The Light of Kerrindryr by H. Anthe Davis

The Light of KerrindryrTitle: The Light of Kerrindryr
Series: The War of Memory Cycle #1
Author: H. Anthe Davis
Published: 11 May 2013
Publisher: self-published
Source: review copy from author
Genre: epic fantasy
Rating: 6/10

Cob is a 17-year-old slave doing physical labour for the Crimson Army of the Phoenix Empire. He’s been a slave since the age of 8, as a consequence of his parents’ heretical belief in Dark faith. The idea is that punishing the children of such heretics is an effective conversion tool, and this strategy worked perfectly with Cob. He converted to the faith of the Imperial Light, and his devotion means that his tenure as a slave will end when he turns 18 in 5 months time.

Unfortunately, Cob is robbed of that freedom when his friend Darilan, a freesoldier, frames him for murder and chases him from the army camp. Cob finds himself doubly condemned, both for murder and running away.

Alone in the wide world for the first time, Cob turns out to be hopelessly ignorant. He’s illiterate. He grew up on a strict diet of Imperialist propaganda that he swallowed whole. He travelled with the Crimson Army, but he viewed every new place through an Imperialist perspective and doesn’t understand the nuances of people’s beliefs and cultures. Almost every time he speaks to someone he finds his beliefs challenged. People hate the Phoenix Empire and its Imperial Light religion and for good reason. The Light is not what he’s been told it is. The Dark is not the evil he believes it to be.

Cob doesn’t want to hear it, but the people who tell him these things are also the ones who help him because they oppose the Empire. He toys with the idea of returning to the Crimson Army and trying to set things straight, but then Darilan is sent to hunt him down with a contingent of soldiers. Darilan’s motives are a mystery – first he chased Cob away, then chases after him with terrifying zeal. Because of course, Cob is not just an ordinary slave. There’s something about him that the Empire wants under its control, and as a result, Darilan will chase him across the world.

First off, I’d like to mention that this is one of the best quality self-published novels I’ve read. Whenever I pick one up I brace myself for errors, weaknesses, and the kind of overall confused weirdness that typically characterises books that haven’t had enough critical readers, haven’t had a thorough scrubbing from a good editor, or should never have left the author’s brain.

The Light of Kerrindryr is not like that. It’s got some errors, but nothing major. It has the feel of a serious, structured endeavour rather than an early draft, and it doesn’t turn into an increasingly random mess as has been the case with some indie and self-published novels. There are two things in particular that I want to talk about – Cob, and the worldbuilding.

Cob’s character goes through a standard kind of hero’s journey – orphan turns out to be a chosen one with special powers – but mostly I was interested in the psychology of his character even though I didn’t like him because he’s a daft, self-righteous little git. He starts out being rigidly religious. Even though the Empire killed his father, imprisoned his mother and made him a slave, he believes wholeheartedly in the Imperial religion, blaming his father for his ‘Dark’ beliefs rather than the Empire for its intolerance. He’s proud to be an Imperialist, grateful that the Empire saved him. He accepts slavery the same way that other people accept having to go to high school. He says he wouldn’t hesitate to turn in his fellow slaves if they acted against the Imperial Light. He doesn’t mind that the Imperials mages routinely brainwash people to keep them controlled. When a woman offers him food an shelter he accepts it reluctantly, thinking guiltily that he should instead kill her cat and burn her books because she’s obviously witchfolk. The Empire offers Cob nothing but slavery and death, but he sees it as offering purification and salvation.

He knows very little about the world so people are always explaining things to him (a useful way of explaining things to the reader too) and he scoffs whenever their information contradicts what the Imperials told him. It’s not surprising that he reacts with hostility or even violence when his beliefs are challenged, although I feel particularly unsympathetic to him when he’s hostile toward the people who help him, often at great risk to themselves.

So yeah, Cob can be a stupid asshole, but that’s alright. I’m not the kind of reader who needs to like the main character; I just need to understand them. What I like about the way Davis wrote Cob is that you know why he does what he does even when you want to slap him, but he’s not so vile that he makes the book unpleasant.

And sometimes I really felt for him. He might have chosen the Empire over his parents, but he describes them as quasi-hermits who never spoke much so they probably didn’t have a strong bond. They seemed to fail him while the Empire seemed to save and support him. His whole world falls apart when Darilan betrays him, and while he might seem stupid for wanting to go back to being a slave in the camp, you can also understand that he wants to return to a familiar, structured world. I want him to be smarter and more open to different beliefs, but you can’t demand that a character fit your desires and most people find it difficult to change their beliefs, especially so suddenly and drastically. And Cob is forced to go through all this because he’s being used and manipulated. The poor boy has very little agency and no one really seems to care about him (not that he ever helps matters).

The one thing I admired about him was his friendship with Darilan. And it is a friendship, despite Darilan’s betrayal. For years, Darilan was a kind companion to Cob in an otherwise lonely life, and when Cob was severely injured by a wraith arrow, Darilan sat at his bedside until he recovered. Cob isn’t so stupid as to go running into Darilan’s arms when the man starts hunting him, but he never forgets that Darilan was good to him. Darilan himself turns out to be an interesting character, although it would spoil things for me to say why.

Let me get on to the worldbuilding. It’s pretty extensive, and keeps going throughout the book. There are loads of locations, descriptions of sociopolitical relations between those locations, Imperial politics, religion, myth, magic, culture, etc. What I need to admit though, is that a lot of this goes in one ear and out the other with me. I don’t read a lot of epic fantasy specifically because it’s extremely detailed in ways I don’t necessarily enjoy or even care about. Two major exceptions are The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin and the Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch. I devoured the worldbuilding in those books because it’s particularly vivid and unusual but I get the impression that these series are unique in the genre. I like A Song of Ice and Fire, but I find the amount of detail in those books increasingly tedious and too easily forgotten. I don’t ever want to read Tolkien again.

But I know epic fantasy fans love long books with lots of detail. And this is a long, detailed book – it’s listed as being 446 pages on Goodreads, but my Kindle shows over 10 000 locations, which puts it something more like 800 pages. This is not something I appreciate, but I feel bad because I get the sense that the author put in a lot of effort and yet I’m never going to remember how the architecture of one town differs from another or the specifics of the creation myth.

That said, I liked was the novel’s ability to surprise and impress me with its worldbuilding and plot. The world just keeps growing, opening itself up to you. Several times when I thought it was becoming a bit too conventional or dull, something new and interesting would be revealed. The characters will be riding along on their horses, which turn out to be weird breeds – Tasgard horses are powerful lion-tailed omnivores with sharp canines; Ten-Sky horses have striped coats, short spiral horns and split-hooves. I thought all the people were human until suddenly ogres, goblins and other creatures popped up. Cob is not the only character who is more than he appears to be. And in among the fantasy are elements that feel more like sci fi, giving the book a more interesting feel.

However, there are things in which I wish the author had more surprises and nuances to reveal. Like in the Phoenix Empire, which is irredeemably evil. I don’t like this; I prefer the moral complications of grey areas, and the Empire… well. Under Imperial rule, cats are killed because they’re believed to be witchbeasts who spy for the Dark. It’s illegal for commoners to own books. Mages brainwash people as a matter of routine. The Empire is a fanatically religious, propagandising, cat-killing, slave-owning, book-burning, brainwashing monster. There’s no hope here.

I would also have preferred more female characters. There are a few, most notably a 21-year-old woman named Lark who teaches Cob about the Shadow world, a parallel realm in which she is a kind of business person/diplomat. But Lark is one of very few women and the only one with a major role. As seems the norm in epic fantasy, this is a sexist world and the female characters are scattered. On the plus side, there are plenty of POC characters because this is an openly multicultural world, and that’s worth a lot in this genre.

I haven’t said much about the plot, but it’s similar to the worldbuilding in that it’s long and detailed (sometimes overwhelmingly so), but it has twists and surprises that I liked. Lots of different elements are brought into play, preparing the stage for an even more expansive and thrilling sequel. I’m not sure if I’ll read the next book, but that’s because I think this book just isn’t for me. I have to admire it as a self-published novel though, one that I’d definitely recommend to epic fantasy fans.

The Three by Sarah Lotz

The ThreeTitle: The Three
Author: Sarah Lotz
Published: 22 May 2014
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: horror, thriller, fantasy or science fiction
Rating: 8/10

On 12 January 2012, a day that will come to be known as Black Thursday, four planes crash within several hours of each other. One plane goes down in Aokigahara, an infamous Japanese forest where people go to to commit suicide. One plane goes down in the Florida everglades, one off the coast of Portugal. The fourth crash is the most destructive, landing in Khayalitsha, the most populous township in Cape Town, South Africa. There are only three survivors, one child on three of the four planes – Bobby in the US, Jess in the UK, and Hiro in Japan. Their survival should have been impossible, so the crashes not only cause a wave of shock and grief, but a flood of conspiracy theories and religious fanaticism.

And no matter how absurd some of these beliefs are, you start to feel that they might contain some truth. When Bobby, Jess and Hiro wake up, they’re not quite the same children they used to be, and strange things happen around them. After Bobby moves in with his grandparents, his grandfather Reuben starts recovering from his Alzheimers. Jess’s uncle – Paul Craddock – becomes her legal guardian, but his resolve to take care of her starts to crumble under the influence of her weirdly calm, sunny demeanour (as if she didn’t just lose her parents and twin sister) and the terrifying figure that appears at the end of his bed in the middle of the night. Hiro does not speak except through the unnervingly realistic surrabot designed by his father, a robotics genius.

Journalist Elspeth Martins endeavours to tell the story, and the novel consists almost entirely of the book she publishes – Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy. The book is composed of a variety of materials cutting across a range of cultures and experiences – excerpts from Paul Craddock’s unfinished biography; online chats between Hiro’s cousin Chiyoko and a geek named Ryu who never leaves his room; news articles; and interviews conducted by Elspeth herself. Besides the main characters, we hear from people involved in the rescue efforts, other journalists, investigators, a domestic worker who lives in Khayelitsha, etc. Only at the beginning and the very end do we get more traditional bits of narrative that fall outside Elspeth’s book.

Black Thursday – and The Three as a whole – describes three key things. Firstly, the four terrible plane crashes on Black Thursday, and the grief that follows. Secondly, the three child survivors, seen mostly from the perspectives of their families. Finally, and most importantly, it describes the beginning of the global reaction, which rears up like a monster as terrifying as the children and destructive as the plane crashes. What we have is not just a macabre international incident, but what could be the beginnings of global collapse.

The novel starts out by thrusting you right into the terror of the Japanese plane crash. Pamela May Donald, a Christian from small-town America, is so nervous about travelling in an alien culture that she was too scared to use the toilet at the airport in case she couldn’t figure out how to flush it. Her anxiety sets the tone and intensifies as the plane goes down. She wakes up soon after it crashes, her body broken and dying, flames all around, corpses hanging from the trees of the suicide forest. In her final moments, she sees ghosts and a strange boy, and records a cryptic warning message on her phone:

They’re here. I’m . . . don’t let Snookie eat chocolate, it’s poison for dogs, she’ll beg you, the boy. The boy watch the boy watch the dead people oh Lordy there’s so many . . . They’re coming for me now. We’re all going soon. All of us. Bye Joanie I love the bag bye Joanie, Pastor Len warn them that the boy he’s not to…

Pamela’s message becomes the catalyst for a wave of religious fanaticism. Pastor Len is the leader of her church (a small, conservative congregation), and after hearing the message he decides that Pamela is a prophet, the children are three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and they need to find the fourth child because these are the End Times and the prophecies of the book of Revelations are coming true. Of course, he has been chosen to spread the word, although for some reason he doesn’t seem to care about taking care of Pamela’s dog although she also stressed this in her message. Pastor Len’s fervour is both disturbing and funny, especially when he says things like this:

It’s clear as a bell. How much clearer could the message be? The Lord is good, listeners, He isn’t going to mess around with obfuscation. (talking about how the crashes and the colours of the planes’ logos are obvious proof that the Four Horsemen are here)

His certainty is very similar to that of the guy who argues (with an overabundance of capital letters) that the Three are controlled by aliens:

The children have been IMPLANTED and they are watching us to see what we will do. THIS CAN BE THE ONLY EXPLANATION!!!!

I scoff at these guys, and yet there were times when I wondered if they were at least partly right. The problem is that you can’t be sure. This is not the kind of horror novel where the terror eventually steps out into the open and everything is explained. To be honest, I wanted more overt horror, but at the same time I’m one of those people who is usually disappointed when the monsters are revealed, and I have to credit the subtle, cerebral horror that Lotz has crafted.

It’s unclear if the children are truly malevolent or evil, but they are childish in ways that have their own terrible implications. And part of what’s scary about The Three is our alienation from the truth. As readers, our experience is similar to that of the characters and the fictional public in the novel – there’s so little we know, and so little that we can know. Elspeth’s book is our best source of information, and it’s full of people who don’t know what the fuck is going on even when they think they do. Horror stories usually have that one person who understands what’s happening, but no one on Earth understands the Three, except the children themselves (who might not be children anymore) and they’re not telling. We are held at a distance, with no hope of knowing the whole truth.

Unfortunately another problem is that some people claim to know the truth and can wield their crackpot theories in the absence of better explanations. Pastor Len and similar right-wing religious fanatics are the main problem here, and the Three represent a massive opportunity for them to grab at money and power. The Christian fanatics can be quite scary, but The Three also questions the tendency for all of us to indulge in conspiracies:

why are people so fast to think the worst or waste their time believing in frankly bizarre and convoluted theories? Sure, the odds of this happening are infinitesimal, but come on! Are we that bored? Are we all, at heart, just Internet trolls?

You also need to think about the way Elspeth’s book itself fits into this story. She makes it sound so noble and authoritative, claiming that it’s “an objective account”, and her motivation was to “to provide an unbiased platform for the perspectives of those closest to the main players”. At the same time, she warns readers “to remember that these accounts are subjective and to draw their own conclusions”.

“Objective”? “Unbiased platform”? These terms are deeply suspicious, even if Elspeth’s intentions are good. She’s limited in terms of what she can include in her book. Notably, none of the children get a an “unbiased platform” and are always seen through the eyes of others. And we don’t hear from people like Reuben (who experiences at least a temporary cure for his Alzheimer’s), the children who go to school with Jess, or the doctors who treat the Three. At the same time, many of the people Elspeth talks have already interpreted events based on the way things turned out, or are speaking with the understanding that their words will be made public. Elspeth also chooses what goes into the book, and edits the interviews she conducts, so how “objective” is all of this?

Then there’s the warning about subjectivity and the request that people draw their own conclusions. Sounds reasonable until you remember that people like Pastor Len drew their own conclusions from subjective accounts like Pamela’s last words. So while Black Thursday tells us most of the story of the Three, it becomes a part of that story too, with the potential to be just as dangerous as it is enlightening. As Lotz’s readers, we get to read just a little bit more at the beginning and the end, enough to get a glimpse of the terrifying big picture.

I also wanted to comment on the narrative structure. Because it’s made up of so many POVs and forms, the story moves slowly and thoughtfully. Lotz does a great job of making the interviews and other accounts seem realistic, which has loads of advantages but a couple of disadvantages too. When people tell stories they contextualise them by talking about themselves and their circumstances, and often draw out the details. This is partly why it moves so slowly, but it also gives the novel depth and texture. I really liked the bits of Japanese and South African culture and language that Lotz weaves into those parts of the stories. I learned the Japanese term hikikomori - “Someone who is socially isolated to the extent that they rarely (or never) leave their room” – and the emoticon ORZ (a figure kneeling with its head on the ground, indicating frustration or despair. The O is the head, R the torso, Z the legs).

There are loads of characters, but Lotz handles them very well by giving them distinct voices or at least intriguing stories. For example I enjoyed reading the interviews with Reba, a woman from Pastor Len’s church who claims to have been Pamela’s best friend but very obviously isn’t. There’s a short piece from a black South African domestic worker that does a fantastic job of relating class issues in the country, while other South African characters add a dose of humour with local styles of speech. Jess’s uncle, Paul Craddock (a gay English actor) is a bit bland, but his story is the creepiest as Jess unnerves him in ways that the other children’s guardians do not experience.

Several of the reviews I’ve read argued that the many POVs makes it hard to connect with the characters. Personally this wasn’t really a problem for me, not because I connected strongly with the characters but because I think having them at a distance is kind of the point and suits the story.

On the other hand the story is also necessarily incomplete and this did bug me a bit because I wanted to know so much more. In writing this review though, I started to better appreciate the balance Lotz struck between information and intrigue about the Three. Those kids are just one subject in the novel. The is also about us, the weird and warped ways in which we might react to an event like Black Thursday, and how the world could be changed by it.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After LifeTitle: Life After Life
Author: Kate Atkinson
Published: 02 April 2013
Publisher: Reagan Arthur Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, historical fiction
Rating: 8/10

This review contains some spoilers, but I have limited them to a section at the end, and I will warn you when to stop reading.

Ursula Todd lives life after life. The first time she’s born, on 11 February 1910, she dies almost immediately, strangled by the umbilical cord. The second time, the family doctor makes it to the house despite the snowstorm, and cuts the cord, saving her. She drowns at age 5, but in her next life a stranger rescues her. Sometimes she dies from the Spanish flu, while in other lives she tries to avoid catching it.

Ursula’s life continues in this fashion, beginning and ending countless times, giving her the chance to change the past and the future. At first, she only holds sway over the quiet life in Fox Corner, her parents’ estate in the English countryside. Then, in those lives when she grows into adulthood, she is thrust into the midst of World War 2, sometimes in London, sometimes in Germany. The question of Ursula’s many lives hangs over the narrative. What is the point of coming back again and again? Must she change history or is she trapped in it? Is she meant to help the people she cares about, or is her purpose political?

The fantasy aspect of this novel is really the only reason I wanted to read it. I’m not a big fan of historical fiction, WW2 isn’t really my thing, and early 20th century English family sagas definitely aren’t. That said, Life After Life is a lovely book in more ways than I’d expected. Ursula’s rebirths add the interesting dynamic I’d hoped for, but Kate Atkinson seriously impressed me with her ability to make life in the English countryside compelling, even when you’re reading the third, fourth or fifth version of a scene.

The first thing to charm me was the character Sylvie, Ursula’s mother. She leads us into the story when little Ursula is too young for an intriguing POV, and her husband Hugh is too busy working or fighting in the First World War to give us much insight. Sylvie’s one of those wonderfully multifaceted characters who feel real because they’re a thousand different things in one self. Sylvie can be a good mother, sometimes a bad mother, sometimes caring, often indifferent, frequently snarky. She can be deeply conservative, but at the same time she has lots of rather rebellious thoughts about marriage and parenthood. It’s strongly implied that she’s had an affair, if not several, and it’s possible that some of her children are not her husband’s. She can be funny, cruel, secretive, cold, unexpectedly emotional. There’s a constant sense that there’s a lot about Sylvie we don’t know or understand.

She becomes increasingly stern and unlikeable as the novel progresses, but although I ceased to empathise with her, I still admired the skill and depth with which she was written. Equally intriguing is Hugh’s sister Izzie, who is introduced as a reckless sixteen-year-old who throws her life away by running off to meet her married lover in Paris. And although Izzie is quite reckless and flaky, we come to understand her as a woman who is too smart and headstrong to fit easily into conservative English society, and makes a life for herself instead. In one of the lives where Ursula lives in Germany and meets Hitler, she finds him terribly ordinary and says, amusingly, that “Sylvie would have made short work of him” while “Izzie would have eaten him up and spat him out”.

Izzie and Sylvie stand out, but I liked all the characters you’re supposed to like – Ursula’s kind father Hugh, her practical sister Pamela, her loveable younger brothers Teddy and Jimmy, the maid Bridget. I loathed Ursula’s elder brother Maurice, but he’s so vile that no one in his family likes him either and at one point Ursula suggests that his existence is enough of a reason not to get married.

Ursula herself is not as distinct a character as her mother or her Aunt Izzie, but its fascinating to see her development across her many lives, how the little changes in each life play out. A minor decision might lead to terrible tragedy in one life, but go completely unnoticed in the next. Over the years and lives, Ursula seems to become a bit more cautious or sensible, changes her ideas of what she wants to do with her life, and her approaches to sex and marriage. There’s one very, very dark narrative in which Ursula is sexually assaulted as a teenager and has a horrible life as a result. I was so relieved when she finally died, and in the next life she’s notably assertive.

By the time the narrative gets to WW2, Ursula tends to face it head-on, in Germany or London, sometimes as part of a civilian rescue-crew, but never hiding out at Fox Corner with her mother (although she might consider staying with her mother worse than getting bombed). This part of the story made me miss the quiet English countryside of Ursula’s childhood, but only because it’s so poignantly graphic that I really felt for the characters. At no point does Ursula get the ideal of a happy life – whenever she makes it to adulthood her life tends to be full of tragedy, and even when it’s relatively nice she dies tragically. It can be quite depressing, but I didn’t find ti so dreary that it spoiled the book. Although the pace sometimes lagged, I always had a strong emotional connection to the story without feeling that the author trying to grind my heart into a pulp.

WW2 brings us back to the question of why Ursula keeps being reborn, and this is where I have some problems with the novel. We never learn how the rebirth happens, but that’s ok. What bothers me is that it’s a bit inconsistent. We know that Ursula retains some memories of the past, but do other people? Most of the time it seems clear that they don’t, but there are suggestions that some people do. Also, it’s unclear if Ursula or fate (or some other force) is controlling the rebirth. Sometimes external events allow Ursula to live, like the doctor making it to Fox Corner in time for her birth. At other times, a mysterious force compels her to act in a way that saves her life or even someone else’s life. Then there are times when it seems like her decisions alone change the future, although she doesn’t necessarily understand the significance of those decisions, which might be minor. At one point her life seems to change because she reads a German book instead of a French one, and ends up spending a longer time in Germany than in other lives. So what exactly is going on here? Does Ursula have some kind of superpower that allows her to keep tweaking things until she’s satisfied? Is fate using her to achieve some unknown outcome? Has the universe gotten stuck in a loop with Ursula at the centre?

This brings me to my next problem, which is that it’s never clear what the point of Ursula’s rebirth is. This is where I need to discuss some spoilers, so if you haven’t read the novel I’ll just leave you with this – whatever its flaws (which might include the ambiguous ending) Life After Life is a lovely read. I’m about to go on a bit about some theoretical issues, but none of that changes how much I enjoyed this book.

*****SPOILERS BELOW*****

Still, I think it’s worth adding this, especially since I would have given the book a higher rating if these issues were sorted out. In the opening chapter, a 20-year-old Ursula assassinates Hitler, suggesting that her purpose is to change history, or at least play a significant role in it. In the childhood of one the later lives, she accepts this purpose; she knows that she and her family will suffer during a coming war, she knows that she’s lived through it countless times already, and with this knowledge she devotes her life to killing Hitler before he can do any damage. But as it turns out, killing Hitler is just one possibility. Ursula’s done it before, leading to her death and yet another reincarnation. In the second-last chapter, Ursula doesn’t stop the war but her brother Teddy somehow survives (with fate altering the circumstances, rather than Ursula), which is at least a happy ending. Nevertheless, we end the story with another passage from 11 February 1910. We don’t see Ursula, although we don’t always see Ursula when we go back to her birth, so it’s fair to assume she’s being born again.

I can accept the idea that all this is a failure and Ursula is simply trapped in history, but that she could at least do something for her family, like save Teddy. Or even that she can’t save Teddy, that she has to accept the tragedy of death, including her own. But it just keeps going. And to my mind, the final chapter’s implication that Ursula will be born again makes this the beginning of a horror story.

The narrative always stops and starts with Ursula’s deaths and births, which implies that the world ends and begins with her, as if on a loop. Alternatively, there are many worlds, with a single Ursula hopping constantly across them. If she can control her rebirth, then she’s a megalomaniac who is just going to keep fiddling with the past and the future. If fate controls it, then presumably there’s a purpose, but it’s kept hidden from us. Or the universe could just be broken, somehow. Whatever the case, Ursula will eventually go mad. As her memories pile up, she’ll eventually be unable to distinguish memory from reality. She might end up with a string of lives lived out in mental institutions. She’ll be harassed by constant urges to do what she must to avoid disaster. She’ll be born with memories of being caught up in the bombing of London or Berlin (she already mentions this in one childhood), and of finding dead babies and broken bodies in the rubble. Eventually, she might just be born with full-blown PTSD, and if she can’t control the reincarnation but dies or kills herself in despair, she’ll be born again.

I know that I could just be overthinking this. It might just be an oversight by an author who doesn’t normally write fantasy. It’s certainly more of a historical novel than a fantasy novel, so the focus is not of the mechanisms of the fantasy. Maybe the author meant to imply that the next life will be Ursula’s last because she’s had enough. Or maybe she actually intended the horror story, which I have to admit would also be interesting. Still, I find the ambiguity here too problematic to give the author credit for it. The story seemed to be building up to a brilliant ending, but ended up being baffling instead.

Some basics of polytheism in The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

You can find an absolutely amazing academic resource in Open Yale Courses, where you can download video or audio recordings of all the lectures for some of Yale University’s introductory courses, as well as the transcripts and reading lists of those lectures.

My favourite is RLST145: Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), by Professor Christine Hayes. I’m not religious, but I am interested in the bible as a literary, cultural and social text, and that’s exactly how this course approaches it (as opposed to treating it as scripture). I haven’t listened to all the lectures, but I’ve listened to the first few a couple of times, and they offer a fascinating perspective on the bible, with a ton of surprises. A lot of what I’ve learned from priests, Sunday-school teachers, and the well of Christian common-knowledge turned out to be wildly inaccurate if not completely false, like the idea that Adam was created before Eve and is therefore superior.

The Hundred Thousand KingdomsAnyway, as some of you will remember, I recently did several fantastic read-alongs for The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin:
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (#1)
The Broken Kingdoms (#2)
and The Kingdom of Gods (#3)

In this trilogy, the gods, their histories, and ongoing lives play a major role. The other day I started listening to the Hebrew-Bible lectures again, and the second lecture kept reminding me of the novels. This lecture – The Hebrew Bible in Its Ancient Near Eastern Setting: Biblical Religion in Context - compares polytheism to monotheism, using the writings of Yehezkel Kaufmann. Kaufman’s theory was that the move from polytheism to monotheism was revolutionary rather than evolutionary because the two belief systems involve fundamentally different ideas about god(s) and the universe, rather than simply having a different number of gods.

This relates very strongly to fantasy, mythology, and the nature of god(s), which is why I kept linking it to Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. It no doubt has relevance for other epic fantasy or other fiction where gods or their mythologies play a role; it’s just that this trilogy was foremost in my mind. In Jemisin’s world, the gods are real. Not only do they exist, some of them live among humans. For the reader, they’re major characters. Kaufmann’s theory isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t fit Jemisin’s world exactly, but it still provides an interesting framework for understanding her worldbuilding and characters.

It’s worth watching/listening to/reading the lecture in full, but I’ve picked out the main points about how polytheism differs from monotheism, and explained how they relate to The Inheritance Trilogy. I’ve kept it SPOILER-FREE, but please forgive any inaccuracies or lack of information as I didn’t re-read the books for this article, since I’d only just read them a few months ago. If you spot anything that needs to be corrected, let me know in the comments.

1. The metadivine realm

In polytheistic religions, there is a metadivine realm, which exists before the gods, and is more powerful than them. This realm can be water, chaos, darkness, fate, etc. and the gods are born from it. The logical consequence of this is that the gods are limited in power and wisdom – the primordial realm will always be above and beyond them. It’s mysterious and unpredictable, the gods can’t control it, and it can thwart their will. Since each god has specific powers and limitations, they can also be thwarted by other gods or even mortals.

In monotheism on the other hand, there is no realm that existed before god, and nothing that is more powerful than him. He just always existed, he’s immortal, omnipotent, and all existence is created by him.

In the Inheritance Trilogy, the metadivine realm is the Maelstrom, and it gave birth to the gods Nahadoth, Itempas and Enefa who then created the universe and lesser godlings. None of them are omnipotent, and in fact Itempas killed Enefa and enslaved Nahadoth, which form the basis of the plot of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Itempas’s actions did not mean that he was omnipotent or became omnipotent; he simply achieved dominance over the world and the other gods.

In The Broken Kingdoms it is mentioned that the gods pray to the Maelstrom. In The Kingdom of Gods, Nahadoth takes his child Sieh to the edge of the Maelstrom, and it is clear that this could destroy them both. It also seems that the Maelstrom has a major role in the plot of this book, which is something to be feared because the gods cannot control this force.

The Broken Kingdoms2. Mythology

Mythologies are the stories of the lives of the gods, and this is a basic part of pagan religion: “the gods are born, and they live lives very similar to human lives but on a grand scale and then they die”, says Professor Hayes.

This is the essence of The Inheritance Trilogy: we learn about the major gods’ births, their histories and how they made the world, which is our common understanding of mythology. Unlike mythology though, these stories continue to develop, gaining depth and detail across the trilogy as we hear different perspectives on the seemingly static myths. Because the gods are also major characters their ongoing lives are part of the plot. They interact with each other and with mortal characters, and we see them deal with issues of love, jealousy, hatred, revenge, etc. They fight, they have sex, they fall in love. It’s shocking how human they can be, even if they’re contemptuous of humans. In book 1, the human narrator Yeine describes the plot as two family squabbles pitted against one another – the mortal Arameri family who rule the world, and the family of gods. At the same time, the gods’ human problems play out in different ways because they’re immortal, incredibly powerful, and experience the world as such. We also know that gods can die. Itempas killed Enefa, and hundreds if not thousands of godlings died in the God’s War that followed her death. In book 2, the plot kicks off when someone murders a godling.

In monotheism on the other hand, god has no life story. He isn’t born, he doesn’t fall in love or take on any sexual partners, and he can’t die. He does have a son, but that’s in the New Testament (which is not covered in this course), and parenthood doesn’t have any personal consequences for God. For example, God and Jesus don’t have sex (incest is common in mythology, and in The Inheritance Trilogy); nor do they hang out in any kind of social way.

3. Fluid boundaries between the divine, human and natural worlds

In a polytheistic system, all creation comes from the metadivine realm, so everything is made of the same primordial ‘stuff’ and therefore connected. So gods are often inherent in the natural world – things and concepts like the sun, sky, death, fertility etc. might be gods and worshipping them is like worshipping natural phenomena. Because humans also come from the metadivine realm, there is a fluid boundary between them and gods, and you often have unions between gods and mortals, or mortals becoming gods.

In The Inheritance Trilogy, the three main gods are born from the Maelstrom, and together they create the universe. The goddess Enefa creates life. I don’t know if she uses the substance of the Maelstrom to do this, but all of creation can still be traced back to the Maelstrom.

The gods are all linked to the world through their affinities. Itempas is the god of light, day, and order. Nahadoth is the god of darkness, night and chaos. Enefa was the goddess of life and death. I think this is a wee bit different, in that these gods are associated with these concepts and get their power from them but aren’t synonymous with them. Nahadoth is the god of night and darkness, but when he’s enslaved it doesn’t change the night and darkness of the world. However, his power is affected by night/day or darkness/light.

The fluid boundaries between gods and mortals are indicated in the many instances of gods having sex with mortals, and gods and mortals producing children, often as major parts of the plot. There is also an instance of a mortal becoming a god, and a god becoming mortal.

In monotheism, god is separate and completely other to us. He isn’t kin to humans (at least not in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible), doesn’t come down and have sex with humans and we have no hope of becoming like him.

4. Power is material

The monotheistic god has absolute will, and nothing is more powerful than him. His power is inherent in him, it doesn’t come from anything else.

In a polytheistic system, the gods’ power comes from material things, and not because their will is absolute (see no.1). The substance that constitutes the metadivine realms is particularly powerful – water, blood, etc. – because the metadivine realm is the ultimate power.

Jemisin’s trilogy differs a bit here though. The Maelstrom seems to be a completely different place existing beyond the edges of the universe. It created the first three gods, but no one feels any particular connection to it, or at least they don’t tap into it for power or magic. However, the gods can achieve greater power by “living true” to their affinities, whatever those might be. So for example, Sieh is the god of childhood, and he achieves power by acting and looking like a child, embodying the essence of childhood (impulsiveness, cruelty, playfulness, affection etc.). He also feels more powerful when he’s around children or someone who acts like a child, but feels a loss of power when, for example, he forces a child to make a tough decision and lose some of their innocence.

It seems the gods can choose how much effort they put into “living true”, based on the fact that in book 2, the godling Madding explains to his human lover Oree that Sieh is so powerful because he’s devoted to being childlike. In book 3, where Sieh is the main character, we learn that he can behave in more adult ways, but that it weakens or wounds him to do so.

The Kingdom of Gods5. Magic is possible

This is a consequence of material power in the polytheistic system. Power resides in things connected to the primordial realm or primordial stuff, so magic involves manipulating those substances. This means both humans and gods can perform magic by tapping into the power of the metadivine realm. Humans can even use this to influence or manipulate the gods, so magic can be a way of circumventing the will of the gods by tapping in to a higher power.

This is impossible in a monotheistic worldview: there is no realm above or beyond god, and god is supreme so humans have no power over him.

The magic system in The Inheritance Trilogy is not really about connection with the metadivine realm per se, although magic can be performed by both gods and humans. Magic is described as communication with reality, not the result of tapping into the Maelstrom, at least as I understand it. And the Maelstrom isn’t ‘reality’ in that sense. You can communicate with reality through words – the gods’ language. Human scriveners do this, but they aren’t as powerful as the gods because they are unable to speak or write the language as well as the gods can. However, there are other forms of communication/magic – in book 2, Oree uses paint, and her father used song. Blood is also significant as a kind of carrier of magic. Gods’ blood acts as a drug on humans. When the gods conceived children with humans, they produced demons (which are dangerous but not evil; it’s just the word used for demi-gods) and through those demons the human race acquired magical skills. The demons were outlawed once it was discovered that their blood could be used to kill gods. Demon-blood would of course give any mortal power over a god.

Magic is most often used by mortals against the gods in book 1. After defeating Nahadoth and his three godling allies two thousand years ago, Itempas chained the four of them to human bodies and gave them as immortal slaves to the Arameri family. The Arameri scriveners gave each family member a special sigil on their foreheads that not only prevented the enslaved gods from harming a family member, but forced the gods to obey their commands.

6. Cult

Cult is defined as a system of rites involving the manipulation of substances – like blood – that are believed to have inherent power. This might be done to influence the god in some way – win their favour, keep them at bay to protect people, provide sustenance to the god, etc. It might also be a re-enactment of an event in the life of a god, and this might be seen to play a role in the preservation of the world (eg. a rite of spring ensuring the reemergence of life).

Rituals in monotheism have nothing to do with sustaining god or the world and they don’t celebrate events in god’s life (there are none). Instead, rituals commemorate historical events.

We don’t learn much about rituals in Jemisin’s world, but there is one very important one in the Sky palace – the Ascension Ritual. The entire plot of the first book builds up to this ritual, in which power is passed from the head of the ruling Arameri family to the successor. This is more than symbolic – power is passed literally in the sense that a force is moved from one person to another. This is in line with polytheism, in the sense that the ritual is important and has tangible magical effects. In book 2, there are also examples of people making offerings to gods to summon them or ask for help.

However, the novel’s approach to cult is also similar to monotheism in that no rituals are required to keep the world from collapsing, and the gods themselves don’t need any. In book 3 there is an “atheist” who honours the gods (you can’t seriously doubt their existence) but does not worship any of them, arguing that gods don’t need humanity’s attention, which is true. In addition, the offerings made to gods can’t coerce them. The gods have free will, so they might help a human because they’re pleased or amused by the offering, or simply because they’re kind, but not because they’re bound by magic.

7. An amoral universe

In a polytheistic system, everything comes from the metadivine realm, and this includes both good and evil. So you get good gods and bad gods or demons, and humans are helplessly caught up in the struggles between them, although they can use magic as an aid. Evil is as much a metaphysical reality as good – both are built into the structure of the universe. Good gods are just as powerful as the bad ones, and every god might have their own standards of morality, so gods aren’t necessarily totally good or totally bad.

In monotheism, god and his creation are good, so there is technically no evil force in the universe (a problem that monotheism has never really resolved). Evil comes from the clash between god’s will and human will.

As with the mythologies discussed in no.2, Jemisin really makes the most of an amoral polytheistic universe. It’s not as simplistic as the universe consisting of good and evil gods. I think Nahadoth is the only god believed to be inherently evil but this is untrue, although he is more dangerous than most gods. There was an epic God’s War two thousand years ago that is related in fairly stark good-and-evil terms, but this is inaccurate. As the trilogy progresses, we learn that none of the characters who played a role in the war were entirely good or entirely evil. All the gods are grey areas. They have good and bad sides but these are inseparable. Enefa created life but she was also a ruthless killer because life and death go hand in hand. Itempas is the god of order, and created very useful things like language and gravity, but he’s also responsible for the cruel authoritarian power of the Arameri family. Sieh can be very likeable as a child, but he also has a child’s cruelty. Even the nicest gods have scary sides, and the creepiest ones can be helpful. Gods might do terrible things to those they love deeply. These kinds of moral complications are one of my favourite features of the trilogy.

I highly recommend the trilogy if you haven’t read it yet, and if you have, do you know that Jemisin’s writing “The Awakened Kingdom”, a novella set in the world of The Inheritance Trilogy? Yeah, I can’t wait to read it either :)

Talus and the Frozen King by Graham Edwards

Talus and the Frozen KingTitle: Talus and the Frozen King
Author: Graham Edwards
Series: Talus #1
Published: 26 March 2014
Publisher: Solaris
Source: eARC from the publisher
Genre: historical fiction, crime and mystery
Rating: 4/10

Talus and the Frozen King has a very nice selling point – the world’s first detective. According to the blurb anyway. The novel doesn’t openly make the same claim, but it’s set in the second or third millennium BC, and Talus is the only person around who thinks like a detective – observing the world around him to pick up clues and use them to draw conclusions about people, situations and crimes. 

Talus and his companion Bran are travelling to the source of the Northern Lights. Talus heard that the source of the Northern Lights is where the world intersects with the afterdream (their version of the afterlife), and he’s on a quest to see if the afterdream is real. Bran hopes to meet his dead wife Keyli there, but he’s on the verge of giving up. Before he can discuss it with Talus, they are drawn to Creyak, a small island where the inhabitants have just found the body of their king, naked and frozen in the snow (the fully clothed figure on the cover is totally inaccurate). Although the king’s death is mysterious, it is simply assumed that “his time had come”, and burial preparations are about to being. Talus convinces the shaman and the king’s six sons that it was a murder and if they allow him to investigate, he can identify the killer. His methods are strange and often shocking to them, but Talus is smart enough to prove his worth.

One thing that worried me about the story was the idea that the people of Creyak need Talus to solve this murder because no one else would consider the possibility of murder, let alone investigate one. But Edwards is quick to provide an explanation – killing the king is unthinkable so it’s assumed no one would ever do it. According to their culture, the king

would have been a living vessel for the spirits of all the tribe’s ancestors. To strike out at such a man was to strike out at every Creyak villager who had ever lived and died, all the way back to the first dawn. Killing a king wasn’t just murder; it was genocide.

Genocide might be the wrong word, since the murderer can’t actually kill those who are already dead, but he’d still be committing some kind of extreme violence against them. After death, the murderer would be horribly tortured by the ancestors for eternity. Thus no sane person would kill a king. Even when Talus raises the possibility of murder, the king’s eldest son Tharn is not particularly interested in an investigation because, according to their beliefs, the murderer will inevitably suffer greater punishments than any living being could deal out.

I thought this was an interesting concept, and it ties in nicely with the issues of faith and the afterdream that are also driving Talus and Bran. So I got off to a fairly good start with the book, although there were some issue that I had with the worldbuilding. Unfortunately, the worldbuilding issues are quite serious. Also the characters aren’t compelling and eventually the story faltered and fell flat, so the whole thing ended up being a huge disappointment. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, and you can stop reading right here if you’re happy to take that opinion at face value, but I will, of course explain myself.

Firstly, Talus and Bran. They are very obviously modelled on Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Talus is very smart and curious, but he can be extremely condescending, especially to Bran. LIke Watson, Bran has a handicap (a crippled hand) and he’s a big brawny guy. Bran states that Talus isn’t very good at understanding human nature, and Talus admits he’s baffled by certain things, like the way love can drive people to do terrible things. Of course they’re not exactly the same as Holmes and Watson. Talus can’t actually work as a detective; he’s a bard. Bran was a fisherman, not a doctor, and was never in a war.

I don’t have a major problem with Edwards using the Holmes/Watson model, but there does seem to be a kind of laziness to it, particularly since the similarities don’t always feel natural. I’m not sure why Bran puts up with Talus’s rudeness. Watson puts up with Holmes because he’s fascinated by him, considers him a good friend, and accepts that he has mental problems (at least in the BBC TV series), but it’s not the same with Bran. Also, Talus doesn’t seem to have serious problems understanding human nature as both he and Bran suggest. Talus can be insensitive, but he’s not as dysfunctional as Holmes. There’s a scene where he’s quick to notice that a man and a woman are having an affair, while Bran doesn’t catch on until later. And as a successful bard, Talus is adept at picking stories that his audience would like to hear, which implies that he’s very good at reading people. This idea that Talus doesn’t understand human nature is something that only seems to be trotted out when it suits the narrative.

Then, the case. As I said, it’s intriguing at first, and it briefly got more interesting as we learned more about the king Hashath and why people wanted to kill him, but then it just wilted. It lacks tension, it doesn’t have the brilliant deductions that you get in a Sherlock Holmes story (I consider it a fair comparison, since Edwards insists on basing Talus on Holmes), and the resolution is simultaneously mess and dead boring. Of course Talus solves the mystery, but not in a way that makes him look as smart as he purports to be. At the beginning, Talus points out that the killer could have been a woman, which is something Bran hadn’t considered. It makes Talus look quite open-minded, but afterwards he never really views any of the female characters as suspects even though they had very clear motives. The issue of faith comes up so often that it seems key, but at the end it has little to do with the story. I understand that maybe Edwards was throwing out red herrings to get the reader more engaged, but they turn out to be frustrating more than anything else. At the end, the truth is far less interesting than the other possibilities.

And, the worldbuilding. There’s no fantasy here, but like any novel set in the past, the author needs to immerse us in the context. My friend Barbara bought the book and joined me for a read-along, and I was very glad for her company because she’s an archaeologist and provided some valuable insight into the historical details, whereas I am a complete twit when it comes to anything historical. That said, I was deeply suspicious or critical about lots of things before Barbara even said a word.

For example, we’re told that Talus went to Egypt, saw the pyramids, and had philosophical conversations with the a queen named Tia. In fact it was she who told him about the Northern Lights intersecting with the afterlife.

Would an Egyptian queen know about the Northern Lights? Would Talus have gone to Egypt? It seems unlikely, given the difficulty of travel and the relatively short life spans of people at the time, that Talus would have had the chance to travel from his birthplace, to Egypt, and then all the way to Creyak, which seems to be in The Orkneys of Scotland. But that’s merely implausible; what seems virtually impossible is that the shaman Mishina says he’s seen the Egyptian pyramids as well as the pyramids in the jungles of Central America. So he’s not only travelled to Egypt but to Central America and back.  

I very grudgingly allowed for the idea that he’d gone on some kind of expedition but Barbara quickly put paid to that, explaining that it was theoretically possible but that there was no likely reason for it to have happened given the resources required, the time it would take, lack of knowledge about their destination, likelihood of survival, etc.

Barbara brought up other issues. The concept of the afterdream is aboriginal, not European. She felt that the concept of a king was too modern (a different word for the leader would have been better), while the idea of killing him wasn’t that outlandish, since lots of people sacrificed their chiefs or killed unsatisfactory rulers. I have to agree with the use of the word “king” – it sounds nice in the title, but Hashath only ruled over a small island; hardly what you’d consider a kingdom. There are also much more serious issues with the time period, which I’m glad Barbara mentioned because otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered checking the dates.

The Egyptian queen Tia (Tiye) places the story in the 14th century BC, but at this time they were burying their kings in tombs, rather than pyramids as Talus claims. The Central American pyramids that Mishina saw weren’t being built until around 500BC, and most were built in AD. The press release I got states that the novel is set in 3000BC, although I’m not sure if the publisher checked that with Edwards, because in the author’s note he specifically states that he’s not going to give us a date. The novel is all over the place anyway.

I also had a huge issue with the writing style – it’s very modern. Too modern even for a Sherlock Holmes story. The only thing about the language that’s supposed to give us some idea of the context is that the word “justice” apparently doesn’t exist yet, and people don’t understand what Talus means when he tells them to “prove” something. And that’s pretty weak. The writing is easy to read, but it completely dissociates the reader from the context. I’d happily choose a strange and difficult style over easy reading that fails the story.

Edwards uses his author’s note to make excuses for the lack of historical accuracy, and he sums it up as such:

Thought is made not of stone, but of story. To really understand the humanity of the past, I think you have to put aside the facts and indulge in a little fiction.

That sounds nice enough, but it hasn’t worked in practice. More research and greater accuracy would have done wonders for this book.  Instead, I find myself thinking that I’d have a more authentic – and enjoyable – Neolithic experience going north of the Wall with George R.R. Martin’s wildlings.

Basically this book is a mess, and a boring one at that.

Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow WhiteTitle: Six-Gun Snow White
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Published: 28 February 2013
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Source: own copy
Genre: fantasy, fairytale, western
Rating: 9/10

This is as much my analysis of the story as it is a review, so it contains some spoilers, although I have not discussed the specifics of the ending.

I’ve never found the story of Snow White particularly compelling, but Catherynne M. Valente reinvents it in ways I could never have imagined. She takes the basic elements of the tale – the stepmother, the mirror, the huntsman, the heart, the seven dwarves – and reworks them into a story about racism, love, and mothers.

In North America’s Old West, a wealthy mine owner known to us as Mr. H sees a beautiful Crow woman named Gun That Sings and decides her wants to marry her.  Mr. H “had a witch’s own knack for sniffing out what the earth had to give up” (10), and Gun That Sings has the kind of beauty that seems to appeal to his business interests: “her hair had the very color of coal […] Her dark mouth as a cut garnet, her skin rich copper, her eyes black diamonds for true.” (10-11). Gun That Sings doesn’t want to marry this white man, but after a few not-so-subtle threats about the safety of her people, she relents. When she gets pregnant, Mr. H makes a wish:

let this child have hair like hot coal, and lips as bright and dark as blood, but oh Lord, if you’re listening, skin as white as mine. (15)

It doesn’t come true. Gun That Sings dies in childbirth, leaving behind a beautiful but clearly half-breed child. She lives in luxury in Mr. H’s beautiful castle by the sea, with a little zoo and her own dime museum. Mr. H gives her a silver gun with red pearls in the handle; she calls it Rose Red. But because of the colour of her skin her existence is kept secret.

Mr. H gets married again, to a woman so beautiful it hurts to look at her. When she sees the child she calls her Snow White as a mockery of the pale skin she will never have. Mrs. H proceeds to abuse Snow White for years, beating her and forcing her to do all the housework in their massive home.

In pre-Grimm versions of the fairytale, it was Snow White’s own mother rather than her stepmother who torments her. Valente conflates the two versions. Mrs. H is Snow White’s stepmother, but she’s the only mother the girl has ever known and she wants very desperately for Mrs. H to accept her. The very first thing Mrs. H says to her is “You are not entirely ugly, but no one would mistake you for a human being. That skin will never come clean” (37). She considers Snow White to be non-human because she’s not white, so the only way for Snow White to be accepted is to become white, or at least to become as much like Mrs. H as possible.

For a long time Snow White accepts Mrs. H’s violent abuse, believing that this is love and it’ll “fix” her.

Love was a magic fairy spell. Didn’t the girls in my books hunt after love like it was a deer with a white tail? Didn’t love wake the dead? Didn’t that lady love the beast so hard he turned into a good-looking white fellow? That was what love did. It turned you into something else.

For this reason I forgave Mrs. H. I tried to be near her all the time. She only meant to scrub me up and fix me. At any moment she might take me in her arms and kiss me and like that beast with a buffalo’s body I would fill up with light and be healed. Love would do what it did best. Love would turn me into a white girl. If I did everything right, one day I would wake up and be wise and strong, sure of everything, with skin like snow and eyes as blue as hers. It would happen like a birthday party. One day the girl in the mirror would not look like me at all, but like my stepmother, and nothing would hurt anymore forever. (44)

Under Mrs. H’s cruel ‘guidance’, Snow White bleeds and starves. She is scrubbed in baths of milk and ice. She is trussed up in corsets that suffocate and combs that hurt her. As a result, she gets some very twisted ideas of what it is to love, to be human, and to be a woman.

For myself I thought: this is how you make a human being. A human being is beautiful and sick. A human being glitters and starves. (43)

It’s a much more interesting dynamic than the petty beauty contest of the usual tale, with its stereotypes about female vanity. The mirror plays an important role in this story, but not because Mrs. H admires her face in it (it doesn’t actually show reflections at all). The question of beauty becomes a racial issue instead. Mrs. H is literally ‘fairer’ than Snow White, and since this makes her forever superior in racial terms, she never seems to see herself as being in competition with her stepdaughter. Other people talk about who is prettier, but Snow White is quick to dismiss the issue:

 I heard a lot of talk speculating on whether myself of Mrs. H was the more handsome. It’s plain foolishness.

Everybody knows no half-breed cowgirl can be as beautiful as a rich white lady. Where’s your head at? (65)

Later, Valente uses the fairytale’s iconic line as a dig at Snow White’s half-breed rootlessness. She won’t find a home in her mother’s Crow Nation because she’d “be the fairest of them all” (145) – just white enough that her presence would make trouble for them.

Unlike the fairytale though, there’s more to Mrs. H than simple evil. In the terrifying, ancient mirror that Mrs. H keeps in Snow White’s dime museum, Snow sees a young Mrs. H being abused in a similar way, and told that to be a woman means to “Work until you die” (50), to “Obey until a man give you permission to die,” (50) to “Make your black deals in the black wood and decide what you’ll trade for power” (51). It doesn’t all apply to this story; it’s more like Mrs. H come from a legacy of women who have suffered and found a way out of that suffering through cruelty and magic. Mrs. H tells Snow White that “Magic is just a word for what’s left to the powerless once everyone has eaten their fill” (63), and for a moment, I felt sorry for her.

In that scene, Valente also shows sudden similarities between Mrs. H and Snow White, suggesting that Snow White could take the same path. It’ll inevitably be a trap, a bad bargain, (“I am freedom and I will eat your heart” (51)), but perhaps Snow White could get what she wants.

She runs away instead. She steals a fantastic Appaloosa named Charming and heads out into the WIld West, turning into a character very different from the delicate girl of the fairytale. This Snow White is the fastest gunslinger in the West. She cheats at cards. She “Could teach the Scottish laird who dreamed up whiskey in his sheep pen to bolt it down and never flinch” (150). She gets work in one of her father’s mines, doing filthy, exhausting work in the darkness. The question of her prettiness was dismissed before, but now it becomes irrelevant as her trials turn her hard and vicious. Not that she cares – as far as she’s concerned her body has brought her nothing but trouble so who cares if it’s beaten and scarred? She’s used to that.

A bounty hunter comes looking for her heart, but not because her stepmother wants to eat it. There’s no beauty contest here, so the heart has a more practical but no less macabre function. And then rather than stumble across seven dwarves, Snow White ends up in the town of Oh-Be-Joyful, run by seven female fugitives who understand Snow White’s need to escape from her life.

But even in the form of this hardened gunslinger, Snow White is plagued by her fundamental childhood longings – she “wants a mother so bad it’s like a torn up body wanting blood” (144), even though, for her, “[a] mother’s like a poison made for only one soul” (149). It’s a horrible paradox, but it’s also why this story has such a strong impact.

At this point in the the standard fairytale, Snow White is unbelievably stupid or (more generously) unbelievably naive. Her stepmother tries to kill her three times with the same trick, and Snow White falls for it each time. I won’t tell you how Valente reewrites this part of the story, but I will say that it’s much more intellectually and emotionally involved, as well as being one of the hardest hitting aspects of the book.

The only difficulty I have is the ending. I just don’t know what to make of it. This is a very strange and emotionally complex book, so I read it twice (it’s short) but I still can’t figure that ending out. It even stranger than the rest of the book, and it changes the feel of the story from fantasy to something more like sci fi.

But other than that – wow. I’m so glad I got the signed limited-edition copy of this. And not just for the incredible reinvention of Snow White. As usual, Valente’s writing alone makes this book worth reading, as you may have guessed from the abundance of quotes I couldn’t resist using. I realise that fairytale retellings are getting a bit old now, but a book like this still stands out.

Six-Gun Snow White: limited edition pictures

I’m a big fan of Catherynne M. Valente, and when Six-Gun Snow White came out – her rather brutal, Old-West retelling of Snow White – I was able to snag one of the gorgeous limited-edition signed hardcovers from Subterranean Press (via Book Depository). Check it out:

Six-Gun Snow White

Six-Gun Snow White signature

 

Six-Gun Snow White has been nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo awards for Best Novella. I’m still working on my review, and in the meantime I couldn’t resist showing off one of the coolest books on my shelf :) If you don’t know what the story is about, here’s the blurb:

From New York Times bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente comes a brilliant reinvention of one the best known fairy tales of all time. In the novella Six-Gun Snow White, Valente transports the title’s heroine to a masterfully evoked Old West where Coyote is just as likely to be found as the seven dwarves.

A plain-spoken, appealing narrator relates the history of her parents—a Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. With her mother’s death in childbirth, so begins a heroine’s tale equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, readers will be enchanted by this story at once familiar and entirely new.