Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Nanoreviews: The Testaments, Laughter at the Academy, The Ascent to Godhood

Atwood, Margaret. The Testaments [Nan A. Talese]

The thing about reading and ultimately discussing a novel like The Testaments is that it is nearly impossible to separate the novel itself from the weight of hype and expectation. The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985, is one of the most significant novels of the past fifty years. The Testaments is an unexpected sequel set fifteen years after The Handmaid’s Tale and telling more of the story of Gilead’s fall. Reading The Handmaid’s Tale was an act of discovery, partly because when I read it in the late 1990’s I had never heard of the novel or of Margaret Atwood and had no expectations of what I might find, and partly because up until that time I had read very few dystopian novels – not that I yet had an understanding of that term as a thing.

Reading The Testaments, on the other hand, is nothing but expectation. It has been 34 years since The Handmaid’s Tale was first published and its significance has only grown in that time. Remarkably (and disappointingly), the novel still speaks to the political reality of the United States today and the imagery from Hulu’s adaptation of the novel has given The Handmaid’s Tale a revived cultural significance. All of this is to say that The Testaments has a lot working against it – the weight of expectation, of time, and of memory.

Set fifteen years after The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments tells the story of three women: a young women of Gilead moving through that society, a young woman in Canada whose parents are part of the Mayday resistance against Gilead, and one of the founding Aunts of Gilead. The stories of the three women intertwine and give a richer exploration of what Gilead means to the wider world, more details of life inside Gilead (especially with those placed “above” handmaids), and images of what the founding of Gilead looked like and how certain institutions like Ardua Hall and the Aunts came in to power.

Atwood’s storytelling remains on point and her characterization is one of the strongest features of the novel. There's nothing wrong with The Testaments, but it also does not live up to the weight of 34 years. It can't. It's a good novel, but compared to the best of Margaret Atwood, The Testaments is a Minor Atwood - though Minor Atwood is relatively major for another writer. One of the selling points is what the novel reveals and expands upon the world of the Handmaid's Tale but it also somehow doesn't have the same feeling of depth that my memories of The Handmaid's Tale did - but perhaps another five years of distance from the weight of expectation will change how The Testaments is viewed, Booker Prize or otherwise.
Score: 7/10

McGuire, Seanan. Laughter at the Academy [Subterranean Press]

Laughter at the Academy is Seanan McGuire's first full length collection (there was a previous Newsflesh collection published as Mira Grant) and it takes everything you like about McGuire's novels but distills it downs into shorter and more experimental snacks. You see the shape of McGuire's longer fiction as well as some of the horror of Mira Grant - but with these stories Seanan McGuire gets to play with more ideas and a wider range of nasty than she fleshes out in her novels. At turns horrifying and heartwrenching, Laughter at the Academy is a delight.
Score: 7/10

Yang, JY. The Ascent to Godhood [Tor.com Publishing]

Each of JY Yang's Tensorate novellas has been as different from each other in form and concept as can be. This fourth novella is an origin story, but told after the Protector has died. Lady Han has spent a lifetime in rebellion towards the Protector but she spent years before that working for the Protector and loving the Protector. The Ascent to Godhood is their story, together and eventually apart. Yang's storytelling is as strong as ever and this is a moving story of a failed friendship that shook a world.
Score: 8/10

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.