mostly, but Walton clearly sees agape (versus eros) as something that Plato did not account for.
- There’s a lot more great stuff going on in here, but I will save further reviews for the next two novels.
The continued re-envisioning of fantasy has been eye-opening. I had given up on the genre by the 1980s, as writers milked Tolkien’s formula in ways that I found not that interesting. As often happens, the genre itself was simply going through the types of changes that happen when young readers rethink the generic expectations that they grew up with, and then become writers. Beautiful stories often are the result.
That said, Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass hints at that kind of rethink. Several African authors have created some amazing texts (I’m currently working my way through this list), N.K. Jemisin has won a Hugo and written a fantasy series that I still think about a lot, and even the white guys (Erikson & Esslemont, Martin, Abercrombie, et al.) have pushed fantasy far beyond its previous incarnations, making it both more and less based in real-world laws. Beyond the genre, authors like Susannah Clarke, Karen Lord, Jo Walton, and Akwaeke Emezi incorporate elements of fantasy in texts that fit into a variety of categories, all of which look far different for having accepted this straying.
Maas’s exploration of generic boundaries is a bit more restrained, at least in this first novel, but still Throne of Glass defied my expectations, often. I’ve catalogued some of these thoughts below:
- The female protagonist and heroine has been done, of course, but Maas adds a couple of interesting elements of choice to her portrayal, (this is sort of a spoiler, but not really) including who she chooses to end up with. There are elements of romance in this novel in ways that I do not often see.
- Bringing in chaos and the Wyrd (and the land of faerie) is a touch that I wish more authors did (Clarke is brilliant at it, and Martin’s children of the forest owe a lot to this concept as well), and these features add depth to this novel.
- This is a long series, so I am assuming that these elements get explained more thoroughly in future texts, but there is a lot of potential in that world…
- These characters are also developed differently, in a way that hints at what Lauren Berlant saw as ways to deal with the constant trauma that many people in our world experience. The main character, for instance, is rescued from a slave mine, albeit for a competition that she might not survive (although we know she will). At first I was frustrated, because the slave mine experience seemed to be one that was offered as a isn’t-she-amazingly-tough backstory. As the novel develops, though, the horrors of that place become more apparent, and we start to get glimpses of how the experience has both traumatized and molded her.
- It’s an interesting approach to character development, and I wonder if Maas does this as an element of her craft, mimicking the gradual reveal of trauma that might happen in intensive therapy.
Throne of Glass helps expand the generic boundaries, and I am curious to see how that expansion continues. Fantasy has moved far from the hide-bound genre it was in the 1970s (with apologies to Stephen R. Donaldson, of course), and here’s hoping its influence lives long…
Although I love cyberpunk I was not familiar with Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita series until I saw the film with a friend. I then picked up the comic books, and…well, thoughts below:
- The genial cybernetic surgeon who works for the poor (Dr. Ido) and still swings a mean atomic-powered hammer at night is not something I saw coming…
- The morphing of “battle” and “angel” feels like another look at the Molly from the Neuromancer series…Kishiro seems to roll seamlessly between having characters comment on how cute she is and then having her disembowel or decapitate them. Or both.
- The search for a backstory hints at the economic separatism and destroyed world that the film emphasized, and while the enemy (impossibly rich and obsessed with occupying the top rungs of the economic ladder) is sort of an easy one, the idea of a fall from the heaven of economic security only to be reinstated in a worthy body posits a world in which violence gets directed downwards over and over again…
- The image is fascinating to me, and I think speaks to how little I know of Japanese culture – why a tiny very young woman? Why does Kishiro invert the stereotype so broadly? Why do the “evil” cyborgs fall in love with her, and what are the implications of that?
- Because I’m comfortable with sci-fi and western culture, these questions feel appropriate (and they may not be) – I can endlessly talk about how using Molly as the bodyguard (with a cybernetically-enhanced body that is still captured constantly in all sorts of powerfully disruptive ways) and Case – and Bobby Newmark – as the emotional core shreds science fiction conventions. I have no idea if Kishiro is doing the same thing, but it sure feels like it…
- I am very glad she has some serious plasma weaponry – the film seemed to emphasize her fighting style in ways that felt too used to Hollywood mano-on-mano narratives…
- Finally, the pen-and-ink, sketched out art speaks to manga in my less-than-literate-in-Japanese culture mind…