Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Microreview [Novella]: High Times in the Low Parliament by Kelly Robson

 Sometimes answers are overrated, and vibes are all you need. That’s definitely true of High Times in the Low Parliament, where a weird setting and eccentric interpersonal drama vastly overshadow the plot – and to great effect.

According to the blurb, High Times in the Low Parliament is the story of Lana, a scribe from Aldgate, forced into service in the Low Parliament at a time of crisis, where continued hung votes may risk a return to endless war, and the fatal flooding of parliament itself. There, along with some unlikely friends, she must do what she can to prevent such a fate.

According to the author, it’s a “lesbian stoner buddy comedy”.

Both are very much true, but neither fully capture the compelling strangeness of it all.

At the start of the story, it does feel like a prosaic tale of a person from a humble background going off into a dangerous situation where they may end up changing the world. But as things progress, as more and more details of world-building, of the situation Lana is in, of the fairies and the politics and parliament and all that’s afoot become more apparent, the further we stray from anything so mundane as a traditional narrative. By the end, the story has unmoored itself completely from the reader’s expectations, and become something else entirely.

Parliament is revealed to be a place of driftingly hallucinogenic strangeness, peopled by tired scribes, argumentative deputies from a variety of European locations and a plethora of disgruntled fairies, all of whom are caught up on the issue of the frequent hung parliaments. It is revealed early on that if parliament continues as it has been, the fairies will unleash the sea to drown the humans failing to reach agreement, leaving themselves as the only ones alive in the aftermath. But why is that so critical? We see hints, and fairies here and there reveal their fears about what humans could do, along with references back to an old agreement that they’re keeping humanity to. But this is a parliament – and a story – far more inward than outward focussing. Why does it truly matter what happens here? What are the real-world ramifications? How does what the deputies argue for or against actually impact people outside of parliament (or does it at all)? These are not questions Robson has concerned the narrative with beyond the odd wisps here and there in passing.

But nor is she concerned with giving us a deeply rooted world, a clear picture of this strange Angland – a distorted mirror on English history. Again, we see hints here and there, or increasingly meaningful absences (where are the men? Are there any men? Wait, babies come from where?), but again, answers are not forthcoming. The questions merely hang in the background, with clues only adding to the layers of mystery and confusion. The more you learn, the more you wonder. Is this an alternate timeline, split off after some critical, possibly fairy-fuelled, event? Is this a complete rewrite of history, are the changes meant to simply be facets of the world? Is this meant to be a critique of the various “what if women were in power” stories that crop up frequently in SFF? Is this about Brexit? Are we just mocking politics as a process? Critiquing human nature in all its fractiousness? There are no answers here.

So what is there instead? For a start, there are characters. Lana Baker, the protagonist scribe, is a gloriously happy-go-lucky chancer, eager to flirt with pretty much any woman – human or fairy – who crosses her path, and determined to find joy in her life despite reality and circumstances conspiring against her. Her persistent flattery of literally everything that moves is strangely endearing, precisely because it is without any sort of selectivity, and because it seems at all times to be entirely sincere. There is very little guile to Lana, nor planning, plotting or thoughts beyond the present. She lives in the now, fuelled by drink and mood-altering yeast, and is so entirely content with this state of affairs, it’s hard not to be charmed by her along with everyone else.

The cast of secondary characters are all viewed through the lens of Lana’s jollity and hedonism, but we get occasional hints of their interiority by their interactions with each other, little glimpses of what this world might look like at a step removed from Lana. Bugbite, the moody overseer of the scribes, slowly warms to Lana’s charms, and reveals herself to be an outcast among her fellow fairies, desperate for companionship but so overcome with concern for the impending doom of parliament she can’t help but take her agitation out on her scribal charges. Eloquentia, a French deputy of the house, meanwhile seems distant and aloof, her concerns about the goings on of politics completely divorced from Lana’s focusses on life and joy and comfort and romance, but her sharpness and wit comes through in snippets, in her observations of Bugbite’s behaviour and Lana’s approaches. We see enough of them to know both would approach – and have – their problems in a totally different way to the progression of the story, but Lana steamrollers everything around her, whether simply because the story is told from her perspective or because she truly does pummel reality around her to behave as she wants it to, and so we can only theorise about who the other characters would be without her influence.

In some ways the story feels a little like what would happen if Tamsyn Muir’s Coronabeth Tridentarius got a novel told from her own perspective – a sheer force of cheerful optimism banging at the doors of the narrative until it gives up and lets her have her own way. Lana has that same solidity of belief in the way the world should be, she hammers it into shape as the story progresses, seemingly without even trying all that hard.

The other thing the story has – and in absolute spades – is vibes. Atmosphere. That weirdness and nonsensical ruleset that you don’t know until you read the tale (and then have somehow internalised and make a peculiar sense) that proper fairytales have. Why are things like this? Not a question anyone cares to answer. But by the end, it sort of, maybe, kind of makes sense? If you look at it side on. It feels right, even if the mysteries are endless and the logic somewhat ungraspable. And that feeling, that charming oddness, is what really drives things. It’s what sucked me in and kept me reading, and will, I suspect, be my abiding memory of the book in 12 months’ time.

But a huge part of the atmosphere is built on the foundation of no answers. This is not a book for people who need their magic spelled out, the rules of their worlds carefully delimited. It is a book that rewards coming in with an open mind, and a willingness to roll with everything it throws at you. Because if you can? The lingering questions are a huge part of the fun. I am thoroughly enjoying sitting here and wondering exactly how everything worked, how things came to be and why and what, and knowing that I won’t get any answers to any of it. It is a sort of delicious ignorance that fuels imagination, rather than the frustrating lack of answers.

That High Times in the Low Parliament restricts itself to novella length is a blessing – its strangeness and absolute commitment to answering none of its own questions are glorious at this length, but I feel like a novel length would start demanding more sense, more clarity than are available at present, and a great deal of the story’s charm would be lost in getting those answers. A novella gives it the space it needs to be precisely itself, no more and no less. And what that is is delightful, if you’ve a mind to meet it there.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10 

Bonuses: +1 impeccable vibes

Penalties: -1 would have been enjoyable to see a little more of the secondary characters

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference:  Kelly Robson, High Times in the Low Parliament [Tordotcom, 2022]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea