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Styx & Stone by James W Ziskin

September 18, 2013 Leave a comment

Styx & Stone by James W Ziskin

On good days, I suppose we all like to see the world as a safe and caring place in which we can go about our business with minimal fear of violent retaliation for perceived offences. As I write this today, I see Julie Bindel has cancelled an appearance at the University of Manchester. She’s been the subject of death threats for being brave enough to voice opinions unpopular with the misogynists. The latest winner of Miss America has been the victim of racist abuse on the social media. The notion of gender equality remains contentious. So how should we react when authors write first-person lead characters in the “wrong” gender? Is it appropriate for a woman to “pretend” to be a man for protagonist purposes, and vice versa? Perhaps more importantly, do the results of this gender impersonation read credibly and, if not, does this lack of credibility matter?

I’m prompted into this rumination by Styx & Stone by James W Ziskin (Seventh Street Books, 2013) which is, as you may infer, a man writing a first-person narrative as Ellie Stone, a youngish woman. Perhaps this author is unlucky because I’ve recently read two novels by women explicitly written for women. This has reminded me of the difference between the sensibilities that inform the genders. It’s too easy for one gender to sit comfortably in his or her ghetto and choose not to consider what interests the other when it comes to fiction. This book comes over as a man writing in what he hopes is a gender-neutral style but, to my mind, it ends up being essentially an outsider’s view of what it means to be a woman. This is not necessarily a defect. Indeed, the text is illuminating as a man’s view of how a woman reacts to physical attraction, lustful coupling, and being double-timed. The context for this somewhat unromantic view of relationships is the daughter of a stern academic who has, for reasons which are explained as we read, been estranged from her father. When he’s attacked in his apartment and left in a coma, hooked up to life-saving machines in the hospital, she finds herself sucked into an investigation to determine who could have been responsible. When another member of the same university department is found dead in his bath, our hero is convinced this is not a coincidence. Now all she has to do is convince the police they have an attempted murder instead of a burglary gone wrong, and a murder instead of an accidental death.

James W Ziskin

James W Ziskin

Fortunately, even though this is set in 1960 when men were in charge and women were largely decorative, she has the “chops” to face down the detective and prod him into an increasingly active investigation. Between them they gather information which she interprets and then poses more questions. In the end, she arrives at a solution. So how well does the plot stand up? This is one of these rather pleasing puzzles where the identity of the killer(s) is/are fairly obvious from the outset, but there’s significant misdirection because of the problem of motive. Even when the relevance of the title is revealed about two-thirds of the way through, it’s still not at all clear how it all ties together. The final set of explanations is intellectually satisfying. It’s not at all what I had expected and the significance of the names is a delight. All of which brings me back to the original question.

Because we’re dealing with historical fiction, it’s easy to lose sight of the credibility problem. I’m one of the dying breed that lived through this time (albeit in a different country) so I come with my antennae twitching to see whether the author has captured the essence of the culture. There are clearly some good observations on the racism that defined the 1950s and, insofar as it’s relevant, this is a society still carrying some baggage from World War II. But I’m less than convinced that the sexual politics has been captured accurately. This strikes me as a man sugar-coating the history of gender inequality for modern consumption. We need to be very clear about the extent of the discrimination faced by women in this pre-feminism period. It affected every aspect of their roles in society and the way this woman makes her way through life doesn’t quite ring true. Even the skirt on the jacket artwork is too short for the days before tights were released on to the mass market. This leads me to what’s hopefully a fair conclusion. So long as you don’t care about historical accuracy as applied to culture, this is an excellent puzzle to solve very much located in the 1950s and 60s. This particular situation would not arise in this form in modern times. Styx & Stone has to be set sixty years ago for the plot to work. Everything else is window-dressing approximating the culture and giving enough for modern readers to get a flavour of what it was like. On that basis, this is a great challenge to the armchair detectives among you. Better still, it plays fair giving you a very transparent view into the thinking processes involved. I was impressed. There’s to be another in 2014. It’s to be titled No Stone Unturned.

For a review of the sequel, see No Stone Unturned.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Strange Ladies by Lisa Mason

August 5, 2013 4 comments

Strange Ladies by Lisa Mason

Strange Ladies by Lisa Mason (Bast Books, 2013) is my second rather belated look at this author. I read Arachne when it first appeared more than twenty years ago and was not very impressed. Reading this collection suggests I should have persisted. There are some very fine stories on display here. We start off with “The Oniomancer” who was born Suki as the fifth of five children. She was an unwanted accident who can’t help but find things. Now all grown up, calling herself Chinadoll and making a living as a bike messenger, she still finds things. This time it’s a cube and she, well, adopts it. Anyone would do the same. The fact it’s an alien device. That just makes it way more cool to possess it. Of course, life’s bitter experiences have taught her that other people place great value in the ownership of things. And probably aliens are no different. So perhaps she should return it. Or not. Who knows what a girl like Chinadoll will decide. “Guardian” is a delightful tease as we watch the janitor refine his break-in skills, increasingly contemptuous of the security measures installed by the condo ownership, while our heroine in her first home worries herself sick about the risk of a home invasion without realising she has the remedy immediately to hand. And, of course, when she finally makes the connection. . . well that’s what buying protection is all about.

“Felicitas” offers an insight to a prowler’s coming-of-age. You may think of this creature as something prefaced with a were but that’s to lose sight of the growing girl inside the body as it changes when the night comes. She was abandoned as a baby and survived the convent orphanage experience as she grew into a young woman. When she was old enough, she crossed the border into America and found work. Everything was under control as a human. Her periods came and went. There were no consequences. But when she came into heat as a prowler. Ah, now all the males of her nocturnal species were instinctively drawn to her, and the largest and most powerful of them insisted. Well what’s a self-respecting female prowler to do about that? Is she expected to put up with this macho shit?

“Stripper” rehearses the debate about whether stripping or pole dancing objectifies and exploits women, or gives them the freedom to do what they want and get paid for it. According to the patriarchal world view, the women are there to entertain the largely male audience. The feminists characterise the dancers as betraying their gender, pandering to the base instincts of the voyeurs. No matter who’s right, this story sees a woman fighting for her independence while still fulfilling the biological imperative to produce a child. As in all things, this requires a little give and take, a compromise or two, and an outcome that satisfies all interested parties. Now all we need is the time to make it work.Lisa Mason

“Triad” pursues this idea of balance between opposites. If debates can never be resolved until semantics can be set aside, what about the underlying genders themselves. It’s convenient to oversimplify the world into male and female, but this ignores the more complex possibilities as different physical and social roles are constructed for each individual by surrounding circumstances. When everything fits and is resolved into a culture, there’s the possibility of truth and harmony — a third way. Unfortunately, the truth about divergences from the gender norms is that the majority are uncomfortable with some devolving into fear and hatred. Elevate the debate into the nature of marriage — is a single-sex union permissible — and when a child comes and there’s a triad, what happens to the emotional balance if there’s a separation? As the afterword to this story says, this is a variation on The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, and a quite remarkable reworking of the theme it proves to be.

“Destination” is a cross-country drive as a woman picks up three random men for company, sharing the driving and paying for the gas. Once you accept the premise, the rest follows the news there’s a serial killer on the loose. I think the ending is tacked on from a different story and rather spoils the effect, but it’s worth reading for the detail of the journey. Finally, “Transformation and the Postmodern Identity Crisis” is all about Alice, she of Wonderland fame, and it details, somewhat gorily, what happened to all and sundry after they emerged from their underground haven and sought to merge back into the human race. It shows a pleasing wit and some malice as the primary characters pass through the looking glass and discover the mirror is a sideshow amusement. Put all this together and you find Strange Ladies a very entertaining collection of diverse stories plundering the genres and showing a nice sense of humour on the way.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Croods (2013)

The Croods_poster

Now with me being what’s politely called a senior, many of you might say I’ve got no reason to go and see a film intended for children. The cultural gap between me as a reviewer and the intended audience is just too great. This will just be an excuse to beat an already dead horse to death. And to some extent, you’d be right. So let’s seize this opportunity and get on with the beating. The Croods (2013) is the latest animation out of DreamWorks and features some interesting voices set against one of these fantasy versions of the past. Superficially, it asks us a number of pertinent questions. In a world with so many perils, do we only survive because we fear injury and death? Take driving as an example. Every minute we’re on the road and in motion, there’s a serious risk of an accident if we fail to keep a proper lookout. Indeed, if a caveman was suddenly to be transported through time and deposited in the middle of our “safe” world, he would probably be dead in ten minutes because he would not understand enough about when he sees to avoid all the hazards we take for granted and avoid. It would be exactly the same if we were suddenly to be moved back to the time there was only the one continent. Yes that long ago. Before continental drift broke up Gondwana into the world mapmakers know and love so much today. Back then, even if we came equipped with supreme American football skills, going for breakfast would probably see us dead, if not from the little critters, then certainly from the big kitty who sees humans as like big mice. In that world, survival is not fun. In fact, nothing is fun in the sense we would understand the word. Hypervigilance is required at all times and curiosity is forbidden.

Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds as the hope for the future

Emma Stone and Ryan Reynolds as the hope for the future

So now, following in the footsteps of The Flintstones, comes the Crood family. Papa Grug (Nicholas Cage) has all the right instincts for survival in an unchanging world even though the results are somewhat paranoid and dysfunctional (he’s a prehistoric Chicken Little with a constant fear the sky is falling). Through dumb luck, he’s come up with what seems to be the right formula because everyone else around him has died. This family is the only group of survivors in this area. But when I say “dumb” luck, the formula is really stupid and the film mocks his efforts as all the family go through the requisite contortions for survival. We are continually shown that there’s a vast gulf between not dying and living with an optimum quality of life given the environment. Ugga (Catherine Keener) and her mother, Gran (Cloris Leachman) go along with it because, so far, living in a cold dark cave has been safe even if they do have to huddle together to stay warn. That the Dad is later shown as dumber than monkeys is cruel. This does not deny some more politically correct humour. As we go on, there’s a wonderful Looney Tunes episode and one or two really nice sight gags.

In the midst of all this, the teenaged Eep (Emma Stone) is a problem. Not only does she insist on her own ledge in the cave but she’s also prone to wandering off and not paying proper attention. Then the Prometheus arrives with fire. He’s called Guy (Ryan Reynolds) and he’s come with news of the end of the world, i.e. he’s the first with the theory that the tectonic plates are moving. And, as if our family needed evidence of the need to change, an earth tremor blocks the entrance to the cave. When the big kitty appears, they have no choice but to move into the jungle. Fortunately presenting them with fire accidentally provides them with popcorn which keeps them alive long enough to see the advantages of a cooked bird to snack on. That’s after they discover rubbing fire against dry grass does not extinguish it — an understandable mistake for the uninitiated.

Nicholas Cage as the Dad leading cautiously

Nicholas Cage as the Dad leading cautiously

Once we get into the jungle, we’re shown this is a world of beauty if only they have eyes to see it. Or to put it another way, it’s a bit like an animated version of the countryside in Avatar (unintentionally, of course). By the time they’ve finished their journey, they’ve acquired a “dog” called Douglas and are at one with nature. Particularly when they see the stars — per ardua ad astra — and decide to shoot for the sun and a bright new tomorrow.

Explicitly, the film asks what Dads are for? To keep the family safe, of course. Dads may not have an idea in their heads but they are strong. And if you want a message without sentimentality, don’t go to films like this. Family films with children in mind have to promote family values and that means, despite all appearance to the contrary, wayward teen daughters must finally be able to admit they still love their fathers even though, in real terms, the daughters are modern and their father are, well, like cavemen. More seriously, films like this are reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes. Even though we have a Mom and a Mom-in-law, they are there merely as butts for jokes. For most of the film, they are shown as dependent followers. If a problem crops up they look to the man for its solution. If there’s a chasm to cross, they wait for him to throw them across, even though he gets left behind. Yes, noble self-sacrifice is alive for a brief moment in this prehistoric fantasy.

However, if we look beyond this appalling gender stereotyping, I suppose what the film typifies are the difficult choices the older generation has to take in a changing world. They’re supposed to be the ones with the accumulated wisdom and should be able to guide the young towards a better world. But even that’s a challenge. How do you decide whether to brainwash the children into being wholly dependent on their parents for all decisions or to train them to be independent and open to new things? There always comes a point when parents have to stop protecting their children and let them make their own mistakes. Personally, as a message, I think the result on screen is heavy-handed and uninspiring. Children will no doubt like the pretty colours and some of the jokes are quite amusing (although the mother-in-law is verbally beaten to death), but I can’t see the film as even remotely interesting. As an ironic aside to this review, I should mention The Croods has already taken more than $500 million worldwide which just goes to show that brainless and, at times, mildly offensive children’s films can make a lot of money.

The Shadowed Sun by N K Jemisin

August 18, 2012 1 comment

Imagine a world in which any system of magic is proven real. Magic is, by definition, the application of supernatural power with practical results in the real world. Obviously, it can take many different forms and manifest in many different ways, but each of these forms and ways is a means to access and wield power. Those with more limited abilities will only be able to influence outcomes in their immediate vicinity. Some of the top exponents will be able to produce results over wide areas. One or two may even approach god-like powers which can affect the entire world. Once the reality of the power is demonstrated, there will be people who plan to control it. In the first instance, the magicians will be bribed or intimidated into doing what they’re told. But there will always come a point when the individually powered magicians assert their own independence and decide their own fates. Quite how this works out will depend on whether the magicians feel the need to take revenge for the way they’ve been treated and whether they remain personally vulnerable.

 

The Dreamblood duology by N K Jemisin which began with The Killing Moon, continues with The Shadowed Sun (Orbit Books, 2012). As before, the book focuses on the path from temptation to corruption and its results. In every culture, people respect and revere those of ability who can contribute to the society’s greatness. In most cases, these will be people with positive abilities but, when there’s internal strife or external threats, people with negative and violent abilities must also be accorded a place for they are the means of practical control and defence. In the world created by this author, there have been two cultures based on a form of dream magic. Among the Kisuati, the magic evolved into a dangerous form and the non-talented naturally protected themselves by killing all the magicians. Among the Gujaareh, there was a benign veneer spread over the use of magic. It offered the people free benefits and bribed the wealthy. However, in this peaceful coexistence, there was a deeper purpose at work. In order to advance the evolutionary power of those able to wield the magic, a selective breeding program was secretly put in place.

 

What makes the breeding program particularly intriguing is the way in which it differentiated between the sexes. The gatekeepers positively vetted all the men for ability. When boys were found, wherever possible, they were taken into training. One element in the regime was to persuade those found most powerful to accept celibacy. The intention was to prevent their genetic lines from developing through the generations. But the women were not vetted. Women were simply encouraged to assume they had no magical abilities. In fact, there was no reason in principle why men and women should not equally come into power. Significantly, although this was never admitted, the failure to train the most talented women to control their talent often led to mental instability — something that would be passed of without comment. In the midst of this controlled culling and manipulation, one or two families were allowed latitude because their genes seemed to promise personal benefits. These men were encouraged to take multiple wives and/or concubines. This group produced a lot of talented people, some of whom have very dangerous abilities.

N K Jemisin awaiting three more rings for Olympic success

 

At the end of The Killing Moon, the plan to attack the Kisuati has been thwarted and we’re now into the period of military occupation as the Kisuati decide what they are going to do about the paradox of Gujaareh society. At a superficial level, the entire culture is one of peace yet it has produced a leadership bent on war and destruction for personal gain. Wise heads on both sides have produced some degree of stability. It was not the fault of the people that their leaders were corrupt. Punishing them for the sins of the few benefits no-one. Equally, the new leadership of the Hetawa in the worship of Hananja has purged the old corrupt leaders and now keeps the people in check, thereby avoiding heavy-handed repression from the occupying troops. Yet it’s obvious this situation cannot continue as the political temperature in Kisuati shifts to policies of more naked exploitation. The remaining wealthy nobles and merchants plan their own rebellion while out in the desert, Wanahomen, the surviving son of the Gujaareh king, rallies support among the tribes. The crisis comes to a head when the Hetawa chooses sides and places a powerful but inexperienced healer, Hanani, in the desert tribes.

 

The book’s study of culture is significantly enriched by the exploration of the desert tribal community which is not unlike the Tuareg. Wanahomen has to some extent been accepted into one of the tribes, but his position is not completely secure. The arrival of Hanani is an opportunity for all sides to review their relationships. She has broken the mould by being the first woman accepted into the Hetawa. Not surprisingly, she has been the victim of considerable discrimination. To then find herself unceremoniously dumped into a radically different social system is disorienting, particularly when, at an early stage, she’s forced to defend herself against a rape attack. While she struggles at a physical level, a different form of threat emerges on to the dream scene. In the end, a positive political and social balance is struck with the immediate dream threat defused, a rapprochement reached between the desert tribes and the rebellious wealthy, and the Kisuati accepting the invitation to leave. This is easily the best and most emotionally satisfying book N K Jemisin has written so far. Whereas The Inheritance Trilogy was somewhat mechanical, The Shadowed Sun manages a significantly better blend between the world-building and the characters, and reinforces my view that this author is well worth watching for the future.

 

For reviews of other books by N K Jemisin, see
The Broken Kingdoms
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
The Killing Moon
The Kingdom of Gods

 

All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen

I have on other occasions rabbited on about the need for authors to strike a proper balance between style and substance. Get it wrong, no matter which way, and you’re in deep trouble. Well, here comes All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen (TOR, 2011). This is heralded as one of these rewrite jobs. What better source material, you may propose, than that of the old Bard himself. Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, we’re off into Twelfth Night with a quick diversionary paragraph or two based on The Importance of Being Ernest by a slightly later author, Wilde by name and nature. I suppose I must formally declare it to be a form of mashup in that it conflates two sources into one and then rewrites it as a steampunk novel of the Illyrian, i.e. Victorian, era.

 

So here comes Violet Adams, a female who has the effrontery not only to be interested in science but rather above average at the practical side of it. To get into Illyria College to study with the best, she has to cross-dress as a man. In this version of reality, women are only good for having babies and then watching maids rear them. The penalty for being detected as a male impersonator is severe. Fortunately, she has a twin brother who will lend his identity for the deception, and a childhood chum who will offer her protection once inside the ivory towers. OK, so here’s the thing. As a plot set-up, how many pages should it take for our young lady to get through the doors of the college? Remember nothing really exciting can happen until circumstances inside the College offer challenges both to her gender-identity and to her prowess as an engineer first-class. The answer is that she and her friend Jack make it through the gates as students on page 88. Put another way, the characters spend 87 pages fossicking about in the hope of finding something interesting to occupy their time. Now I will concede that the Man from Avon did occasionally have quite long moments of filler content as when Porters come only slowly to open the gate. We all run a little short of something interesting to say and so must tread water until inspiration strikes. But when a novel takes some 88 pages to make a start, there’s something seriously amiss. Indeed, absolutely nothing of any real interest happens until page 115 when the initiation in the cellar gets a bit spooky. So, when I say this book is a triumph of style over substance, I’m not exaggerating. Those of you with a low boredom threshold should consider reading the Prologue to understand something of what’s going to happen, and then jumping forward to the start of Chapter VII.

Lev Rosen showing Violet Adams how it should be done

 

However, I now need to reprise yet another of my prejudices. To me, half the fun of writing is that I get the chance to say something new. While I would have no great pretension to be truly creative, I do believe I can often come up with unexpected and different ways of presenting content. I would not consider it creative to rewrite another’s work. Yet this is what I find repeatedly as I read All Men of Genius. I keep coming across bits of Shakespeare and Wilde, either in actual words but not attributed, or quietly recast to maintain the sense if not the form. We also have a more or less exact duplication of plot including a Malcolm Volio exchanging letters of a misleading character. So I find myself in a state of despair. In part, this is bewilderment that Lev AC Rosen considers it morally acceptable to pass off out-of-copyright work as if it was his own, but also that such not-quite-plagiarism should be implicitly approved by an apparently respectable publishing house. This is a TOR-Forge book and, in my opinion, publishers should not condone work like this. Most of the other mashups I have read do at least develop the original stories in different ways. This is slavishly following the originals in confusing genders and identities right up to the end. I don’t care that there are steampunk elements that offer a kind of window-dressing to distract the eye. Having the odd invisible cat brush against your legs in the dark or automata lurking dangerously in the cellar or making one of your characters actually gay (as a tip of the hat to Wilde) is not a sign of originality. In fact, the book is not so much steampunk as a kind of technomagic where things just work even though there’s no explanation or rationality involved. For example, the idea that a voice box removed from a parrot taught to speak by sailors would swear when incorporated into a mechanised bird is ludicrous.

 

When you put all this together, All Men of Genius is to be avoided. The politics on display is superficial and annoying. As with any plot based on cross-dressing, there’s no credibility. The idea that any young girl could pass herself off as a man by applying a few whiskers and adding a little padding in the nether regions is a complete nonsense. And, as a book that could have said interesting, if not subversive, things about gender politics, it’s trivial. I suppose this could indicate it was written with the Young Adult market in mind. It has many features that would mark it as appropriate for that label with young people sneaking into the world of adults and proving themselves superior. It’s a bit like the school stories Enid Blyton used to churn out where wise-beyond-their-years young ladies at, say, Mallory Towers or some equally pretentious place, are brilliant but mischievous. In this case, self-absorbed fellow students and daft professors fail to see through a disguise so transparent that several women recognise the gender switch instantly. The themes, however, might very well appeal to the wish-fulfillment fantasies of young girls who want to throw off the shackles of patriarchalism and remake the world in their own image (and get the good-looking hunk at the end). However, the author expressly denies this is intended as a YA novel and I suppose he should know. So, no matter how I try to find something good to say about this book, I come up absolutely dry. I cannot think of any redeeming features.

 

A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

June 30, 2009 1 comment

So let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Conventional wisdom always seems to think that two (or more) people cannot co-operate to produce a single coherent piece of writing. Supposedly, the professionalism that writers routinely bring to bear when they write on their own deserts them when they write in a team. This is an intensely annoying assumption. It completely ignores the reality that many writers do actively collaborate. Further, many more may actually assist a writer to produce a work. There are these teams of “helpers” who are thanked on acknowledgement pages of novels for reading and commenting on early drafts. Then there are the agents and those mysterious people called editors who also seem to get involved. Adding more people on to the byline (where journalists insist on their multiple acknowledgements) is neither here nor there.

 

So here is yet another example of a seamless piece of writing by two (youngish) writers. If you gave this text to anyone, they would never know that two (more more) people had been involved.

 

And the book itself? Well, we are back in the symbiotic relationship between “man” and “his” animals. One of the more detailed examples of this theme is the accumulated work of Anne McCaffrey in the Pern novels, but Monette and Bear avoid the somewhat saccharine approach and deal with pack animals rather than lone dragons. Both rely an early imprinting system where relatively newly born dragons/wolves are paired with young apprentices. After that, they diverge somewhat dramatically.

 

However, to be convincing, a culture must be reasonably coherent. Here we have an essentially human-based society living in small settlements that is threatened by trolls and (their familiars) the wyverns. The defence is to build fighting teams of men and wolves that, acting with intuitive or telepathic mutual understanding, produce co-ordinated attacks of fang, claw and axe usually accounting for their enemies. For this to work, there has to be a steady feed-through of young apprentices who fill out the ranks of these teams, bonding with newly born wolves as and when they are born.

 

The leader of one settlement, Lord Gunnar, is deeply prejudiced against the way in which the packs live their lives. This is a man who is dependent on the packs for the survival of his small community, yet is fundamentally opposed to their lifestyle. This does not ring true. This is a vertical pre-feudal society in which the military literally and metaphorically are the top dogs (sorry, couldn’t resist working that in). When the wolfless are always under the protection of the packs, their status would be high and nothing would be allowed to disturb the smooth flow of new recruits. Their “street cred” would be high and their reputations impeccable. For a leader with the power to shape opinion and potentially undermine public support for the packs to be so deeply prejudiced is not sustainable.

 

Every generation of every human community would be reared to venerate the packs and to long for the chance to be picked as an apprentice. Nothing would be allowed to interfere with this. The youngsters would play the local equivalent of “cowboys and indians” with all of them longing to feel some of the telepathic ability so critical to the success of the pack. It seems that every human has the potential for this telepathic linkage, but some are better at it than others. All leaders would always have to be seen to support the system. This whole element feels like a random plot device to allow the authors the chance to explore the theme of homophobia. It is too artificial and, in my view, actively detracts from the flow of the novel.

 

Now we come to the “controversial” part of the book. Socially, the packs are matriarchal, the svartalfar have gender equality, and the wolfless human communities are those scenarios much beloved of authors where the men are the figureheads and women have influence behind closed doors. The effect of the bonding between man and cub is to produce a form of telepathic link between the two. Thus, when the wolves get interested in sex, the linkage so convenient to co-ordinate battles, becomes inconvenient for the men paired with the rutting wolves. They find it difficult if not impossible to avoid sexual activity of their own. This is actually quite interesting but, again, all the punches are pulled. This is all written as a novel of discovery. The young Njall comes over as completely naive (in part explained by the homophobia of his father Lord Gunnar) and no-one really prepares him for what is to come. Then, it is so repetitive. None of it reads true as the men find themselves thrown into and out of relationships depending on the preferences of their wolves.

 

Then we have all this unexplained telepathy and other magical abilities in the novel. Njall turns out to be an ace telepathist and can transmit over major distances to warn the pack of danger. He also seems to have interspecies powers of communication as well. But here we come to yet another serious problem. The trolls are obviously intelligent and live in well-organised communities of their own. This is not a clash between humans and an unthinking enemy. It is the equivalent of prehistory’s supposed war for dominance between the Cro-Magnons and the Neanderthals. Yet no-one seems to try talking to them. Their immediate reaction upon meeting is to kill each other. Assuming that Njall’s ability is not uncommon, why is there no curiosity about the enemy? Why is there no attempt to negotiate some kind of truce? Why must everyone fight aiming for the extinction of the other all the time? It is all the more strange because there is the usual oral history tradition passed down through the songs/sagas. There are all kinds of interesting snippets of information about some things, but very convenient gaps about others.

 

I could go on but you’ve already realised my poor reaction. I grew really bored as this went on. Instead of developing the characters and exploring the cultures in a credible way, I was left with the feeling that these two ladies had decided to write a book to provoke and offend Americans (who generally seem less tolerant of sexual diversity than the rest of the world) and threw in lots of perverse sex and a few random battles as the sticks and carrots to get their readers to the end. It’s a real shame because, with more intelligence, this could have been a good book.

 

The real story is about gender not sexual roles. These are culturally defined. So young boys growing up in the settlements would want the glory of defending the community and be prepared to pay the price required. This would all be documented within the pack culture. There are too many men and wolves wounded or killed in these sessions as it is. Unless there was some form of training, management and accommodation between the species, this could never work over the longer term. It is only written this way because the writers want a shock quality to the narrative. They have subordinated the exploration of gender roles for the purposes of what — titillation, provocation?

 

Then we come to conventional human sexual politics. Njall finds an accommodating local girl in his own settlement and produces a daughter. The status of his partner within the community is never mentioned. One view would be that she gains in status because she beds a wolfman. If they produced a son, he could join the pack and both partners would gain status as adding to the defensive wall. That they produced a daughter is inconvenient because girls don’t do any of the fighting. What would the status of such female offspring be in the community? Would they be more desirable as adults because they carried the genes of a wolfman?

 

Presumably the telepathic linkage that is so strong wolf to human is less strong human to wolf because the wolves are only in heat (and so interested in sex) at certain times of the year. Whereas humans are fertile all year round. Interestingly, the village girl is not unhappy to give up her daughter to be raised as Njall directs (so much for the maternal bond). This is thematically mirrored by the reproductive cycle of the trolls which appears to be hivelike, and the lack of specific gender roles in the svartalfar. Motherhood is treated rather dispassionately in this book which is slightly odd because it is written by two women. The extent to which the wolves are jealous of the human partners is also not really explored. Or perhaps that explains why there are no women around the pack camps.

 

In our own culture, men only really talk about what it means to be a man when something goes wrong. There is a considerable volume of fiction and non-fiction dealing with erectile dysfunction and its consequences. Men, its seems, are poor fragile beings that collapse emotionally when their sexual abilities fail. They stop being proper men. This is the “macho” culture. In the wolfworld, men are required to swing in a number of different ways, so exploring their sexuality would be interesting. I found Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” particularly illuminating. It’s a shame women with more modern sensibilities are not prepared to confront the same kind of issues today.

 

For the sequel, see The Tempering of Men. My other reviews of work by Sarah Monette: CorambisThe Bone Key, a joint review of Guild of Xenolinguists and The Bone Key and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.

 

For three novelettes in the New Amsterdam series by Elizabeth Bear, see Seven for a Secret, The White City and ad eternam. The books in a new trilogy are Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars and Steles of the Sky with Book of Iron an associated novella. There’s an excellent collection Shoggoths in Bloom.

 

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