Monday, November 28, 2022

On the fuzzy ecologist parable that is 'Strange World'

This translation of energy policy questions into children's fantasy leaves key details out of the picture

In the Fishlake National Forest in Utah lives a massive, ancient creature estimated to have reached 108 acres in size and 6,600 tons in weight. It is composed of more than 40,000 trunks of aspen trees, all of them born from a single shared root system. Each individual tree lasts about a century, but the entire clonal colony may have existed for 14,000 years. Its name is Pando, and it is the target of a dedicated conservation effort.

In Disney's new fantasy movie Strange World, there's also a plant named Pando. Its interconnected roots extend into a hidden land underneath the mountains. Its fruits are a miraculous source of electricity that turned a small cluster of agrarian villages into a technological utopia within the span of one generation, so of course a desperate expedition is arranged when a mysterious pest threatens to rob this community of its fix-all crop. However, by the end of the second act, when the true nature of Pando is revealed and the true mission of the heroes is announced, the choice of name doesn't sit right anymore, and the viewer is left to wonder what symbolic role this plant was supposed to play. This confused metaphor is at the core of the movie, which hurts its effectiveness as the didactic vehicle it wants to be.

To be fair, there's much to praise about Strange World. The story goes out of its way to ensure that a lead character's queerness is not easily removable for the Chinese market; in fact, Disney will not bother sending the film to Chinese censors, a rare and overdue move for the usually puritanical studio. The story is set in a secondary world populated with varied ethnicities, sexualities and ability statuses, all of which are accepted as unremarkable. The focus characters undergo a laborious unlearning of toxic parenting practices. There is a shared, albeit not strong enough, thematic thread between the larger warning against attempting to control nature and the smaller warning against attempting to control each other. The new, fascinating lifeforms are not there to be tamed, but to be respected.

All these traits add up to a refreshing degree of maturity. The old and tired Hero's Journey is given a twist with a more thoughtful resolution. There is conflict in the traditional sense, but it is not defined in terms of victory vs. defeat; instead, we get the more interesting revelation that all along there has been an ongoing conflict that is unwinnable for everyone. All through the movie, a distinctly indigenous sensibility can be identified regarding humankind's place in nature. The big moment of catharsis is not about slaying a monster, but about gaining deeper understanding of that which appeared monstrous.

With so many great ideas, it's tricky to unravel why the end result doesn't feel quite as impactful as it should. It may be useful to begin by considering the aesthetic. Strange World is clearly inspired by the extraordinary voyages of early science fiction, a tradition that extends from Jules Verne to Edgar Rice Burroughs and that survives in nostalgic form in the likes of Indiana Jones and Jack Sparrow. Accordingly, the film uses a vivid palette, with oversaturated tones reminiscent of pulp magazine covers. The effect is completed with assorted rusty machines and alien beings of incomprehensible anatomy.

This choice is not motivated merely by nostalgia. Strange World is engaging in deliberate conversation with an era of adventure fiction that promoted a proudly colonialist worldview. The characters of Jaeger and Searcher embody complementary styles of human predation of nature: the conqueror and the settler. While Jaeger yearns to open a path with fire to the ends of the earth, his son Searcher is content with instrumentalizing nature to maintain a comfortable standard of life. They believe their lifepaths are opposed, but in reality, they both see nature as something that must bend to human will. Jaeger does it by spreading the human footprint; Searcher does it by facilitating consumption. It is the third generation, Ethan, which breaks the cycle by letting nature take the lead.

Where the message gets muddled is in the particulars. The crisis in the plot is the danger of losing an abundant source of energy, much like the real world is starting to deal with the prospect of peak oil. But in Strange World, the decision to switch to a less destructive energy source hinges on knowledge. As soon as the characters learn that their way of life is hurting the world, there is no further discussion. The next step is obvious, and everyone agrees. It sounds hopeful, but that's not how energy policy works. An effective metaphor for our environmental woes would have to acknowledge the roles played by deliberate misinformation, collective inertia, political opposition, ideological fanaticism and plain old greed. The reason we haven't abandoned oil isn't because we don't know oil is bad. We know oil is bad. The true reason is much more convoluted, and Strange World sends an incomplete message if it intends to teach young viewers that becoming aware of the problem is all that is needed.

This is not an unfair demand to make of children's fantasy. Today's Disney is perfectly capable of telling a story with the required complexity. It's been years since Pocahontas whitewashed the history of colonialism. The growth is visible: Lilo & Stitch didn't sugarcoat the anxieties of working-class orphans; WALL-E didn't flinch away from the horrors of carefree consumerism; Tangled built a devastating portrayal of toxic parenthood; and more recently, Moana gave a master class on how to tell an environmental fable with no villains. Disney has already proven they know how to do this. There's no excuse for Strange World to reach Avatar levels of visual gorgeousness but not avoid reaching also Avatar levels of narrative basicness.

That's where Strange World earns its proper claim to memorability: landscapes, creatures, machines, horizons. The screen explodes before the viewer's eyes in dazzling shapes that span all textures—viscous, rocky, fluffy, gelatinous, porous, fleshy, scorching. In a brief scene, a character sticks their hand inside a cloud, and it almost feels like the viewer could, too. In terms of animation, Strange World spared no effort to make this alien setting come to life in full, rich, radiant color.

However, the plot doesn't challenge the viewer or itself, opting instead for an extremely straightforward family drama that hesitates before the easy step of making the big journey reflect the inner journey. The youngest viewers will doubtlessly leave the theater delighted by the feast of imaginative visuals, but those who have already started giving thought to environmental science will be left wishing there were more substance to chew on.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +3 for normalized diversity, +3 for breathtakingly beautiful landscapes.

Penalties: −2 for oversimplification of a problem that extends beyond mere knowledge, −2 for failing to integrate organically the theme of teenage maturation into the larger theme of environmental responsibility, −2 for neglecting its secondary characters.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

6 Books with Keith Ammann


Keith Ammann has been a Dungeons & Dragons player and DM for more than thirty years. He has been writing his fifth edition D&D–focused blog The Monsters Know What They’re Doing since 2016. He lives in Chicago.

Today, he tells us about his Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading?


I’m in between books at the moment, in large part because lately I keep picking up books, reading a couple of chapters in and then deciding I’m in the mood for something else. But over the past year, I’ve read and loved Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton and the third book in Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty saga, The Veiled Throne.











2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I have N.K. Jemisin’s The World We Make—the sequel to The City We Became—and Erin M. Evans’ Empire of Exiles on preorder, and I’m also psyched to read the fourth and final Dandelion Dynasty volume, Speaking Bones. I can’t overstate how much I love the Dandelion Dynasty saga. Also, I just learned that Ian McDonald has a new one coming out, Hopeland. That’s another I’ll be picking up for sure.











3. Is there a book you’re currently itching to re-read?

Not “itching” per se, but I’ve been thinking recently that I ought to go back and reread Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, to see how much of the mind-blowing quality of reading it for the first time I can recapture—and also to try to pick up on details I missed or have forgotten about, because, let’s be honest, that book is more than a little bit disorienting.











4. How about a book you’ve changed your mind about – either positively or negatively?

The first time I read it, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians left a bad taste in my mouth. Sometime later, I read it again with the understanding that the characters in it are not good people and that I shouldn’t be rooting for them or even sympathizing with them at all. That realization made it a much better book.












5. What’s one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that holds a special place in your heart?

I first picked up the 1977 Del Rey edition of Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist as a teenager in the ’80s and have read and reread it every several years since. It’s a masterful mélange of high fantasy, sociopolitical satire, cold-case murder mystery, and commentary on life and death and art, written in a cheeky, Austenesque voice. As more of a remixer than an original creator, I’m drawn to a good mashup, whatever the medium, and this one remains my favorite book of all time.









6. And speaking of that, what’s your latest book, and why is it awesome?

How to Defend Your Lair is about rethinking the way we design locations in tabletop roleplaying games to reflect how people defend themselves and their assets in the real world: focusing the most attention and resources on whatever’s most valuable and vulnerable; examining the different types of value that assets can possess; and making sure that detection, deterrence and response measures are all included. Because we have to work within limits and can’t eliminate risk entirely, lair owners have to make informed guesses about where to focus their defenses—and players then have to figure out where the weak spots might be. 





Thank you, Keith!

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Microreview [book]: Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller

Ghost Bird is a uniquely Australian young adult novel that examines the intersection between Indigenous and Western perspectives.


Ghost Bird belongs most comfortably in the genre of the YA thriller. A certain subsection of this genre likes to play coy about the presence of supernatural elements. Examples include Black by Fleur Ferris, Small Spaces by Sarah Epstein and Flight of the Fantail by Steph Matuku. By the end, each of these books definitively answers whether the speculative elements played with are considered real within the story’s world. Ghost Bird also has definitive answers, making it very at home in this subgenre. However, its identity as an Indigenous Australian Own Voices narrative makes it difficult to call the story a speculative one. After all, referring to what may be a part of a living Indigenous tradition as fantasy or speculative seems neither respectful nor accurate.

Cleverly, this tension between Western and Indigenous thought is one of the central themes of Ghost Bird. The story is written in first person present tense from the perspective of Stacey. She is intelligent, rational and takes her education very seriously -- too seriously, according to some of her family, who feel she should be paying more heed to traditional ways. However, the death of her grandmother left Stacey disillusioned with those teachings, and so at first she brushes off her dreams about her missing twin, Laney. After all, they’re probably just a product of her worried subconscious, right? And the secrecy with which her elders treat certain important information hinders Laney’s rescue, adding to Stacey’s frustration (and is much in keeping with the trope of useless adults in YA). It is up to her to do the research, interview the people and put together the clues. Thus, the dichotomy between Western rationalism and Indigenous teachings is not shown as a clear-cut matter, with both ways having their advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, Stacey needs both to succeed.

Clearer cut are the lines of race that divide the town. The book is set in a small Queensland town with a long history of conflict between the Indigenous population and the white settlers. This conflict is shown in a number of ways throughout the story. Most obviously, certain extremely racist members of the township serve as the manifest villains of the piece. Laney goes missing after she and her boyfriend make a raid on their property and it’s not immediately clear whether this was due to the farmers or to something sinister living in the taboo caves on the corner of their property. These characters also represent a physical threat to Stacey and her friends as they go to investigate. However, racism is also present in less direct ways. The readers are shown the contrast in how the police handle missing persons cases based on race. We’re also told about the effective segregation in place at the local pub and even to some extent the town as a whole.

In addition to the conflict around race, we also get to witness the divisions in the Indigenous population of the town. Stacey’s family had been feuding with the Miller family since time out of memory. Which becomes a problem when Stacey suspects Mad May Miller has some understanding of what’s going on.

All of this conflict is balanced out with a large and affectionate family. Certainly, Stacey has her issues with both her sister and her mother, but they stem from a deep and genuine love and there’s nothing she wouldn’t do to protect them. We also get to see her relationship with her grandparents, full of small gestures that speak of love. And her cousin Rhiannon provides some much-needed company on Stacey’s adventures. In many ways, Rhiannon serves as a stand-in for the absent Laney, being close in both age and affection to Stacey. She also provides a boldness that Stacey lacks, inciting her to break the rules in ways Stacey might not otherwise have considered, thus moving the plot along.

There is the suggestion of romance present in the narrative, barely there by the standards of most YA. This light touch worked well, given the story’s strong focus on family. Other relationships took priority.

Since its publication, Ghost Bird has received some critical acclaim, winning the Norma K. Hemming Award for Long Work (alongside From Here On, Monsters by Elizabeth Bryer), the Queensland Literary Award’s Young Adult Book Award, the Readings Young Adult Book Prize, and receiving Honours from the Children’s Book Council of Australia. However, there are a few things that may mean some readers struggle to find it accessible.

Foremost among these is the time in which it’s set. This is not a contemporary story, but occurs back in 1999. This is a curious choice, but may have been made to circumvent the advent of mobile phones, making it more difficult for Stacey’s often absent mother to check up on her. It also relieves the need for the author to update the pop culture references made. While it may be very nostalgic for readers of a certain age to moon over Tupac or bop along to TLC’s Waterfall, it may also make it a little harder for a contemporary teenager to relate.

There’s a further stumbling block for non-Australian readers in the use of Australian dialect. Most of it is fairly easy to intuit, but there are one or two instances that may prove more arcane for some readers. Relatedly, a stylistic choice has been made to skip using apostrophes to denote abbreviations related to dialect, for example “Ya could always go and help im.” I found this lack a mercy, since their inclusion often makes for cluttered lines. However, I once again acknowledge it may make things more difficult for some readers.

This is not a book that tiptoes around delicate sensibilities. There’s plenty of swearing, a bit of violence, an attempted sexual assault on screen and the implication of domestic violence off it.

Despite all that, my final criticism of the story is that it is just a shade slow-paced in the middle. Stacey spends just a little too long waiting for news and not putting pieces together.

However, on the whole, it is a thoughtful and engaging work -- an excellent debut novel that I thoroughly enjoyed.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +2 for a nuanced view of Indigenous and Western perspectives, +1 for strong but complex family relationships, 

Penalties: -1 a bit slow paced in the middle

Nerd Co-efficient:  9/10


POSTED BY: Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a writer, binge reader, tabletop gamer & tea addict. @elizabeth_fitz


References

Fuller, Lisa. Ghost Bird [Queensland University Press, 2019]

Ferris, Fleur. Black [Random House Australia, 2016]

Epstein, Sarah. Small Spaces [Walker Books Australia, 2018]

Matuku, Steph. Flight of the Fantail [Huia Publishers, 2018]

Monday, November 21, 2022

'Slumberland' won't spark your dreams, but it will put you to sleep

It's a pity that a film based on Winsor McCay's daring visual innovations ends up looking so conventional and undreamlike

A girl loses her father and processes her grief by oversleeping. An emotionally stunted uncle tries to learn childrearing from Google. The complicated interplay of growth and decay makes the future uncertain and scary. If she wants to grow up and stop retreating into fantasies, she'll have to accept the fact of death, but also help her uncle reconnect with his inner child and dream again.

This setup sounds like it should deliver a full emotional experience, bolstered by the metaphoric possibilities of dream language. Unfortunately, Netflix film Slumberland shows us a muted dreamscape that doesn't dare embrace the protean qualities of the unconscious mind. When protagonist Nemo ventures into the land of dreams to look for her father, the place looks too rigid, too rational, built on an oppressively linear logic that makes it less Paprika and more Inception. This does not feel like the dream of a child; it feels like an adult's self-serving memory of what goes on in a child's mind.

I'm usually on the side that magic should have rules, but dreams are the one place where rules should go out the window. The original comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay was a visual extravaganza propelled by the whimsical meanderings of the unconscious self, a metafictional experiment where size, perspective, color, movement and even paratext were at the mercy of a child's id. Standing on its own, the film Slumberland is already a faded echo of the wonder of dreams, but when evalued as an adaptation of McCay's work, it's the worst disservice.

Visual disappointment aside, the film does manage a competent handling of its themes. It at least acknowledges the obvious Freudian connotations of a story where a preteen girl's way of coping with the death of her father is by conjuring an image of thermonuclear sex bomb Jason Momoa, complete with satyr horns and the libido associated with them. His character openly spells it out: "I'm a troubling mix of a father figure and raw masculine power." Accordingly, the film abounds in erotic imagery: on the night she loses her father, Nemo dreams of the destruction of a phallic symbol (a crumbling lighthouse) followed by the threat of a yonic symbol (a swirling hole in the water). Her companion in the adventure (in fantasy terms, a familiar, an extension of the character's soul) is a pig, a traditional icon of unbridled lust. The plot employs a recurring erotic motif of sneaking through forbidden doors and picking locks, and from there the symbolism only gets more intense: the climax requires the protagonist to ride a gigantic goose and put her hand into a watery hole to grab a pearl.

There's a curious parallel between Nemo's psychological journey and that of her uncle, who faces a similar emotional challenge. The plot tells us that he resented his brother for getting married and leaving childish things behind. What this means in Freudian terms is that he responded to his brother's sexual maturation by burying his own immaturity under a mountain of denial. The result is a man with no desires, a repressed loner who sublimates his unacknowledged sexual frustration by pursuing a career where he is in control of the machinery that opens a door.

Regrettably, Slumberland takes all this fertile symbolism and lets it go to waste. As I said before, its idea of the dream world is constrained by unnecessary rules, going to the absurd extreme of adding a bureaucracy that oversees and enforces the proper functioning of dreams. This is the last thing this kind of story needs. The character of Agent Green does provide a measure of tension to chase scenes, but contributes nothing of substance to the plot. When you set a story in the battlefield of the mind, the only antagonist you need is the hero's own conflicting desires. Inside Out understood this. Slumberland burdens its plot with a superfluous antagonist that only serves to overcomplicate a straightforward journey of inner growth.

And yet, straightforward is not what a film about a child's dreams is supposed to be. It ought to be more unpredictable, more fascinating. That's not what we get here. Even for the intended audience, presumably not acquainted with Freudian dream interpretation, Slumberland fails at the basic duty of being exciting. Scenes obviously shot with a green screen are the clearest illustration of this mismanagement of tone: Nemo and her satyr friend burst out at the top of their lungs with explosive exhilaration while the action happening around them is rather slow, bland, underwhelming. Either the CGI department missed a note from the director or Momoa got stuck in Aquaman mode and forgot there are more ways to act.

Slumberland is an adaptation in name only. It has a valuable point to make about the need to make peace with the reality of death in order to grow up, but its delivery of that message falls short of the spectacle and inventiveness of the source material. The experience ends up feeling like one of those dreams you forget in the morning and don't ever miss.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10.

Bonuses: +1 for thematic cohesiveness, +1 for emotional sincerity.

Penalties: −1 for painfully obvious dialogue, −1 for Momoa's disastrous Spanish, −1 for somehow making a salsa party look boring as hell, −1 for visual blandness.

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Microreview [book]: Scorpica by G.R. McAllister

A story of the women in a set of connected queendoms, and the looming threat that will upend their status quo

 

Posterity. From the Middle English posterite, from Anglo-French pusterité, from Latin posteritat-, posteritas, from posterus: coming after.


Humans are a species that can think in terms of years, decades and generations ahead and to come. Humans are a species that is very concerned with their posterity, as a way of preserving not only their legacy, but establishing the future for their children and their children’s children. And when that posterity is threatened, people, and the societies they inhabit, can come under stress, fracture, and break.

P D James’ novel The Children of Men (and its movie adaptation) explores the death of posterity for the human race by having had no children born in the last 17 years. Mankind is slowly and inexorably aging out to death, and the stresses on people, on society are like an inexorably tightening vise, a ticking clock for humanity. It’s not pretty, even (and perhaps especially) when there is a glimmer of hope that the doom can be averted.

We come to GR McAllister’s Scorpica, which takes a widescreen epic fantasy approach to this scenario. The Five Queendoms (which is also the name of the series that Scorpica starts) are a quintet of fantasy kingdoms which are not just matriarchies, kingdoms ruled by women, but out and out gynarchies. This is a woman’s world, from the fierce fighters of Scorpica to the potent magicians of Arca, the power, authority and social structures are all controlled by women.

So, when the Drought of Girls begins, and girls are no longer being born among any of the five kingdoms, there is indeed a slow moving, inexorably building crisis that strikes the inhabitants of the kingdoms, and the lives of those whom we meet in the book. There is an interesting shade that the Queens give to the problem of the Drought of Girls, and it is this. They all recognize that with no more girls being born, the gynarchial structures that hold up society are under threat. In Scorpica, only women are warriors. No more girls being born means, necessarily, that their military pool is going to shrink. In Arca, it will shrink the number of practitioners of magic, especially the rare and important all-magic types, the only ones eligible to be Queen themselves.

But what they don’t recognize is that the Drought of Girls is just a slightly slower moving version of the aforementioned P D James novel. If only men are being born, eventually, once all the women are aged past childbearing age, the entire future of the human race, women and men alike, is threatened. I think the author is making a point here that any social structure, any hierarchy, no matter who is running it, is going to be first and foremost concerned with the threat to their own power and authority, with larger issues and concerns not even a thought in their minds.

I mentioned that this is a widescreen historical epic approach to the story, and the author plunges into that format and mode enthusiastically. The narrative of this novel takes place over years of time and across a wide swath of the Queendoms, paying attention to dates and locations of scenes is crucial. The map is helpful and useful; however, a timeline at the end of the book would have also been helpful to help align when things happen, to be honest, because of the hopping between POVs and points in time and space. Since the author is telling about the decline and threat to Queendoms, it makes sense that we wind up with a sometimes episodic narrative as a result, as the Drought continues on, and we see characters come to terms, or not, with not only the Drought but the day to day business of living.

Given this wide frame, in terms of space and time, the novel does swell and rise, draw into a scene and moment, and draw out again, as society continues to slowly and inexorably feel the strain of the Drought of Girls. As of the time of the writing of this piece, a recent study has shown the Western United States is suffering the worst physical drought in the last 1200 years. This is a long term slow moving catastrophe that is going to affect lives on a small and macro scale alike, and already is doing so. The author’s use of the word drought is a deliberate one, and it is a good one.

But that widescreen nature means that there are many stories here, and many of them are not going to end happily over the course of the novel. Characters who we’ve been consistently coming back to again and again, over years in the narrative, can and do come to quick and often violent ends.

It is a rich and diverse world, though, and rich and diverse characters through a span of time. We get points of view from a couple of Queens, both current and future, as well as bandits, healers and also the ultimate antagonist of the piece as well, Several of them are mothers, which is not surprising in a gynarchy work with mainly female characters but is still welcome all the same, and it fits in with that hitherto mentioned theme of posterity.

While the widescreen epic feel can mean that some characters, though, for all this long book get short shrift, and sometimes it feels like a Grand Tour of the Five Queendoms, it is a world and characters that I was fascinated with. There is good queer representation in this world as well. It should be noted that McAllister does a critique of the gender balance of a lot of fantasy over the years (and too much even *today*) of having nearly all male characters and few women, by having only a scattering of male characters (and no POVs whatsoever)

The other metaphor that comes to mind with how McAllister works this novel and what its final form is that of a bonsai. Dwarfed, restricted, pruned and ruthlessly shaped, the Five Queendoms, its Queens and rulers by the end of it (which, you will not be surprised are not the same ones who start the narrative) have been put through an experience that, in the end, looks like it might be just the first act in a even larger story. What that story is...I think I have an idea, but the story of the Five Queendoms is only just beginning, here. The novel ends on the point of a blade, not really any offramp now that momentum really has been achieved for the historical narrative.

I am left to wonder as a reader if the subsequent volumes will go for a more time-constricted narrative, having set the stage for one by the events at the end of this book, or can and will the author continue this big screen, time and space wise style of story and tell it over years and great distances. The model for the latter that comes to mind, and only because of the scale and ambition rather than theme or plot, is Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings series. I am intensely curious to see if McAllister can match Liu’s ambitions. She certainly has made a start of it. here.


The Math


Baseline Assessment: 7/10


Bonuses: +1 for a strong and interesting world built from the ground up as a gynarchy and exploring what happens when that world is put under stress.


+1 for daring to go full widescreen epic in terms of time as well as space.


Penalties: -1 The lack of an offramp and the slowness of building up to the climax of the book may turn off readers.


Nerd Coefficient: 8/10


Reference: McAllister, G.R. Scorpica [Saga Press, 2022]


Thursday, November 17, 2022

Microreview [book]: The Oleander Sword by Tasha Suri

Yearning and suspense by the bucketload in the Burning Kingdoms' second instalment


Last year, I said that The Jasmine Throne was one of the strongest in an impressive year of diverse fantasy, introducing a new fantasy world full of history, intrigue and queer yearning. Now, we get to see how the story continues in The Oleander Sword, and this time both the yearning and the suspense have been turned up as high as they can go. Spoilers are ahead for the first book of the series, and it's very much worth starting there if you haven't already.

Like the first volume, The Oleander Sword largely follows the intertwined journey of two women, both of whom now occupy powerful roles in their respective lands. Malini, the imprisoned princess of The Jasmine Throne, has received a prophecy and declared herself empress in opposition to her despotic younger brother's rule, and now marches on said brother with support from several of the kingdoms that make up the empire of Parijatdvipa. In the former Empire territory of Ahiranya, former maid Priya has also come into an inheritance, becoming the first Elder in a generation and gaining the magic needed to turn back the Rot, a sickness which still threatens to overrun her people. For Malini, the rise to power is welcome but comes with the frustration of trying to keep the loyalty of men as a woman in a highly patriarchal society; for Priya, political leadership is an unwanted challenge, mostly left to her fellow elder and temple sister Bhumika while she takes a more hands-on approach to Ahiranya's problems.

Despite going their separate ways, and taking their countries down potentially conflicting paths, Priya and Malini are of course still obsessed with each other, and it doesn't take long for the understated but ill-advised personal letters to start. Once that boundary has been crossed, and with a difficult siege lowering the morale of her army and casting doubt on her prophesised leadership, it's a small step for Malini to call Priya to her side, and ask for her help in battle so that she can enact her promise of Ahiranya's future freedom. If there wasn't tension dripping off every page every time these women think about each other, Priya's answer would be an obvious "no thanks", but, of course, she's easily enough convinced. Within the first act, then, Suri reunites her would-be lovers and leaves the fate of Ahiranya to be told largely through the eyes of Bhumika, with a broader cast of occasional POV characters brought in to round out the storytelling gaps.

Almost immediately, the story in Ahiranya takes a turn for the pant-wettingly terrifying, as the resurgence of magic brought about by Priya and Bhumika ends up having unexpected consequences. I think it's better to go into this section unspoiled about the details, and so I'll talk around what exactly happens here, but there's a progression of the body horror elements from the Rot, an illness which causes people to grow progressively more plants on themselves until they are all plant. The idea of people sprouting flower buds and mossy growths is unpleasant enough, but it's taken to the next level when the origin of the illness and its intended purpose is explained. The events in Ahiranya also make us reconsider any views we might hold about the land being a straightforward underdog to Parijatdvipa's unjust rule: while there's no justification made for colonisation or prejudice, the events of the book also confront us with the shortcomings of backward-looking restoration, especially when the past one is trying to restore is not a well remembered one. Bhumika's storyline here is heartbreaking and offers her very little to celebrate, as she comes up against forces that are far, far beyond her own power.

Priya is cut off from her homeland, so its problems don't reach her for the bulk of The Oleander Sword. Instead, she joins Malini and is thrown into her own political quandry as other leaders treat her with everything from grudging acceptance to outright hostility due to her heritage and her magic. The pair are at their best when they are supporting each other through the challenges of patriarchy, and while The Oleander Sword doesn't close the gap between their overall goals, Priya's higher status as an Elder does bring greater equality to their relationship, even if her power is rarely exercised and goes mostly unrecognised by the men around them. Make no mistake, though, the real leveller is how often both of them think about that time they kissed during The Jasmine Throne, and how much they both want to do it again. The fact that the pair of them are in the middle of an army is brought up as an impediment to further kissing right up until it isn't any more, and if this feels a little convenient, let me reassure you that both of these disaster lesbians have plenty of ways to make new impediments to kissing all on their own, and oh boy do they ever make things complicated by the time everything has played out.

All the elements that make Suri's fantasy writing so interesting are on display here, particularly her depiction of how women wield power in patriarchal societies and particularly how they do so around norms that separate out the two genders. It's particularly satisfying to watch the men around Malini make jokes about how they'll have to bring their daughters to court instead of marrying them off, assuming that this will just be a different way of using daughters to serve their personal interests, only for one such daughter to immediately display political ambitions of her own and side against her father's betrayal. Malini's own power rests on a prophecy from the Mothers, a deified group of immolated women whose blessing could be twisted to "require" her own death, if certain religious authorities have their way. Priya, gets both the freedom and the prejudice of being a total outsider, with power that can't be taken away but can be dismissed and used to invoke disgust. It doesn't help that - surprise! - the Rot has left the borders of Ahiranya and the kind of magic Priya wields is now linked to a very immediate threat for the rest of Parijatdvipa, rather than a generations-ago conflict. Throw in some grappling with the limitations and drawbacks of that power, and you've got some great tension right there. With added dread, because oh god these plant powers, where are they going to lead, nowhere good it seems.

The Oleander Sword doesn't conclude so much as it sets up the pieces for its final volume. Will anyone kiss in that one? Maybe, but not without even more emotions, and perhaps a giant battle for the future of the entire world playing out in the background. If that sounds good, then I'll see you there.

POSTED BY: Adri Joy hasn't written her byline on the bottom of a review for so long that she might as well create a new one. She is a co-editor at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together, an international politics nerd, a converted Londoner and a whippet owner, who would live her life submerged in the ocean with a waterproof e-reader - if she only had gills. Find her on Twitter @adrijjy or Mastodon @arifel@wandering.shop.


Wednesday, November 16, 2022

6 Books with Victor Manibo

By Sean Collishaw

 Victor Manibo is a Filipino speculative fiction writer living in New York. As a queer immigrant and a person of color, he writes about people who live these identities and how they navigate imaginary worlds. He is a 2022 Lambda Literary Emerging Voices Fellow, and his debut science fiction noir novel, THE SLEEPLESS, came out in August 2022 from Erewhon Books. Find him online at victormanibo.com or on Twitter @victormanibo.

Today he tells us about his Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading?
 
Lone Women by Victor LaValle. I was lucky enough to be given an advance reader copy (ARC) of this one, and as soon as I got it, I jumped right in. I had heard Mr. LaValle read its opening chapter at a KGB Fantastic Fiction event a few months back, and ever since then, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It’s the story of Adelaide Henry, a black woman fleeing a dark past to be a pioneer homesteader in 1910s Montana, carrying with her only a single traveling bag and a mysterious steamer trunk. All throughout my read, I kept yelling, “What’s in the trunk?” all Seven-style, because Mr. LaValle is so adept at layering complex characterization and a strong sense of place with ever-escalating tension. All that with the incisive social commentary, sharp attention to historical detail, and gorgeous prose–what more could I ask for?

 

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?
 
Liberation Day by George Saunders. I have been waiting such a long time to get my hands on this, and luckily I only have a few more days to go. His Tenth of December was a real eye-opener for me on how a short story can portray the human experience with ferocity and tenderness, and I fully expect this new collection to do just that and more.









 

3. Is there a book you’re currently itching to re-read?

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. That book was an awakening of sorts for me; I read it in high school and I immediately imprinted on it. It’s so lush and had such a grand scope, and of course, I could not get enough of Lestat de Lioncourt. He is such an unforgettable character. I haven’t re-read it in the last twenty years, and I really never had the inclination to until the TV adaptation premiered in early October. The show altered much of the source material, and it made me wonder how well or how poorly the book has aged. I wondered too how my recollection and attachment to it would change, reading it now not only as an adult, but as someone who writes speculative fiction. So now the book is near the top of my TBR list.




 
4. How about a book you’ve changed your mind about – either positively or negatively?

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I first attempted it in college (not as required reading), and at the time it was impenetrable to me. I simply could not get it. The postmodernist style was not something I had a lot of exposure in, and despite some affecting moments of pathos, the story felt disjointed. So I never finished it. Fast forward about a decade and a half later, I read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and absolutely loved it. Yet I felt I missed a lot of its layers because I skipped Mrs. Dalloway, so I revisited it. And wow, the re-read was a whole different experience. I’d become a different person, a different reader, since I last opened its pages, and this time I got it.





 

5. What’s one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?

All of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were a huge influence on me. I started reading the novels and shorts when I was around nine, which might seem a tad young, but my parents didn’t mind. I was really taken in by the time period, the interplay between Holmes and Watson, and of course, the puzzle aspect of it all. I wanted to figure out the solution before I got to the end, and when I didn’t (which was often), I would reread the stories to see what I missed. That reverse engineering is something that I still do to this day, in the stories that I craft. My debut and upcoming novel are both mysteries, and I probably wouldn’t have written them if it wasn’t for Sherlock.


 



6. And speaking of that, what’s your latest book, and why is it awesome?

The Sleepless is a near-future sci-fi noir mystery/thriller and I think it’s awesome because it is such a multi-hypenate. It's a what-if thought experiment about a world where some part of the population does not require any sleep without experiencing any physical or mental drawbacks, and it is also a locked-room murder mystery, and also an exploration of grief, memory, and time. It straddles the line between genres and styles, and weaves many of the literary elements that I find thoroughly fun to read and even more fun to write. 









Thank you, Victor!

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.