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Somewhere Beneath Those Waves by Sarah Monette

The collection, Somewhere Beneath Those Waves by Sarah Monette (Prime Books, 2011), contains some twenty-five stories, some only a few pages long, so this review will be slightly more impressionistic than usual. As a generalisation, we read not only for the quality of the ideas but also for the means of expression. When the language is good, the ideas feel better. This is why it’s worth reading Sarah Monette. She’s one of the few modern writers than actually writes much of her prose using somewhat poetic language, but makes it feel cool. We start off with “Draco Campestris” which is a fascinating piece of writing. The more conventional narrative structure has stories flowing in a linear form. This is deliberately chopped into self-contained elements yet, when you put them together, they represent a remarkably powerful story about love unadmitted and loss. The dragons represent the magnificence of the past that’s now denied. The current reality in the museum finds the key players managing a fleeting acknowledgement of what might have been had circumstances been different. Yet, in the end, all things, including dragons, die. Also playing with form is “Katabasis: Seraphic Trains” which in a rather beautifully poetic way, recasts the story of Eurydice into more modern times and balances an unrequited love against sublime indifference — a kind of antiMuse who sucks in creativity and spits it out, rather than inspiring ever more powerful artistry. If a modern Eurydice found herself in a love triangle, how should she react? Or if a man found his wife had been seduced by the Queen of Elfland and only stayed with him and their child out of duty, how should he react?

So love may only be possible when status permits it. Perhaps all one needs is to believe in the supernatural powers of the other. Or, as between the mundane and supernatural worlds, perhaps ifrits can love. Then there are virgins who, in mythology, must always be sacrificed to save the city from a monster. These women are denied the chance of physical love, supposedly for the greater good. Similarly, if a King takes a Queen, love need not enter into it. The marriage may be an alliance between states or there’s nothing more than a functional desire to produce children. In the titular “Somewhere Beneath Those Waves”, we encounter more relationships without love and study the different forms of imprisonment employed. Men may treasure women because they have been trapped and tamed. They can lock them away, say in a museum, in a display that no-one else bothers to visit. How much better it would be for those women to be able to return to their natural state, roaming free, remembering what it was like before they were trapped into love and then held by fear or recognition that there might not be any better alternative. Or perhaps affection, if not love itself, is what we need as a bulwark against loneliness. What do you lose when your country is invaded? Overnight, men will die and women will be taken into servitude. Family relationships are destroyed. Perhaps one feral child who escaped the carnage can learn what love a mother can give. In a parallel story, we can speculate what is really lost when you discover you’re born into the wrong gender. Those affected may dream that something of a future may still be found even though the way is dark. Yet if you are to find someone to share your life, there’s the perpetual problem that others must see past the gender role and apparent physical appearance. They must want to see the person inside the body.

Sarah Monette prepares to dive into the world of her imagination

Then there’s death. Should we cry for those who have fallen, or is there some other way to deal with the grief? The answer, I suppose, will vary depending on the context and what’s been lost. “The Watcher in the Corners” both recreates the past and reflects on what life must be like when no-one loves you. Marriages can be loveless and innocent children can find themselves marginalised in adult affairs. Perhaps children need someone or something, if not to protect them, then to avenge them. Or perhaps those lost children need to way to reach out to the living so their passing can at last be confirmed. It’s the uncertainty that makes grief so difficult to deal with. Then we need spend a moment thinking about what’s lost when a sister marries and moves out of the family home. For those left behind to care for ageing relatives, the responsibility can be heavy, tinged with bitterness for those who have left.

It’s also strange how little some places change. We can have a mental picture of them as children and, later when we return, we discover that the old flow and pattern of life is the same. Some might find that reassuring, others intimidating. It’s rather the same with the prejudices we acquire as children. A nanny may tell us that goblins will come and take us away unless we co-operate by being well-behaved and sleeping on demand. Just think how disconcerting it would be to suddenly discover the need to enter the goblin realm and talk to them. “The World Without Sleep” finds us confronting four different groups who have lived in a form of social balance, not being aware of how unsatisfactory it all is. It takes an outsider to see the place for what it is and ask the right questions.

In all this, there’s straight fantasy and Lovecraftian high jinx, safe supernatural séances and more edgy mayhem. There’s functional language and florid similes and metaphors. Put it all together and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves takes you to places you might not have dreamed possible and makes them all seem perfectly reasonable. Indeed, as a final thought it even offers the advice that, if you do not like yourself, you cannot expect to like others. All anyone needs to progress in this life is enough determination to rise above hardship and look on the future as a challenge to be overcome. Put baldly on a page in a single sentence, this can seem trite. Incorporate it in a story about a woman maimed by a dragon and it suddenly assumes a power you might not have anticipated. Such is the strength of Sarah Monette’s imagination. This is not a collection to rush through. You should take your time, and consider the prose dreams through which she offers insights into the uncertainties that afflict us all.

A particular mention should be made of the jacket artwork by Elena Dudina. Not only is it beautiful in its own right, but it also rather neatly captures the themes of the collection.

For reviews of other books by Sarah Monette, see:
A Companion to Wolves (with Elizabeth Bear)
The Bone Key Joint review with The Guild of Xenolinguists.
The Bone Key Stand-alone review.
Corambis
The Tempering of Men (with Elizabeth Bear)

The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

November 17, 2011 1 comment

Change is something that comes hard to the majority. They grow comfortable with the status quo. They understand its rhythms. For the most part, they know how to survive its perils. Even an invitation to discuss change can seem a threat to the order of their lives. That’s one of the reasons why some societies or groups slowly curl up and die. For, no matter how much the majority may wish the world to pass them by, there’s always a bigger picture and, unless they modify their attitudes and behaviour to accommodate the newer realities, everything can be lost.

 

So here we come to The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. This is the sequel to Companion to Wolves which I thought uninspiring. You might therefore wonder why I should continue the saga. Indeed, having finished this volume which is now intended as the second book in a trilogy (nothing is worth writing unless it can be drawn out to interminable length as a trilogy), I’m faced with the same question. My optimism has been thwarted (yet again) as what could have been quite interesting themes were trampled into the mire.

 

This takes us back to the issue of change. We watch the combined forces of the humans, their wolves and the svartalfar wind up the campaign against the trolls and then the authors pose the question, “If all the trolls are gone now, what use are these warriors?” This is, of course, what every country asks of its standing army when the immediate enemy has been vanquished. Most of the rank and file conscripts happily lay down their weapons and pick up the ploughshares. They never wanted to risk their lives fighting and are grateful it’s all behind them. But there’s always going to be a hard core of professionals left on the shelf. In a developed country, this is less of a problem because governments can develop extended training programs and play war games. If they get too feisty, troops can be sent to fight in neighbouring states or in a good cause. This thins down their numbers and keeps them manageable. But before nation states emerged, there was less civil infrastructure and so most of the best fighters became mercenaries and drifted from one campaign to the next.

Elizabeth Bear faintly surprised with flowers in her hair

 

For authors, describing this drift into obscurity is not the stuff of bestsellerdom. The public want upbeat stories of heroism. This means they must fight and, in most cases, win or lose valiantly. Except killing off the major enemy at the end of the first book doesn’t exactly leave you overflowing with new enemies to fight. So this is always going to be slow going as our warriors get into a little local policing and go exploring. Except, about halfway through, we do get the emergence of the new threat. If you want a historical parallel, this is the equivalent of the Roman Army expanding its Empire ever further north. So an advance expeditionary force makes a probe into our heroes’ country and this involuntarily gives one of their number the chance to weigh up the newcomers’ potential. His reaction is to summon a grand council to discuss all the different Northern groups coming together to fight the common foe. This sets up the third book for the barbarians to defend their territory against the theoretically superior armies of Rome (Rhea for these purposes). Since the Rhean army seems to lack supernatural help, this will be a war of attrition. The invaders have superior technology, better discipline, numerical superiority, and better lines of supply. They can blockade the north and wear down the resistance.

Sarah Monette with books in her background

 

Meanwhile, back up north, our heroes discover there’s a svartalfar community on their doorstep. This gives us a better chance to view this race and to evaluate their powers. Also of potential interest is a cave system that might permit a large number of warriors and their wolves to live securely as and when General Winter decides to take the field. As countless invaders have discovered when trying to conquer Russia, the local forces are aided by the weather with the two seasonal rasputitsas flanking the winter itself. If you add in supernatural powers to communicate over distances and manipulate stone, the Rhean forces could be in for a rough welcome.

 

Except all this potential interest is lost as the pace is lumberingly slow. As in the first volume, I confess to giving up on trying to keep everyone’s name straight. I just don’t care enough to try remembering all these vaguely Norse names along with all the terminology of their culture. I can’t even be bothered to keep track of all the wolves and their human symbionts. At least the sex is toned down for this volume. We don’t have the same overt partying between the men and/or their animals. If that’s what turned you on the first time round, you’re going to find this disappointing.

 

So, unlike Companion To Wolves which we could broadly classify as a coming-of-age story with a fairly linear story as the trolls get mobilised, The Tempering of Men is a slightly sprawling story as different pieces are moved into place for the battles expected in the third volume. I grew increasingly bored and almost certainly will pass on the third volume. As a final thought, I even think the jacket artwork by Cliff Nielsen is twee rather than in any real sense frightening. When an artist is lining up to show a wolf confronting a troll, it would be helpful to make the man caught between them look interested in a fight.

 

For books by Elizabeth Bear, see A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette), Shoggoths in Bloom, Seven for a Secret, The White City and ad eternum. The books in a new trilogy are Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars and Steles of the Sky with Book of Iron an associated novella. For books by Sarah Monette, see The Bone Key, Corambis and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.

 

Corambis by Sarah Monette

Sometimes my grandma would illuminate an evening with comments and asides. In her day, she had been a great hostess, born into a famous family and used to the need to create entertainment in the days when Marconi was still experimenting with radio waves. As she grew older, she yielded the playing field of entertaining discourse to my mother who, by my standards, never knew when to stop chattering on. Consequently, I have become something of a recluse and never socialise unless I am forced into it. But back to the earlier generation. My grandma, having been the victim of a private tutor, was well versed in history and had perfected the famous Parthian shot which she delivered with devastating effect without ever feeling the need to leave the room.

In Corambis by Sarah Monette we have the author storming out of the room with a parting shot to conclude the tetralogy which passes under the name of The Doctrine of Labyrinths. I say “conclude” with a wry smile because the key characters are all still alive and could, if Monette was offered a suitably large sum of money, continue their adventures in the next destination called Grimglass. Indeed, there are hints to that effect in the latter parts of Corambis.

As in any series, a balance has to be struck between “stuff happening” and character development. Taking the four books overall, Monette is charting the growth in the characters, Felix Harrowgate and Mildmay Foxe, as individuals and in their relationship as half brothers. To achieve this, she adopts a multiple point-of-view structure with, in this case, each of the three major characters having their own first person sections to carry on the story line. It allows three different interior monologues to illuminate events. From a purely technical standpoint, the mechanics of the narrative are well developed with Felix, Mildmay and Kay each given a reasonably distinctive voice. Unfortunately, as in the previous books, there is just too much padding. This would have made a really good trilogy.

There are some interesting and completely unexpected developments in the realisation of the world. Suddenly, we are pitched into a comparatively modern society which has significant urbanisation including an underground railway system, paddle steamers for river navigation and ocean crossing, and a social system in which the upper class takes coffee “in the library”. Frankly, I had not realised Mélusine was such a primitive backwater. However, this does allow Monette to quietly examine how social attitudes to a heritage of magic might change as society becomes more sophisticated. This includes comments on how novelists and historians may conspire to shape the discourse and reinterpret the inexplicable as something altogether more prosaic. In this, there is a nod in the direction of a clichéd Brave New World where Felix (as Mr. Savage) becomes an object of fascination and fear in a world more used to railway trains running on time than practising magicians plying their trade.

That said, stuff must happen — in a fantasy novel such as this, it is mandatory that the readers are exposed to magic and there must be a threat to be neutralised. As to the magic, we are given the now customary gay rape with fairly routine S&M thrown in along the way — at least, as a source of magic, there is something here for the local historians to gloss over and quietly forget. The local political scene is coloured by the presence of some magic but only unremarkable routinised magic (save, perhaps, for the medical arts). For what it’s worth, I think more could have been made of the functionality of the labyrinths all round the world. As to the threat: in the opening chapter, we are introduced to the machine at the heart of the labyrinth under Summerdown. Monette is laying down a marker. This is going to be the literal engine of destruction that Felix and Mildmay must confront and subdue. Indeed, to whet our appetite, it kills all but one of the men seeking to bring it to life, striking the one survivor blind. Unfortunately, this is never realised as a ravening machine laying waste to the countryside. Some trains stop unexpectedly when passing by the site of the machine, some sheep die and it may be connected to one or two suicides. But everything else is all rather hypothetical. We come to the view that it’s probably very dangerous and might be able to cause the deaths of many, but there’s no real sense of menace. Indeed, when Felix does finally confront it, the ending is comparable to a driver taking the ignition key out of the car and walking away. It feels like a plot element that has to be there so that Felix can finally forgive himself for all the bad things he has done.

So, as with the earlier three books, Corambis is too long and, while it does have some good ideas and is, for the most part, well written, I was bored towards the end. I read it to find out how it finished rather than because I was driven by the energy of the narrative. I think Mélusine, the first book in the series, remains the best and, if you have not read any of the series, confine yourself to Mélusine and the second, The Virtu. The remaining two books are rather more portentous and overblown. If you have read the three in the series, Corambis does tie up most of the loose ends and it’s moderately interesting to see how it all turns out.

For my other reviews of work by Sarah Monette, see: A Companion to Wolves and its sequel The Tempering of Men jointly with Elizabeth Bear, The Bone Key and a joint review of Guild of Xenolinguists and The Bone Key, and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves

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.

 

The Guild of Xenolinguists by Sheila Finch & The Bone Key by Sarah Monette

It’s always interesting to observe the growth and development of jargon — a kind of insiders’ language, a code people can use to impress strangers. Today, I’m particularly interested in the idea of a fix-up novel — one that has been created from a group of short stories. In the days of the pulps, authors would throw off as many stories as possible to keep the dollars coming in. Some never caught the imagination. Others spawned related stories or sequels. Given a growing accumulation of such stories, authors would then edit then for consistency and, more often than not, write new connecting material to create a novel. Whether apocryphally or not, the neologism is attributed to A. E. van Vogt, one of my favourite authors of the so-called Golden Age. The best example of a fix-up is The Voyage of the Space Beagle, later plagiarised in part as the film, Alien (and its sequels).

By accident, I have read two very similar books back-to-back. The first was The Bone Key by Sarah Monette which is a thematically linked collection of short stories about the same protagonist. The second is The Guild of Xenolinguists by Sheila Finch which is a thematically linked collection of short stories about the same organisation. Monette’s book is, in essence, a fix-up without the frame. In other words there is a kind of progression from one story to the next so that, if we close one eye, it can read as a form of picaresque novel, episodic in nature but focused on a single “hero” figure”.

Finch’s book is, as they say, a very different kettle of fish. For those of you interested in epistemology, what we know and how we came to know it can be of critical importance. It gives us a basis upon which to make rational decisions, to assess the credibility of evidence, and so on. Monette’s book gives us multiple and reinforcing images of the same thing. Because of the internal corroborations, we can feel the “truth” of the character even though the linearity of the telling may not be confirmed. Finch has written a number of short stories about the same organisation but there only one overlap of character (between “A World Waiting” and “The Roaring Ground”) and there is no general attempt made to edit the stories to achieve coherence or internal consistency. All we have are eleven different stories plus one non-fiction piece that just happen to be about the role of interpreters in a multilingual extraterrestrial culture. After the first two or three stories I had to stop because I was approaching them in the wrong way. Rather than reading them as stand-alones, I was trying to fit them together to create my own fix-up novel. I suppose there was a deliberate decision made to exclude the kind of background information available at http://www.sff.net/people/sheila-finch/fullhistory.htm

Trying to follow this way leads to frustration because the stories do not fit comfortably together. To that extent, we have to distinguish between this book published by Golden Gryphon which bravely keeps going with its specialisation in collections, and Reading the Bones, which is a fix-up “novel” published by Tachyon Press. This includes the complete text of the title novella, which won the Nebula for best novella of 1998, and then continues with an Interlude to bridge into a second novella “Bright River of Talk”.

But, if you enjoy short stories on their merits, there are some very good stories in this collection. The one which many will know is “Reading the Bones”, but there are some very affecting ideas, well explored as in “Stranger Than Imagination Can” which carefully exposes stereotypes and prejudices. There are, as in any collection, one or two where the ideas are a little threadbare and the execution flat. Overall, this is enjoyable so long as you are not expecting a fix-up.

For my other reviews of work by Sarah Monette, see: CorambisA Companion to Wolves, The Bone Key and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.

 

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