Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin

I originally wrote this post in 2013, and then shelved it after some feedback led me to conclude it was fundamentally flawed. Its presence in my drafts folder has been nagging me for years. Following the recent death of Ms. Le Guin, I decided to finally revisit and complete it. It’s not exactly what I would have written today, but it completes the thoughts I wanted to share five years ago.

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, as it was known at the time, was one of the first fantasy series I read, after things like the Chronicles of Narnia (which always feels to me like something everyone must have read as a child, though I know that’s not true). I must have been only about 10 years old the first time. I read the four novels several times, and The Tombs of Atuan, for some reason, was always my favourite. I never quite got into Tehanu to the same extent; I think it bored me, in fact.

It was with those childhood impressions in mind that I decided to revisit the series for the first time in at least a decade. And I was a little surprised. You see, Le Guin stands as almost a mythic figure herself – one of the greats of science fiction and fantasy literature, known for works like The Left Hand of Darkness, which explores the idea of gender through a world where the binary does not exist. In that context, then, A Wizard of Earthsea struck me for one big reason: Where were the women?

That first Earthsea novel was surprisingly conventional, at least from the perspective of an adult reader in 2013. It deals with some interesting themes, particularly that of facing the darkness that exists within one’s own self, but these days the story of a young man learning to become a wizard is nothing exceptional. And the story is all about men. Ged, the apprentice wizard; Ogion, his first master; the Masters and Archmage of Roke; Ged’s rival, Jasper, and his friend, Vetch. There are, as far as I recall, five female characters in A Wizard of Earthsea. All are small parts, there for a chapter or so – some not even that – and then gone.

The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, goes some way to redress the imbalance. The main character is Tenar, known as Arha, Priestess of the Nameless Ones. She lives in an enclave of priestesses and eunuchs, where men are not allowed. Tenar is, technically, one of the highest authorities in Kargad, but she comes to realise she has no actual power, and the other two high priestesses only have power so long as the God-King chooses to keep to the old traditions. It is only when a man, Ged, arrives that Tenar is able to break out of the restrictions placed upon her. When Tenar, through Ged’s aid, ultimately departs from the Tombs, they are destroyed – along with what are seemingly the only positions of authority, however limited, for women in all of Earthsea.

The Farthest Shore once again gives Ged’s story, this time as an old man, as Archmage, as he sets out with the young nobleman Arren. They journey to investigate a dark power that is causing Mages to forget their True Speech, and to place a king on Earthsea’s vacant throne. The Farthest Shore is a story about confronting and accepting death, and it, too, is a story about men.

In those three books, what Le Guin created was a world in which men held all of the power; in which women could have some magic ability, but only as witches who were shunned, or sorceresses in service to dark powers. “Weak as women’s magic; wicked as women’s magic” is the saying on Gont. And she created a world where these things were seemingly unquestioned.

How did someone who is known as a feminist writer end up creating such a sexist world? As it turns out, this is something Le Guin herself was very aware of. This was a male dominated genre, one in which it was often felt that writers must centre male characters in order to sell books. She spoke a number of times in interviews about the slow process of learning how to shed this preconception, such as in this interview from 1994:

All my early fiction tends to be rather male-centred. A couple of the Earthsea books have no women in them at all or only marginal women figures. That’s how hero stories worked; they were about men. With the exception of just a few feminists like Joanna Russ, science fiction was pretty much male-dominated up to the 1960s. Women who wrote in that field often used pen names.
None of this bothered me. It was my tradition, and I worked in it happily. But I began coming up against certain discomforts. […]
I gradually realised that my own fiction was telling me that I could no longer ignore the feminine. While I was writing The Eye of the Heron in 1977, the hero insisted on destroying himself before the middle of the book. “Hey,” I said, “you can’t do that, you’re the hero. Where’s my book?” I stopped writing. The book had a woman in it, but I didn’t know how to write about women. I blundered around awhile and then found some guidance in feminist theory. […] It taught me that I didn’t have to write like an honorary man anymore, that I could write like a woman and feel liberated in doing so.

That’s the problem when you come upon the work of an established author long after they began their career – it’s easy to forget that decades of work was involved, and that their own understanding of their work may have changed in the process.

For the Earthsea saga, that’s where Tehanu comes in. Published eighteen years after The Farthest Shore, this is a very different book, and in many ways serves as a feminist response to the world that Le Guin had created.

In this slower, darker, and more domestic novel, we once again have the point of view of Tenar – older, and living on the island of Gont; a mother whose children have left, and a wife whose husband has died. Since she was last seen in The Tombs of Atuan, she’s lived an entire life.

At the opening of the book, a young girl is found beaten and burned, and is nursed back to health by Tenar and the witch Ivy. Tenar takes the child in as her own, and gives her the name Therru. Tehanu takes place at the time The Farthest Shore ended: In that book, we were told of how Earthsea still did not have peace because there was no king on the throne; now, a king has been found, but his influence is yet to be felt. Gont is no longer safe for travellers, as vagrants and thieves are on the roads. It was vagrants such as these – the girl’s own parents and one other man – who had beaten Therru and left her for dead.

Part of what makes this one book remarkable out of the four is Tenar’s position in the story: as a woman and mother with no special power of her own, threatened by men who wish harm on her and her child. When she travels, she is wary of every person she passes on the road. Her fears are not fantastic in nature – they are those of an ordinary woman faced with the abuses of evil men. The dangers she faces are mundane, and very real.

Much the same is true for Ged, when he returns to Gont. Having lost all of his magic at the end of The Farthest Shore, he is no longer a mage, but an ordinary old man, one who has never lived as an ordinary man before in his entire life. Accustomed to facing down dragons, now he is as helpless as Tenar. His loss of purpose serves another theme of the novel – that of what people do when what they believed was their role in life has ended. Tenar has been a priestess, a celebrated hero, a mage’s apprentice, a wife, and a mother; Ged has spent his entire life a mage. For both, these roles are behind them at the novel’s opening, and they must try to make a new life for themselves.

Most of all, though, the book talks about power. The men in this story almost universally hold power over Tenar and Therru. Some are friendly – the sorcerer of Valmouth is helpful; the King and Master Windkey from Roke offer her every courtesy thanks to her fame and her friendship with Ged. Ogion the Silent, mage of Re Albi, sees her like a daughter. The wizards who visit Re Albi at Ogion’s death, however, do not trust Tenar’s account of his last words; the Lord of Re Albi’s sorcerer, Aspen, in particular proves to be an evil and hateful man. The man who injured Therru may only be a vagabond, but he nevertheless holds power over them, through memory of the pain he caused, and the threat he poses later, when he gathers friends to attack Tenar at her home.

Along with sharing a position of power over Tenar, most are in some way dismissive of her, simply because of her womanhood. The Master Windkey is searching for clues as to who will be the next Archmage, following a prophecy that said only “A woman on Gont”. But neither he, nor any other Master of Roke, has considered that the woman in question might in fact be the Archmage. They believe the woman will guide them to the man they seek. While she talks with him, Tenar realises that the Master Windkey will never grasp what she tries to say. “How could he, who had never listened to a woman since his mother sang him his last cradle song, hear her?”

Ogion had told Tenar to teach Therru magic: “Teach her all. Not Roke.” Beech, the wizard of Valmouth hears this, and decides immediately what was meant. “‘He meant that the learning of Roke – the High Arts – wouldn’t be suitable for a girl,’ he explained. ‘Let alone one so handicapped.'” What Ogion must have meant, he says, was the same thing he had suggested: that Therru become a witch. “He pondered again, having got the weight of Ogion’s opinion on his side.”

It’s one of the book’s many examples of men mindlessly following what they know to be the way of things. “His kindness was, Tenar thought, innocent.” Even Tenar’s own son, Spark, when he returns from years at sea, immediately expects his mother to wait on him and defer to him as head of the household. “His father had always been waited on by his mother, wife, daughter. Was he less a man than his father? Was she to prove it to him?”

But women, too, have power. A story early in the book tells of Ogion’s meeting with an old woman who he first mistook for a dragon. This woman told him a story of a time in Earthsea’s beginning when humans and dragons were one and the same, and how they came to choose different paths and become separate beings. In this, and in the culmination of Therru’s story, it is women who hold a deeper understanding of the mysteries of the world. So too with the subtle implication that it may be Therru who is destined to be Archmage, the one who leads the wizards, the Masters of Roke – and her accession would be sign of a fundamental change in Earthsea.

There is a hint of gender essentialism regarding magic in the novel – particularly in a conversation between Tenar and the witch Moss, about the difference between men’s and women’s power.

‘Ours is only a little power, seems like, next to theirs,’ Moss said. ‘But it goes down deep. It’s all roots. It’s like an old blackberry thicket. And a wizard’s power is like a fir tree, maybe, great and tall and grand, but it’ll blow right down in a storm.’

On a certain level, such discussions of the difference in power seems to lend legitimacy to the model that has put wizards alone into the School on Roke, and confined women with power to petty witchcraft. But beside the rest of the novel, and coming from a character that has had to live within that structure as a witch herself, it’s easy to forgive.

Ultimately, Tehanu calls into question all of the patriarchal structures of Earthsea’s culture as established in the original trilogy, simply through its use of the perspective of an ordinary woman attempting to live an ordinary life. Tenar sees through the obstinacy and foolishness of the men around her, but it is only Ged, who has lost his former self and has to learn from nothing how to be a man, who is able to hear her.

In 2018, I finally completed the Earthsea saga by reading Tales of Earthsea and The Other Wind. With the short stories in particular, Le Guin expanded on these discussions of men and women’s power, of the exclusion of women from magic in Roke, and how the segregation of men and women in magic came about. The series concludes with events that turn the entire system of magic in Earthsea on its head, leaving the future unknown and open to all kinds of change. And it is women, and the men who are willing to listen to them, who are instrumental in bringing this about.

Tehanu no longer bores me. It is powerful, moving book, and my favourite of the entire Earthsea series. I’ll end this with a passage from late in the novel, a conversation between Ged and Tenar which I think exemplifies well what Tehanu has to say about men and women. I almost wish I could quote the whole few pages.

‘Haven’t there been queens? Weren’t they women of power?’
‘A queen’s only a she-king,’ said Ged.
She snorted.
‘I mean, men give her power. They let her use their power. But it isn’t hers, is it? It isn’t because she’s a woman that she’s powerful, but despite it.’
She nodded. She stretched, sitting back from the spinning wheel. ‘What is a woman’s power, then?’
‘I don’t think we know.’
‘When has a woman power because she’s a woman? With her children, I suppose. For a while…’
‘In her house, maybe.’
She looked around the kitchen. ‘But the doors are shut,’ she said, ‘The doors are locked.’
‘Because you’re valuable.’
‘Oh, yes. We’re precious. So long as we’re powerless… I remember when I first learned that! Kossil threatened me – me, the One Priestess of the Tombs. And I realised that I was helpless. I had the honour; but she had the power, from the God-King, the man. Oh, it made me angry! And frightened me… Lark and I talked about this once. She said, “Why are men afraid of women?”‘
‘If your strength is only the other’s weakness, you live in fear,’ Ged said.
‘Yes; but women seem to fear their own strength, to be afraid of themselves.’
‘Are they ever taught to trust themselves?’ Ged asked, and as he spoke Therru came in on her work again. His eyes and Tenar’s met.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Trust is not what we’re taught.’


With thanks to ussussimiel and LuciMay for their input; it took me 5 years to act on it, but I did listen.

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Read in 2017 – Comics

My comics reading kind of ground to a halt toward the end of the year, and I now have a sizeable pile of books that are waiting to be read. I’ve been thinking about cutting back, to be honest; I’ve already mostly stopped buying DC, and I’m figuring out which Marvel titles I want to keep up with. While I do enjoy these comics, I sometimes feel like I’m reading them simply out of continued habit.

    Ms Marvel vols 6 & 7 – G Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, Mirka Andolfo, Francesco Gaston, Ian Herring & Joe Caramagna

    Clean Room vols 2 & 3 – Gail Simone, Jon Davis-Hunt, Walter Geovani, Sanya Anwar, Quinton Winter & Todd Klein

    Patsy Walker, a.k.a. Hellcat! vols 2 & 3 – Kate Leth, Brittney L. Williams, Megan Wilson, Rachelle Rosenberg, & Clayton Cowles

    Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur vols 2 & 3 – Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare, Natacha Bustos, Marco Failla, Tamra Bonvillain, & Travis Lanham

    Secret Six vol 2 – Gail Simone, Dale Eaglesham, Tom Derenick, Jason Wright, Rex Lokus, & Travis Lanham

    Paper Girls vols 2 & 3 – Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, Matt Wilson, & Jared K. Fletcher

    Vision vol 2 – Tom King, Michael Walsh, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Jordie Bellaire, & Clayton Cowles

    The Mighty Thor vols 1-3 – Jason Aaron, Russel Dauterman, Steve Epting, Valerio Schiti, Matthew Wilson, Mat Lopes, Rafa Garres, Fraser Irving, & Joe Sabino

    The Unworthy Thor – Jason Aaron, Olivier Coipel, Kim Jacinto, Russel Dauterman, Esad Ribic, Frazer Irving, Matt Wilson, & Joe Sabino

    Batgirl Rebirth vol 1 – Hope Larson, Rafael Albuquerque, Dave McCaig, & Deron Bennett

    Black Panther vol 3 – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, Laura Martin, Chris Sprouse, Karl Story, Goran Sudzuka, Walden Wong, Roberto Poggi, Scott Hanna, Matt Milla, Larry Molinar, Rachelle Rosenberg, Paul Mounts, & Joe Sabino

    Welcome Back vol 2 – Christopher Sebela, Claire Roe, Jeremy Lawson, & Jim Campbell

    Jessica Jones vol 1 – Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos, Matt Hollingsworth, & Cory Petit

    Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vols 5 & 6 – Ryan North, Erika Henderson, Will Murray, Rico Renzi, Zac Gorman, Clayton Cowles, & Travis Lanham

    Mockingbird vol 2 – Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, Sean Parsons, Rachelle Rosenberg, & Joe Caramagna

    Kim & Kim: This Glamorous, High-Flying Rock Star Life – Magdalene Visaggio, Eva Cabrera, Claudia Aguirre, & Zakk Saam

    Lazarus vol 5 – Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, Tyler Boss, Santi Arcas, & Jodi Wynne

    Bitch Planet vol 2 – Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine de Landro, Taki Soma, Kelly Fitzpatrick, Clayton Cowles, & Rian Hughes

    The Wicked + The Divine vol 5 – Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, Clayton Cowles, & Kevin Wada

    Skim – Mariko Tamaki

    My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness – Nagata Kobi

    Delilah Dirk & The Turkish Lieutenant – Tony Cliff

    Delilah Dirk & The King’s Shilling – Tony Cliff

    Motor Crush vol 1 – Brendan Fletcher, Cameron Stewart, Babs Tarr, Heather Danforth, Aditya Bidikar

    Giant Days vol 5 – John Allison, Max Sarin, Liz Fleming, Whitney Cogar, & Jim Campbell

    Monstress vol 2 – Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda, & Rus Wooton

    Shade the Changing Girl vol 1 – Cecil Castelucci, Marley Zarcone, Ande Parks, Ryan Kelly, Kelly Fitzpatrick, & Saida Temofonte

    She-Hulk vol 1 – Mariko Tamaki, Nico Leon, Dalibor Talajic, Matt Milla, Andrew Crossley, & Cory Petit

    Kill or Be Killed vol 2 – Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, & Elizabeth Breitweiser

    The Multiversity – Grant Morrison & so many more people than I could list here

    Sex Criminals vol 4 – Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky, & Elizabeth Breitweiser

Read in 2017 – Books & Audiobooks

Every (physical) book I read this year was published in 2016 or 2017, which is a little unusual for me – usually there’s at least one or two from the older side. This does mean that my to-read pile hasn’t really gotten any smaller this year. I’ve also been reading more novellas, a format that’s been getting more attention from publishers in the last few years – most of the ones I read came from Tor.com’s novella imprint.

An Accident of Stars – Foz Meadows
Ghost Talkers – Mary Robinette Kowal
Everything Belongs to the Future – Laurie Penny
Borderline – Mishell Baker
The Wall of Storms – Ken Liu
A Taste of Honey – Kai Ashante Wilson
Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
Certain Dark Things – Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Binti: Home – Nnedi Okorafor
Forest of Memory – Mary Robinette Kowal
All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries) – Martha Wells
River of Teeth – Sarah Gailey
The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle
The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe – Kij Johnson
The Stars Are Legion – Kameron Hurley
A Tyranny of Queens – Foz Meadows
The Collapsing Empire – John Scalzi
Borne – Jeff VanderMeer
City of Miracles – Robert Jackson Bennett
Six Wakes – Mur Lafferty
The Stone Sky – N K Jemisin
Phasma – Delilah S. Dawson
Raven Stratagem – Yoon Ha Lee

On the other hand, my audiobook listening has been entirely older work, as I’ve singularly focused on the work of Robin Hobb, catching up on her lengthy Realm of the Elderlings series-of-series. Over the year I listened to:

Royal Assassin
Assassin’s Quest
Ship of Magic
The Mad Ship
Ship of Destiny
Fool’s Errand
The Golden Fool
Fool’s Fate
Dragon Keeper
Dragon Haven
City of Dragons
Blood of Dragons

I’ve now started the final trilogy, but that’s for 2018’s list.

Read in 2016 – Comics

Here are all the comics I read in 2016. I should probably organise this list better than “roughly in the order I read them”, but here it is for now. I’ve tried to do better about crediting people here – particularly colourists and letterers – but it’s not easy on some books and there’s often not enough space to list everyone.

Alias omnibus – Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos, Matt Hollingsworth, and others
The Sandman: Overture – Neil Gaiman, J. H. Williams III, Dave Stewart & Todd Klein
Kaptara vol 1 – Chip Zdarsky & Kagan McLeod
The Wrenchies – Farel Dalrymple
Red Sonja vol 3 – Gail Simone, Walter Geovani, Simon Bowland and others
The Private Eye – Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin & Muntsa Vicente
The Wicked + The Divine vols 3 & 4 – Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matthew Wilson, Clayton Cowles, and many others
The Wicked + The Divine 1831 special – Kieron Gillen & Stephanie Hans
Prophet vol 4 – Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Ron Wimberly, Giannis Milonogiannis, Joseph Bergin III, Dave Taylor, Ed Brisson, and many others
Catwoman vol 7 – Genevieve Valentine, David Messina, Gaetano Carlucci, Lee Loughridge & Travis Lanham
The Fade Out vols 2 & 3 – Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips & Elizabeth Breitweiser
Lazarus vol 4 – Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, Tyler Boss, Santi Arcas & Jodi Wynne
Batgirl vols 1-3 – Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, Babs Tarr, Bengal, Maris Wicks, Serge Lapointe, Jared K. Fletcher, Steve Wands, and many others
Black Canary vols 1 & 2 – Brenden Fletcher, Annie Wu, Sandy Jarrell, Pia Guerra, Moritat & Lee Loughridge
Welcome Back vol 1 – Christopher Sebela, Jonathan Brandon Sawyer, Claire Roe, Carlos Zamudio, Juan Manuel Tumburus & Shawn Aldridge
Secret Six vol 4 – Gail Simone, J. Calafiore, and many others
Secret Six (New 52) vol 1 – Gail Simone, Ken Lashley, Dale Eaglesham, Tom Derenick, Drew Geraci, Jason Wright, Carlos M. Mangual, Travis Lanham & Wes Abbott
Thors – Jason Aaron, Chris Sprouse, Goran Sudzuka, Karl Story, Dexter Vines, Marte Gracia, Israel Silva & Joe Sabino
Injection vol 1 & 2 – Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey & Jordie Bellaire
Giant Days vol 2 & 3 – John Allison, Lissa Treiman, Max Sarin, Whitney Cogar & Jim Campbell
Gotham Academy vol 1 – Becky Cloonan, Cameron Stewart, Karl Kerschl, Mingjue Helen Chen, Steve Wands, and others
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vols 3 & 4 – Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Rico Renzi, and others
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe – Ryan North & Erica Henderson
Sex Criminals vol 3 – Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky
Rat Queens vol 3 – Kurtis J. Wiebe, Tess Fowler, Tamra Bonvillain & Ed Brisson
Saga vol 6 – Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples
Paper Girls vol 1 – Brian K Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, Matthew Wilson & Jared K. Fletcher
ODY-C vol 2 – Matt Fraction Christian Ward, Chris Eliopoulos & Dee Cunniffe
Ms. Marvel vol 5 – G. Willow Wilson, Takeshi Miyazawa, Nico Leon, Adrian Alphona, Ian Herring & VC’s Joe Caramagna
Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat vol 1 – Kate Leth, Brittney L. Williams, Natasha Allegri, Megan Wilson, VC’s Clayton Cowles & Joe Sabino
The Vision vol 1 – Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Jordie Bellaire & VC’s Clayton Cowles
Monstress vol 1 – Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda
Clean Room vol 1 – Gail Simone, Jon Davis-Hunt, Quinton Winter & Todd Klein
Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl – Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matthew Wilson & Clayton Cowles
Velvet vol 3 – Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, Elizabeth Breitweiser & Chris Eliopoulos
Black Panther vol 1 – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, Laura Martin & VC’s Joe Sabino
Pretty Deadly vol 2 – Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios, Jordie Bellaire & Clayton Cowles
Losing Sleep – Joe Latham & Luke Hyde
Egg – Amy & Oliver Murrell
Deeds Not Words – Howard Hardiman & Sarah Gordon
Mockingbird vol 1 – Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, Ibrahim Moustafa, Joelle Jones, Rachelle Rosenberg & VC’s Joe Caramagna
How to Be Happy – Eleanor Davis
Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur vol 1 – Brandon Montclare, Amy Reeder, Natacha Bustos, Tamra Bonvillain & VC’s Travis Lanham
Wonder Woman 75th Anniversary Special – Various
Trees vol 2 – Warren Ellis & Jason Howard

Read in 2016

A slow-ish year this time, with my usual rush in January-March (more than half of the list) followed by a big ebb around mid-year. In the last few months all I’ve managed is starting a few chapters of one novel – at least my consistent audiobook progress keeps things moving a little. I blame my starting to play World of Warcraft again in August. I think I’m over it now.

New year’s resolutions: Read regularly, and update this blog more often.

Books

The Fifth Season – N. K. Jemisin
Radiance – Catherynne M. Valente
Binti – Nnedi Okorafor
Persona – Genevieve Valentine
Black Wolves – Kate Elliott
Sorcerer to the Crown – Zen Cho
Archivist Wasp – Nicole Kornher-Stace
Testament – Hal Duncan
Signal to Noise – Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Zoe’s Tale – John Scalzi
Furiously Happy – Jenny Lawson
The Sundial – Shirley Jackson
All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders
City of Blades – Robert Jackson Bennett
The Obelisk Gate – N. K. Jemisin

Audiobooks

Raising Steam – Terry Pratchett
The Shepherd’s Crown – Terry Pratchett
Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman
Stardust – Neil Gaiman
High Rise – J G Ballard
Northern Lights – Philip Pullman
The Subtle Knife – Philip Pullman
The Amber Spyglass – Philip Pullman
The Geek Feminist Revolution – Kameron Hurley
Sabriel – Garth Nix
Lirael: Daughter of the Clayr – Garth Nix
Abhorsen – Garth Nix
Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen – Garth Nix
Assassin’s Apprentice – Robin Hobb

What I’ve Been Reading Lately: Short Fiction Edition

I don’t read a huge amount of short fiction, but I read a lot more than I used to, usually stories I see linked on Twitter and save to the Pocket app. For the last couple of years I’ve taken to sharing each story I read on Twitter myself, but today I felt like collecting some of my recent favourites into a post.

Before I get to the links, though, I had a thought to share. I found myself thinking this morning that most of the really great short fiction I read, while it’s SFF genre, centres not the genre concepts or the plot, but the relationships between characters, romantic and otherwise. And it occurred to me that this is, in part, what the Sad Puppies were reacting against, way back in the early years of that kerfuffle.

Larry Correia’s stated purpose in starting Sad Puppies was to get award nominations for “unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy handed message fic[tion]”. The second half of that has gotten plenty of attention (there is indeed a large part of this which is a reactionary response to the increase in inclusive and diverse works being recognised for awards, for which see Foz Meadows’ excellent breakdown of where they’re getting it wrong), but it’s more to the first part my thoughts went today. In addition to the diversity backlash, the Puppies often set up a conflict between this “unabashed pulp action” and the supposedly more ‘literary’ work which was appearing on award ballots. And it seems to me that this part of it was about exactly what I observed above: the stories they object to are the ones that do not place action or cool SFnal ideas at their centre, but the interpersonal relationships of characters; where character and relationships are the main throughline and focus.

It does feel like there has been a popular shift toward that kind of fiction in recent years (in novels also – look for example at the popularity of The Goblin Emperor and Ancillary Justice), but it’s hard for me to make a solid claim on that. The short fiction market has changed dramatically with the growth of online publishers, and many people – myself included – just did not read much short fiction before that change. I also can’t say what short fiction the Sad Puppy supporters have been reading now or in the past, but having been exposed to their complaints on and off for the last few years, it certainly seems like part of the trigger for their lashing out was seeing award-nominated stories which had their focus in a different place from what they were used to.

Personally, I’m one of the apparent majority who is very much enjoying these stories. Even the weirdest of weird SF is about people in some sense, and human relationships and emotions are a familiar point for readers to hold on to while experiencing the utterly unfamiliar. In addition, SFF concepts are and always have been a great tool for exploring ordinary human issues, whether large-scale social concepts, or just the way two people relate to one another. The small stuff is just as important as the large, and (IMO) can be a vehicle for more emotionally poignant stories.

I guess I’m just not in it for the action.

Anyway, that (long) tangent aside, let’s get to the story recommendations. I can’t say all of these will fit the type I’ve referred to above, but I can say that I greatly enjoyed every one. These have all been read in the last month or so, mostly while I was on holiday (when I did a lot of reading in airports and on planes). Listed in alphabetical order.

Android Whores Can’t Cry, by Natalia Theodoridou, in which a reporter visits the Massacre Market, where people engage in illicit trading of evidence of the government’s atrocities (and then things get much weirder).
Candidate 45, Pensri Suesat, by Pear Nuallak, in which an agender art student struggles with their place at a demanding school.
Infinite Skeins, by Naru Dames Sundar, in which a parent searches through infinite alternate worlds for their missing child.
Meshed, by Rich Larson, in which a talent scout has to convince a young athlete to have a “nerve mesh” installed, but his father objects.
Morrigan in Shadow, by Seth Dickinson, in which the question is posed of whether achieving victory is worth making monsters of ourselves.
The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley, in which a darker and weirder take on Star Trek transporter tech is used for war.
When Your Child Strays From God, by Sam J Miller, in which a mother sets out to find her son, who has taken a strange new drug.
Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy, by Saladin Ahmed, in which three brothers are trapped in another man’s story, robbed of their own name and nature.

What I’ve Been Reading – Winter Edition

I started writing this post in March, but I was never quite happy with my summarising of the books. I’ve been in a reading slump and have not finished any reading or writing I’ve done for the last two months. I finally decided to try to finish what I had here and just post it. It took me 10 minutes. /shrug

Since the last time I made one of these posts, I’ve only written about two books on this blog – Seveneves and Radiance – but there are several others I haven’t mentioned. Here are some brief thoughts on all those other books.

Karen Memory – Elizabeth Bear
A steampunk western about the residents of a brothel who become targets of a powerful and ambitious criminal after taking in a rescued trafficking victim. Meanwhile, a serial killer is targeting prostitutes in Rapid City, and Deputy US Marshal Bass Reeves seeks their help with his investigation.
There’s plenty of wild steampunk invention in this alternate history where “Mad Scientist” is a licensed profession, from submarines to mind control to mech-suit sewing machines, and a lot of action. The main strength of the book however is probably the narrative voice of the protagonist, Karen Memery, who aspires to own a ranch and write adventure novels, and finds herself right in the middle of all this trouble.
I can’t say it’s among my favourites of Bear’s work, but it’s certainly a fun read.

The Fifth Season – N. K. Jemisin
In a world where frequent major tectonic activity causes devastating “fifth seasons”, some people, known as “orogenes”, have developed the ability to control and cause tremors. Feared and hated by ordinary people, orogenes, once discovered, are either killed or sent to the Fulcrum in Yumenes, to train in captivity to serve the empire.
The Fifth Season tells the story of Damaya, Syenite, and Essun – a child found and taken to train at the Fulcrum; a young women travelling with a powerful orogene to fulfill one of the Fulcrum’s missions; and a woman whose son has been killed and daughter taken by their father, who she now chases after as the world begins to end around her. There’s more going on than there seems, however, with mysteries surrounding the strange beings called Stone Eaters, the floating Obelisks, and the truth behind the origins and methods of the Fulcrum.
This complex novel fits together these three stories from three times in a way that gradually peels back the surface of this society and begins to show us the mysteries underneath, and something of the truth to come. The story of Syenite is the most complete here, as she travels with Alabaster, the most powerful Fulcrum orogene, and begins to learn the reasons for his bitter cynicism toward the empire. It’s between this and Damaya’s storyline that Jemisin addresses the slavery of the orogenes, and how the empire keeps the worst truths of its treatment of them hidden away. Essun’s story, on the other hand, seems mainly to lay groundwork for the future of the trilogy; if there’s one place the book suffers, it’s in being the opening volume of a series. Overall this is an excellent book, and very much a series to watch.

Binti – Nnedi Okorafor
Published as part of Tor.com’s new novella imprint, Binti tells the story of a young woman who is the first of the Himba people to be accepted into the most prestigious university in the galaxy. Leaving without the approval of her parents, she sets off on a spaceship journey to Oomza University – only for things to go wrong when the ship encounters a hostile alien species.
Binti is about identity, communication, and understanding – in particular, it’s about respecting one’s heritage and culture while forging your own path, and discovering who you are as an individual. It’s a charming story with a strong lead character who solves problems through empathy.

Persona – Genevieve Valentine
The United Nations meets beauty pageants. Persona shows us a future where every country has a Face, an individual who serves as a mix of ambassador, personification, and figurehead. Faces are the public representatives of their governments, their images and lifestyles tightly controlled; celebrities whose reputations are tied closely to those of their countries. When an assassination attempt is made against Suyana, Face of a tiny South American nation caught between competing powers, she ends up having to rely on photographer Daniel – an aspiring member of the illegal paparazzi – to help her uncover who was responsible and find a way to restore her position.
A light and fast-paced political thriller, this didn’t quite match the strength of Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club (one of my favourite novels of 2014), but I still enjoyed it. At the ending I was left feeling that a lot more could have been done with the story, so I was happy to hear that a sequel, Icon, is on its way.

Black Wolves – Kate Elliott
The outsider King Anjihosh has conquered the Hundred, killing the Demons who ruled the country and uniting it under his rule. Decades later, under his grandson King Jehosh, it seems like the peace and unity he created is beginning to fall apart as factions within the palace scheme for power.
As the foreign ruling family impose their customs and faith on the country, this fuels discord among the people. King Jehosh himself is no longer sure how much power he really holds. Dannarah, the king’s aunt and formerly Chief Marshal of the giant-eagle-riding Reeves, sees the systems of the Reeve Halls being torn apart and remade in dangerous forms by her great-nephews. Kellas, once the most trusted Captain of King Anjihosh and his son Itani, is brought out of retirement to help Jehosh, but he is part of another, larger agenda. They and others become caught up in the plots that are tearing the Hundred apart.
This is a big, complex epic fantasy, where every character has their own secrets and you’re never really sure who can trust who. It’s hard to summarise, with so many characters and so much going on. What I can say is that it was one of the most engaging and well-crafted epic fantasies I’ve read, full of great characters (the back-cover copy – and the very long prologue – focuses on Kellas, but it tends to be the other characters, mostly female, who carry the story), and written with a clear awareness of issues of prejudice regarding race, gender, religion, and culture.
The Black Wolves trilogy is a follow-up to an earlier series, however you do not need to be familiar with those books to follow the plot of this one – I have not read the Crossroads trilogy, but based on the strength of Black Wolves, I intend to.

Sorcerer to the Crown – Zen Cho
Zacharias Wythe is the new Sorcerer Royal of England, but faces hostility from the magical establishment in his role – Zacharias is black, a former slave freed and adopted by the previous Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe, and trained in magic in an effort to prove to the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers that people of his race are just as capable of magic.
On a visit to a school for “gentlewitches” (which specialises in teaching young women how not to use magic, which is considered unladylike) he encounters Prunella Gentleman, an orphan of unusually powerful magical ability, and seizes on the idea of training her in order to demonstrate the capabilities of women – just as she seizes on him as a means of escaping her current life and finding a better station for herself in London society. Together they end up dealing with assassination attempts against Zacharias, the efforts of a Malaysian witch to stop British magicians supporting persecution of her people, and the unexplained closing off of Faerie and dwindling of magical power in England.
The novel is written in a style that mimics the period, but with a willingness to address Britain’s colonialism, and the ugliness of race and gender prejudice. It’s been earning a lot of praise and award consideration, and I can see why.

Archivist Wasp – Nicole Kornher-Stace
In a post-apocalyptic setting where ghosts wander the world, Wasp is the Archivist, whose role is to capture these ghosts and from them try to learn anything she can about the world before. The ghosts, however, do not talk – until she encounters one strange spirit, a soldier who seeks out Wasp’s help in finding his former partner. Their journey together will lead Wasp through many questions and discoveries about who she is and where she came from.
Archivist Wasp is a journey-through-the-underworld tale with a very original spin, and woven within it is the touching science fictional story of the ghost soldier and his partner. Both sides are ultimately about finding your own identity, and escaping the roles that others have shaped you for.

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In addition to the above, I’ve gone through a number of audiobooks, but I’m having a harder time shaping my thoughts on those. I’ll leave you with these for now. I’m currently reading Testament by Hal Duncan, which is doing some very interesting things with its reinterpretation of the gospels, but has taken me a very long time to get through as the Bible can be somewhat dry.