Otherbound — Corinne Duyvis

Cover of Otherbound

Corinne Duyvis
387 pages
published in 2014

It was thanks to The SKiffy and Fanty Show that I got to know about Dutch author Corinne Duyvis and her début novel Otherbound, when they had an interview with her about her book. This interview intrigued me enough to buy the ebook and start reading it immediately, because Duyvis was saying smart things about diversity and disability; it also helped that in the Dutch SF round table was raving about this book. And they were right to. This is a smart, well written fantasy novel with a clever, original idea at the heart of it that deserves to be a huge success.

Nolan would be just a normal high school kid, where it not for his crippling epileptic seizures. Amara is a servant girl, her only job to keep the fugitive princess Cilla safe, functioning as the lightning rod for the princess’ curse. Any drop of her blood spilled will attract the world’s vengeance on her, so instead Amara has to draw the curse to her, because she has a healing power that will allow the curse to do its worst and still leave her alive. As a side effect of her “gift”, Nolan was dragged into her world, her mind, seeing and experiencing Amara’s life every time he closes his eyes, every time he blinks. So when Cilla’s protector and Amara’s overseer, Jorn, punishes Amara for her neglicence by thrusting her arms into a fire, Nolan feels the pain alongside her. It’s this what’s really behind his epilepsy, this loss of control as he’s sucked into Amara’s world and can’t pay attention to his own.

It’s a great idea and not one I’ve come across before. The closest might actually be Katherine Blake/Dorothy J. Heydt’s The Interior Life, in which an American housewife imagines/relives a life in a fantasyland whose crisises and thriumphs mirror her own. The same intertwining of a “mundane” life with one in what seems to be a fantasy world, one in which magic is real and terrifying, but here Nolan and Amara are distinct people and Nolan isn’t just a passive onlooker to Amara’s life, but attempts to actively interfere, as well as to find some way to break their connection. Because for him, life mainly consists on trying to survive around experiencing hers, leaving little to no room for school, family or anything.

As Amara and princess Cilla flee the wrath of the ministers who took control of the country in the coup that killed the rest of the royal family, Amara has to deal not just with the brutality of Jorn and her relationship with Maart, another servant, but especially with her feelings for Cilla. As a servant she’s indoctrinated, raised from when she was first made a servant, had her tongue cut out, to obey and follow. Her ordeals battling the curse, the pains she suffers in Cilla’s stead — Duyvis doesn’t flinch in describing some of them — do test that enforced loyalty to the breaking point though and yet she finds it hard to hate Cilla. Cilla herself certainly is less than comfortable with Amara’s suffering, attempting to befriend but not quite realising how impossible that is considering their respective positions. Amara knows that she both cannot reject her overtures nor accept them, as that beyond her status as a bound servant. She can’t consent to them.

Meanwhile the relationship between Nolan and Amara, in which at first seems to be the innocent bystander drawn into Amara’s mind and life unbeknownst to her, starts changing too. As Nolan increasingly is able to enter her body and mind completely, taking over and controlling it, which Amara at first experiences as blackouts, put doubt to the idea that it was her that drew him to her. Perhaps it was the other way around and was it Nolan who, for some reason, had cast his mind into hers and now, through a quirk in his anti epilepsy medication, was able to control it better and control her.

Both these plot lines of course revolve around consent, the ways in which Amara cannot give consent in her relationship with Cilla and the ways in which she can, as their relationship shifts and changes, the ways in which Nolan has to deal with his discovery that he’s now in control and what that means. For Amara, each of his intrusions is obviously a violation, an invasion of her innermost being, something that Nolan is certainly aware of and not happy with. He doesn’t want to do this any more than she wants it done to her and now that he can control it and she’s aware of his presence, he wants nothing better than to stop doing so, but unfortunately the dangers in which Amara and Cilla are caught means he and Amara do need to come to some accommodation to save all of them.

Otherbound takes consent seriously, it’s at the heart of the novel and its villains are those who violate consent in the worst way possible, while it’s heroes, Amara, Nolan and to a lesser extent Cilla are those who learn to respect or have always attempted to respect consent and other people’s boundaries, while learning to set their own. The relationship that blossoms between Cilla and Amara is all about consent, about Cilla learning to ask in such a way that Amara can genuinely give it, while Amara learns to find those ways in which she can meaningfully consent, learns to go against conditioning and free herself. The villains of the story on the other hand cheerfully abuse consent, want ultimately to force Nolan to force Amara to give in to them so they can keep on ruling unchallenged.

As important perhaps as this theme, is the disability all three protagonists suffer from: Amara’s healing gifts, Cilla’s curse and Nolan’s epilepsy, all disabilities they each have to find and have found ways to try and live with, all in some ways limiting them. These felt real to me, not just gimmicks, not some D&D like stat to give the protagonist a bit of a handicap, but something that shapes their lives and will continue to do so even if no longer present. That’s … rarer than I’d like in fantasy or science fiction.

It makes Otherbound an important book as well as an entertaining one, a young adult novel that gets across the right sort of messages about consent and disability without being preachy or issue driven, but having them arise naturally from the story itself. It’s also good on family and the relationship between sisters and brothers, as with Nolan and his sister Pat.

Otherbound is not perfect. Both Nolan’s South-Western America and Amala’s Dunelands feel a bit flat at times, more sketched than portrayed. That said, I liked the little Dutch details Duyvis has put in their fantasy land, from the Dunelands themselves to having an island called Teschel (next to one calld T’ershell’ng?) to having “sugared batter poffs”. The pacing of the story is also slightly off, with the first half of the novel taking a bit too long to get going and the second half perhaps going too fast. But these are meer quibbles. This is a great, well written YA novel and I can’t wait for Duyvis’ next one.

The Mirror Empire — Kameron Hurley

Cover of The Mirror Empire

The Mirror Empire
Kameron Hurley
540 pages
published in 2014

Kameron Hurley’s debut novel Gods War had an impact many other writers would envy her for, only equalled by the buzz generated by Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice last year. It wasn’t just an accomplished debut novel, it also helped revitalise science fiction at a time when it started to grow a bit stale again. Expectations are therefore high for Hurley’s new novel, The Mirror Empire, the first in a new series and the first fantasy novel she has published. Would it be as good and inventive as her previous series, would she be as good at writing fantasy as science fiction?

Halfway through Mirror Empire I finally realised what it reminded me off: Steven Erikson’s Malazan series. Not so much in setting or plot, but rather in complexity and willingness of both authors to throw all sorts of interesting ideas into their novels, ideas you may not expect in what at first glance seems to be a standard epic fantasy series. Where they differ is that Hurley is much better at inclueing the reader about who all these people are and how everything fits together, where Erikson had a magnificent disdain for the reading, leaving them to sink or swim on their own. Hurley is … more forgiving but still requires you to pay attention. This is not a novel to read with your brain in standby.

Luckily Hurley has provided a cheat sheet, in the form of her promotional blog tour she undertook for The Mirror Empire. As you may know, her first publisher went into a spot of trouble that almost sunk her writing career until she got taken on by Angry Robot. Though I do have the feeling she severily underestimated how well know and popular she actually is, I can’t fault her for deciding that she needed to pull out all the stops to promote what might be her last chance at kickstarting her writing career. Hence the blog tour in which she talks about The Mirror Empire, why she wrote it as she did and the choices she made. If you haven’t read the novel you may therefore want be careful with reading those posts, because they do reveal a lot about the story, but it’s a boon to refresh your memory afterwards.

I started The Mirror Empire last Sunday when I read a large chunk sitting in my garden, then basically read it in fifteen-tweny minutes chunks on my commute, finishing it today, on Thursday. It read incredibly fast, pages flew by, chapters were read in minutes. Normally that’s the sign of a shallow book, something you don’t need to pay too much attention to read, but that’s not true here. Because I also found that I needed the time between commutes to think about the story, while going about my day, letting it bubble in my subconscious. As Hurley’s blog tour shows, there was a lot of thought put into this novel and I needed the time to process that.

The worldbuilding I especially was impressed with. The Mirror Empire takes amongst three different societies: the Dhai, Dorinah and the Saiduan, on one continent of one world. The latter two seem variations of well known pseudo feudal, medievaloid fantasy societies, but the Dhai are something else: vegetarian pacifist cannibals living in the middle of a wilderness filled with ambulatory predatory trees and other dangers. Their towns and temples are protected by various barriers as well as the talents of their priests or jistas, those who can draw on the powers of the various satellites that circle the world. As these, in their complicated years and decades long orbits draw closer or further, their powers become greater or lesser. The most elusive of the satellites is Oma, not seen for 2,000 years but whose rise always is accompanied by great and violent change. No points for guessing which satellite is starting to rise at the start of the novel.

But we don’t know that at the start of the novel, which begins with the main protagonist, Lila, losing her mother in a raid by a warband of Dhai. She escapes only because her mother, a bloodwitch able to work magic through the use of, well, blood, throws her through a gate to another world, where Lila is raised as a temple drudge for the Temple of Oma. Meanwhile in Saiduan the country is under attack from a relentless horde of invaders, invaders who seem to step out of tears in the sky, while in Dorinah the empress there entrusts her captain general with an important task: to ethnically cleanse all the Dhai slaves in the empire. All pieces of the same puzzle and to the reader it becomes relatively quick clear that’s what’s happening is no less than an invasion of a dying parallel world, where the Dhai are not cuddly pacifist cannibals, but aggressive conquerors who’ve taken over most of their world and now want to do the same to this world.

None of the characters in The Mirror Empire fit the traditional heroic mold. Lila is disabled with bad leg and asthma, while e.g. the Dorinah captain general, Zezili Hasaria, is more than happy to follow her empress’ orders for genocide, until driven by necessity to go against them. The closest the book comes to a true heroically good character is Ahkio, the kai or leader of the Dhai who tries to keep to the traditional virtues of his people even in the face of this existential crisis.

Which brings me back to the Dhai society, which not only distinguishes some five different genders (as well as people who don’t fit any of them) but which is also egalitarian and based on a radical form of consent, where even a simple touch on the arm needs to be consented to. This is something that’s genuinely new to me; I don’t think I’ve seen this before in either fantasy or science fiction.

In general, as the blog tour shows, Hurley has put an incredible amount of thought in gender and gender relations and how to create societies that aren’t the tired old medievaloid creatures of lesser novels. There are the five genders, female passive, female assertive, male passive, male assertive, and ungendered which do not map entirely on our own notions of gender, as they’re built around specific roles these genders play in Dhai society as well as temperament and are fluid as people change over time and change their identity. Ahkio for example identifies as male passive, more conservative, more traditional and reserved, whereas if he’d identified as male assertive he’d been more individualistic and liberal.

The Saiduan too have a flexible gender system, acknowledging a third gender, the ataisa, inbetween male and female, but whereas with the Dhai gender is self identified, in Saiduan it’s enforced much more by society. That’s one of the ways in which Hurley is great at worldbuilding, by creating those subtle but fitting distinctions between societies while still seeing the similarities. What’s also interesting is that describing these gender systems and societies Hurley has created puts them much more in the foreground than they are when reading the novel. Most of the time you accept them like you’d accept the details of any fantasy world, as you accept that the people here ride dogs or bears, rather than horses.

There is one place though where these gender concerns are foregrounded, mainly in the subplot surrounding Anavha, husband to Zezili, the Dorinah captain general. Dorinah society is a matriarchal one where men fill the same role as women historically in our world, appandages of their wives, with nothing more to do than to look pretty for them and be there to fullfill their sexual needs and give them children. His chapters are in your face and uncomfortable and hard to read: it’s not that often you have this role reversal in a fantasy novel and have it shown up so starkly. His story is what’s going to stick in some people’s craws, if anything is.

For me personally though, I’ve only scratched the surface of what makes The Mirror Empire great and I can’t wait for the sequel. Already this is a worthy candidate for the Hugo and Nebula Awards and certainly a much better novel than Gods War.

Morlock Night — K. W. Jeter

Cover of Morlock Night

Morlock Night
K. W. Jeter
301 pages
published in 1979

The inside cover calls this “one of the three foundational steampunk texts”, but it’s a steampunk that’s far removed from what modern writers mean by it. Morlock Night is far more anarchic, not so stiffly Victorian Brass ‘N Goggles as its descendants. Originally written as throwaway fiction for a British pulp line which wanted a series of novels about king Arthur reincarnated when England needs him most. Jeter and two of his friends divided the series up between them and Jeter went for a 19th century setting. Why they got American novelists to write them is anybody’s guess, but the end result is a seriously gonzo science fiction novel.

It starts off as a sequel to H. G. Wells The Time Machine, asking a simple question: what happened after the Time Traveller went back to the time of the Eloi and Morlocks after he had told his story? One Edwin Hocker –and what a moniker for any author to saddle his protagonist with –, one of the guests at the evening Wells immortalised is about to find out as he’s accosted by a strange man on his way home who drags him, very much against his will, into an adventure even stranger than that of the original Time Traveller, as he’s needed to save England from a Morlock invasion.

So far, so predictable. But things take a turn for the stranger quickly. That pale man that recruited Hocker is none other than Merlin, behind the Morlock menace is his old enemy, while king Arthur has been reincarnated but is in no position to do anything about it. What’s at stake is no less than the very existence of the universe and worse, Christendom and England.

Of course Hocker, Merlin and Arthur do succeed is stopping this menace, but not before e.g. having to traverse the London sewers and ending up in an deep underground community, in the same place where all the treasures lost in London end up, an outpost of ancient Atlantis.

So yeah, Jeter throws a lot of ideas in the air, some of which were less played out in 1979 than they would be now and just lets the plot rollick around with enough momentum that you don’t go “hang on, what just happened” until after you put the book down. It’s a terrific and fun read, something I zipped through in an afternoon. However, it did make me slightly uncomfortable in its politics.

It’s done tongue in cheek, yes, but Jeter does have his heroes share the xenophobic little Englander views of the world of your average self satisfied Victorian Englishman, with the Morlocks described in distinctively racial terms as subhuman brutes with no redeeming feature to them. Granted, this was also present in the original Wells novel, considering that the whole Morlock/Eloi section of that book was basically the educated middle class Victorian social democrat man’s nightmare about the coming rule of the proletariat, but Jeter went further because he makes it more explicit. And of course he was writing roughly a century later and might have known better.

Where this a serious book rather than a romp this racism would make this into a wallbanger — as I’d throw it against the wall. But because this is a tongue in cheek adventure romp it can be overlooked, though I do think you should always point these things out. It’s after all in the unconscious or conscious use of these sort of racist tropes that they get perpetuated.

But we shouldn’t take this too seriously, cause Jeter certainly didn’t. Treat it as the gonzo adventure it is, don’t think too hard about the consequences of its politics and see this as the historical novel this is, one of the starting points of steampunk, even if it perhaps was a dead end.

The Steerswoman — Rosemary Kirstein

Cover of The Steerswoman

The Steerswoman
Rosemary Kirstein
279 pages
published in 1989

As long as I’ve been online and talking to other fans I’ve been hearing about The Steerswoman, how it’s one of those great lost books of science fiction and how sad it was that it had fallen out of print, how everybody who read it loved it; I never heard anybody say anything bad about it. Now, finally, after twenty years of hearing this I had the chance to judge for myself and you know what? Everybody was right. And if you want the chance to see for yourself why this book is so highly rated, the ebook is very reasonably priced.

But reading The Steerswoman, after having heard so much about, brings on a strange tension. As with any such book, you come into it with a certain knowledge about it, an expectation about how the plot would roughly develop, somewhat of an idea of the central gimmick of the novel, of what makes it special. It makes me wonder how I would’ve read The Steerswoman had I stumbled over it in 1989, before I had that knowledge. So erm, for any reader who doesn’t know about it, do me a favour and read it before you read the rest of this post and tell me what you think? Don’t read on, just go out and buy it from the link above.

The Steerswoman starts out as any ordinary fantasy novel, with a map in the front and the story opening with our protagonist Rowan, the titular steerswoman, sitting in the common room of an inn talking to the innkeeper about a mysterious blue jewel he found some years ago. Steerswomen, as well as the occasional steerman, are people dedicated to curiosity, asking questions of everyone and having a duty to answering anybody else’s questions in turn. Not answering a steerswoman’s questions is taboo and can have you banned from asking any steerswoman at all. Meanwhile in one noisy corner of the common room a band of Outskirters — nomadic goat herders and occassional raiders living on the outskirts of the settled regions of the world — are telling stories as Rowan is examining the jewels, when she notices the storyteller, a woman called Bel, wearing a silver belt worked with the same kind of jewels.

Rowan talks to Bel and ask her where these jewels were found and in her short conservation with the direct, open and clearly intelligent barbarian comes to like her enough not to hesitate when Bel proposes to travel together back to Rowan’s home, the Archives of the Steerswomen order. Only a day out from the inn however they’re attacked by one of the Red soldiers who’d also been at the inn the previous day, an ambush Rowan likely wouldn’t have survived without Bel. A few days later, the inn they’re staying in at the harbour town from which they’ll take passage for the next leg of their journey is attacked by dragons, which is something that happens but not normally in the middle of town. Rowan isn’t slow to draw the conclusion that somebody is after them, or her and the cause is likely to be the strange blue jewels she had become fascinated by.

She also has a likely subject for who might be behind the attacks, as their first assailant was in the employ of a Wizard of the Red. Wizards are incredibly powerful people, whose powers and spells help both protect from oh say, dragon attacks and keeps them above and beyond the law. Between them and the steerswomen there’s always been a wary sort of understanding, but clearly those jewels are important enough to break this truce. But is it the jewels themselves or is it their origin? As far as Rowan can tell from knowning where they were found, it’s as if some enormous giant had flung them halfway across the world…

Clearly there’s something important about those jewels and to find out what, it’s equally clear Rowan will have to resort to something any steerswoman abhors: subterfuge. In disguise she and Bel will try and get to the largest sources of the stones in the Outskirts and it’s while journeying to this that they meet up with Will, a young man hoping to apprentice with a wizard. A young man clever enough to have invented a magic powder on his own, a power packed with spells that are released if fire is introduced to it…

That’s not the first hint that the world of The Steerswoman isn’t quite the medievaloid fantasy world it first looks like, but it is the most blatant up till then. The blue jewels themselves, always set in some metal fitting seem remarkably like some sort of circuitry, while some of the hints about the nature of the world itself suggests a conflict between a clearly terrestrial ecology and something more …alien… shall we say?

Not to mention the Guidestars, two satellites that orbit the world and from which travellers get their bearings. Is something that useful truly a natural phenomenon or is it something more artificial?

Of course to Rowan and Bel these things are either part of the natural order of the world, only suggestive to the reader, or some form of magic, but not a static, incomprehensible magic. Neither may understand themselves how this magic works, but it is clear that the wizards do, to a certain extent, while as a reader it’s clear that some of this magic is something else entirely, recognisable from real life or, well, science fiction.

Now the question for me personally is, all those hints Kirstein has woved so skillfully into the story, would I have found them without the foreknowledge I’ve gotten from two decades of people talking to me about it? How much would’ve I found on my own? I genuinely don’t know, nor does it matter much. I’m sure I would’ve picked up something, especially after the introduction of William, but in any case I would’ve enjoyed a great story.

One of the highlights of that story being the relationship between Rowan and Bel, two very different woman, one a scholar, the other a warrior, who built up an intense friendship, the sort of friendship between women that’s a rarity to see portrayed in science fiction or fantasy. There either isn’t the second woman, somebody close to the protagonist, to form that friendship with, or it would be a romantic relationship. Nothing wrong with the latter of course, but it’s nice to see a true, non-romantic friendship too.

The Steerswoman is a wonderful novel and I can see why it’s such a favourite of so many people, a comfort read even. Rosemary Kirstein has an accomplished voice and her writing settles over you like a warm cloak in those opening scenes, setting you at ease before she puts the knife in. It’s not entirely perfect, there’s a torture scene I could’ve done without, but on the whole this was a novel I couldn’t stop reading while not wanting it to end either.

The Honor of the Queen — David Weber

Cover of The Honor of the Queen

The Honor of the Queen
David Weber
384 pages
published in 1993

The Honor of the Queen is the second novel in the Honor Harrington series, which finds Honor promoted after the events of On Basilik Station and off to command a small flottila escorting a diplomatic and trade mission to the Grayson Republic, which the Manticoran Kingdom hopes to gain as an ally. The thing is, Grayson is a system settled by American fundamentalist Christians who lived in isolation for centuries on a planet that was literally poisonous to them due to the amount of heavy metals in its soil. They have a bit of a problem therefore with women serving in the military, which complicates things for Honor. Meanwhile, on the planet of even more fundamentalist Christians, Manticore’s ancient rival the Haven Republic is busy meddling…

The Honor Harrington books are purely escapist mind candy for me, books I grab when I really don’t want to make an effort but still want to read something. Weber is a good enough author that he keeps your attention throughout, that he keeps you wanting to read on to find out the rest of the story no matter how often you’ve read it, which is why I’ve read his Harrington novels more often than many much better novels. They just give me something other books can’t. Even if objectively speaking they’re not very good.

What Weber’s good at is emotional manipulation, as Honor is put through the wringer, having to deal with people who hate and despise her for being a woman, who with their petty aggressions forced her to flee from the system under cover of duty, escorting merchant ships, leaving the remaining Manticoran ship and Grayson vulnerable to attack. When she comes back she has to deal with the guilt of knowning she’d made the wrong choice, a choice that had gotten one of her oldest friends killed and now still has to defend a system that had already made clear its opinion of her.

That’s a lotta angst right there.

What Weber is also good at, or incredibly bad, opinions differ, is the space battles, which go into serious anal detail about which ship is launching which missiles and how the enemy deals with them. All told in lovingly Clancyesque language. It’s not so bad yet in this novel, but later books in the serious waste a lot of pages on those descriptions.

Honor of the Queen has two set pieces that are of particular interest, one positive, one negative. To start with the positive, there’s the assasination attempt on Protector Benjamin, the ruler of Grayson, foiled by Honor and Nimitz, her treecat, whose telepathich gifts catch enough of a hint of the assassins’ intentions to launch himself at them. That scene, with Honor and Nimitz fighting side by side to defend the Protector and his family, is brilliantly done, one of the best fight scenes Weber has ever written.

The other scene however shows the worst of Weber’s instincts, as it’s the scene where the Cowardly Liberal whose highfalutin principles are only cover for his own selfish interest, is taken down a peg and physically humiliated by our avenging heroine. Weber is a bit of a rightwinger, as any quick perusal of his fiction makes clear and especially in the early Harrington novels he’s eager to put the boot into silly liberals and their silly ideas and not being particularly subtle about it. It’s incredibly irritating.

In general, like so many other military fiction writers, Weber has a disdain for politicians unless they’re the sort of steady, clearheaded people who always vote for increased military budget and a respect for professional soldiers with the right virtues –those who do their duty to the best of their honour– whether friend or foe. Opposed to that are emotional liberals and just as emotional fanatics of all stripes. It’s a simplistic and childish view of the world that I can largely ignore for the sake of the story, but sometimes it grates.