Gender and Sexuality in Sea Change by S.M. Wheeler : some thoughts

Sea Change by SM WheelerLast week Friday I reviewed Sea Change  by S.M. Wheeler, a novel I thought sounded fantastically promising, but which turned out to be totally disappointing. Mostly, I thought it was badly written to the extent that I found it unsalvageable in terms of being an enjoyable read. Another problem was that the novel doesn’t explore the emotions and motivations of the characters as deeply as it could have, and that felt like a colossal waste. There is a lot of shocking or intense content that could have made it very moving – both painful and heartwarming – but the characters/narrative often skim over that.

However, I think Wheeler had many interesting ideas, especially regarding gender, sexuality and the body. I wish she’d done a lot more with them, but nevertheless they’re worth looking at in themselves, hence the separate post. A spoiler-filled summary and discussion will follow, with some descriptions of violence. However, I won’t reveal the ending, and since I’ll only be discussing gender-related stuff, I won’t be spoiling everything, should you still wish to read Sea Change after reading this. There’s quite a bit more going on there. Before you read any further though, I suggest you click through to the review and read the plot summary if you haven’t already done so.



If nothing else, I will remember Sea Change for the fact that the first step in Lilly’s quest involves a very violent, extremely painful sex change/neutering that happens both with and without her consent. At this point, she doesn’t know where Octavius is, but her kind step-mother tells her about a troll who wields the kind of magic that could track him down. Lilly finds the troll, and unwisely agrees to give anything that’s hers in payment. In a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror novel, the troll immediately begins surgery, tearing off Lilly’s hair, cutting her open and whipping out her womb without confirming the exchange. Apparently a friend of the troll’s wants a baby. Thanks to some kind of magic, Lilly doesn’t bleed, but she’s in unimaginable pain throughout the procedure, which as least takes only a few minutes. As a favour, the troll then makes pants out of her skirt, slims her hips, removes her breasts and deepens her voice so that she can pass as a boy, since she doesn’t look very feminine without her hair.

Lilly accepts the changes as a fair bargain since she unwisely agreed to give the troll “anything”, but she obviously hadn’t considered giving up her womb and with it all possibility of reproduction, vaginal intercourse, orgasms, and probably an intimate long-term relationship. Naturally, she’s too traumatised to really deal with this emotionally. She examines herself to confirm that she no longer has any genitals, wishes she had been more lewd since sex no longer seems a possibility for her, then ‘avoids’ her own body as something she’d. She no longer wants to be touched, partly out of fear of discovery but also out of revulsion.

This reaction, while initially understandable if you think of it as going into shock, eventually feels… insubstantial. Lilly is pretty depressed for the rest of the book, but marches on with practical determination and a minimum of introspection. This was my main gripe with the book. The sex change is only the first of several terrible things Lilly endures to save Octavius, and although none of her sacrifices can be ignored, these issues seem to hover uncertainly in the background. I don’t really know what Lilly thinks of all this, except that she’d rather not think about it at all. I have never read a book where something like this happens to a character, and the fact that it’s YA is even more surprising. I wanted Wheeler to explore every nook and cranny of Lilly’s psyche, and delve into all the implications of her sea change. It’s not that I want Wheeler to spell out the ‘meaning’ of her novel. Yes, I do like it when there’s something more like a cohesive message, but I appreciate ambiguity too and I don’t expect novels to have answers to the questions they pose. Rather, I think there is something fundamental missing here – an understand of the protagonist that, in its absence, leaves the reader fumbling hopelessly to get a grasp on the story.

At least the practical issue of her gender – her male appearance and her neutered body – comes up frequently. Looking like a boy makes some things a bit easier. The ugliness of the large red birthmark on her face is less of an issue, since ugliness in boys is not considered as repulsive as ugliness in girls. And since she lives in a fairly traditional society, she has more freedom and acceptance as a boy. Without breasts, it’s also easier for her to maintain her ‘disguise’.

You’d also think that Lilly might escape the threat of sexual violence, but instead she has to deal with different versions of this problem. At the circus she encounters a lecherous witch; to rescue the tailor she lives with a pair of gay bandits as their servant; the bandits give her lodging in their stable where she shares her bed with a mule in the body of a human boy.

The witch – Ermentrud – aggressively harasses Lilly, forcibly kisses and fondles her, and tries to force her to stay and become her lover (under the assumption that she’s a boy, of course). She poses the threat of both physical and magical violence, and tries to persuade Lilly to stay with her rather than continue on her quest.

The two bandits, although crude and violent, don’t show much sexual interest in Lilly (now calling herself Lyle, although female pronouns are used throughout the novel). At first I assumed it was because the bandits had been together for so long that they wouldn’t let a young boy mar their relationship. They might be thieves and killers, but they’re nevertheless a loving and devoted couple. However, it’s later revealed that both men know (or rather think they know) that Lilly is a woman. Towards the end of her time with them, the more violent of the two men tries to use her (perceived) gender against her by physically assaulting her in a very sexualised way. At this point, he is deeply suspicious of Lilly/Lyle, who is in fact conspiring against them to free the zombie tailor. He claims to have no intention of raping her, but what he does exposes her, both physically (by pulling her clothes off) and in terms of her identity (revealing his knowledge of her). He stops only when Lilly’s nudity reveals the truth – that she’s neutered.

This ordeal is no less traumatic for Lilly because she has neither breasts nor genitals to be exposed. In fact, it’s another major adjustment for her:

In this moment, the mastery of her body was wrenched from her hands, and all that remained was the awareness that she would never again believe herself wholly safe.

It’s actually odd that Lilly did not feel this way before. At least with the bandit she could fight back; the troll paralysed her without warning and took her womb. Since then Lilly ran the risk of being demonised for her neutered state, given that people already labelled her a witch because of her birthmark. She also endured a witch forcing her to swallow dead men’s tooth and survived physical assault by Horace the mule-boy, who tried to kill her. The bandit’s attack was hardly the first time someone took control of her body, and she has seldom been safe since she left home.

But lets go back to Horace. He is dangerous at first but he and Lilly gradually becomes friends and allies. I think Lilly sees him more as an animal than a human, which is probably comforting given that she’s been treated badly by many humans and her only other friend is also an animal. Horace’s preference for sleeping at the bottom of Lilly’s bed violates her aversion to touching and physical closeness while also threatening her secret, but she eventually grows accustomed to it.

Horace’s character however, is suggestive of bestiality in a way that I wouldn’t even have thought of if similar suggestions hadn’t already been made about Octavius. There isn’t any bestiality in the novel – it’s not that shocking – but there are several occasions when Octavius is equated with or compared to a lover. Lilly’s quest and their love for each other sound like something out of a romance. And there’s a precedent: Lilly’s mother, Anna Rosa, was supposedly in love with or enslaved to a serpent and had to be won over/rescued by Lilly’s father, Nikolaus (the truth is never revealed). Loving monsters apparently runs in the family – another interesting idea that isn’t really explored.

Anna Rosa, however, seems disgusted when she learns about Lilly’s friendship with a kraken. Lilly says “It was always the sexual hunger of men that she feared to let near her daughter, and never knew what friendship could do”. The scene that this comes from is very confused, so I’m not entirely sure what is meant, but it’s certainly suggested that Lilly’s friendship with a monster is just as dangerous as being preyed upon by a man, and perhaps that it holds a similar kind of danger. Given that Anna Rosa also had a relationship with a monster, we can assume that she’s speaking from experience.

But – and this is the kind of problem that keeps cropping up in the book – what is the point? Anna Rosa’s never reveals her experience with the serpent, and without that context I don’t understand her feelings. I would never have compared Lilly and Octavius’s friendship to a sexual relationship, but the book does so, for reasons that elude me. And I’m not sure what threat the friendship poses. Are her parents worried the kraken will scare away a potential husband? Or just that Octavius will eventually kill Lilly and she’ll die for her monstrous love?

I don’t know. It’s be nice if someone could make sense of it all for me. There is at least one gender issue that I found more coherent – the number of strong women in the story. It’s not a simple depiction, and there is plenty of ambiguity, but at least it doesn’t feel like there’s something important missing.

The novel is set in a magical version of our world, in a past with traditional gender roles. However, it is the women in the novel who are the most powerful, despite being constrained by those roles. Lilly’s mother Anna is the first example. Stuck in an unhappy marriage, she is just as outspoken about her feelings as her husband. She also remains in control of her reproductive rights – she gave Nikolaus a child as he wanted, but she refuses to risk dying by having another just because he’s dissatisfied with Lilly. He wanted either a soft, gentle girl or a strong boy and Lilly doesn’t fit either of those gendered ideals.

In Anna’s final scene, early on in the novel, Lilly and Nikolaus find her mixing herbs for an abortion. It’s the last straw for their marriage, and after a brief fight she packs a few things and leaves. Unfortunately, this is one of those poorly written scenes, random and confusing. But consider Anna’s power. She rejects her husband’s demands and traditional expectations for a suitable – ideally male – heir. Then, she simply packs up and leaves. It’s a cruel thing to do to Lilly, but what’s interesting is the way it inverts traditional male/female power structures. Anna leaves, free to start a new life. Nikolaus stays, makes up a lie about his wife dying to avoid public humiliation (this is highly implausible, but that’s just one of many inconsistencies), and later marries another woman in the hope of getting the ‘first-born’ he wanted. He’s the one stuck in the family home, wringing his hands over reproductive expectations, so much so that he lies to everyone, even deluding himself with the idea of having another first-born. His new wife is a young, bubbly woman who understands that Nikolaus loves her only “for her womb” but is satisfied with her life nevertheless, making her seem a much more liberated character than her miserable husband.

I wouldn’t argue that the inversion of power between Anna and Nikolaus is necessarily progressive, but at the very least this scenario exposes these traditional, gendered expectations as being oppressive to men as well as women, and detrimental to the institution of marriage in which is it rooted. It also ruins Nikolaus’s relationship with Lilly,

She is essentially thrown out of the house because her presence threatens the idea of the new family that Nikolaus wants to build, and he doesn’t want her to inherit. On her quest to find Octavius, she encounters multiple independent women. The first is the troll, who, despite what she does to Lilly, doesn’t come across as a bad person. The second is Ermentrud, the older but very beautiful witch, who has the circus master wrapped around her little finger.

At the tailor’s house, she meets Miss Reiniger. As it turns out, the coats of illusion are made not by one man but by a couple. Miss Reiniger cannot make the coats alone, and needs Lilly/Lyle to rescue the tailor, Mr Nadel, from the bandits. I consider anyone who can survive alone (not to mention alone in an abandoned town) after losing their partner to be someone with incredible reserves of strength. She and the tailor are also notable for their unconventional living arrangement – they’re not married, but appear to have an intimate relationship (perhaps less intimate now that Nadel is a zombie…). In another inversion, Miss Reiniger is also the free agent in her relationship. Her husband is disempowered – a mute zombie being held captive by bandits who expect him to do their bidding. Again, inversions are necessarily progressive, but I can’t help but be impressed by all these strong women in a society where women are believed to be weak.

On her way to the bandits, Lilly encounters another witch, named Gottschalk. Unlike Ermentrud, who rules a powerful man with her captivating beauty, Gottschalk is the victim of the two bandits who have stolen her skin and thereby forced her into servitude. Lilly needs to retrieve her skin in exchange for help freeing the tailor. Gottschalk is hideous and vulnerable (she literally has a skinless body, muscles visible, fluids leaking), but incredibly powerful and wily. For example, when the bandits ordered her to make automatons who obey no other men but them, she used their gender-biased phrasing against them, making the automatons so that the bandits are the only men they take orders from, but they obey women and, of course, Lilly, since she’s neutered.

And then there’s Lilly herself, who starts out female, becomes neutered, dresses like a boy, but is referred to with a female pronoun throughout the story. Probably the most gender-bending YA character I’ve read. As a girl, she’s rejected and feared. She isn’t who her father wants her to be. The birthmark on her face inspires prejudice that disappears when she becomes male. She would not have had to leave home if she’d been a boy. She sacrifices her gender and sexuality to save a friend, and thereafter friendship is presents the most intimate relationship she can have. Looking like a boy frees her in some ways but endangers her in others, like when Ermentrud tries to seduce her. However, it’s partly because Lilly was once female that she was able to resist Ermentrud. And it’s because she’s not male that she’s able to command the bandit’s automatons and make her way to the next step in her quest. I think the sheer amount of horror, pain and misery that Lilly puts up with for the love of a friend is in itself a testament to her strength. On the other hand, she’s not a triumphant character – I pitied her from beginning to end and Lilly is downcast most of the time (although for good reasons).

The downside to the strong women in this book is that most of them are demonised or othered in some way – Anna is a bad mother; the troll is, well, a troll, and she takes Lilly’s womb; Ermentrud and Gottschalk are both cruel, violent witches; and Lilly isn’t even a woman per se for most of the book. The men aren’t much better – Nikolaus is as bad a parent as his wife; the bandits make a nice couple but are murdering thieves; the tailor and the circus master are inept; Octavius and Horace are both good and strong, but they’s also animals.

A weird conclusion occurred to me as I typed this – the idea that gender and humanity are a bad mix. Or that we can’t handle it properly, with all those oppressive traditions and expectations, which are what set this plot in motion and lead to Lilly’s unbelievable suffering.

So, what do you think? For me, thinking about these issues and writing this post has been far more interesting than actually reading the novel that inspired it. I’m impressed by Wheeler’s daring, but disappointed by her execution, intrigued by the ideas but dreadfully bored by what’s actually on the page. It’s an infuriating combination, but admittedly, it’s way better than just being bored, period.

Sea Change by S.M. Wheeler

Sea Change by SM Wheeler

Title: Sea Change
S.M. Wheeler
Tor Books
 18 June 2013
fantasy, YA, adventure
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Sea Change… it looked so very lovely and turned out to be so very awful. How did it all go wrong? I wasn’t deceived by hype; there is none. I wasn’t deceived by the enticing blurb, which turned out to be a fair approximation of the book. And the story is mostly what I expected.

Lilly is a lonely young girl living with unhappily married parents. As commoners who have been given titles and property, they are awkwardly conscious of living up to their new nobility. Much is expected of Lilly as well, but the townspeople think she’s witch because of the large red birthmark on her face. As a result she grows up without any friends, except for Octavius, a kraken.

Lilly meets him when she’s eight years old and he is just a little octopus, small enough to sit on her shoulder. She asks him not to be a monster – not to eat human beings. He agrees, in exchange for her company and conversation. They remain friends for years, swapping stories about humanity and life in the ocean. Octavius remains a constant while Lilly’s home life falls apart. At fifteen, she leaves home, but Octavius has disappeared. She offers a troll “Anything that is mine” as payment for learning where Octavius is. After making a terrible sacrifice, she learns that he was captured and sold to a circus, unable to defend himself because of the promise he made to Lilly not to harm humans.

Devastated, Lilly goes on a quest to free her friend. The circus master wants a coat of illusions in exchange for the kraken. To get the coat, Lilly must rescue an undead tailor from the bandits who captured him. To free the tailor, she must help a witch retrieve her skin, which means living with the bandits who stole it from her. The quest is a dangerous and she undergoes more than one ‘sea change’ (profound transformation) for the sake of her friendship with Octavius.


There are many things I love about this story: the friendship between a lonely young girl and a sea monster; the journey and quest plot; the fairytale style of the quest. When I read it, I found otherf things that weren’t mentioned in the blurb, like the interesting things the plot does with gender and sexuality, or the way it doesn’t shy away from shocking content.

And I still hated it.

Why? The writing is the main reason. It’s terrible. Wheeler goes for a kind of Shakespearean style that doesn’t quite work. I can’t put my finger on what exactly is wrong with it; it’s just wrong. It’s also inconsistent, veering from  casual to absurdly stiff and formal. More importantly, it’s confused and confusing. Too often it’s unclear who characters are talking to or what they mean. Character motives and plot details tend to be vague and as a result, lots of things just seem to happen at random.

And although I liked the various elements of the plot, reading it was… pretty boring. It might have been the pace. It sort of plods along without anything feeling particularly exciting even when it’s momentous. It became extremely tedious when Lilly found the bandits and lived with them as their servant for about five months. At this point I seriously debated giving up. It reminded me of the sloppier kind of indie novel – clumsy and unfocused, giving the impression that the author never invested in beta readers.

There were lots of things I would have asked the author to reconsider, like how Christianity can be a dominant religion in a world with magic, trolls, witches, talking mythical creatures, zombies, automatons, and a sentient mule in the body of a boy. How Octavius survives on dry land, not only during trips with Lilly but for several months at the circus. Or why Lilly doesn’t fully confront the sacrifices she has to make to free Octavius. The latter is a major problem – Lilly endures so much, and the story can be can be brutal, but in ways that could make it incredibly powerful and thought-provoking. However, I don’t think that either Lilly or the narrative as a whole really confronts what happens to her. It’s not ignored, but I think the author could have done so much more.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed by a novel with so much potential. This should have been the kind of book I immediately bought in hardcover as an entertaining, gender-bending, heart-warming, heart-breaking, overall mind-blowing piece of fairytale-inspired fiction. Instead I was relieved when it was over.

HOWEVER, I have to add that there are reasons you might want to read it anyway, especially if you’re interested in gender/sexuality, especially in the YA genre. This is actually something I wanted to discuss in detail, but that requires spoilers and would make this review unnecessarily long. What I’m going to do then is write a separate post about those issues. If you just wanted a basic review, this is all you need to read. But if you’ve read the book, dnf’d it but are still curious, or you’re willing to read a few spoilers (I won’t reveal all) to decide if you’d like to read it, I hope you’ll check out next week’s post and let me know what you think.

Review of Light by M. John Harrison

Light by M John HarrisonTitle: Light
Series: The Kefahuchi Tract #1
M. John Harrison
First edition published by Gollancz. My edition published by Bantam Spectra
science fiction, space opera, literary fiction
own copy

The cover of my edition of Light is covered with flattering quotes. More can be found on the inside pages. Many come from sources I admire – Iain M. Banks, Michael Marshall Smith, China Miéville, the Guardian. They praise Harrison’s skill and vision as a writer, the complex literary nature of Light, and it’s brutal, energetic brilliance as space opera. The novel won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, was nominated for the BSFA, and shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke. I was dazzled before I even started reading, and baffled afterwards. Elegant, violent and wildly imaginative, Light is literary genre fiction, bringing together quantum physics, a strange new world, bizarre characters, and all the complex relationships that exist between them. It is a particularly challenging read, and it’s only after my second attempt that I feel I have a decent understanding of the novel.

The story is divided into three strands, one set in 1999, and two set the post-Earth future of 2400. In 1999, Michael Kearney – a visionary physicist and a serial killer – has spent decades running from the Shrander, a mysterious entity with a horse’s skull for a head. Michael kills to keep the thing at bay, but because it’s his brilliant mind that attracted it in the first place, it will never leave him in peace. It seems like it’s been a while since he’s managed to do anything productive, although he and his partner Brian Tate are currently involved in a research project that has recently produced only enigmatic results. Tate can’t get Michael to hang around long enough to do any work – he keeps running from the Shrander, with his anorexic and psychologically frail ex-wife Anna trailing after him.

We know that Michael and Tate’s research will be groundbreaking though – in 2400, Tate-Kearney transformations are commonly used in space travel. In this future, humanity is scattered across planets surrounding the Kefahuchi Tract, a space-time anomaly, a “singularity without an event horizon”. For over 65 millennia, the K-tract has beguiled every race that came across it. One race even “steered whole solar systems into position” (7) just to have a closer look at the Tract. It’s a phenomenon that takes no heed of causality, and where explorers can find ancient artefacts that can’t be understood and alien tech that defies all known possibilities.

Seria Mau Genlicher zips around the Tract thanks to the alien tech of her K-ship, The White Cat – an absurdly powerful vessel bristling with weapons and capable of shooting into orbit at Mach 50. It’s run by sentient mathematics and algorithms with a life of their own. Seria Mau allowed her body to be mostly destroyed so she could be plugged into the ship, where she floats in a tank of nutrient-rich chemicals. She’s just acquired an inexplicable artefact that brings the authorities hurtling after her, but which promises opportunities humanity has been dreaming about.

Planet-side in the city of New Venusport is Ed Chianese, once a famous explorer, now a washed up ‘twink’. Like Seria Mau he spends all his time in a tank, except he’s addicted to playing out clichéd old-Earth scenarios in virtual reality. But Ed is in debt to some very bloodthirsty people and gets forced out into the real world when they come looking for him. He runs all the way into a strange new life as a visionary in a circus.

These plot strands seem disparate and in fact the three main characters will never speak to each other. It’s only at the end that you can fully understand how they’re connected. But one of the beautiful things about this book – assuming you’re like me and enjoy this sort of thing – is the way the stories are delicately connected by images and details. Some of are very fine, just a thread tacked across chapters. Ed runs from his pursuers into the confusing warrens where the alien “New Men” live; Anna’s apartment is described as a warren where you never know where you are, and Michael’s decidedly weird friend Valentine Sprake has the same pale skin and shock of ginger hair as the New Men. Anna and Michael walk past melting tarmac; in the next chapter, Seria Mau’s dreams and nightmares “leaked up inside her like warm tar” (65).

It’s much easier to notice the recurring images, details and phrases. I mentioned the Tate-Kearney transformations and the fact that both Seria Mau and Ed start out in tanks. Cats are everywhere. Seria Mau named her ship The White Cat after the white oriental cat Michael bought for the lab, and whose strange interest in their computer screens is the first sign that the two physicists have stumbled onto something otherworldly. Michael stole a strange pair of dice from the Shrander 20 years ago; in 2400 similar dice are used for a game. Michael uses the dice to plot journeys, seeing a connection between prophecy and mathematics (he is also obsessed with the Tarot. Odd, for a physicist, but that’s the kind of guy he is). In 2400, there is a brief mention of an admiral who “abandoned the Tate-Kearney transformations and simply threw dice to decide his moves”. This kind of thing can actually work because it seems that, out in space, physics doesn’t have laws so much as guidelines:

Space was big, and the boys from Earth were awed despite themselves by the things they found there: but worse, their science was in a mess. Every race they met on their way through the Core had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another’s basic assumptions. You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, but assuming anything. (136)

Beaches frequently appear as metaphors for liminal states or places. It was staring at the pebbles on a beach that child-Michael first began to understand the world as he does. The “ragged margins of the Tract” (7) are known as The Beach, and one of the characters muses, “We’ve got to leave the beach some day. All of us. Grow up. Leave the Beach, dive into the sea” (139). By which I think he means that humanity needs to move on to the next stage of discovery.

The book links Michael and Tate’s discoveries with future ones, and these are typically represented by light, specifically a tangible, flowing light that appears as tears or foaming liquid. “Sparks in everything” – this phrase is thought or uttered multiple times. It’s beautiful, but discovery isn’t romanticised in this book – it’s terrifying, painful, and dangerous. Michael can’t handle it – his knowledge attracts the Shrander and is essentially a source of pure horror that his turned him into murderer and rendered him useless. Seria Mau underwent appalling physical adjustments and risked death – as a 13-year-old child – to become a K-ship captain. Ed is the only one who offers us the classic, thrilling image of the space explorer, but he’s currently planet-bound, sticking his head into a tank to tell the future.

But it isn’t all bad. Discovery is endless. In a universe where physics is so pliable, nothing can ever be fully understood and anything is possible. Another refrain is “there was always more; there was always more after that. Discovery and exploration often take on a notably sexual tone as well, or is somehow associated with sex and sexual relationships. The climax of the novel (excuse the pun) is described in overtly sexual terms. Seria Mau is introduced as “trolling for customers” (7), suggestive of a prostitute, although what she’s offering is horrific, high-tech death rather than pleasure. We later learn that she became a K-captain partly to escape her home, where her father wanted her to “become the mother” in the wake of her mother’s death.

Michael and Anna both seems to use sex as a means of temporarily escaping their personal problems, although Michael, for some reason, never wants to penetrate women – a symbol of his fear perhaps? Ed Chianese, the explorer however, has a string of unusual sexual relationships. The first is with a character in his virtual reality. The second is with an alien. The final one is with Annie Glyph, a rickshaw girl. Rickshaw girls are essentially human carthorses, genetically tailored to massive and powerfully muscled.

With all the weird sex in the novel, the issue of bodies comes up frequently. Seria Mau initially doesn’t want one, and when she uses an avatar for face-to-face meetings she goes as a white cat. She meets with a gene tailor named Uncle Zip, who surrounds himself with clones – versions of himself who are younger, thinner, and sometimes female. Anna, an anorexic and twice-failed suicide, looks just as fragile as her mental state. Annie Glyph comes across as her parallel and her opposite – a huge, powerful woman who dwarfs the man she sleeps with. Sex and gender finds all sorts of new permutations in this novel – I can see why it won the Tiptree award.

There’s quite a bit of science, reminding me that I really need to get better acquainted with quantum physics if I want to continue reading this sort of thing. I still don’t quite understand what a singularity is, nevermind a “singularity without an event horizon”. But although I feel like a full appreciation of the novel is out of my reach, the technical details aren’t alienating. Harrison turns the science into poetry and I learned to just enjoy the words without fussing over the physics.

The tech is pretty cool either way. K-ships are just spectacular, and The White Cat is the best of them. The shadow operators were one of my favourite things about the novel – living algorithms who usually appear as “women biting their knuckles in regret” (186) and fuss over humans with personalities to match. The White Cat’s shadow operators long to craft a pretty little body for Seria Mau and dress her up in white lace. Planet-side are all sorts of genetically tailored ‘cultivars’ – gun kiddies, over-muscled punks with tusks, rickshaw girls. There’s a cultivar called Mona (also written as ‘Moaner’) – an over-sexed female body that has become popular with women.

I could continue discussing the little details. Light is just that kind of book – short but incredibly complex. I find it to be a lot like the K-tract – beguiling even when I don’t understand it. I’m glad I re-read it, and I’d like to do so again one day, after I get a copy of Nova Swing so I can experience the trilogy as a whole (I just read book 3, Empty Space; more on that in my next review). It’s certainly not for everyone, and even now I don’t want to rate because I’m not sure what to make of it. But I’m happy to be inexplicably captivated.

Review of Inkarna by Nerine Dorman

Inkarna by Nerine DormanTitle: Inkarna
 Nerine Dorman
Published: 15 June 2012
 Dark Continents Publishing
Genre: dark fantasy, urban fantasy romance
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

In 1966 in Cape Town, Lizzie is about to die for the first time. She is an old woman, and one of only two members of House Adamastor, a secret society based on ancient Egyptian mythology. Lizzie is an Inkarna and will be resurrected in a new body after a few decades spent in Per Ankh, the House of Life in the underworld.

But when Lizzie is reincarnated it is 2012 – 5 years later than expected – and she is reeling from the trauma of being stuck in the Sea of Nun, the ancient Egyptian version of limbo. And instead of reincarnating into the body of a 3-year old girl, she ends up in the body of Ashton Kennedy a 21-year old goth rocker with tattoos, piercings and the kind of long hair she considers “slovenly”. Ashton was in a coma after being run over by an SUV, and Lizzie soon discovers that he is the kind of person who deserved it. She’s also unnerved by the fact that Ashton has a devoted girlfriend – Marlise – who stuck by him throughout the coma and expects to continue their relationship.

While struggling to cope with contemporary technology, having a male body, and trying to build a better life from the ruins of Ashton’s, Lizzie/Ash tries to contact House Adamastor only to find that it has all but disappeared. Something has gone very wrong, and the fact that Lizzie ended up Ashton’s body was the first sign of a sinister influence. Further investigations reveal a conspiracy, the beginnings of a war between the Houses, and the hunt for a deadly artefact. To make things worse, Marlise and Ash find themselves haunted by Ashton’s ghost, who is enraged that Lizzie has taken his body and his life.

The major drawcard of this novel is gender game Dorman plays with Lizzie/Ash. It’s a big shock for Lizzie – a straight, prim and proper little old lady who dies in the 60s – to suddenly be transformed into a hulking bastard of a man who she frequently describes as a “thug”. She is relieved though, that Ashton’s size stops people from harassing her when she takes dodgy trains at odd hours (Cape Town doesn’t have the safest railway service, to put it mildly). Everyone who knows Ashton is also baffled when the man they thought they knew stops swearing, starts drinking tea, and generally tries to behave like a decent human being for a change. As a character, Marlise’s presence brings Lizzie’s gender troubles into sharp relief and offers excellent opportunities for her to face some of the more intimate aspects of the transformation. Initially, Lizzie tries to avoid Marlise, but eventually has no choice but to ask her for help. Ashton wasn’t exactly the kind of person who made loyal friends, and begins the story without money, a job, or a home. They stay together in a granny flat outside Marlise’s parents’ house, and Lizzie is uncomfortably aware of being a man sleeping in bed with an unmarried woman who wants to have sex with her/him/Lizzie/Ashton. The question of sex and sexuality is one that will have to be addressed – Lizzie was straight, but doesn’t want to have sex with men as a man. The thought of having sex with Marlise horrifies her, but if she’s going to stick with the heterosexual norm then that means having sex with women.

I’ve been speaking about “Lizzie” and using the pronouns “she” and “her”, but it’s not long before you realise that such a simple way of referring to this character is completely inadequate. At first it feels right to think of “her”, but the gender of the body can’t be ignored, raising the question of whether it’s the body or the mind that defines gender. Soon, the body (or kha, as it’s known in the mythology) starts to impart its previous inhabitant’s habits on Lizzie, and she begins to swear and behave more aggressively. She is no longer Lizzie, but she’s not Ashton either – she/he is “Ash” a compromise between the two that unfortunately has no suitable pronoun in English. Over and above this, she/he is Nefretkheperi, which is the Ren or true name of this being, which has its own Ba (loosely translated as ‘personality’) no matter what body it’s in, or whether it’s dead and in the underworld.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is the use of Egyptian mythology, particularly the mythology concerning the afterlife and reincarnation. With the modern South African setting, there are no mummies, pyramids, or organs in jars; the followers of this faith mostly study and practise ancient Egyptian magic. There are secret Egyptian societies – Houses – all over the world although it seems that these Houses are self-contained and don’t communicate much with each other. House members are regularly reincarnated, and while they’re dead they socialise in Per Ankh – the House of Life. The Inkarna – those who are reincarnated – are the leaders of each House, and the most powerful in the use of ancient magic. One amusing detail about Lizzie/Ash, is that Lizzie, despite being a little old lady, was so skilled that she could do far more with her magic than Ash could ever hope to do with his muscles. She could have kicked his ass, and in Ashton’s body Ash feels weak until he is able to regain the powers that Lizzie had mastered, including telepathy, telekinesis and an ability to unlock doors.

The novel uses a lot of jargon, and I was glad that I’d studied a bit of Egyptian mythology at varsity, so that I was at least vaguely familiar with some of the words and concepts. I think that someone unacquainted with the mythology might be a bit lost, although the frequency with which Lizzie/Ash repeats most words and phrases means you can eventually pick up their meanings on your own. There’s plenty of time to get yourself acquainted with the mythology, as most of the story is quite relaxed – Lizzie transitions into Ash, gets a job, tries to define his relationship with Marlise, and goes looking for Leonora, the last living member of House Adamastor. Things heat up once Ashton starts making his ghostly appearances and Ash learns more about the conspiracy that put Lizzie in the wrong body. His relationship with Marlise slowly evolves, and although Marlise clearly wants it to be sexual, she is at least happy that Ash is a friendlier, more considerate person than Ashton, who cheated on her and dumped her repeatedly.

It’s a good story, but there were some things that bugged me about it. Ashton’s parents are around in the beginning of the novel, and Lizzie notes sadly that these poor people sold their house to pay Ashton’s medical bills. Because Lizzie/Ash tries to make amends for the terrible things Ashton did, I thought this would include an apology to his parents at the very least. But once he leaves to live with Marlise, his parents disappear from the plot without so much as a phone call to check up on their son, who just woke up from a months-long coma. I felt that an emotional connection was left dangling.

Then Lizzie/Ash adapts a little too quickly to life in 2012, I thought. Besides an inability to drive and difficulty using the internet, jumping 46 years into the future doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue. Cape Town is still familiar enough for her/him to get around easily. Ash mentions the SUVs our politicians drive and at one point voices a concern about security cameras; I wondered if the character would really be thinking like that so soon.

Some plot details were too clichéd or predictable. Marlise is a bit of a damsel and when she’s in distress, Ash comes in like a goth knight wielding Egyptian magic to save her. There are some rather flat ‘minion’ characters. It was no surprise that Ash eventually overcame his sexuality issues and started sleeping with Marlise. The romance builds slowly, but Ash’s reluctance and the sexualised or attractive ways in which he is sometimes described make a sexual relationship inevitable as far as literary tradition is concerned. Admittedly, I wanted this to happen, and I if I were the author I would never have passed up the opportunity to make Ash confront this issue. The sex scenes were a bit too melodramatic for me (much like Ash’s angsty narration in general), but for the most part the romance was ok; I was just hoping that, with the gender play going on, Ash’s sexual awakening would involve something more interesting than him suddenly enjoying having a cock. I predicted a few other things as well, but they’re spoiler-ish so I won’t say more.

Finally, I didn’t quite like the way the book ended. I won’t get into the details, but it had a jocular tone that felt completely wrong under the circumstances. Something creepier would have been much better. The final scene paves the way for a great sequel but laughing about it seems dismissive, while a sense of horror would have been more intriguing.

But, flaws aside, it was a quick easy read and I enjoyed it. I was hoping Ash would cut his long hair (I don’t share the author’s taste for long-haired men) but I liked him and Marlise well enough. Since the book is half dedicated to a dead musician named Peter, and Peter Steele matches the description of Ash, I had a very clear picture of the character in my head throughout the book.

I loved the fact that the novel was set in Cape Town and I knew many of the locations very well. The Maitland Cemetery where the first scene is set is very close to my parents’ home. Ash gets a job at a bar in Long Street, where I’ve spent a lot of time eating out, shopping, having drinks with friends or just walking around. The route he takes to the train station through the dingy Golden Acre Mall is the same path I’ve taken many times to get a bus home from work or when travelling to and from the city centre.

My little shelf of SA genre fiction is slowly growing, and I was glad to add Inkarna to it.

Review of Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Title: Paprika
 Yasutaka Tsutsui
Published: First published in 1993; this translation published on 5 February 2013
 Vintage Books
Genre: science fiction, fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 4/10

Please note: this review contains some spoilers. I haven’t revealed any details about the ending, but I have discussed a major scene from the middle of the novel.

Atsuko Chiba is gifted and stunningly beautiful psychoanalytic therapist. She and her partner Kosaku Tokita have invented and developed technology that allows therapists to view and engage with the dreams of their patients, treating them at a subconscious level. For this, Atsuko and Tokita have been nominated for a Nobel Prize. In the early days of the technology however, Atsuko worked with it illegally, secretly using the devices to treat wealthy, powerful men who couldn’t afford to have their mental problems made public. To protect herself, she created an alter ego named Paprika, disguised to look like a younger, woman. Now, the Administrator of the Institute for Psychiatric Research asks Atsuko to become Paprika the dream detective once again, in order to help a friend who has been suffering from panic attacks.

Paprika’s reappearance coincides with a variety of troubles at the Institute. Journalists have been chasing rumours about Atsuko’s love life, her identity as Paprika and the illegal activities she may have engaged in. One of the psychotherapists falls into a catatonic state after viewing the dreams of a schizophrenic patient, leading to the rumour that the dream devices make schizophrenia contagious. But in fact the therapist was deliberately driven insane in an act of sabotage by two other employees – Inui and his handsome young protégé Osanai – who believe that the dream devices are immoral and that Atsuko and Tokita should not be allowed to win the Nobel Prize.

The situation becomes dire when Tokita creates tiny but powerful new versions of the devices. These upgrades – called DC Minis – are soon stolen by Inui and Osanai who use them for sexual purposes. Because Atsuko/Paprika lives in the same building and is treating new patients late at night, her devices start to pick up on their dreams. Soon, things spiral out of control, with dreams bleeding into each other and eventually invading reality. With the help of the men in her life, Atsuko/Paprika has to battle her enemies in both the real world and the dream one, as they persist in their diabolical attempts to put an end to her research, her position at the Institute, and her chance at winning the Nobel Prize.


In the blurb, Paprika is lauded as Yasutaka Tsutsui’s “masterpiece”. Personally, that leaves me with no reason to seek out the rest of his work, but at least there’s a lot to discuss about this novel. The story sets up a conflict between tradition and scientific progress. The two villains, Inui and Osanai, are strict traditionalists. They have a traditional master/student relationship, with the middle-aged Inui passing on his ideas to Osanai and giving him orders for the plan to sabotage Atsuko. They believe that technology should not be used in psychotherapy:

Like his mentor Seijiro Inui, Osanai fervently believed that technology had no place in the field of psychoanalysis. Many mental illnesses in the modern era had arisen from the rampant excesses of science and technology in the first place; the very idea of using science and technology to treat them was fundamentally wrong. It violated the principles of nature.


he felt that Atsuko’s practice of indiscriminately accessing patients’ dreams, violating their mental space for the sake of her treatment, ran counter to all accepted morality; it far exceeded the tolerable limits of psychotherapy. If such actions were to win her the Nobel Prize, it would mean that psychiatry for the sake of humanity had been reduced to science for the sake of technology. Patients would then start to be treated as objects. The warm, human psychoanalysis that Osanai and the others had expended so much effort to learn would become discarded as old-fashioned medicine, ungrounded in theory and no better than alchemy or witchcraft. Until PT devices could be properly evaluated and used correctly, Tokita and Chiba had to be prevented from winning the Nobel Prize, whatever it took. This was Osanai’s firm conviction.

Some of this might sounds reasonable, but Osanai and Inui are most certainly not. They complain bitterly that Atsuko and Tokita are being irresponsible and inhuman in their use of the dream devices, but then steal the DC Minis and use them without concern for the consequences. Their hypocrisy becomes particularly ludicrous when they use the devices to drive people insane as part of an attempt to show how dangerous the technology is, all the while mouthing off self-righteously about how Atsuko and Tokita need to be stopped! They call the new DC Minis “the Devil’s Seed” and their vendetta has many religious overtones, with Inui actually framing the whole thing as a holy war in which he is a saviour fighting on the side of good.

But Inui’s objection is not only a moral one – several years before he lost the Nobel Prize to another scholar, and now he’s clearly very jealous of Atsuko and Tokita, particularly because he sees them as inferiors: Tokita is an obese, child-like man, and Atsuko is a woman. Which brings me to the gender issues. In keeping with their traditionalist mindsets, both Osanai and Inui hold very misogynistic views about women, undermining their intellectual abilities and objectifying their bodies:

Osanai found himself better equipped to tolerate the role of Atsuko Chiba, compared to that of Tokita. After all, she was a just woman. As a woman, she had no ideology. So it stood to reason that the only thought in her mind was to faithfully, cheerfully pursue the utility value and application of the PT devices developed by Tokita. That was what all female scientists were like anyway; nothing more could be expected of them. This was not a question of looking down on women, but rather one of recognizing their natural disposition.


He always felt immensely aroused after seeing Atsuko Chiba, particularly when he’d clapped eyes on her alluring figure from close quarters. It usually ended in an act of self-abuse, but today, as luck would have it, he was expecting a visit from Senior Nurse Sayama. He could use her body to relieve his physical arousal.


Inui had always treated women as commodities, outlets for carnal desires; he recognized no spirituality in them whatsoever.


In one moment of rage, Osanai goes so far as to claim that Atsuko isn’t a real woman because she fails to show the sense of submission he expects from her sex and isn’t interested in him despite his incredibly good looks:

Call yourself a woman?! You may be beautiful, but you’re no woman. The only men you can love are freaks and mental patients who let you do what you like! That’s not what I call a woman!”

It’s not just the villains who are misogynists though. Atsuko finds a similar attitude among the press, implying that it’s a great social ill as well:

to Atsuko, attending a press conference simply meant being exposed to public view in a way that was barely welcome. In her view, the journalists weren’t interested in noting some form of higher intelligence in the young, beautiful woman called Atsuko Chiba. They hated the idea that she was their intellectual superior, and merely seemed bent on finding something in her that would reinforce their preconceived image of Japanese femininity.


they would also happily grasp any chance of belittling Atsuko Chiba, whose exasperating combination of beauty and genius made her a suitable target for their wrath.

By defying the press, Osanai and Inui, it seems like Atsuko – and the book as a whole – would function as a critique of this misogyny and the “empire mentality” to which it is attributed. However, the book doesn’t take a progressive stance on gender or sexuality. Inui and Osanai are in a committed, loving relationship, but the book demonises their homosexuality, using it to portray the two men as vile and perverse. Atsuko/Paprika is the only major female character in a cast that has room for many more, and when she needs help it’s inevitably men – older men with wealth and power – who come to her rescue. She has their allegiance because she’s treated them, and it seems like Paprika only treats older, rich men who she inevitably finds herself attracted to. At one point, she completely undermines the intelligence for which she is so frequently praised, claiming she is successful because of her beauty rather than her brains:

“Actually, I’m not really that great a therapist. I just use my looks to help the treatment along. Maybe that’s why I’m so successful. It shouldn’t be allowed, should it.”

She’s being a bit self-deprecating, perhaps – there are long scenes describing her dream-world treatments, and she obviously uses more than her beauty. Nevertheless the men in the book, both good and bad, are always going on about how beautiful she is and how they’ve fallen in love with her as a result. It’s her body they value, rather than her mind and the novel does nothing to critique this.

Then there’s an extremely weird attempted-rape scene that I’ve struggled to unpack. Frustrated by their inability to thwart Atsuko, Inui tells Osanai that he “must rape her” because “Inui’s view, a product of empire mentality, was that a man only need rape a woman to put her under his dominion”. Osanai claims to be in love with Atsuko, and is thrilled by this order because it gives him “a perverse moral justification for acts he himself sought to commit”. He believes that raping Atsuko will “enslave her to him”. It’s appalling, but these are the villains, so at least we know the novel doesn’t endorse this view. But the problems here go deeper.

When Osanai goes to Atsuko’s apartment to rape her, she fights back, so he hits her repeatedly in the face. Realising that Osanai might “half kill her” to get what he wants, she decides to “let him rape her” to avoid getting hurt. “If she were a man” she says “she would have fought him until her dying breath. But she was a woman. She had no intention of aping a man’s senseless insistence on fighting to the death”.

Osanai responds to Atsuko’s capitulation with “relief and tearful joy” (I can imagine this only in kooky anime terms). However, Atsuko insists that he rape her “properly”, by which she means that he has to “satisfy” her. We’re told that it’s been years since Atsuko had sex with a man (dream-world sex doesn’t count) and Osanai actually presents a rather convenient opportunity to satisfy all the pent-up desire that’s been causing “an unnatural flow in her libido”. But because Osanai finally has what he wants, and because Atsuko is so devastatingly beautiful, he is too overwhelmed to perform, claiming that Atsuko’s “aura is too strong”. The two trade insults about each other’s lack of masculinity or femininity, and eventually Osanai leaves. Immediately after, Atsuko takes a relaxing bath and thinks very calmly and analytically about what just happened. She isn’t upset; instead, she starts thinking about sex with another man. Technically her face should be covered in terrible bruises and her mouth swollen from Osanai’s beating, but this seems to have been forgotten.

This is one of the most fucked up scenes I’ve come across in fiction and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. On the one hand, I can see how it could be read as subversive, and given some of the ideas about gender in the novel, that may have been the author’s intention. Osanai goes in assuming that his masculinity can be used as a weapon against a woman, but instead he’s crushed by her femininity – her decision to stop fighting, and her overwhelming beauty. Rape is very much about power, and Osanai is revealed to be utterly pathetic. Atsuko isn’t even shaken let alone enslaved or defeated. She emerges victorious, analyses the situation, and dismisses it.

And yet, everything about this feels so wrong. Atsuko thwarts Osanai firstly by becoming passive. She stops fighting, undresses, and positions herself on the couch. This, combined with her beauty, is what undoes Osanai. Atsuko didn’t plan his defeat; if anything she’s just lucky to accidentally exploit his weaknesses. In the meantime, we see a female character plagued with some of the biggest problems in the depiction of women in the media – the association of passivity with femininity and women being reduced to and valued for their beauty and little else. This might be what saves Atsuko, but it reinforces misogynistic stereotypes. There are also the sickening ideas that rape is a display of masculinity and that a woman could enjoy it or want it, with the whole thing finally dismissed as relatively unimportant.

I can also critique this scene without a feminist perspective – it’s just so utterly ridiculous and implausible in terms of character. A man comes to a woman’s apartment, they argue, he hits her repeatedly in the face, tears her clothing off, and tries to force himself on her. She’s in so much pain that she agrees to stop struggling, but finds herself turned on a few moments later. I’m not going to entertain the possibility of a rape fantasy here – Atsuko doesn’t express any sexual preferences except for an attraction to wealthy, powerful older men, and Osanai is none of those things. He’s extremely handsome, but Atsuko stated before that she dislikes him. We’re expected to believe that, because she hasn’t had sex with men for a long time, she’s so horny that even a would-be rapist, who is also her enemy and a man she doesn’t like, presents an opportunity for enjoyment. It’s as if lust is just something that fills her up and must be poured out.

And the attack hardly seems to bother her. I can’t imagine anyone – male or female – being nonchalant about getting beat up and violated in their own home.  I can see this as subversive or triumphant only in the most theoretical terms. Otherwise, it just looks like bad writing. Overall, this scene is just too weird and problematic for me, and I don’t like the way it was handled.

I could actually say that about many aspects of the novel though. Reading Paprika frequently reminded me of watching anime, which, I must admit, I don’t get and seldom enjoy. Like anime, the novel is full of exaggerated or incongruous emotions, the two villains are absurdly petty, vindictive and hypocritical (not to mention stupid), there are catastrophic events that get swept under the rug, and of course there are all those disturbing ideas about gender and sexuality. I spoke to my boyfriend about this aspect of the novel, since he is a big anime fan and has watched a lot more than I have. According to him, these things – the emotions, the villains, the objectification of women – are all pretty standard features of anime. I’m happy to shrug off some of my issues with the novel as part of a cultural tradition that I simply don’t appreciate. After all, I enjoy some pretty ludicrous action and horror movies; I’m just accustomed to that brand of absurdity. But that doesn’t make me think any better of this novel, and anyway I’m far less forgiving of its issues with gender and sexuality.

Review of The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton

The Constantine Affliction by T Aaron PaytonTitle: The Constatine Affliction
Author: T. Aaron Payton (pseudonym for Tim Pratt)
7 August 2012
Night Shade Books
science fiction, crime and mystery, steampunk, horror
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Victorian England is definitively conservative, with its emphasis on prim and proper behaviour, its sexual restrictions and strict gender boundaries. In The Constantine Affliction, T. Aaron Payton (pseudonym for Tim Pratt) disrupts these delicate sensibilities with the titular Affliction  – an STD that either kills its victims or causes them to change sex, leading to a slew of gender troubles. For men – considered to be the superior sex, of course – it’s a colossal embarrassment because it implies that they’ve been consorting with prostitutes and puts them at the social and existential disadvantage of being female. For women, becoming male offers all sorts of empowering opportunities, but the law quickly to nipped those in the bud by declaring that everyone be treated according to the gender of their birth. You can’t have girls becoming men and inheriting family fortunes, after all. But laws aren’t much help for those who wake up to find that their spouses have changed sex, or for poor Prince Albert who became a woman and was locked in the Tower of London for the treasonous crime of adultery.

Surprisingly, the Affliction hasn’t made Victorian society any more open-minded about gender; if anything, it’s made it worse. However, it has led to the invention and reluctant acceptance of clockwork prostitutes – mechanical women who are lifelike enough to satisfy men’s desires without the risk of infection.

London is still full of real prostitutes however, and the plot kicks off when master criminal Abel Value blackmails Pembroke “Pimm” Halliday into finding out why his whores are being murdered. Pimm enjoys a drunken, leisurely lifestyle financed by his family’s fortune, but he has a brilliant mind and every now and then he sobers up enough to help the police solve crimes.

To help Pimm in his investigation, Value puts him in touch with Adam, a brilliant but very weird and intimidating physician who performs autopsies and specialises in reanimating the dead. Pimm also encounters another curious and lively mind – Ellie Skyler, a young woman enjoying a blossoming career as an investigative journalist by using the gender-neutral byline E. Skye. Ellie is researching the clockwork prostitutes when she stumbles across some very dangerous information about Sir Bertram Oswald, the Queen’s consort. Everything is somehow connected – Abel Value, Oswald, the clockwork prostitutes, the murders, and the Affliction itself. Both Ellie and Pimm find that their paths lead to the grand schemes of a mad scientist and they end up themselves tangled in a bizarre plot that is a wonderful metafictional genre mash-up of science fiction, steampunk, mystery, horror and adventure that includes automatons, zombies, and grotesque monsters, and weird inventions.

It’s a crazy combination, and it’s not all that surprising that the novel started with Pratt joking “ that the perfect commercial novel would be steampunk with zombies”, although the zombies ended up playing a small role and there’s no steam, so Pratt has labelled this “gonzo-historical” fiction. It’s all bit kooky, but The Constantine Affliction is a fun, adventurous read that’s also quite smart.

It has plenty of wonderful gender-play, of course. Ellie plays at being a man everyday in order pursue her passion for journalism, and she goes a step further when she dresses up as a man to infiltrate a clockwork bordello. Getting the right paraphernalia is no problem – a family friend of hers has made a business out of helping men hide the fact that they’ve become women – but it’s a bit harder for Ellie to adjust to the social differences of being a man.

My absolute favourite character is Winifred, Pimm’s stunningly beautiful ‘wife’, who used to be ‘Freddy’, Pimm’s closest friend. Pimm married Freddy to save him/her from society and his family and s/he is one of the few Afflicted to change identities and being new lives. Like Ellie, Winifred defies all notions that women are the weaker sex, but she also puts paid to the belief that gender defines who you are as a person. Like Freddy, Winifred is a bold and hilariously outspoken social butterfly who enjoys shocking people, she still prefers to sleep with women, and she’s a brilliant inventor. She isn’t exactly thrilled about the change, but she’s adapted to it perfectly. She and Ellie are hardly stereotypically bland Victorian women.

Just before reading this novel, I had read two articles – one at Tor, and one at The Mary Sue – about why historical accuracy is not an acceptable excuse for sexism in fiction, particularly fantasy fiction. If we can create other worlds, the writers argued, there’s no good reason to make them misogynist ones. Why is it that writers imagine worlds with dragons and wizards more readily than worlds where men and women are equal? At the same time, writing historical fiction about sexist societies doesn’t mean you can lazily create flat female characters who are just as weak and uninfluential as people believed them to be. “History is not society”, writes Tansy Rayner Roberts at Tor, and your characters should be people, not stereotypes. Having read those articles, I was particularly delighted to come across Ellie and Winifred’s characters, both of whom have to deal with the social restrictions imposed on women, but who are by no means defined or subdued by those restrictions.

What I also liked about The Constantine Affliction was its metafictional touches. We’re told that the first case of the Affliction was a man named Orlando, a direct reference to Virginia Woolf’s novel about a character who changes sex halfway through the story. Pimm has a bit of Sherlock Holmes in him. The best and most memorable reference however, is the character Adam, who turns out to be Frankenstein’s monster. Since the events of Mary Shelley’s novel, Adam has surpassed Victor Frankenstein’s abilities as a scientist, and he lives a strange but contented life in an underground lab, doing autopsies, bringing the dead back to life and running his own biological experiments. He is cold and methodical, but it’s easy to like him. He narrates in the first person (Ellie and Pimm are in third) and the reader is able to understand and care about him as a creature who was rejected by his creator, who distrusts humans because of their cruelty, but is still looking for someone to love and who can love him, no matter how grotesque he is. He ends up falling in love with the brain of a dead prostitute (I’m sorry, that’s a tiny bit of a spoiler, but I couldn’t resist mentioning it).

As much I loved pretty much everything I’ve written about this book so far, I do have reservations. The novel doesn’t really get into the average victim’s experience of the Affliction, and the social rather than legal attitude toward them. We’re forced to simply accept that the society hasn’t changed its beliefs about gender, without really understanding how or why. There is also a tendency to rely a little too much on long passages of exposition and the arch-villain is just far too crazy, taking the whole mad scientist act to extremes. In fact, I felt that the end of the novel got too ludicrous for my liking. It went from being fun to being silly and, finally, sentimental.

However, it could be said that this is just a natural outcome of the pulpy, outlandish stories Payton has poured into those melting pot of a novel. What else did should I have expected, having read about clockwork prostitutes, people changing sex, a drunken detective, a mad scientist with grand schemes to change the world, and an undead man falling in love with the brain of a dead prostitute (yay, I got to say it again!)?

But really, the problems I had with the novel are minor. It’s a great read, clever but light, with lots of adventure, likeable characters of all sorts and plenty of madcap dashes to save the day. Recommended.

Review of God’s War by Kameron Hurley

Title: God’s War
Series: Bel Dame Apocrypha #1
Author: Kameron Hurley
Published: 18 January 2011
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Genre: science fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

God’s War has an opening that should not be ignored. It’s one of the best I’ve ever read, and it continues to impress me. Author Kameron Hurley elegantly weaves an unbelievable amount of characterisation, plot and intrigue into those slick opening lines, and one thing you know for sure after reading them is that this is not conventional sci fi.

Set on the planet Umayma in a post-Earth future, God’s War does not make the usual assumption that, if humans go out and colonise planets, it’ll be western nations that do it. Umayma was settled three thousand years ago by a group of Muslims now known as the First Families. Since then, the world has been divided into two main states – Nasheen and Chenja. Religious differences between the two eventually led to a war that has now been raging for two centuries.

Nyx is a Nasheenian ex-soldier and a bel dame – an elite government-trained assassin. In Nasheen, boys are sent to war at sixteen, and they can “either come home at forty or come home in a bag. No exceptions”. As a bel dame, Nyx has spent the last three years cutting the heads off draft dodgers and deserters. But she also works as a bounty hunter on the side, and now she’s started “selling out her womb on the black market”, using it to grow zygotes for gene pirates. This ‘black work’ gets her in trouble with the other bel dames. She loses her prestigious position and carries on as a bounty hunter with a team of mercenaries, including a magician (not what you think), a shapeshifter, and another hunter who once tried to kill her.

The magician is Rhys – a Chenjan exile. Rhys and Nyx are completely different people – he’s a devout Muslim, she’s an atheist, and that’s just the start – but they need each other and end up forming a bond that’s both comforting and frustrating. Together with their team, they accept a bounty from the Nasheenian queen to track down an alien woman who has the means to end the war, not peacefully, but in one nation’s favour.

There is so much about this novel that I found admirable or at least memorable. There’s the weird bug-tech for example – almost all the technology on Umayma runs on bugs. It sounds stupid and it made me squirm (I loathe bugs) but somehow Hurley makes it work. The magicians in the novel are not the usual fantasy kind, but people with an innate ability to control bugs by altering their pheromones and reprogramming insects at the cellular level. In this way bugs are used for many things, from providing light to screening for bioweapons and regrowing limbs or entire bodies. Even the bakkies (pick-up trucks) run on bugs (and I must say I was delighted to see the word “bakkie”, along with other South African terms, like veldt). It’s scientific rather than magical, and I would certainly call this sci fi, not fantasy, but the term ‘magician’ is apt, because it accounts for the fact that the Umaymans have mastered technology they don’t quite understand.

Attention to little details like this is what makes writing good, and if the opening lines didn’t convince you, then I need to tell you now that the writing is excellent – the kind of word craft that makes me want to buy this novel in hardcopy. I would be a poor reader and a shameful sci fi fan if I didn’t have this on my shelf to re-read a few times. God’s War has almost everything going for it, most notably the characters, who feel so real they’re almost tangible, and a fascinating socio-religious culture clash.

Nasheen and Chenja are two vastly different Islamic societies. In Nasheen, “the queen decreed that God had no place for men in mosques unless they had served at the front”. All boys are sent to war and most don’t come back, so society is ruled and run by women, which has completely altered the way they practice Islam. Few women wear the veil, men and women pray in the same space, technology takes care of any reproductive issues, and there’s simply no culture of submission or modesty among women. Same-sex relationships between women are not only common but celebrated (although still illegal for men), and Nyx, who is bisexual, frequently uses sex both for fun and as a means to cultivate useful relationships. Some of the non-gendered Islamic laws have also been discarded – alcohol is happily consumed, and artworks depicting the Prophet are common.

Rhys’s explanation for this “godlessness” is that Nasheenians have allowed the violence of war to lead them astray:

Chenjan women could submit to god and wield a rifle with equal ease, but Nasheenian women had allowed their propensity for violence to pollute their beliefs. Wielding a rifle, they believed, made them men in the eyes of God, and men did not have to practice modesty or submission to anyone but God. Nasheenian women had forgotten their place in the order of things.

As you can tell, Chenja is a far more conservative nation. Society is divided into “purists” and “orthodox” with a scattering of minority sects. Atheists are killed. Women veil themselves, homosexuality is forbidden, alcohol is banned, as are images of living things, particularly the Prophet (if you’re curious, here’s a Wikipedia article on aniconism in Islam). In Nasheen, Rhys is appalled at the way women stare openly at him, “like harlots” and it’s only when he sees their version of Islam that he truly appreciates why the two nations are at war:

In the mosque, forehead pressed against the floor, Rhys never understood the war. It was only when he raised his head and saw the women praying among him, bareheaded, often bare-legged, shamelessly displaying full heads of hair and ample flesh, that he questioned what these women truly believed they were submitting to. Certainly not the will of God.

It’s a credit to the author’s skill that Rhys is not portrayed simplistically as a hateful fanatic. On the contrary, Rhys is a gentle, likeable character. It’s easy to empathise with him without agreeing with him. In her culture clash with Rhys, you might also expect Nyx to be held up as a paragon of women’s liberation, but she’s as flawed and damaged as anyone else. This is not a book about idols or individuals with unprecedented talents or powers. Rhys is a crap magician, although good with a pistol. Nyx is a skilled assassin, but so is every other bel dame. She can seem manipulative and promiscuous or just comfortable and open with her sexuality, while Rhys seems prejudiced by religion at some points but admirably disciplined and committed at others. My point here is that these character feel real, feel human, because they’re too complex to be easily judged or categorised.

Similarly, Nasheen and Chenja do not fall into black and white categories of utopia and dystopia. Women may have more freedom in Nasheen, but Rhys notes, with sadness, that they have old widows begging in the streets and young women fighting in boxing matches for money. And if women are disempowered by religion in Chenja, in Nasheen it is men who are treated like second-class citizens. Nasheen is also rife with racism – the citizens are not white, but they’re more fair-skinned than Chenjans like Rhys, who is beaten up and discriminated against by Nasheenian women because of his dark skin.

I found the contrast between the two societies fascinating, but I have one criticism – Rhys is the only devout main character, so most of the theology in the novel comes from him. He speaks about both Chenja and Nasheen, but is obviously biased towards his own nation. There is no real voice for Nasheenian theology, which would be so much more interesting because the way they practice Islam is so different. Nyx is a major Nasheenian voice in the novel, but as an atheist she has nothing to say about the way her society reconciles their practices with their religion.

However, there is some compensation in the relationship between Nyx and Rhys, which was one of my favourite things about the novel. They disagree about most things and don’t really get along – he thinks she’s a violent, crude, godless woman, and she thinks he’s a weak, pious dope. Their conversations often include an interesting clash of ideas. Nevertheless, each finds inexplicable solace in the other:

The same woman who could cut the head off a man with a dagger in sixty seconds could ease his mind in the face of a thousand angry Nasheenian women. She could banish all thoughts of God, of submission. Some days she made him feel like an insect, a roach, the worst thing to crawl across the world. And then there were times, like now, when she brought him a stillness he had known only with his forehead pressed to a pray rug.

Nyx is also calmed by Rhys – there are a few instances when she’s stressed or scared and asks him to read to her. She doesn’t like what he reads (poetry or the Quran) but she finds his voice soothing. There isn’t any romance here, just a strange kind of friendship between two people who don’t really want to be friends.

The only real shortcoming of this novel is that the plot doesn’t live up to the brilliant opening lines, and it pales in comparison to other aspects of the book. It’s quite slow, plodding along in the background while culture and character dominate the foreground. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, but while some novels are written with plot as a minor feature, this one felt more like the plot was meant to be a strong element but failed. It’s only in the last quarter or so that plot comes to the fore and drives the story. The rest of the time I found it vague and largely uninteresting.

On the bright side, there is a fair bit of intrigue that I’m hoping will be more thoroughly explored in the sequels Infidel (01/10/2011) and Rapture (due 06/11/2012). The alien woman that Nyx and Rhys have to track down is actually human, but is considered alien because she is from another colonised planet, and her pale skin sets her apart from the Umaymans. It’s implied early on that these ‘aliens’ are from a Christian society and there’s a suggestion that Umayma is not the only planet where humans are fighting a religious war. This raises a lot of questions about the nature of the human race when it left Earth to colonise other planets, not to mention the future of Umayma when Islam isn’t the only theory of God being fought over.

God’s War almost instantly got me interested in reading the rest of the Bel Dame Apocrypha series. It combines many of the things I’m most interested in – science fiction, religion, gender, sexuality and good writing – and although I thought the plot could have been stronger, the characters and world-building more than made up for that. I’d recommend this to all sci fi fans, not just because it’s such a damn good book, but also because it brings some variety to a very western, male-dominated genre.


Buy a copy of God’s War at The Book Depository