Thursday, February 20, 2020

William Gibson's AGENCY

Please, tell me I'm not the only person who's already imagining a white-haired Tilda Swinton as Ainsley Lowbeer if The Peripheral and/or Agency ever gets adapted for the screen. Even if it's a century hence and it's a digitally recreated Swinton loping around with an omni-use "tipstaff" protecting continua from hobbyists.*


I didn't realize until my second reading of this book's predecessor, The Peripheral, that Lowbeer was going to be the Hubertus Bigend of this trilogy. Partly this was because so many of the other characters were so interesting that Lowbeer kind of faded into the background a lot (a "problem" Agency doesn't have, but we'll get to that) but mostly because she didn't feel that much like a character yet, more a figurant -- kind of like Hubertus Bigend!

I speculate that William Gibson maybe noticed this and, with this new book, chose to dial back the other characters to let the spotlight shine on Lowbeer, which is laudable, because Lowbeer is cool as shit, but, ah, I'm not quite sure it worked. Because Lowbeer is still mostly a peripheral (heh) character, acting as a sort of dispatcher if not a commander, while most of the action is performed by really boring people.

Ostensibly, the protagonist of Agency is Verity, a young woman in the middle of an exciting if precarious career as a sort of "app whisperer" in 2017.** She's just been hired to test an exciting new product that lives in a Google Glass-ish set-up but is startingly un-app-like to the point of pretty much laughing itself to death at the mere thought of being administered a Turing test. That's right, William Gibson has finally made an Artificial Intelligence into an actual character! But one so awesomely powerful and resourceful and such a quick study that our Verity basically becomes a Lemmiwinks.*** Which could still be cool, only pretty soon the cool AI (named Eunice because the actual name is an acronym I can't remember but corresponds to EUNISS) is absent, and Verity is just left to enact Eunice's plan to Save the World only no one ever, you know, tells Verity the plan (an, to be honest, I still don't understand how all this to-ing and fro-ing Saved the World), so she's just ferried around on motorcycles by surly coffee shop waiters or in funky helicopter-type things owned by her Tech Billionaire ex-boyfriend or, in one ridiculous scene, actually disguised as a dummy and hauled up many stories in a sling, and at this point I just decided Gibson was trolling us with this title. I mean, Lowbeer works for an Agency in the future and there are a few agents of an Agency or two sort of lurking around in Verity's present, but also there is a fully autonomous AI (the world's first!) exercising bucketloads of Agency but, like Lowbeer, only at a remove and meanwhile our heroine has so little Agency she has to hang there in the sling and not move while she is ratcheted up to the penthouse suite via the building's exterior.

Oh, and kind of the least interesting character from The Peripheral shows up and does some stuff, which, whatever, but also the most interesting character from The Peripheral shows up and let's talk about Coner for a moment. Spoilers for The Peripheral, obvs. but it says Ware Spoilers right in this blog description text.

Coner is from the "stub" explored in the first book, which is basically a near-future West Virginia in which 3D-printing has become commonplace but also so advanced that it can be used to manufacture drugs, so think of the Opioid Crisis dialed up to 11 and in this world, in addition to the rather delightful heroine of The Peripheral there is Coner. Coner is a veteran of an unspecified war but we can just assume, really, that it's still in the Persian Gulf area only now there are "haptic recon" units, i.e. soldiers with implanted technology that allows them to, e.g., operate drones a continent away in a very intimate fashion. Except, you know, it was still imperfect tech, so most veterans like Coner are a bio-mechanical mess even with the implants out, and also still have PTSD. But then there's Coner, who also managed to get himself actually blown up, and lost all but one of his limbs and a good bit of his torso and now depends on very advanced nearly-full-body prosthetics to live a very limited existence in his backwater timeline. He gets a taste of other possibilities in The Peripheral, in which the quantum computer that allows contact with The Past from Lowbeer's world doesn't just allow conversation but a limited degree of action via the control of, in Coner's world, dopey telepresence drones that are basically an iPad stuck to a Segway, and in Lowbeer's the full experience of running a vat-grown nearly-human body as though it were your own. In The Peripheral Coner gets to spend some time in a top-of-the-line martial arts training body, and since he was originally a military powerhouse even without his implants, well, just imagine. There's a great line in Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer, in which a "console cowboy" who's been neurologically maimed and can no longer access cyberspace falls "into the prison of his own flesh." Now imagine if that flesh consists of, like, one messed up arm, your chest and your head. That's Coner, after.

But Lowbeer is a benevolent goddess, as well as one that needs mortals to do her bidding, so she has made sure that Coner still gets opportunities to be in better bodies via the mysterious quantum computer.**** As long as he does her bidding once in a while; here he is dispatched to Verity's world, but of course her world doesn't even really have very good iPads on Segways yet, so he's controlling, e.g. hobby drones and various smart devices, while still being very much the Coner that I grew to love in the first book. He gets some fantastic scenes and pulls off some exciting stunts and, really, his bits are the best in this book. I would absolutely read a book from his point of view, telling his actual story. Hint to the universe.

Having him as the POV character instead of Verity would instantly have made Agency a better read, at any rate. Not that, and I feel I must stress this because I feel like I'm bitching a lot, not that Agency isn't a pretty good read. It has lots of interesting ideas and poses lots of interesting questions and contains both Ainsley Lowbeer and Coner, plus a bit of Eunice, so, you know, it's fine. I was never in danger of DNF-ing it. BUT, I didn't risk sleep deprivation and un-done chores to devour it, either. It's not Gibson's best work, is all. But it's still more than worth the reading, and I'm still in for a sequel or two, but please, Mr. Gibson, some more Lowbeer? Please?

*If you're new to this series, and it seems many are opting to go ahead and plunge into Agency without having first read The Peripheral, in Ainsley Lowbeer's far-future post-apocalyptic time, someone has stumbled across a mysterious quantum computer that can connect to digital communications technology in the past, but every time contact is established it creates a new timeline, because Lowbeer's timeline is not one in which contact was ever made. Certain people in Lowbeer's world are so rich and bored that they connect to and interfere with the past for fun. These newly-created timelines are formally referred to as "continua", informally as "stubs" (as in Wikipedia perhaps?), and the people who fart around with them are the "hobbyists" I referred to above. Most just act like tourists but there are a special few who treat the past as their personal Let's Game It Out and deliberately try to ruin everything for everybody.

**Not our 2017, though. See, a continua hobbyist, one who makes Josh from Let's Game It Out look like a merciful angel/fairy godmother who can't coddle his NPCs enough, manipulated events so that in 2016 Secretary Clinton, and not Game Show Host Trump, won the presidential election, only, get this, it was part of a strategy to lead to armagedddon, meaning somehow the outcome I think the lion's share of Gibson's fan base and Gibson himself would have preferred is painted as the Darkest Timeline, an intriguing idea that did not get nearly enough exploration here.

***A South Park joke, referring to a character who has little or no, umm, agency, but is simply bossed around and sent on fetch quests by others. A fetch quest is... why am I explaining all this shit anyway? This is the internet. You can look it up. I've been spending entirely too much time with octogenarians who believe stuff on Facebook (and yes, 80+ year olds use Facebook. It's 2020. Hi, I'm Kate, and this is 2020, and honestly, this is the first time I've made that joke. I get a turn, too, right?).

****Which, I'm trusting there's a third volume of this Lowbeer series in the works, and I hope we get some answers about this tech. Nobody in Lowbeer's world knows where it is or who originally found it, let alone who developed it or how it works. An undercurrent I could have just imagined faintly suggests that maybe Lowbeer's native continuum isn't the "original" and is just as much of a stub as the ones its hobbyists play with, but I'm hoping it's not quantum McGuffin turtles all the way down, you guys.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

George Eliot's Felix Holt the Radical

I have decided a few things, upon finishing George Eliot's excellent and under-appreciated Felix Holt, the Radical. I have decided that Charles Palliser didn't write a Dickens homage when he gave us The Quincunx. I decided that Mary Anne Evans, aka George Eliot, is still my favorite writer of the 19th century and yes, I'm aware she's got a lot of competition. And I've decided that the novel has a totally misleading title, though yes, Felix Holt is a Radical. 

I mean, if a title contains a character's name, that character is usually a main character, if not the main  character, right? Gulliver is not a bit player in the account of his travels. Moll Flanders is not fridged in her novel. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is at least a sort of goal in human form in that story. But I'd argue that Felix Holt is nowhere near being the hero of "his" book, for all that the young woman I'd nominate for runner-up for the most important character would argue otherwise. Not that she'd be an impartial judge in this case. But we'll get to that. 

No, I'd argue that the pivotal figure in Felix Holt, the Radical is neither Felix nor his love interest, Esther Lyon; neither the dominating Harold Transome nor his scheming foil Matthew Jermyn. As to why, well, I'll remind my readers that the phrase "ware spoilers" is in the description text for this here blog first and then go on to say that...

If I were in charge of giving this book a title, I would have called it something like The Portrait of Mrs. Transome, or maybe Arabella's Agony, or if I were at a modern publishing house and determined to follow a certain annoying trend in titles, I'd slap on something like The Candidate's Mother. For it is the mother of Harold Transhome who is the fulcrum of the book, for all that her first name is only mentioned twice in the whole thing and then only indirectly. Were there not two passages in which her brother is musing on how she might react to things, we would know Arabella Transhome (neĆ© Lingon) simply as Mrs. Transhome. But without her decisions in the novel's backstory there is no story, and it is she who bears the greatest and most enduring sorrows Felix Holt, the Radical has to dish out, as the author is careful to point out fairly often. 

Indeed, after a lyrical opening that introduces us to the story's setting by having the reader imagine a stagecoach journey through the heart of 1830s England, from scenes of pastoral rural idyll and skirting its dark satanic mills and fully industrialized blight to bring us to a pleasant liminal zone between these extremes, Arabella is the first character we actually meet as she fusses her way through a morning in her stately though not perfectly maintained country house, awaiting her favorite son and fretting about how their meeting will go. Harold Transhome is her talented and capable younger son, gone for decades making his own way in the world because primogeniture, returning now to England to take over the family estate after the death of his doofus older brother has left him the heir. At first we think Arabella is merely anxious to see her darling and meet his little boy (by a woman he is generally understood to have married while abroad but whom he confesses late in the novel was actually his slave), but then we find that she's even more worried that he'll find fault with the management of his patrimony, not by his dead doofus brother or by his still living but senile father, but effectively by Arabella herself with the help and advice of the family lawyer, Matthew Jermyn. Who maybe cut some corners and skirted some rules in the course of keeping it all together. And also seems to have gotten pretty rich in the process somehow. 

And then we get the hint that Arabella has some even deeper and more unpleasant secrets yet for us to discover. And then we meet Harold himself, handsome if a little portly, confident, easy going, rich and expansive and full of plans for making the most of his family's property, which excites Arabella at first until she realizes that he has no interest in her explanations of how things have been run, opinions on his plans, or even in her participation in those plans. He's going to fix things up pretty for her, buy her some nicer clothes, redecorate her rooms and give her all sorts of things, but he doesn't care a whit for her thoughts or feelings and her disappointment at this is crushing but somehow not entirely surprising; we find she's kind of expected this and maybe even feels like she deserves it. She's just going to have to gracefully fade into the background and be a useless if still rather beautiful old woman (at age 55!) and just do embroidery and maybe cuddle her grandson now and then. 

Oh, and by the way, Harold is going to stand for Parliament. Wonderful, that is entirely suitable for a scion their genteel and well-propertied family! Oh, but he's not running as a Tory, or even as a Whig. No, his time abroad making his own fortune has led him to disrespect the status quo. He's going to run as a Radical. And he expects his mother and Mr. Jermyn to help him. 

But this is a novel about Felix Holt, the Radical. Riiiiiiight.

The next important people we meet are Mr. Lyon, a widowed Dissenting preacher, and his pretty and accomplished and very ladylike daughter, Esther, who seems on first meeting is merely going to be a figurant rather than fully a character -- it is a long time before the omniscient narrator gives us anything from her point of view. Theirs is a simple life. He preaches to a small congregation and she earns money for her little vanities by teaching French to Young Ladies, which she does very well because she is half-French herself. We learn that the story of her birth is very tragic and romantic, as (DRAMA BUTTON) she was already alive when her lovely French mother was taken in as a beggar by her soft-hearted preaching papa, who later married the poor woman and raised her daughter after she died young, i.e. Mr. Lyon is only Esther's step-father, though she doesn't know that. This all becomes important later on but for now we're just shown Esther as an unexpected adornment to her father's simple home, a vain girl whose years of exposure to the lives and households of her betters have left her with expensive tastes and maybe a little conceitedness.

Such is how Felix Holt -- remember Felix Holt? This is a novel about Felix Holt, the Radical -- certainly sees her when he starts calling on Mr. Lyon out of a shared concern over the plight of the poor and the overworked, whose ranks Felix has voluntarily joined despite having been raised and educated to be a doctor like his daddy was before him, which means, yes, Felix threatens to be That Guy. And he comes off as super self-righteous at first, very much That Guy. His late father made a fortune in patent medicines, which raised their standard of living and led Felix's mother to grow accustomed to the Finer Things, which she always assumed Felix would continue to provide for her but no, he's learned that daddy's drugs not only cured nothing but often made things worse, and he forbids her from continuing to make or sell them, which he can totally do because Patriarchy, and now she lives with him in a crummy house in which he teaches school to the children of the working poor and the indigent and he just seems a tiny bit punchable on this first meeting, does Felix Holt, except he's not there at the Lyons' house to pat himself or anyone else on the back for virtue, but because he's worried that the upcoming election will lead to considerable Trouble among the people he and Lyon both seek to serve, none of whom can vote but all of whom can be gotten rip-snorting drunk, turned loose on the streets during speeches and on election day and encouraged to commit mayhem on behalf of the candidate whose agents have generously been plying them with ale and gin for weeks and what can we do about it?

The Transhome and Lyons/Holt storylines take a while to intersect as we explore the nature of the coming elections and the general socioeconomic state of the era*, but when they do it's head-on, and it's all lawyer Jermyn's fault as Harold's campaign manager/ratfucker, ultimate author of Operation Get the Miners Drunk to Scare Away the Voters and much else. Holt shames Harold into trying to put a stop to it before somebody gets hurt, but Jermyn convinces Harold that it's way too late for that but overplays his hand because he, like Arabella, still just can't believe Harold has become a Radical but kind of thought he'd done so cynically and would act a good Tory MP once elected but what's he doing hanging out with the likes of this Holt fellow, Something Must Be Done.

Which is weirdly where the Quincunx stuff comes in. That novel concerns an inheritance case in which various versions of a will and codicils thereto have a valuable estate tied up in court for decades but in the control of the most powerful claimants. The conditions that will allow them to maintain control require that another family with a better claim not die out entirely, for if that happens the machinery of inheritance law turns the estate over to a still different set of claimants. The tale focuses on the very last child of the otherwise extinct middle party, who has grown up in poverty, been orphaned, is hunted by one branch and cynically protected -- but to a bare minimum -- by the other. When I first read it many years ago, I took it as a sort of Dickens pastiche even though it was set decades earlier than Dickens' own time period. 

Now, though, I see it was not only more of a George Eliot homage, but a neat inversion of a state of affairs in Felix Holt, the Radical. When Jermyn finds that he not only has lost control over his candidate and client family but also might be sued into poverty by his candidate on the grounds that he gave Arabella decades of bad advice and profited from her resulting bad decisions, he revisits a decision of his own made long ago, in which he manipulated affairs behind the scenes in an inheritance dispute over the Transhome Estate! Moreover, it was a dispute just like the one at the heart of The Quincunx, only in this novel we've been getting the side of the winners of that dispute, whose counterparts were the villains of The Quincunx. The hero-victim figure of The Quincunx is only represented as a minor but rather amusing character in Felix Holt but takes the important step of dying in the last third of the book here, though, which means the losing family, whose claims Jermyn worked hard to squash by hounding the last scion to an early grave long ago, though, turn out to have just one more descendant!!!! But only Jermyn knows who that descendant is! So of course he thinks this is all the leverage he needs to keep Harold in line.

But he thinks wrong. Harold made his own fortune, so he's not quite as worried about losing the estate as he might otherwise be, and for good measure comes up with a counter move that looks to thwart Jermyn's threat... but this only means Jermyn has to go for the nuclear option.

The nuclear option relates also to decisions made long ago, but not only by Jermyn, which brings it all back around to Arabella. Arabella, who was a seriously beautiful woman in her youth (as a large and dominant portrait of her that still hangs in the drawing room of her home attests) but already not very happy in her marriage. Arabella, to whom managerial responsibilities seem to have fallen long before her husband hit senility but needed a man's help because Patriarchy, and who was there to turn to but her doofus husband's handsome young lawyer? Arabella, who seems to have just gotten sadder and more tired and withdrawn over the decades...

Oh, there are some agonizing scenes between Arabella and Jermyn. All of his shady dealings were for her sake. He could have gone somewhere bigger and made more money and been more important but he stayed, again for her sake**. And while her number one son was doofus like his daddy, her number two son was smart and handsome like his daddy and of course this was going to turn into Star Wars a little bit. Search your feelings. 

And yes, the election happens and riots happen and Esther and Felix fall in love and there is supposed to be a preacher fight but there winds up not being a preacher fight (which is too bad, because I'm thinking George Eliot could have written one hell of a preacher fight. Heh) and Esther and Felix turn out neither of them to be as insufferable as they first seemed but really, who cares? Arabella done screwed up (though her situation wasn't super great to begin with) and was made to pay and pay and pay and pay for it and per the epilogue she kept right on paying until the day she died. 

Oh and meanwhile? Jermyn, while manipulating her and her family's resources for decades had gone ahead and married someone else and had three beautiful dollars and also lived in the days when a man could have a totally shady career for decades and then just relocate to another county and have a perfectly nice life. 

So, anyway, Felix Holt. Who he again?

Great book, though. 

*Which is a stonking mirror of our own times, right down to people (including the author. Especially the author) waxing nostalgic over the halcyon days of yore when people weren't so bitterly partisan, elections were fair and straightforward, etc. People were pining for kinder, gentler, less political times. IN 1833.
**Which, did she ever ask all that of him, I wonder?

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Mervyn Peake's TITUS GROAN

I think I'd be hard pressed to find a better example of decadent art than Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels, if Volume One, Titus Groan, is any example. And I'm not just talking about the state of the castle in which most of the action (and, more importantly, inaction) takes place. That's just the most obvious (crumbling, half-abandoned, ill-explored*, spiderwebbed, dusty) example. 


Another feature of decadent art that Titus Groan exemplifies even more completely than its direct depiction of actual decay is the greater focus on the parts than the whole, and on the signifiers than the signified. And in this regard, Peake's work is almost farcically representative of the decadent. 

Take, for example, how the title character's father, Lord Sepulchrave**, the 76th Earl of Gormenghast, spends his waking hours: at breakfast he spends a good hour or two with his Master of Ritual, first a nonagenarian named Sourdust and later Sourdust's one-legged septuagenerian son Barquentine, consulting an incredibly detailed and comprehensive archive of rituals to determine what forms of what ceremonies need to be performed that day. Most of the rest of the day is given over to performing those rituals. So many rituals.*** No wonder the castle is all but tumbling down. Who has time to even sweep the floor except on, like, Ritual Floor Sweeping Day Which Occurs In The Eighth Month of Any Odd-Numbered Year But Only When The Full Moon Occurs On A Date Within That Month  That is Mathematically Divisible By Seven And The Sweeping Is Done With A Tiny Hand Broom That Has Been Passed Down Through Untold Generations Of Attendants Except It Was Stolen By An Owl 200 Years Ago So Now A Lower Servant Just Walks Across The Floor Making Broom Noises With His Creaky Ancient Voice.

I may have exaggerated a little there, but then again, I haven't read the sequels to Titus Groan yet. Heh.

Moreover, the individual parts of the human body get more attention than entire bodies do, and not just in the matter of how most characters are all but defined by notable body parts. Thus Sepulchrave's cadaverously thin manservant, Flay, is always announced by the distinctive sound of his creaking knees, head chef Swelter is a grotesque flow of fat with a face and maybe some limbs somewhere, Dr. Prunesqualor has a remarkable head of grey hair that one can't hear described without thinking of Eraserhead, rising servant Steerpike is both "high shouldered" and has a "bulging forehead" over eyes (and boy, wil we talk about eyes in this book) the color of drying blood, etc. They're almost like Homeric epithets. But that's not all, either.

Mervyn Peake had a thing about eyes. Many people do, of course, and many writers have made use of the image of eyes rolling or narrowing or bulging from their sockets, but Peake asks those eyes to hold his eye beer while eyes that feel unduly confined by his characters' heads perform feats no other eyes could ever be imagined to.

A passage I particularly enjoyed from the ongoing battle between Swelter and Flay is worth quoting here:

"Swelter's eyes meet those of his enemy, and never was there held between four globes of gristle so sinister a hell of hatred. Had the flesh, the fibres, and the bones of the chef and those of Mr. Flay been conjured away and away down that dark corridor leaving only their four eyes suspended in mid-air outside the Earl's door, then, surely, they must have reddened to the hue of Mars, reddened and smouldered, and at last broken into flame, so intense was their hatred—broken into flame and circled about one another in ever-narrowing gyres and in swifter and yet swifter flight until, merged into one sizzling globe of ire they must surely have fled, the four in one, leaving a trail of blood behind them in the cold grey air of the corridor, until, screaming as they fly beneath innumerable arches and down the endless passageways of Gormenghast, they found their eyeless bodies once again, and reentrenched themselves in startled sockets."

I mean, come on! Is that not the most delightfully bizarre passage in 20th century literature, if not indeed of all literature? 

Now imagine it read in the rich and rolling tones of Simon Vance, audiobook narrator par excellance, who made such a meal of it I had to rewind and have not only seconds, but thirds.

Indeed, for this reader, Titus Groan proved a book much better experienced on audio than in print. It was Simon Vance and Vance alone who got me past my prior point of abandonment from years before (when Fuschia first retreats to her secret attic, in case you were wondering). Some stories really need to be read aloud to be appreciated fully. I had a similar experience with The Vorrh trilogy, which took on whole new dimensions of awesome in Allan Corduner's voice.

Oh, and there's a plot in here somewhere: the title character is born in the first chapter, undergoes several ceremonies throughout the book, and becomes a weak sort of fulcrum for some other plots involving the high-shouldered Steerpike and Sepulchrave's dim-witted and power-mad twin sisters and the Earl's one refuge from ritual, his library.

And there are other amazing female characters to enjoy, especially Titus' mother, Countess Gertrude, a massive woman whose bedroom is always full of wild birds and who also keeps a multitude of white cats who have a special room all to themselves, and her daughter, Titus' sister Fuschia, who is furtive and sly and reacts even more oddly to the odd encounters she has with others than the rest of them do. And tiny Nanny Slagg, skinny Irma Prunesqualor and her prominent rotating hipbones (given an independent life and movement all their own in true decadent fashion), and Titus' mysterious wet nurse, Keda, who barely appears in the castle before she's out of it again having seemingly unconnected adventures in what world there is outside the crumbling castle. I feel I don't understand her presence in this novel at all, but think that somehow her brief sub-plot is maybe going to become more important in the rest of the series? At any rate, I can't imagine the very deliberate Peake including a figure like Keda merely for background detail. 

I'll find out soon enough. Gormenghast, the next in the series, is already queued up on Audible, though it isn't Vance narrating for some reason...

Five out of five disembodied red eyeballs.

*There is one servant, assigned to a very specialized part of the castle, who finds, towards novel's end, that he hasn't seen another human being for almost two years!
**The character names in here are on the nose and off the hook to a one.
***I'm pretty sure even the last of the Komnenos Dynasty would have considered the burden of ceremony and form at Gormenghast to be onerous. 

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Laura Purcell's THE POISON THREAD

It's been quite a while since I indulged in a good old gothic novel, or in this case a good new gothic novel.



Originally titled The Corset for good reasons I'll get into later on in this post, Laura Purcell's The Poison Thread (also a good title) perfectly treads that fine line between a grounded fantasy/fabulist and a plain historical novel very, very carefully, preserving its ambiguities right up until its final lines. Does the novel's more obviously victimized heroine have supernatural powers or is it all just coincidence? Is the novel's other heroine really as obnoxious and entitled as she seems, or is she actually quite all right and as worthy of being rooted for as her counterpart? Who are the actual villains, here? Are there actual villains besides circumstances and the twin demons of capitalism and the class system?

I'll start with the more obviously sympathetic of the novel's two heroines, Ruth, born to a beautiful daughter of the landed gentry and a rather feckless artist. Ruth's mother, of course, disobeyed her family and married the artist and was punished with ostracism and poverty for it. As Ruth (portrayed in the audio version with wonderful prickliness by Jayne Entwhistle) begins the story, their little family is living shabbily on what little Ruth's mother can earn by sewing and embroidering in the gig economy of Victorian England - making beautiful things or parts of beautiful things for fashionable ladies who obeyed their parents to wear. She takes in work from a nearby shop from whom she has to purchase the raw materials, and then proceed on trust that the shop owner will buy back the finished work for a fair price. Tweenage Ruth has thus grown up around needlework and has started to show a talent for it herself that bodes somewhat better for the family's future... Until disaster strikes and Ma falls pregnant with a little sibling for Ruth. A little sibling nobody wants, least of all Ruth, who nonetheless grudgingly sets to work on making baby clothes and blankets while Ma languishes ill in bed and Pa smokes and drinks and paints badly. It is in her memories of this period that Ruth discovers what she comes firmly to believe is a terrible truth about herself: her negative emotions, whether they be resentment or fear or hatred or envy, seep through her needle into her sewing and can magically affect those who use or wear her work for the worse. Maybe even for the fatal.

Of course there is a mundane real world explanation for every death Ruth comes to blame herself for as her ever more reduced circumstances land her in a sadistically managed Victorian sweatshop. The fact that a lot of green pigment employed in fabric dying and wallpaper during this period was made with arsenic, for instance, is much more plausible an explanation for the untimely death of a young bride on whose mostly green trousseau Ruth was forced to work than actual stitch witchery on Ruth's part, and never mind said bride used to beat up on Ruth when they were schoolgirls together, and once ruined little Ruth's one and only little girl corset her mother had made for her. But the coincidences pile up and circumstances conspire to convince Ruth that she is basically a serial killer, right up until she blurts out what she believes is the truth to her secret crush just as his wife (who's lady's maid Ruth has become, and who is a villain-adjacent figure from both Ruth's and her crush's past) lies dying, and Ruth gets accused of murdering said wife and is in the local jail awaiting trial when our other heroine meets her.

Dorothea Truelove (eyeroll) is another daughter of the gentry possibly poised on the brink of following in Ruth's mother's footsteps (she is secretly engaged to a policeman who once recovered her pocketbook from a thief), but this is not her only peculiarity. Her late mother converted to Catholicism shortly before dying, and secretly led Dorothea to take up that faith herself, with an emphasis on the doing of good works, like visiting prisoners. Dorothea grows up to sit on the board of a local women's prison, where she struggles to make it a humane place where actual reform is possible - - and where she can indulge her passion for the newfangled science of phrenology. As voiced with almost exaggerated gentility by Elizabeth Knowelden, Dorothea spends a lot of the novel seeming almost impossible to like, self-righteous, deluded, interfering, patronizing, almost a caricature of the upper-class young lady of charity, whom one suspects of doing good works for show... Until one realizes she doesn't really have an audience for her Good Deeds, not even a phrenology professor to impress, as a lesser writer might have given her.

Moreover, her story is peculiarly related to Ruth's long before she takes up the accused murderess as her latest project. Again, a lesser writer might have given them a secret foe in common, an unsuspected family tie or some other such trope, but Laura Purcell is a more subtle storyteller; learning Ruth's story leads Dorothea to reflect on her own, and to realize that her own life has rather different threads running through it than her father and lady's maid have allowed her to see.

So this is a novel that both ticks all the gothic boxes while still remaining fresh and surprising. I spent the last third of it pretty sure I knew how it was going to end, but wound up surprised, if a trifle annoyed that the ending was more than a little abrupt and came a bit out of left field.

A motif within the text that I found especially striking concerns that garment for which the novel was originally named, the corset. A late 20th/early 21st century girl like me usually grows up thinking of these as terrible relics of the cruel past: confining, painful, sometimes dangerous, restricting the breath, compressing the organs, piercing the skin to permit fatal infections, etc. The idea of a little girl wearing one seems horrible and unnecessary, even if one recalls that the idea of children's clothes as anything other than merely smaller versions of adult clothing in every detail is actually pretty recent. I was therefore very much stricken by the realization that to this character, Ruth, a corset could have positive associations. Her original corset, destroyed by a bully, was something she treasured as made by her mother even before it got ruined, and the scene when Ruth's mother sees what's become of it and realizes why it happened is a powerful one that brings us right into the story of their family. Soon mother and daughter are concocting plans to repair and renew it. These plans run afoul of real life, of course, but later when Ruth has finished the task alone and put it on, only to find herself incapable of taking it off again and winding up more or less permanently encased in it through some significant life events, we find that she regards it as her secret armor, its "embrace" a source of comfort and strength as she endures the initial round of sweatshop torments.

Later, of course, corsets take on more negative connotations, but again they are not the conventional ones: corsets are the commercially sold product of Ruth's talents with a needle. Unleashed upon a world that has not treated her well. That is actually treating her even more badly than she knows, even before Dorothea shows up with her rosary and calipers.

I had already resolved that I'd include some more gothic fiction and even romance in this year's reading when a Twitter friend of mine, also named Kate/Katie (@outofmyplanet), mentioned she'd just read this and really enjoyed it. I'm grateful to her for sharing this and to Laura Purcell for helping me start off my new year right.

Now excuse me, I think I have some socks to darn. **

*For a bit of extra wildness, the villain - adjacent in this novel is also named Kate! 

*Or rather, take too my mother to darn, because my messed up hands haven't been able to manipulate a needle in a decade, which made this read a bit more poignant for me. I used to embroider a lot! 

Monday, August 13, 2018

Andrea Barrett's THE VOYAGE OF THE NARWHAL

But for the interludes, brief but vivid, depicting the lives of the women left behind, Andrea Barrett's The Voyage of the Narwhal could be a contemporary novel from the age it depicts, the mid-19th century, when polar exploration was in vogue and a single woman's pleas and offers of financial reward could send dozens of expeditions into danger in the hope of finding some trace of her husband's lost party.

Zeke Vorhees is one of many young, well-to-do New Englanders obsessed with the fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew, lost in an earlier exploration of the Arctic Circle. As the novel opens, he has convinced his lifelong friend and future brother-in-law, Erasmus Darwin Wells (and yes, Erasmus is named for Charles Darwin's daddy, and yes, he is a naturalist of the fussing-around-in-preserved-collections sort) to abandon his repository and becoming Zeke's logistics manager for an expedition to go find more evidence of the Franklin expedition's fate.

Erasmus is our narrator here, one with a refreshing emotional intelligence we might not entirely expect from a true 19th century Man of Science (but wouldn't it be great if we could? This novel answers YES) as he resolves to pay proper attention, for once, to the staff and underlings who will make his research possible. He thus gives us portraits of all the crew of the Narwhal, from the newly-recruited young cook, Ned (only survivor of a large Irish family who fled the potato famine) to the irascible Captain Tyler to the remarkable and Dr. Maturin-esque (for you Patrick O'Brian fans) Dr. Boerhaave as they journey north, seek traces of the Franklin Expedition, encounter various Inuits (herein referred to by the 19th century term and spelling of "Esquimaux") and spend a terrible winter frozen in place when Zeke springs on them that their more important aim was always to find the fabled Northwest Passage* and nobody's going home until they try.

Interspersed with Erasmus' first-person accounts are brief looks in at the lives of Erasmus' sister Lavinia, Zeke's fiancee, and her live-in companion Alexandra, as they wait for the return of Our Heroes. Lavinia pines somewhat conventionally, but Alexandra finagles her way into an apprenticeship as an engraver and winds up helping a publishing firm frantically race to complete a lavish illustrated edition of Elisha Kent Kane's own travel reports of an expedition seeking the Franklin party.

I would gladly have read a whole book dedicated to Alexandra's story; alas, we mostly just get glimpses of this until the novel's final act.

Big thanks to my mother, by the way, who originally stumbled across this gem while looking for books for my dad, who is a hard guy to find reading material for. We still haven't gotten him to read it, by the way. Stubborn!

*It's especially interesting to read about this idea now, in 2018, when it looks more and more likely that this might actually become a reality in my lifetime thanks to climate change. D'oh.

Monday, July 30, 2018

B. Catling's THE ERSTWHILE

Where the first book in B. Catling's Vorrh series, The Vorrh, was a scattershot of interesting ideas, weird characters and language games, its sequel, The Erstwhile, is a bit more conventionally readable, while losing none of the prior's strangeness. All in all its a much more enjoyable read, but I'd kind of expected that.

I only took up the first book after reading a few tantalizing reviews of the second, which focused on the title character class. The Erstwhile are basically remnant angels, those who had failed to defend the Tree of Knowledge from Adam (Eve is never mentioned in this derivation from the book of Genesis) and were cast aside and forgotten after that little mishap. In the thousands (millions? Catling takes no stance on how old the Earth might be) of years since then, these angels have gone to ground -- literally in some cases -- and devolved into weirdly malformed monster shapes with moss and plant life growing on various bits even before they became completely quiescent.

Or so it seems until some of them start interacting with humans again, usually when they are accidentally discovered in and around The Vorrh by European colonists looking for resources to exploit there. When a few of these beings are dug up and shipped back to Germany, they come under scrutiny and care and start to seem human-like. And when one emerges mysteriously from the mud on the banks of the Thames in the 18th century and becomes the freaky muse of one William Blake (yes that William Blake, whose image of Nebuchadnezzar graces the cover of this novel and in this story is understood actually to be a portrait from life of one of the Erstwhile), and then spends a century so drifting among human society in London, that one becomes so human that he takes on the name of Nicholas Parsons and becomes a sort of trustee at Bedlam.

Meanwhile back in the Vorrh and the colony city of Essenwald, all of the characters who survived the previous novel are trying to live out their lives after those weird events, with varying degrees of success. Ghertrude Tulp is mysteriously pregnant but not sure by whom -- Ishmael? Some random guy on the same carnival night that Ishmael slept with Cyrena Lohr and by so doing cured her blindness? Ishmael and Cyrena are living together in her sumptuous house and getting tired of having sex with each other. And the city is in steep economic and social decline since the Limboia, the "mindless" slave labor force that kept the timber industry going in the last novel, have up and disappeared. Others have tried to take up the work, but unlike the Limboia, they can't handle the weird powers the forest exerts on puny human minds -- namely all but erasing them.

Soon Ishmael, the only man anyone knows who has traveled through the Vorrh without losing his memories and mind, is drafted into leading an expedition to go find the Limboia and it's all a bit like Werner Herzog's Herz aus Glas.

Already you can see that this novel has a lot more of a conventional focus and structure to it. The expedition provides one of its main narrative threads, twined with another in which a new character, Dr. Hector Schumann, is called upon to take up the mysteries posed by the Erstwhile brought to Europe. A third story, of a lonely old woman who rescues a mysterious baby from the abandoned home of The Vorrh's white savior figure and his black shaman mistress/wife, is woven in less well for all that there are structural parallels between it and the Schumann story in their final thirds. And the fate of Ghertrude's baby is, I guess part of all of this, too, but not really?

For this book is a textbook case of Middle Chapter Trouble. For all that it's a much more enjoyable read than its predecessor, it's even more frustrating, in that exactly none of the questions or problems it or the prior book poses gets resolved at all, leaving a lot for the final book, The Cloven, which just came out, to answer. But, to be honest, I have zero hope that anything will actually get resolved, because Catling isn't here to try for narrative coherence. He's all about the language.

And some of this is downright beautiful:
The stillness of the water became a secondary feature to the movement of the snow. It fell straight down into its own reflection on the mirrored Thames, the depths of the reflection rising up to meet it. Each flake fell from a black sky and fluttered up from the river's black bed to meet its twin and become one before disappearing.
I mean, god damn!

A lot of the time, though, Catling threatens to become downright annoying, especially when he gets precious with malapropisms -- which I have to assume is what he's doing because otherwise 1) He's kind of a doofus and 2) The editorial staff at Random Penguin all need remedial courses. I'm assuming its deliberate because I'd rather that were true. But there sure is a lot of "finally crafted jewelry" and whatnot in here.

But so maybe it's just sunk cost fallacy working and maybe it's still just good enough to make me want more -- I really can't decide -- but I'm looking forward to The Cloven. But I've got a lot of library books to get through before I go looking for it, because right now I'm Vorrhed out.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Alex Wells' HUNGER MAKES THE WOLF

(Blogger's note: the author of the below reviewed novel is one of my co-hosts on the Skiffy and Fanty Podcast's Reading Rangers show, so I'm not an entirely unbiased source for opinion on Wells' work. That being said, I naturally think you should read it anyway.)

If this book wore a collar, that collar's color would be primary blue. Imagine if Upton Sinclair had written science fiction set in a vaguely Firefly-esque universe (minus all the pseudo-confederate bullshytt) but was also hell-bent on his work passing the Bechdel Test AND gave vent to HST-ish love of motorcycle gangs. The result might be very like Hunger Makes the Wolf.

Yes, it's really that awesome.

At the heart of the novel is an intense and interesting female friendship between two very different young women, the pistol-packing motorcycle hooligan, Hob, and the whip-smart, pie-baking budding union organizer (with a dainty little gun in her skirt pocket just so people will stop lecturing her about needing one) Mag. Raised as sort of foster cousins but later divided by a round of errors and half-truths, the duo is just what their dusty, strange little wholly-owned corporate subsidiary of a planet needs to start sticking it to the Man.

But that's not all.

Did I mention they live on a strange planet? It's a strange planet. A treasure-trove of mineral wealth, it's also a place where electro-magnetic forces really just don't work right (forcing a reliance on analogue-ish technology like motorcycles) and where some people, if circumstances leave them struggling to survive all alone in the desert for a spell, are mutated into something the Company has very successfully persuaded its captive workforce are basically witches. As in hunt them down and string them up.

But the Company has its own rank of uncanny witch-like Weathermen, whose weird abilities can sort-of-tame the weirdness of this planet (enough to allow corporate headquarters to still enjoy things like computers and uninterrupted electricity and posh digs for its officers and hired thugs) but are also useful in keeping the "witches" in check, along with the rest of the populace who don't need a LOT of controlling because they depend on the Company for absolutely everything and also just never seem to be able to scrape together enough money to leave the planet for some unfathomable class-war-type reason.

Throw in a weird rock shaman, a bunch of lovable biker-thugs and a whole lot of unjustifiable attacks on "troublemakers" and you have a good old fashioned working stiffs vs. suits brawl, with a lot of cool sci fi and just a few fantasy touches.

The sequel, Blood Binds the Pack, is already out for our enjoyment, and I shall be diving in just as soon as the battery on my Kindle is recharged. Solidarity suggests that you do the same, if you've already read this book.

The union makes us strong.