Cheryl’s 2018 in Feminist Speculative Fiction

A Year In Feminist Speculative Fiction

By Cheryl Morgan

9780374208431 fcTop of the list for anyone’s feminist reading from 2018 must be Maria Dahvana Headley’s amazing re-telling of Beowulf, The Mere Wife. Set in contemporary America, with a gated community taking the place of Heorot Hall, and a policeman called Ben Wolfe in the title role, it uses the poem’s story to tackle a variety of issues. Chief among them is one of translation. Why is it that Beowulf is always described as a hero, whereas Grendel’s Mother is a hag or a wretch? In the original Anglo-Saxon, the same word is used to describe both of them. And why do white women vote for Trump? The book tackles both of those questions, and more. I expect to see it scooping awards.

Space OperaA personal favourite of mine, though possibly a little too off-the-wall for some tastes, is Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera. The usual pyrotechnic prose we have come to expect from Valente is augmented by delightful comedy and an all-encompassing queerness. Valente’s time in the UK as a student has helped her to set a book here without any of the embarrassing Theme Park Britain we sometimes see from American authors. Amidst the insanity of Brexit, it seems entirely appropriate that Earth’s admission to the Interstellar Community will depend on our performance in a galaxy-wide version of the Eurovision Song Contest. The Keshet, beings who look like overly excited red pandas, are now officially my favourite alien species.

European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanHumour also pervades the Athena Club novels of Theodora Goss. The second book in the series is European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. It takes our heroines from London to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue a Miss Lucinda Van Helsing from an awful doom. They also discover that foreigners make remarkably good cake. Goss has assembled a fascinating team of characters, from the prim Mary Jekyll to the incorrigible Diana Hyde. I am particularly fond of Catherine Moreau who used to be a puma and who finds humans rather too complicated. Reading the Athena Club mysteries is very like reading Kim Newman’s books; I always come away convinced that I have missed half of the references to other stories that the author has sprinkled liberally throughout the text.

Continue reading “Cheryl’s 2018 in Feminist Speculative Fiction”

So’s 2018 Round-Up

By So Mayer, part of our ongoing look back at 2018

Image result for yasmin ryan tardisSo that was the year that Yaz (and Ryan) jumped in the TARDIS.

And Meg Murry (and Charles Wallace) found A Wrinkle in Time. Simone took The Good Place (and Chidi, Tehani and Jason) into an MRI chamber. Plus Shuri (and T’Challa, Killmonger, Nakia, Okoye, Ramonda, Ayo, M’Baku, and many more) made Black Panther – and she had a whole lot more to say and do, on Earth and in space, in Nnedi Okorafor’s playful and powerful comic series (up to issue 3 so far). Let’s not forget foresighted Rosalind Walker (and Susie Putnam, and the brilliantly louche Ambrose Spellman) in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Foyles made Tomi Adeyemi’s ambitious Children of Blood and Bone their Children’s Book of the Year 2018, a story of Orisha magic led by Zélie. N.K. Jemisin completed an unprecedented Hugo Award trifecta – three Best Novel awards over three years – with the third volume of the Broken Earth series, The Stone Sky, a mother-daughter-mineral tale resonant with contemporary apocalyptic concerns, which also won the Nebula and Locus awards for best novel.

It seems reductive to label this transformation of the field with the hashtag #blackgirlmagic, but it is equally undeniable that the black girl nerd community online has driven the passionate uptake of Meg, Shuri, and Ros, and of writers such as Okorafor, Adeyemi, Jemisin, and Malorie Blackman, who, with ‘Rosa,’ became the first non-white writer to contribute a script for televised Doctor Who, the new series’ highest-rated episode. A BBC adaptation of Blackman’s ground-breaking alternative history novel Noughts and Crosses, co-produced by Jay Z’s Roc Nation company, has started filming, two years after the project was first announced: a strong sign, perhaps, that at the high-profile conjunction of screen media and SFF literature, change is in motion.

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Andrew’s 2018 Pick: 2001: An Odyssey in Words

As part of our 2018 round-up, Andrew Wallace embarks on an odyssey of words …

An Alien Optic

2001: An Odyssey in Words, ed. Ian Whates & Tom Hunter (NewCon Press 2018)

2001: An Odyssey in Words was published to commemorate the centenary of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s birth. It includes new stories and features of exactly 2001 words by twenty-seven leading SF writers, all winners or shortlistees of the Clarke Award. At a scant 2001 words, the easy gag would be to say if you don’t like the piece you’re reading, there will be another one along soon. But really, this is an extraordinary collection, and there isn’t a duff piece in the lot.

Continue reading “Andrew’s 2018 Pick: 2001: An Odyssey in Words”

Tony’s 2018 Pick: Lost in Space

As part of our 2018 Round-Up, Tony Jones gets just a little misplaced in space …

Fans of a certain vintage will have grown up following the adventures of the Space Family Robinson who were very much Lost in Space … though this involved being (mostly) trapped on a strange alien world, which happened to be prone to eccentric visitors. Child prodigy Will Robinson often took centre stage, trying to find the best in the conflicted villain Dr Zachary Smith, and often relying on the protection of The Robot.

Lost in Space Original 2

The original Lost in Space was first aired between 1965 and 1968. If we skip quickly past the 1998 film, in 2018 it was the turn of the Netflix behemoth to reboot the show over ten expensively made episodes. Is it worth a watch, and – perhaps more importantly – is it still really Lost in Space?

The Robinson family persist, though it’s a more complex setup with Maureen and John now somewhat estranged and Judy being Maureen’s daughter by an earlier relationship. Maureen is very much a central heroic figure, scientist and leader, but she also has flaws – as shown by how far she is prepared to go to ensure Will can accompany the family into space.

Lost in Space 1.jpg

If the family are updated, so too is the character of Don West, now a smuggling engineer rather than a Major who pilots the Jupiter 2. We still have the Jupiter 2, but now it’s a very well-equipped ship carried aboard a huge colony ship, The Resolute. As the show opens it’s not long before alien robots attack and the colonists must flee The Resolute to an unknown planet.

So far, so similar, and there’s even a Dr Smith – though this is a female psychopath played with dark chill by Parker Posey, and she’s really June Harris, who has taken Dr Smith’s identity for her own reasons. If that wasn’t enough to follow, the real Dr Smith is played by Bull Mumy, who played Will Robinson in the original TV series.

Image result for parker posey lost in space

Once on the planet Will finds and befriends an all-powerful Robot who is a great piece of CGI but not quite in the spirit of the original. Will himself though is very well written and performed, and very much a real Will Robinson, if that means anything.

Lost in Space 2.jpg

So, this reboot has the main ingredients, and sets them on a threatening alien world with a problem – it isn’t viable in the long term. There’s lots of shenanigans about fuel supplies, treachery and angst and one major difference from the original: the Robinsons aren’t alone!

Yes, the planet is temporary home to dozens of other Jupiter ships and their crews. This gives the central cast plenty of other characters to interact with, without resorting to the original show’s device of random aliens just arriving every week. There’s also a bigger story hidden in the background as we slowly learn why The Resolute was attacked, who the Robot is, and how far Dr Smith will go in her deceptions and her lust for power. Her character is consistently well written, and is one of the show’s real strengths.

The Robinsons’ interactions drive a lot of the episodes, either reacting to Dr Smith’s machinations, or attempting to escape from the planet, and there are plenty of opportunities to explore backstory, and for Maureen and John to build some bridges. If some of the main characters are updated, this feels less of a departure from the spirit of the original than the failure to leave the Robinsons isolated. But. Yes, there’s a but in the form of a (spoilers) new attack by super alien robots, some narrow escapes and – just as a happy ending looks possible – a surprise turn of events which does indeed leave the Robinsons and the Jupiter 2 truly lost in space.

Tony Jones has dined with royalty, supped slings in Singapore and been taught by several Nobel prize winners (though he could have paid more attention). He is a writer and blogger based in the early 21st century.

Birdbrain

LightbornI suppose that if you’re going to revise Heart of Darkness you might as well be up front about it, but you probably don’t want to leave readers wishing you’d shut up about it. The constant explicit nods to Joseph Conrad’s horror taproot text – both as lines remembered by one of the two protagonists, and in the form of regularly interpolated quotations – are, however, the only real problem with Birdbrain, which otherwise is seductively sparing, and almost unbearably precise in its audience ministrations. The stories of two Finns hiking their way across large chunks of New Zealand, mainland Australia and Tasmania, Johanna Sinisalo’s first novel to be translated into English since Not Before Sundown (2000/2003) is a more sombre piece than its predecessor, but no less striking.

Finn one, Heidi, is an assistant working in PR when, on one trying evening out with clients, she meets Finn two, Jyrki, who at the time is working as a bartender. This is what Heidi sees:

I didn’t have a problem with my constant trips to the bar: the bloke behind the counter was a fairly decent specimen. He was almost two metres tall, slim with broad shoulders. His eyes were a light-grey colour, and there was a darker circle around his irises that gave his stare an almost paralysing intensity. No ring on his left hand, but he had a large golden earring dangling at the side of his shiny shaved head. The most impressive thing about him was that he never seemed to make a single unnecessary or unconsidered movement.

Rather disconcertingly for anyone who’s ever seen a photograph of China Mieville, Jyrki turns out to think about Heidi like this —

She was small and nicely proportioned. Black hair flowed evenly down past her shoulders. There was just enough blue in the colour that you could tell some of the tint had come from a bottle. A bit too much sirloin around the rump. A nice pair of apples bobbed on the upper shelf. (20)

— which sets the structure for the rest of the novel, being largely short segments, alternating between Heidi and Jyrki not quite connecting with each other, and neatly establish the basis of their admittedly intense relationship. An additional layer of structure alternates between two time frames: the one quoted above, which starts in 2006, and one starting in March 2007, with the pair setting out to hike Tasmania’s little-used South Coast Track. It transpires that a few months into their affair, Jyrki, who is pretty much as arrogant as you might have guessed, informed Heidi that he’s finally in a position to go on a long dreamed-of holiday; Heidi, caught somewhat off guard, volunteers to go with him for complicated reasons. It turns out that for her the trip – though not without its rewards – is primarily an ordeal, while for Jyrki – though not without its frustrations – it’s primarily an ideal, a chance to lose himself, and perhaps find himself, in the wilderness. The novel unwinds both timelines and characters over the course of a compact 217 pages, with the South Coast Track the grand finale.

Neither character, you sense, quite has the full measure of the landscape that surrounds them. Heidi feels exposed, unnaturally separated from human community and shelter, and convinced that Tasmania is not just alien but a palpable presence that seems to stalk them: “both age-old and fresh as the day it was born […] invisible, smart enough constantly to devise little pranks and childish enough to carry them out” (41). It’s Heidi for whom the raw conditions are most wearing; it’s Heidi who picked up a copy of Heart of Darkness at one of the hostels they stayed in near the start of their journey, and read it half a dozen times, to the point that it seems to inescapably frame her experience. Yet Heidi also sees the trip as a chance to escape the stultifying patronage of her family, to do something “By myself. For myself” (50); and she learns fast, and pretty well. As her experience grows, so too does a much longed-for sense of freedom.

Jyrki, meanwhile, finds freedom less in his self than in the absence of others. He is continually frustrated by the difficulty of leaving civilisation behind, by the indulgent lodges, or distant planes, or traces of other travellers, or other impurities of experience. (“Conveniences,” he feels, “are only convenient if you actually want them”, 67.) His arrogance, we come to understand, is rooted in both experience and skill – he is an utterly scrupulous hiker, dedicated to leaving on the land untouched — and in an abiding anger at the violence humans inflict on the world around them, through simple thoughtlessness as much as deliberate rapaciousness. For Jyrki Tasmania is other because humans are pollutants: “No animal in this world,” he argues, “is as unpleasant as one forcing its way outside its natural environment, feeding itself off human was like a parasite” (188).

Jyrki’s passion is energising and necessary, and seems to have the novel’s weight behind it. In addition to the two Finns, and Conrad, there are other voices in the novel that shape our understanding of what is happening. The most prominent is nameless (although it may be Heidi’s brother; or there may be more than one nameless), and offers a series of snapshots of urban alienation, each depicting a new vandalism: freezers unplugged in supermarkets; keyed cars; stolen pets; stones dropped from motorway bridges; arson. Almost all we know about nameless is that they’re depressed, sour, callous, and seemingly the embodiment of the worst Jyrki believes about humanity, thoughtless. “It’s not about envy,” nameless says, when trying to explain their actions, they “just want to leave their mark on the world” (98).

And what of the world? It is as distinctive a presence in the novel as any of the humans, and it seems to validate Heidi’s viewpoint. As one of the people Heidi and Jyrki meet puts it, sometimes it seems that humans are “just swarming parasites on Mother Earth’s skin, tickling and teasing, irritating and provoking her until the only thing she can do is disinfect herself” (121-2). And as the pair travel into increasingly remote areas, inconveniences become problems, including a series of disturbances that can’t be accounted for, as when Heidi’s water bottle disappears, then reappears several days and a couple of hundred kilometres later. The implied explanation, which is much more obvious to us than to the Finns, not least because it’s more or less given away on the back cover, has to do with a previously undiscovered species of parrot that may be related to the New Zealand Kea, of which a scholarly article notes: “… can solve even complicated problems with relative ease. […] This behavioural pattern becomes more common when food is in greater supply” (109). This sounds cartoonish but is not: and in fact the novel’s sharp climax gains, the final epiphanic revelation of its own heart of darkness, gains part of its potency from the thoroughness with which cartoonishness is disavowed.

And the rest of the novel is grounded by Sinisalo’s crisp descriptions. Birdbrain is very obviously and forcefully an environmentalist novel; but it is also simply a brilliant piece of writing about the environment. From the fire-scorched Grampians national park in Australia (“the clumps of grass stood out so vividly against the pitch-black ground that they looked as though they had been lit up from the inside”, 120) to the magisterial Ironbound range (“A primordial forest hanging on the edge of bottomless gorges, set right in the middle of a giants’ game of skittles”, 115), the landscape seems always confidently distinctive; as Heidi puts it early on, perfectly aware of its own qualities and without the need to please anyone. That the corruption of humanity may have produce a corruption in the ecology of this land, even a counteracting one, is a deeply felt tragedy – one that springs from a bleak and partial view of humanity, but one that provides a rich seam for this elegant, severe novel to mine.

A New Feature

Over at Strange Horizons, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is starting a project to read and review the twenty-five volumes of Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories, which reprint work published between 1939 and 1963. He’ll be tackling one volume every couple of months. Read on…

I’m approaching much of this work as a first-time reader, presumably like many of you. I’m sure that in the course of this ongoing project, in which I’d like to review all twenty-five volumes in the anthology series, I’ll find plenty of surprises. My intent with this review series is as much descriptive as it is analytic. There are more specialized works which deal full-on with the philosophical implications of specific stories or which dissect them academically. The idea here is to gain familiarity with the material and an appreciation for its continued relevance.

So, let us step back in time. 1939: a watershed year for SF. The World Science Fiction Convention was held for the first time, and the field saw the first published stories of Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, A. E. van Vogt, Robert A. Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, and Theodore Sturgeon. Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories: Volume 1, 1939 (IAPGSFS 1) collects twenty noteworthy fictions, including those firsts by van Vogt, Heinlein, and Sturgeon.

If you wanted some last-minute reading…

… before doing your Hugo nominations (deadline 07.59 on Sunday, Brits), you could do worse than check out the short fiction reviews at Strange Horizons this week:

Alvaro’s comments on “Spar“, for instance, have made me reconsider its omission from my draft ballot, and Abigail is particularly right about “To Kiss the Granite Choir“, which is an enormous amount of fun. (Though I do feel it’s been a pretty weak year for novellas in general.) And I’d appreciate any additional thoughts on, in particular, Daniel Abraham’s “The Curandero and the Swede”, which I’m sort of teetering on the brink of nominating.

History and In Great Waters

I’ve been meaning to post this all week, but somehow not getting around to it. Anyway: as Martin noted, the most popular fiction books in this year’s Strange Horizons best of the year round-up were, first, The City & The City by China Mieville, second, In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield, and third equal, Ark by Stephen Baxter and Cloud & Ashes by Greer Gilman. (And wouldn’t those four be a good start for a Hugo shortlist?) I’d been meaning to link to Hannah’s appreciative post about In Great Waters anyway, but it picked up this fascinating comment:

I happened to read this just this week because sovay told me to, and it staggered me. It’s set in a period where I do know the history very well, and one of the things that absolutely blew me away was the way it uses the real history to create suspense. After the marriage, I was absolutely terrified for everybody, simply because of the names of the characters, because she’s Anne and he’s Henry and the ramifications of that. Anne and Mary are the Boleyn girls, with Philip changed from brother to uncle, incestuous implications and all. I sat there going oh, God, do not be Anne of the thousand days, it would be so easy, with the most significant man Anne Boleyn was accused of adultery with (other than Philip) cast as Henry’s foster-brother… and I knew what kind of trouble Henry was going to have most violently on coming to the throne, and couldn’t guess how they were going to get out of it. Because of course Samuel is Saint Sir Thomas More, and that was a trainwreck coming.

I can’t recall seeing another novel that has done this particular thing, where it isn’t a one-to-one AU but the resonances of our history shape the tensions of the plot without being either obtrusive or implausible. The expectations that come from knowing what ought to happen to these people make the last half of the book almost unbearably cruel, but then also pull off what I experienced as a genuine eucatastrophe, also an incredibly rare bird.

This book gets my Hugo nomination this year, and I need to write a long review in hopes of drawing the attention of more people towards it, because I’ve seen almost no buzz, which is a damn shame.

The long review has, sadly, not appeared yet, but I’d love to hear more about this side of the book; history is very much not my thing, so my appreciation for In Great Waters — it’s getting my Hugo nomination, too — is independent of any of these resonances.

Also of note: Faren Miller’s Locus review.

While Whitfield’s strong sense of character gives life and complexity even to the schemers, arrogant power-mongers, and borderline maniacs who collectively make life for Henry, Anne and other relative innocents more dangerous than any ocean current swarming with sharks, her two young protagonists stand at the heart of the book. Still it’s not just their tale. She interweaves the story of their trials and maturation into a mixture of real and imagined political and cultural history (both English and in a larger European sphere) that manages to be thoroughly compelling, even without the drama of those later revolutions.

Go on, pick up a copy of In Great Waters. You know you want to.

How To Sell Me A Book

In case anyone was wondering, the answer is to write a review like Matt Denault’s review of Filaria by Brent Hayward, published last year by ChiZine Publications:

At a time when novels that are carbon copies of an author’s previous work and pastiches banged out due to contractual obligations have been short-listed for major genre awards, it is immeasurably refreshing to encounter a book that feels carefully yet ambitiously wrought to maximize the potential of its project. This is not to suggest that Filaria is (or rather, was) award-worthy, but the book is a reminder that this mixture of care and ambition marks a useful baseline for what we expect of fiction. Filaria is not a work that dazzles with new ideas, rather it impresses by deploying a greater set of storytelling techniques than many better-known works, and in so doing renews the sense of wonder associated with familiar concepts of SF and horror. The result is a novel that is entertaining in the commonly understood, page-turning sense, without fatally insulting the intelligence or the aesthetics of a cultivated reader. Filaria is a short book whose movements occur in a tightly enclosed space, that nonetheless manages to capture a great deal of the horror and the hope of human endeavor.

There is a level, I admit, on which the review plays to my ego: here is an interesting, under-appreciated novel, it says, and I think ooh, I want to know about the cool thing. Of such reactions is buzz made. But rather more important factors include the thoroughness of the analysis, the clarity about the reviewer’s own tastes and expectations, the care taken in composition — the review is a good piece of writing in itself, which makes me trust the recommendation that much more — and the modesty and specificity of its claims. It does not say Filaria is a criminally neglected masterwork; it does not say that it is flawless. It says: “Filaria is good because it handles the basics of entertaining storytelling so well, balancing plot, character, setting, prose, and pacing, while encompassing core themes of both SF and horror”; and that what it uses those elements to do is interesting. And so I ordered a copy for myself, and it arrived a couple of days ago.

On Green

Adrienne Martini, in the June 2009 Locus:

Green the book is about Green the girl, a waif who was purchased from her father and carried across the sea, where she is stripped of all that she has known, which includes her language and name. “That is the last of what I remember of that time in my life, before it all changed: a white ox, a wooden bell, and my father forever turning away from me”. The image itself is heartbreaking, but this sentence is also full of an evocative rhythm that infects the rest of Lake’s prose. The words almost have their own energy.
[…]
At its thematic core, Green is about human trafficking and a meditation on how actions always have unintended consequences. Or as Green herself points out, “Freedom has sch strange and unexpected prices”. One such price is Green as a character. Given all that she has endured and how realistically Lake uses her experience to influence her actions, Green is tough to embrace. While readers pull for her success, we pull away from her personality. She’s not, in other words, someone you’d want to have a beer with.

What’s most striking may be the volume of thought that illuminates Green. What could be a straightforward hero’s journey story is made much richer by Lake’s attention to detail, which merges seamlessly into the main action without ever weighing it down. His touch is deft when filling in the texture of Green’s world.

Maureen Kincaid Speller, in Interzone 222:

We might be in familiar territory, with Green perhaps as the unrecognised last scion of a once noble house, being secretly trained to recover her destiny, but Lake doesn’t take the easy road. Instead, the novel focuses as much on Green’s intense desire to preserve her sense of self and find a future of her own choosing, as it does on the story’s broader action. Rather than following a traditional pattern of quest, discovery and resolution, significant parts of the story are driven by Green’s attempts to find her own way, using the distorted set of skills she has acquired, and then twisted by a need for her to respond to the failures of others. People plot but they don’t plan; they achieve goals but don’t consider the consequences of doing so, and Green is wrenched from the path she is attempting to follow, having trained to become a Blade of the Lily Temple, to once again become part of someone else’s scheme. One of the striking features of this novel is its low-key but persistent emphasis on how difficult it is for women to live in this world as individuals.

John Clute at Sci-Fi Wire:

That, on the other hand, Lake’s savagely pollarded heroine never seems to shut her mouth should come as no surprise either, I guess: because it is clearly not part of Lake’s belief system, or of his writerly strategy over the long consolatory pages of Green, to treat the savageries of immurement Green suffers as a child as ultimately deforming. Wolfe, whose example has clearly shaped Green, may be the only contemporary author of American fantastic literature consistently to treat damage as damaging; Lake adheres to a sunnier version of the costs of being born in prison: that spunk will unlock the barred door.
[…]
It’s warmingly clear that Lake expects us to recognize his use of a story model closely identified with the work of Gene Wolfe. It is not a model that Wolfe himself created, of course: first person narratives couched in the form of confessions put on paper for us to read have been common since the 18th century, when they worked to affirm the truth of what was being told. There is no gap between the telling and the tale in Daniel Defoe. Nor did Wolfe create the unreliable narrator, a device of telling that becomes fully self-conscious in Club Stories like Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” (1898).

Wolfe’s innovation has been to inject a modernist problematic into all those elements that such narratives are ostensibly laid down to make clear: basic data about the narrator’s true identity and parenthood and victims and lovers and true occupation and ultimate destiny are all unreliably conveyed; the engines of transformation that actually render a small child into an armoured and dangerous adult creature can be uncovered only through inference; the motives of the narrator’s parents or owners behind the walls of the house or school or prison or skull are invariably left untold or lied about; and finally, the narrator’s motives for making his story (in Wolfe the narrator is always male) available for us to read are similarly left dark.
[…]
It is here we come to something of a sticking point, which is rage. The young peasant girl Green (she refuses to use the name her owner gives her), who has spent most of her life in a deep Skinner Box being shaped, refuses to accept her destiny. After all her travails, she tells us, “I was still me“, and my heart sank. The person we have thought she was—the aleph self gaining some dark noumenousness from her immurement in the heart of the Wolfean world she had been selected for as an infant—turns out to be a cloak that only half conceals a moderately sophisticated Liberal Humanist teenager from California with anger issues. Made berserk by the thought that she—a simple illiterate peasant lass from a subsistance rice paddy—has been bought and educated by immortals whose nature and purpose on the plate of the world we have not yet learned, Green kills one of her teaching Mistresses, scars her face so she cannot become a concubine, and escapes with Dancing Mistress into the City.

Kyra Smith at Strange Horizons:

Specifically, there are two ways in which we can interpret Green’s sadomasochistic lesbianism. We can see it as the sort of empowering lesbianism practiced by apparently kick-ass fantasy heroines or we can see it as yet further evidence that Green has been completely broken by her time of enslavement. Either reading is discomforting, the former because it strikes me as a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of homosexuality to view it as more legitimising than heterosexuality, and the latter because it implies a direct causal relationship between abuse and ‘aberrant’ sexual behaviour. In both cases, Green’s sexual preferences are reduced to something illustrative rather authentic. The upshot is that there is no sense of emotional reality to her attractions beyond shared orientation and the possibility, perhaps, that the author finds the idea of two girls getting it on a bit hot. Or one girl and a catgirl. I’m not joking.
[…]
The lack of emotional resonance can be partly attributed to the difficulties of first person narration, for Green is relentlessly, tediously first person. Constant allusions to the act of narration itself suck any tension from the story and, because Green lacks any real agency for most of the novel, the result is peculiarly picaresque—a string of semi-arbitrary incidents that may, or may not, connect to other semi-arbitrary incidents. And while attempting to ground big political themes in the personal, by entrenching the reader in a central character, is admirable, the ultimate effect, in this instance, is to simply put all the big, exciting, world changing events at a distance. Green herself is not exactly pleasant company—she’s cold, mistrustful, misanthropic, and self-absorbed to such an extent that the supporting cast are all bland, fuzzy figures in whom it is nearly impossible to invest.
[…]
I think I would have had less of a problem with Green had I been able to shake the suspicion I was meant to think she was awesome. She does kick-ass fantasy heroine things like kill people, sleep around, win fights and be Chosen By The Gods (yes, she’s that too) and her only flaws are the sort of flaws it is acceptable for a strong woman to have—i.e. she is a little bit impulsive, a little bit ruthless and just too gosh darn stubborn sometimes. Because of this, and her general disinclination to give a damn about anyone else, she never felt like a real person to me.

Karen Burnham at SF Signal:

Jay Lake’s Green is a character-driven fantasy with enough action to satisfy the most blood-thirsty of us. The important part is Green, the girl, the heroine, the character we come to love and root for. Fate buffets her, and few heroines really maintain their agency in the face of the forces arrayed against them. But Green manages to struggle through and we get to enjoy watching her do it. Even when the plot fades into the background, it’s enjoyable to watch her learn and grow.

She’s not perfect–she makes a lot of immature fuck-ups and occasionally you just want to smack her–but when you consider her age (the book covers her life from roughly age 3 to perhaps 16) you can understand it. Who among us always made the right call as a young teenager? But here’s the really important part: Green is an amazingly Competent Woman; she can dance, fight, sneak, kill, cook, sew, account, philosophize, and more. She’s also gorgeous, of course. This reminds us all of so many female heroines throughout literature. I’m thinking in the past of Heinlein women and just recently in the character of Jin Li Tam in Ken Schole’s Lamentation. However in Green, Lake takes us through all the steps needed to create that woman. It is a very unpleasant reality.

Terry Weyna at Reading the Leaves:

I greatly enjoyed reading the last two-thirds of the book. Lake writes in Green’s voice to great effect, exploring her confidence and her self-doubt, her determination and her self-pity. The story told in this segment, if seemingly different from the story of Green’s upbringing, is exciting. For me, though, it simply did not work as well as the first segment. I became so invested in seeing Green gain her freedom that once she did, nothing else seemed quite as interesting. It’s an interesting writing problem: how does one achieve such a goal and still make what comes after seem of utmost importance to the reader? Lake does not seem to have figured that out. Again, the rest of the book is enjoyable, but it seems so very different from what went before that it must be noted as a major flaw.

Daniel Hemmens at FerretBrain:

It gets worse, considerably worse, when she returns to her home. Suddenly Copper Downs goes from being not merely more affluent than her homeland but objectively better. Green states, quite clearly, that:

My captors had been right. Rather I should have been on my knees thanking the Factor for what he had taken me from.

Now I know that this is partly Green giving in to despair, but nothing in the text challenges this conclusion. It’s rather an object lesson in the dangers of taking on too many genre stereotypes at once.

Had this been the story of a white man who was taken away from his pseudo-European farming village and conscripted into the armies of the Dark Lord of Evil then I would have been overjoyed to find him returning home to realise that his long lost homeland was a poverty stricken shithole and his father was a bastard who never cared about him. It would challenge the assumptions of a genre that frequently glamourises poverty, and it wouldn’t have any creepy overtones (unless you want to make a big thing about militarism).

Make the white man a south-Asian woman, however, and you start getting into difficulties, because now you’re not saying “being poor sucks” you’re saying “being foreign sucks”. Turn conscription into slavery and you’re not saying “you might be better off in the army than on a farm” you’re saying “you might be better off as a slave in Europe than as a free man in your own country.” Add in the courtesan angle and you’re saying “it is a good thing for south-Asian women to be sold as sex slaves to European men.”

I hope I don’t need to point out that this really isn’t okay.