Tooth and Claw is, by its own admission, a modern attempt at writing a Victorian novel. As it opens, the patriarch is dying, and the family have gathered. Soon enough there is a squabble over the inheritance: there’s not much wealth left, and the eldest two children are already established, so the younger three are meant to get the lion’s share to help them out. But the brother-in-law decides he disagrees with the interpretation of the will, and takes more than what the younger son, in particular, thinks is fair. He then begins court proceedings to deal with it. (The blurb on my copy calls this a search for “greedy remuneration,” but I thoroughly disagree with this interpretation.)
The family is gently-born, but with little wealth and a fairly small estate this isn’t overly much use. The younger son is struggling to make his way in the corporate world, and could use all the help he can get. His older brother is established as a parson in a good living, with a fairly generous benefactress, a wife, and some children; the older sister is married, with children and expecting more. The situation is of course most desperate for the two younger sisters. Without significant dowries, attracting suitable (and nice) husbands is going to be more difficult than pleasant… and it’s made more difficult for the older one when an unwanted suitor very nearly ruins her completely.
The story revolves mostly around the three younger siblings, although the older brother gets an occasional look-in. The sisters are parcelled off to their older siblings with hopes of finding suitors or at least not being too much in the way; the younger son goes back to his city life, and the things he’d rather his family not talk about.
… all right, all right. Those in the know are amused and eye-roll-y by this stage, everyone else is confused.
Everything I’ve written so far is true. But all of the characters? They’re dragons.
Yes. Dragons. Scales, claws, eating raw meat, flying, concerned about polishing their scales, sleeping on gold, breathing fire if they’re lucky, dragons. And it works. Walton takes some of the ideas of the Victorian novel and makes them real; her take on the blushing bride is brilliant. Her vision of menial dragons is perhaps the most shocking aspect – that their wings are tied down, such that they can never fly. This is a wonderful visual of the reality of life for many ‘in service’.
Also, dragons eat each other.
This is a great, fun story. It’s light-hearted overall with a serious social message (a few, really; perhaps closer to Gaskell than Austen?). The characters are approachable, the plot plays out nicely – it’s a delight to read.
In which Alisa has a baby, and Alex & Tansy put a bow on it. Not the baby. The podcast!
Birth Announcement: Welcome to Mackenzie Charlotte & all our love and best wishes to the recovering and delighted new parents, Alisa and Chris.
Alex: Feminist Frequency’s Tropes vs Women in Video Games; Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie; Menial: Skilled Labor in SF, Kelly Jennings and Shay Darrach
Tansy: Nanowrimo! Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell; Horrible Histories; Wife in Space by Neil Perryman, The Time Machine (Destiny of the Doctor), 1963: Fanfare of the Common Men, The Space Race, The Assassination Games; Night of the Doctor
INK BLACK MAGIC BY TANSY RAYNER ROBERTS available now from Fablecroft, Amazon & bookshops who order it in.
GOODREADS GIVEAWAY FOR INK BLACK MAGIC
Doctor Who Women on the Radio including Tansy
Pet subject: SFF for children (they cross genres more easily than adults, basically)
Alex: Victor Kelleher (especially Taronga); Playing Beatie Bow, Ruth Park; Riddle of the Trumpalar, Judy Bernard-Waite; The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
Tansy: Diana Wynne Jones; Robyn Klein (Halfway Across the Galaxy and Turn Left); Which Witch, Eva Ibbotson; Margaret Mahy, Aliens in the Family and all her books about pirates; Ruth Chew; Five Children and It, E. Nesbit; Edward Eagar (Half Magic and Seven Day Magic – stories for kids who love to read and know how to manage a magical adventure!); comics like Gunnerkrigg Court, Zita the Space Girl, Betty & Veronica spin-offs. The Case of the Origami Yoda bridging fantasy and reality!
Also Possum Magic, Magic Pudding, and other Australian picture-book classics! From England, Charlie and Lola by Lauren Child and various books such as Fairy Shopping by Sally Gardner are appreciated for their gorgeous collage art as much as the stories.
Please send feedback to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!
Secondly: a real review. There are some spoilers, but nothing too major. I promise you will still have your breath stolen by many of the events in the book.
So, let me get “the gender thing” out of the way first. I debated leaving this ’til last, because it’s what a lot of other people are apparently fixated on… but for that very reason, it seemed disingenuous of me not to engage. Thus: the narrator of the story, Breq, is from a culture that does not use gendered pronouns. When Breq is dealing with cultures that do use gendered pronouns, there are language problems – troubling enough that it causes Breq quite some stress. And when Breq is thinking/speaking to the audience, rather than rendering pronouns as ‘it’, Leckie has opted for ‘she’. This, obviously, presents some rather intriguing aspects. Except for a few times when Breq is corrected, the reader actually has no idea whether the other characters presented are male or female. I don’t actually think we know whether Breq‘s body is female or male, hence my hesitance to use a pronoun (Breq would use ‘she’ and roll her eyes at me). Why is this interesting? Well, we don’t know whether the leaders have boobs or balls. We don’t know whether the soldiers dying having tits or testes, and we don’t know which the person who ordered those deaths has, either.* And I think this probably changes the way the reader reacts, at least in some instances. More intimately, we have no idea whether the physical and otherwise personal relationships presented are hetero or homo, which is relevant if it matters to you; at any rate the lack of knowledge is surprising, occasionally frustrating, always intriguing. And when any or all of the people might be women, you’re left with the conclusion that women are actually capable of doing/being all of the positions presented – up to and including leading a galaxy-spanning society. Who knew? In the lack of gendered pronouns Leckie is making a call that gender doesn’t matter – except that in choosing ‘she’, this is somewhat undercut.
Look, I’m not actually a gender studies scholar. Probably there are other things that Leckie is doing that I didn’t really pick up on. But as a way of unbalancing the reader that works perfectly within the context of the novel, it’s a brilliant choice; and it also does that thing that great SF should do: it forced me to reconsider my own world.
On to other things: and speaking of unbalancing the reader that works perfectly within the context of the novel, what is with the gloves?? This is a brilliantly clever, and devastating, move on Leckie’s part. Breq comes from the Radchaai, and within the Radchaai everyone wears gloves. If you don’t wear gloves, you are regarded with horror. Why? It’s never explained. It’s like a man getting around in a Jane Austen novel not wearing a shirt; it’s clearly the wrong thing to do, but it’s not going to get him arrested – and Austen wouldn’t bother to explain why it’s a problem because surely you understand? Sheer. Brilliance.
Ancillary Justice does not follow a neat linear narrative. There is a chronological thread – it follows Breq as she (all right, I give up; it’s just easier, ok? and it’s what she would use) searches for something she needs, in an effort to right a wrong. Along the way she encounters someone rather unexpected, who brings a whole pile of unlooked for problems. Alongside and around that thread, the reader lives through the memories of what has brought Breq to this path. The main thing to know, in order to understand what’s going on (and this is on the back cover, so it’s not a spoiler), is that Breq wasn’t always Breq. Until twenty years ago, the body known as Breq was an ancillary of the AI controlling the Justice of Toren, a massive ship of the Radchaai involved in annexing and subduing planets – ostensibly for their own, but mostly for the Radchaai, good. Thus Breq’s memories are mostly those of a few-thousand-year-old artificial intelligence. And being an ancillary means that her body is human, and was co-opted for… duty? inhabitation? use? by the AI.
This issue of ancillaries is one that the book is not obsessed by, but does deal with seriously via several of the characters who respond poorly to the very idea of them. I liked that the story didn’t develop into something too preachy, but I also appreciated that having raised such a frankly horrifying idea, Leckie did not simply leave it as a necessary-but-evil, or evidence-the-Radchaai-are-dreadful, sign. Instead, it’s as complicated an issue as the annexations themselves, because they really do bring benefits to the planets colonised – as other colonisations have – but whether that’s worth all the pain and bloodshed… well. That’s something we’re still processing, to some extent.**
The blurb of my copy paints this as predominantly a revenge story, and I get where that’s coming from. But it lacks nuance, too. Breq is indeed looking for revenge. But she’s also looking for answers – to questions about events in her past, questions about the Radchaai itself, questions about how she can, should, exist as this solitary body rather than as a near-omnipotent (in a constrained space) being. Therefore even if the novel were purely focussed around her, it’s more complicated than just “rargh I get you for what you done to me!” But, of course, as the above demonstrates this is a far more nuanced and complex novel than that. It touches on issues of colonisation, and of gender; it looks at what it means to inhabit a body, as well as to inhabit a planet. And it looks at how religion is co-opted for different purposes, too.
The inclusion of religion startled me, and – when I got over that – made me very happy. It’s something I’ve complained about in the past, here and on Galactic Suburbia: the lack of religion, treated seriously, in science fiction. Seriously people: do you think that just because humanity lives beyond the Earth, they’re going to somehow move beyond a desire for an explanation beyond what science can provide? I don’t think so. Leckie’s inclusion of religion, and the exploration of how religion and colonisation work together, was welcome and clever and shows how much thought she has put into this universe.
This next bit is for those who’ve read Iain M Banks’ Culture novels. I can’t help but assume that at least part of this novel is in dialogue with the Culture. There’s the fact that AIs are in charge of ships and stations, and interact with their human inhabitants. I know that this happens in other stories, but there was something that made me feel a distinct connection to the Culture Minds. That said, these AIs are not really like the Culture Minds. For a start, they’re not meant to have personalities at all. And there’s a very clear point in the story where Breq reflects on the fact that the ships don’t really talk to each other any more; they’re too old, and they’re bored by each other. This is in complete contrast to Banks’ positively verbose Minds, who can usually hardly keep their traps shut. Then, of course, there’s the use of ancillaries – actual bodies – instead of drones, which is… interesting. And reflective of the fact that the Radchaai is a far more problematic society than the Culture, and possibly reflective of the way such a human society is more likely to act (aggressively, rather than with the amused benevolence characteristic of the Culture). It’s entirely possible that Leckie has never read Banks, I guess, but for me this works really nicely in conversation with a series of books that I also adore.
Finally, then: this is what I want my SF to be like from now on. Smart; fast-paced; intriguing characters; believable world. And intellectual depth for added joy.
*I do understand this is reductionist; I’m going for effect here. Additionally, there doesn’t seem to be an indication of these societies going in for large-scale, Culture-esque body shaping, so it seems to me that these crude indicators would still be considered relevant by Breq’s contemporaries.
**I mean on a global scale, not an individual scale. Please don’t yell at me for defending colonisation, because I’m certainly not; I’m an historian, I know and agree with most of your points.
You can get Ancillary Justice from Fishpond. This book was provided to me by the publisher at no cost.
Reviewing an anthology is always a bit more difficult than reviewing a novel. So is rating it. Does one poor story deserve to bring down the entire anthology? Should I mention every single story?
I gave this anthology a 5-star rating on Goodreads. I did not do this because every single story blew me away; they didn’t, although I don’t remember any story that I loathed, which is impressive in its own right. Partly I was predisposed to being impressed by the anthology because of the theme: the menial. That is, no heirs-misplaced-at-birth, no admirals or planetary governors or princesses starring here; instead, it’s the miners, the sewerage workers, the grunts who feature. Not to say that the stories don’t feature action or adventure – they do – but largely it’s action that happens in the course of everyday work, and often because of accidents: the sorts of things that you’d really rather didn’t happen. The anthology points out the dignity in the menial tasks, as well as acknowledging the sheer back-breaking work that’s likely to still be necessary in the future; it points out the importance of the menial while remembering the danger. And even though the menial workers shine in the stories, it’s clear that for most of them, this isn’t going to lead to a huge change in fortunes. It’s part of a day’s work, or it’s not but it’s not enough to propel them out of drudgery – or indeed it’s something that leads to them getting fired and the consequent uncertainty of unemployment.
This anthology shows that good SF can be escapist in letting the reader escape from their own immediate situation, but can simultaneously speak to the reader who is unlikely to be a spaceship pilot or lead an army, but may well have a dead-end job that they hate. It can provide ways to imagine a different world but also reassure and comfort that even people in crappy jobs can actually have interesting lives, and do interesting things – something much SF ignores.
This anthology imagines a range of possible futures. They’re mostly fairly far future, and involve space travel of some sort; some have humanity spread far and wide, others are a bit more restricted. Because of its focus on the working class, there is less emphasis on the political or military than one often finds in SF, because really, when you’re scraping to get food on the table who has time to worry about the expansion of the empire? Many of these stories are united in their focus on the nitty-gritty details, those details that make up the everyday. Some of them are very familiar, some are familiar but in foreign contexts, whilst others are utterly alien. And the best stories make this work in clever and occasionally utterly bemusing ways.
I was initially dubious about the possibility of making an entire anthology based on the concept of skilled labour; not because I thought the concept was boring but because I wasn’t sure how there could be enough variety within that to keep having different stories. This is because I am not an author. There is, of course, infinite variety in the stories you can tell from the menial perspective – because there’s an infinite variety of stories to tell about humanity.
You can get Menial from Fishpond.