This is a set of three novellas, set in very distinct times, about the goddess Ishtar. Despite having the same theoretical focus, the three vary greatly in tone, style and actual focus. There are, nonetheless, a couple of clear threads that link them. The first is, of course, Ishtar herself. This is no Botticelli-esque Venus, no whimsical romanticised Aphrodite; all three authors present an Ishtar who is very clearly goddess of war and goddess of love/sexuality, and who embodies the struggles that each of those aspects brings – not to mention the way they work together. Coexistent with this is an attitude towards men that could perhaps be described as contempt, although that may be too harsh; disdain may be closer. Aside from Ishtar, the three stories are all categorised by a general sense of dread, of pessimism and darkness. These are not cheery tales.
I love a fiction book that comes with a bibliography, and Ishtar does just that. I suspect most of the research went into Kaaron Warren’s opening story, “The Five Loves of Ishtar” – although looking at the titles of the articles I can see resonances with the other two stories as well. Warren, though, in opening the set, has the task of placing Ishtar within her original context: ancient Mesopotamia. I know only a little of the history of that area; it certainly feels to me that Warren has captured the sense, if not of the historical area itself, then of how the area might have perceived itself in myth <i>and</i>history. Because Warren sets Ishtar within a place that feels real, where the gods and heroes do walk the earth and do interact with mortals. And she tells of Ishtar and her five loves through five generations of washerwomen, at once a domestic and lowly, yet also incredibly intimate, position. Ishtar’s loves come and go, from Tammuz the Green One in 3000BC to Ashurnasirpal in 883BC. There are some similarities between the five: jealousy, and a love of power, and a lack of understanding of Ishtar herself. To some extent, though, the men are just there to be foils to Ishtar – to provide evidence of time’s movement, since Ishtar changes little; to give Ishtar a canvas on which to act. Ishtar’s involvement with women is of great moment, and I think reveals more of Ishtar’s self. Her interactions with women giving birth, and with her washerwomen, shows a complex character that isn’t entirely comfortable in the world, but doesn’t really know how else to be. There are poignant moments of vulnerability (a goddess concerned about her appearance? unsure of whether she wants a child?), as well as startling moments of horror (the casual brutality of death and war, the creation of a horrific army). This is a complex story as befits a complex character and a complex history, too. Warren does it justice, and sets up the next two stories beautifully: after all, if this is Ishtar in the far ancient world, what might she be like today, let alone in the future?
Deb Biancotti has the task of placing Ishtar in the modern world, and actually for much of the novel Ishtar is not a physical presence; she is a rumour, a hidden force, a menacing shadow. “And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living” takes place today, in Sydney, and is essentially a police procedural. Adrienne is a detective, and she has a rather nasty case to work on: several men found dead, with their bones smashes to smithereens, who all appear to have been sex-workers. Just the sort of trend that gives police headaches – especially when the cause of death is almost impossible to explain. In searching for clues, Adrienne reconnects with an old friend who used to be involved in the sex workers’ union; meets a priest and a gigolo-cum-witchdoctor type; and comes across a rather odd goddess cult, who are waiting for their goddess to reappear. All of these people give tantalising clues as to what might be going on, where ‘tantalising’ can also be synonymous with ‘frustrating’ and ‘hair-pullingly-ambiguous’. The reader, of course, might have some idea of what is going on – surely Ishtar has to turn up or be involved at some point – but that really doesn’t make a difference to the story itself. Adrienne is a powerful, compelling protagonist, into whose personal life the reader gets just enough insight to understand that while policing is of fundamental importance to her, it’s not quite all she is. She verges on manic sometimes; her determination and dedication is by turns admirable and somewhat frightening. The supporting cast is solid: Steve, her partner-in-policing, is different enough to riff off, with a family to be concerned about and a bit less narrowly focussed; Nina, the prostitute, is the old friend who can say pretty much anything to Adrienne and provides a wildly different perspective. This novella is the most straight-forward of the three, because of its police procedural nature; there is a mystery which must be worked out, and it seems bizarre and unlikely but then clues fall into place. It is the easiest and least demanding to read (which is by no means a slight on Warren or Sparks, or on Biancotti either), but don’t assume that makes it pleasant. Or that it has a nice ending.
One mythological, one mystery… and a post-apocalytpic tale on which to end. Cat Sparks rounds out the set with “The Sleeping and the Dead.” It starts in a blasted desert with a mechanical bull going mad, and really just continues in that trend. Exactly when and where this story takes place is unclear; I presumed it was Australia, but it doesn’t have to be, and it’s sometime in the future of Adrienne’s Sydney – probably within a generation, but that’s just my guess from a few hints here and there. The focus of this story is Doctor Anna, who lives in said desert with a bunch of very weird, fairly crazy nuns with a seriously disturbing ossuary. When one day some men come calling – well, crawling like dehydrated possibly-hallucinating men are wont to – things change; whether it will be for the better or the worse depends entirely on whose perspective you take. Where Warren’s story has an ancient world annals feel to it, and Biancotti’s is a straightforward novel, Sparks’ piece at times feels something like a dream. The narrative is basically straightforward but the links don’t always immediately make sense; and Anna’s obsession with Thomas doesn’t entirely make sense; and time doesn’t always seem to flow in the proper, ordered way it ought. The place of Ishtar in this story is the least obvious of the three; it does make sense towards the end and, credit where it’s definitely due, Sparks does a good job of tying her Ishtar back to Warren’s. I’m not sure how deliberate that was, since I have no idea how closely the three worked in developing their stories, but it certainly felt cohesive.
This is a really impressive set of stories, and they are most definitely worthy of the award nominations they’ve been receiving. I expect this to be a collection that I keep revisiting and, perhaps especially in the past and future Ishtars, I expect to keep finding new nuances and details cleverly hidden away. It would have been so easy to sanitise this goddess and make her palatable; I am so glad Warren, Biancotti, and Sparks had the vision to be true to what I think is the general vibe of the original mythology.
This is the third book in Williams’ series about Dagmar Shaw (the others are This is Not a Game and Deep State). I guess therefore this review may contain spoilers for those two books, like the fact that she survives.
This one is not like the others because Dagmar is not the main protagonist. Instead, she moves onto the sidelines, becoming a somewhat shadowy, sometimes even fearsome, mover and shaker. I was a bit surprised by this change because Dagmar had worked so very well in the others; she’s a character I developed a great rapport with. To see her from the perspective of someone else – someone to whom she is a stranger, and quite strange – was disconcerting. It does mean that someone could very easily read this without having read the other two; having read the first two it meant that I had a greater trust than Sean, the narrator, could have in her. Which distanced me slightly from Sean, and meant that I kept expecting great things from Dagmar.
Sean is twenty-something and, as the novel opens, a contestant on Celebrity Pitfighter, which is exactly what you’re thinking it is, with the added bonus that every round, there’s a surprise handicap. When Sean enters the ring to face Jimmy Blogjoy (!), he steps into a ring covered in cottage cheese. Our Sean qualifies for this edifying programme because he was a child star on a show called Family Tree… a rather long time ago. Since then, he’s done bits and pieces, but the reality is that ‘washed up’ is a kind description. He is hampered partly by a condition called pedomorphosis, which he describes as meaning that “while the rest of [his] body has aged normally, [his] head has retained the features of an infant” (p34). Cute in a kid, decidedly odd in an adult. This is, however, not a problem for the part that Dagmar Shaw wants him to audition for.
In the first two novels, Dagmar was running Alternate Reality games: games that interacted with reality once you’d signed up for it, that worked on a mass level and created huge flashmobs, and which occasionally had real-world implications. With this novel, she has moved to Hollywood and is looking to make her first feature film, although not quite in the way that Sean and his agent expect. The plot therefore revolves around the making of the film, which has two parts: first, the outrageous plans Dagmar has for making the film and changing the very experience of film-watching; second, the dramas on and off set between cast and crew – both of which suggest Williams has some experience of Hollywood and its weirdness.
If this were all the novel offered, it would still be very entertaining. But twisted throughout the novel is a rather curious reflection on the realities of life for Sean, has-been child star. One of the awesome techniques Williams used in previous novels is forum threads between people interacting in Shaw’s AR games. There’s not quite as much scope for that here, but it’s replaced by entries from Sean’s blog – because really, what’s a has-been celebrity going to do but blog about his has-been-ness? They come complete with comments, from trolls to supporters to spam. In these entries, Sean reflects on how he got to where he is, and particularly about how he was screwed over by his parents. It’s a neat way to get into Sean’s head a little bit more.
There’s also the fact that someone appears to be trying to kill Sean, which becomes quite the mystery for him to unravel. Williams doesn’t overplay this aspect, but weaves it too throughout the main narrative.
As mentioned above, I thought I was getting another Dagmar novel, so there was a level of disappointment when she didn’t turn out to be as present as I’d hoped. Sean is not as likeable as Dagmar; he’s close to being alcoholic, and while he’s not quite the ruthless Hollywood shark that some of his friends are, he is well aware of how to play the game, and is generally willing to do just that. I found his cynicism and pessimism somewhat disheartening, if realistic. Happily, though, he’s not completely repellant. He’s a good friend – usually – and his devotion to acting as a craft, as a lifelong passion, is a joy. Most of the characters do not get particularly fleshed out. Sean’s agent is a sleaze and a huckster; many of the showbiz types on the periphery of Sean’s world are not quite caricatures – they’re individual enough to miss that – but neither do they have much impact. Even Dagmar is shadowy, occasionally looming large and at other times disappearing into the background.
Finally, it’s important to discuss the SFnal nature of the book. It’s very much what I think of as ‘tomorrow fiction’: the technology is only just out of reach (probably), and the world as a whole is intensely, sometimes miserably, recognisable. The main technological advance is in the Alternate Reality goggles and other such ‘ware, which allows the user to see and interact with content that has been posted not just on the net, but in the ‘real’ world’. Sadly, most of the time AR seems to be used for ads and porn (see? recognisable and miserable). It’s the sort of SF which doesn’t always feel like SF, but then a character uses technology or mentions a recent event that sounds plausible, but definitely hasn’t happened (…yet…).
It’s a fast read, it’s a well-structured and pacey read, and it’s a lot of fun.