Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2007, Part 3: Cheryl Morgan and Cynthia Ward

To continue with our end-of-the-year reports---

Cheryl Morgan:
Best of 2007

This has been a strange year for me in that I’m suddenly no longer getting books several months before publication. Consequently I’ve been feeling rather behind. This hasn’t been helped by the fact that a whole pile of really good stuff came out in the US over the summer when I was stuck in the UK and unable to get hold of it. I’ve been reading frantically ever since I got back to California in October, but my “to read” pile still has a lot of very promising books in it. Thankfully I have read a lot, though not the 8 or so books I month I was reading for Emerald City, and many of them were very good.

Given that this article is for the Aqueduct blog, I guess I should start with books that address gender themes. First up is Mary Gentle’s Ilario (published as a single volume in the UK but as two in the US). A new book by Gentle is always very welcome, and this one centers on an intersex character. I’m very pleased about this, because intersex people get the rough end of just about everything and are still a very invisible minority. On the other hand, one reading of the book is that Gentle is setting up the intersexed Ilario as an example of a “legitimately” gender-confused character, as opposed to the transsexual Neferet who is portrayed as being “really” a gay man with pretensions. I really do hope that Gentle didn’t mean to do that.

Also on the gender bending front is Maledicte by Lane Robbins, a debut novel featuring a young street girl who disguises herself as a man to be with her lover who has recently been revealed as the bastard son of an earl. Robbins doesn’t make as much of the gender confusion as you might expect, but she does say a lot about the relative power of men and women at a (17th Century?) court.

Ian McDonald’s Brasyl is probably on many people’s SF top ten lists. It is certainly on mine. But how come almost none of the reviews mention the fact that the book’s hero is a bisexual transvestite? (Kudos to Gary Wolfe here for not dodging the issue.) And still with SF, Liz Williams’ Bloodmind continues the series she spun off from the PKD-nominated Ghost Sister. It is a UK-only publication, but well worth seeking out if you like feminist SF. (Read the 2006 book in the series, Darkland, first).

I’m very much looking forward to reading Kelley Eskridge’s Dangerous Space. And if you like Mars, I can also recommend Questors by Joan Lennon, a UK-published YA that features three kids: one boy, one girl, and one from a species that doesn’t acquire gender until puberty.

Finally, completely unrelated to SF, anyone with an interest in gender politics should get hold of a copy of Whipping Girl by Julia Serano, which is the best book on trans issues I have ever read.

Now for some light(-ish) entertainment. Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series (latest book: Selling Out) and Liz Williams’ Inspector Chin mysteries (Precious Dragon) are proving that you don’t have to lower your artistic standards when writing funny tales of adventure. I’d also like to recommend From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain by Minister Faust. Please don’t be put off by the cover. Just imagine a modern-day Watchmen written by a Canadian Lenny Henry with a passion for race politics.

There have been a lot of very good debut fantasy novels this year. Maledicte, mentioned above, is one. Not quite a debut, but very impressive indeed, is Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History of Moscow. Quite apart from the inside knowledge of Russia and its history, Sedia manages to make Moscow sound like an outpost of Viriconium.

A much more traditional fantasy is Acacia by David Anthony Durham. The author has three successful military history novels under his belt, and his first foray into fantasy should go down well with those who like sweeping narratives and titanic battles (well, except for those who think that war is fun, glamorous and for boys only, all of which Durham takes issue with). Auralia’s Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet is much more in the modern fairy tale mould. Most reviewers seem to have missed it because is came from a Christian publishing house, but it is an excellent novel and not at all preachy. Finally on debuts there is Christopher Barzak’s One for Sorrow, which has been praised to the skies by just about everyone, and quite right too.

Still with fantasy, there are several series that I’m currently following. With The Broken Kings Rob Holdstock managed to bring his Merlin Codex to a mostly satisfactory conclusion. Paul Park’s The White Tyger is very much a move-the-plot-along book, and I’m very much looking forward to the finale. I’m currently half way through Daniel Abraham’s A Betrayal in Winter, which is every bit as good as the first volume of the Long Price Quartet. Abraham loves torturing his characters. If you like Dorothy Dunnett, give this series a try. And next up on my reading pile will be Cat Valente’s Cities of Coin and Spice, the sequel to the superb Tiptree-winning In the Night Garden.

This year’s World Fantasy Con saw a lot of attendees from Down Under, but two ladies who were not there are Elizabeth Knox (New Zealand) and Glenda Larke (Australia but currently resident in Malaysia). Knox’s Dreamquake concludes a fabulous YA duet that ought to have got much more attention than it did. Meanwhile Larke has finally got out-of-Australia publication for Heart of the Mirage, the first book in her Mirage Makers series. If you don’t think that it is possible to write feminist novels while working in formula fantasy, Larke will prove you wrong.

I don’t read many collections, but I’d like to make special mention of The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski. This Polish writer is a literary superstar in his own country. The collection, put out by Gollancz in the UK, is his first English-language publication, and it is very impressive.

I hope I don’t have to tell anyone here about Ellen Klages, but if you haven’t yet bought a copy of Portable Childhoods, please go and do so now.

I also don’t read a lot of art books or graphic novels, but again I want to make an exception for Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot. Sadly I can’t think of any way in which it qualifies as SF or fantasy, so no award nominations from me, but it is a wonderful book and warmly recommended. Then there is The Arrival by Shaun Tan which, I’m pleased to see, is finally getting some notice now that it is available in the US. I expect it to be showered in awards next year.

I haven’t mentioned much SF so far, and to be honest I’m getting a little bit worried. There hasn’t been much good new SF of late. Karen Traviss’s Wess’har Wars series is still going strong with Ally, and Kathleen Ann Goonan’s In War Times is fascinating and very different. I have new books by Joe Haldeman, Charlie Stross and Mark Budz to read, but where is the throng of new SF writers to match the throng of new fantasy writers?

I have, of course, been saving a lot of the best books until last. Nalo Hopkinson’s The New Moon’s Arms is a very brave work. How she managed to make a rampantly homophobic character a sympathetic heroine is a mystery to me, but it works. Trust me. Also seemingly strange but working very well is Matt Ruff’s Bad Monkeys. If I tried to explain what it was about you wouldn’t believe me, and at least two secret societies would try to kill me.

A whole bunch of my favorite authors have produced new novels this year. Liz Hand’s Generation Loss, Gene Wolfe’s Pirate Freedom, and William Gibson’s Spook Country were all every bit as good as I have come to expect. Hand and Gibson are both drifting away from genre work in very different ways, but you can’t complain about the quality of their writing. Wolfe, entirely unexpectedly, has produced a short fun book inspired by Captain Jack Sparrow and his piratical antics, though Pirate Freedom is very much a typical Wolfe novel too (nor does it shirk from pointing out the stupidities of Hollywood pirates).

And now, as they say at the end of award ceremonies, for the Big One. My book of the year actually turned up in proof last year, but it is a 2007 publication and I expect it to walk away with next year’s World Fantasy Award. Please take a bow, Guy Gavriel Kay, and thank you for Ysabel.

But I do have one thing left to say. It will be the end of the year, or even January, when you are reading this. So if you need some exercise after the holiday indulgences sneak out to a bookstore and order a copy of Shadowbridge by Gregory Frost. It is due out in a week or two, and it is going to be one of the big splashes of 2008.

Cynthia Ward:
The Year in Review, or Not

Ms. Duchamp has asked Aqueduct Press authors for a list or discussion of what impressed us in 2007, but I'm not the best choice for that. Not a critic; don't own a TV; last movie I saw was 300 (politically and historically incorrect. Nice abs, though); only things I've read lately are for research, for friendship (critique drafts), or for money (review copies). Don't see where these reveal much about writers, though they may reveal that if you love to read for pleasure, you shouldn't take up writing.

Still, one novel I've reviewed for another site (which has not yet posted it) is worth discussing here.

Hope for Heterosexual Feminists: Sylvia Kelso's Amberlight

Early feminist SF works didn't give a reader faith in the future of male-female relationships. Suzy McKee Charnas's Walk to the End of the World (1974) and Motherlines (1978), and such James Tiptree, Jr. stories as "The Women Men Don't See" (1973), "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (1976), and "The Screwfly Solution" (1977), offered no possibility of men and women ever getting along. Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975) portrayed men and women as condemned to a literal war between the sexes, while Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country (1988) saw men and women as biological enemies. Then there were the works in which all men had died off, and all women were as sexually pleased with this development as bivalves with the high tide.

Even male authors offered no hope for the heterosexual future. In Samuel R. Delany's Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (original title, Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia; 1976), a man became a woman, and still didn't understand women. Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X (1960) postulated that both sexes had to be replaced with a new, hermaphroditic sex. John Wyndham's "Consider Her Ways" (1956) resolved the battle of the sexes with a perfect society born from the extinction of men.

Not exactly happy choices for women who enjoy fucking men.

I wonder if this is one reason why "paranormal romance"-style fantasy novels have become so popular. Female characters get to be the heroes, and they get to win great-looking guys who're great in bed.

That's the sort of novel I expected from Wildside's new imprint, Juno Books, which publishes "fantasy with a focus on the female." It's certainly what you get in their Carole Nelson Douglas release, Dancing With Werewolves (11/07), the first book of the Delilah Street, Paranormal Investigator series.

It's not what you get in Juno's next release, Australian writer Sylvia Kelso's Amberlight (12/07).

This novel is feminist SF.

Its title is derived from its setting, a city-state named for one aspect of the sentient alien stone, qherrique, which gives Amberlight its dominance among nations. In contrast to its qherrique-seeking, war-like, male-led neighbors, Amberlight is female-dominated, because only females can quarry qherrique.

The Head of one Amberlight House, Tellurith, finds a deathly-wounded mana foreigner, and perhaps an enemy agentin the streets of her city. She saves his life at the behest of qherrique and her own humane impulse. The brutal sexual assault has wrecked his body and mind, but as strength and memory return, Tellurith and Alkhes (as she names him) match wits‑-rapier sharp ones. Alkhes would make an extremely dangerous enemy. He also makes an extremely attractive man.

I suppose I've made it sound like Amberlight drifts into romance-novel territory. I don't know, having read all of two genre romances. Still, I know some articulate genre-romance fans, and I'm familiar with the romance elements that show up in all genres, from action-adventure to Western. And Amberlight makes me think Kelso has never even heard the name "Harlequin."

Amberlight has many strengths. The one I'll mention here is Kelso's beautiful, detailed style, which creates a complex mosaic of meaning and feeling, and characters of complex and contradictory depth. The style demands a careful reading. And, since you're reading it so closely, you'll only be more thoroughly shattered by a key incident. (I'm not going to give it away. You'll know what it is when you get there.)

That must sound grim. It is grim. But the novel ends on a note of hope for Tellurith and Alkhes, and for women and men. Including heterosexual feminists of both sexes.

And, oh, yeah. Amberlight is the best new fiction I've read in 2007.

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