By Force Alone
I have a long and increasingly cynical relationship with King Arthur, and all the stories around him. I read a fair bit of it as an adolescent – I even did subjects at uni about the mythology and so on. But as sometimes happens, I got cynical and impatient as I got old, and I haven’t read much new Arthur stuff in a long time.
I did re-read Susan Cooper recently, which was an excellent choice and is a bit more left-field than other Arthuriana so doesn’t really count. (Also, not new to me.)
And then a friend started raving about this book and while he’s not prone to hyperbole I was a bit like… really? That good? But I was intrigued and so I bought it and…
I’m not sure I can read another Arthur book ever.
This is it. This is everything.
Tidhar knows Arthuriana intimately. He’s referencing medieval romances. I’m pretty sure there are Mists of Avalon references, and Sword in the Stone. There’s the grail, sure, and the Green Knight, which is obscure but not that obscure… but there’s also the Questing Beast, and… and… yeh. So this is in no way someone coming in and thinking they’re reinventing Arthur (which has been done, and oh so badly). This is someone who knows Arthuriana deeply.
The thing I kept thinking of when reading this was A Knight’s Tale, that Heath Ledger break-out film. It used modern(ish) rock music in order to make the point about how people in the 14th century (the time of Chaucer) would have perceived music that 20th century ears hear as weird and ‘old’, and it used utterly modern language. By Force Alone is simultaneously utterly set in the 5th or 6th century – the Romans are gone, Britain is a by-water and non-existent in political terms, the Anglo-Saxons are coming (ignore the historical reality here) – but feels in some ways very 21st century: Arthur screaming ‘Come at me if you’re hard enough!’ Bully boys in London who want to be knighted, talking about being ‘made men’. Picts on the northern border being vicious.
Everyone, actually, being vicious.
This is a vicious book. There is no gallantry. There is no courtly love – which is right because the notion wasn’t really a thing until at least the 12th century and then honestly becomes part of nostalgia basically the next day. There is no honour except for what you can get; kings hold power by force alone; Galahad gets him nickname for quite, um, different reasons from how it’s usually told.
This book left me dazed. It starts with Vortigern and ends where every Arthur story ends. It covers so much at a break-neck speed that honestly it’s all you can do to hold on and see where this beast is going to end up. But it’s all completely controlled and Tidhar knows exactly what he’s doing. And what he’s doing is amazing. He’s setting a monumental myth in context, and exposing some of the nasty underbelly of nationalism and the Matter of Britain, as well as writing intriguing characters out of characters who are just so well known (what he did with Lancelot was… unexpected, and I’m curious to chase up whether it was based on stories I don’t remember or know; the Green Knight was the most amusingly outrageous). And he keeps the fantastical nature of Merlin and Morgan and makes that part of Britain itself… but in such a way it almost feels realistic. Almost.
This book is incredible.
Good Morning, Midnight
The most enduring result of my first-semester first-year English course, aside from a healthy disdain for both DH Lawrence and James Joyce, was a love of Jean Rhys. I haven’t read Good Morning, Midnight since I was 17… and a lot more callow than I realised at the time.
Reading at this at 40 was, unsurprisingly, a whole other thing.
The first thing that I have to say is that whoever wrote the blurb for the Penguin edition really didn’t understand it. In the first sentence they very bluntly set out two things that are serious revelations in the book; and then the last sentence of the summary is just wrong. I don’t know whether they read the book and didn’t get it, or whether the summary was written from third-hand information, or what. But what I can say is: don’t read this blurb. It’s also deeply unsympathetic, which made me cranky.
Sasha is in Paris. It’s the late 1930s, and she’s been in a bad way, but she’s better now. Honest. As she walks around Paris, much of the novel is taken up with reminiscing – about being in Paris in the heady post-war days when she was a Bright Young Thing, or living like it anyway. The Sasha doing the remembering is a bit older than I am now. She has lived a lot, experienced joy and tragedy, struggled with identity – all the things you would expect for someone in her late 40s.
There’s little action in this novel – and let’s be honest, that makes it a bit unusual for me. It’s a deeply internal novel, although it never gets to self-indulgent navel-gazing. It’s an emotional novel, although it never tried to make the reader experience wild and tumultuous feelings: it balances the line between clinical – here’s what happened – and drawing the portrait of Sasha’s experiences so finely that honestly, at the end, I felt a bit exhausted. It’s short; I read it in a day. And when I finished I had to go dig out the bottle of Pernod from the back of the cupboard and sit and have a quiet drink. (Sasha drinks a lot of Pernod in her time in Paris.) Rhys writes so… matter-of-factly about life, and the difficulties of life. Her genius is in not making it melodramatic and also not detached.
In an odd way I see a connection between this and The City We Became; Paris is an integral part of the novel. The places Sasha goes, and the influence cafes and faubourgs and parks have on her mood – it reminds us that a place isn’t always only, or just, a place; it’s a trigger for emotions and memory, sometimes even a repository of them. As with The City, I don’t know Paris – I’ve visited once but didn’t invest in the place that deeply. I can only imagine what it would be like reading this as someone who knows the area.
I love this book. It’s not likely to be one I re-read every year; I’m not sure I have the emotional resilience for that. But every few years, now that I’m reminded of it? Absolutely.
The City We Became
I loved the short story that turned into the prologue of this book. And I love this book.
It should be noted that I do not know New York. At all. I understand people who love NYC have a very particular reaction to this book, but that’s not me. You tell me it has five boroughs? OK. You tell me Staten Island doesn’t like being one of those boroughs? Happy to believe you. You could tell me that New York streets are all slightly curved either north or west and I would have to actually do research to see if you were right.
So anything I say about this book in relation to New York City should keep that in mind. My love for this book does not stem from my love for the city that is, in more visceral ways than is usually meant by this phrase, truly a character within the book.
Six characters, in fact…
Look, to some extent my reviewing this book is a bit redundant. There have been lots of other reviews by people who are far more eloquent than me; who know New York better than me, who can speak to the WHAT THE HECK WAS THAT twist that I seriously didn’t see coming (possibly because I don’t have a certain background, which I am completely fine with), who can speak to the way this book reflects Americana with much more knowledge than me. So what do I have to add?
I can say that even as someone who doesn’t know the USA or NYC, this book is visceral and captures a city brilliantly. And USES a city and the way people think about it to magnificent effect
I can say that it’s fantastically paced – meeting new characters and ‘getting the band together’ can sometimes be tiresome, but not here. Here, it’s all so intricately part of the evolving plot and understanding what the heck is happening that I barely noticed half the characters hadn’t met each other for a substantial part of the novel.
I assume that those who know NYC will agree with the choices made for who represents each borough, or at least see where Jemisin in coming from; the explanation for why you get a particular person in a particular area made sense to me in a fictional way, at least. So I can say I loved the variety of characters and the amount of backstory that is woven expertly into the current story and why those things are necessary and how each character could really just have a mundane story written about them and it would still be fascinating.
I can say that I have precisely zero regrets about pre-ordering this six months ago and have every intention of doing the same as soon as the sequel is announced.
And… SPOILERS BELOW:
I don’t often go to the library, privileged as I am to be able to afford books, as a rule – and I like owning books. But sometimes I think I might like to read a book and probably not own it.
This book is one that I picked up at the library because I was there getting something else; the yellow of the SF Masterworks stood out to me, along with Griffith’s name – I didn’t know she had a piece in that set. So, serendipity at play.
This is a fascinating novel and one that I can’t really do justice to in a review – I’d give too much away and I hate doing that.
At the centre is Lore, who either doesn’t know much about herself or doesn’t want to know much about herself when she wakes up naked on the street. She’s taken in by Spanner, who might have acted like a saviour but really isn’t one, not in how she acts and not in how she thinks, and she doesn’t want to be one either. The relationship between Spanner and Lore is… difficult, and sometimes unpleasant; necessary, too, at least for a while. Griffith does a good job at revealing details quietly, and slowly, and almost without you noticing, so that a complex picture gradually comes to light.
This is also the case with Lore’s own family and personal history. A glimpse here and an idea there, gradual filling in of gaps, and suddenly things make so much more sense.
The world Griffith created as futuristic in 1995 is really quite recognisable today. There are some things that are still futuristic – the bioremediation of waterways is probably still a long way off – but her descriptions of the city and the way things work is full of familiar detail. And that’s where Griffith’s genius is, I think; it’s in the detail. This isn’t a Neuromancer adventure; it’s not a Mellissa Scott adventure. This is a story about life and the difficulties – and joys – of relationships, set in a web of competing economics and politics. Above all it’s about identity, and whether identity is mutable or not; whether revelations can change who we are, and whether we want them to; whether other people can change who we are, and whether we want them to.
Made to Order
For the centenary of the coining of the word ‘robot’, Jonathan Strahan has compiled an anthology of new work about those… beings? objects? creations? The word ‘robot’ is derived from the Czech word for slave, so perhaps it’s appropriate that a description of what they are is hard to come by. Strahan begins by putting robots into an even greater lineage and ancestry than a hundred years, though, pointing out that the Greek god Hephaestus has golden assistants, and the many stories of golems, and coming up to Frankenstein’s creation too. He goes on to touch lightly on the myriad ways robot-like beings have influenced fiction more recently (tripods to chat bots). I don’t always read introductions (sorry J), but this one is well worth the time and really sets the scene for the entire anthology.
I won’t go over every story, because that would be a bit tedious. Basically every story was great, which pleased me immensely!
Vina Jie-Min Prasad starts off the anthology with “A Guide for Working Breeds,” written as a series of chats between two bots. One is required to be the mentor for the other, who is pretty new to the whole work-scene; the slight boredom and irritation of the first is set off against the enthusiasm of the newb and feels all too real. The entire narrative is in chat; Prasad works in enough detail that by the end of it I felt like I had read far more narrative than was actually on the page. Very nice.
On the other hand, Peter Watts’ “Test 4 Echo” is not nice. It’s a great story, but it’s not nice. It’s got solar exploration and an intriguing design for a robot on Enceladus, but the way that the robot is treated is not nice. It’s got discussion of developing robot sentience, but the way it works out is not nice. I really enjoyed it… but it’s not nice.
“The Hurt Pattern,” from Tochi Onyebuchi, is a terrifying look at a very near, very plausible future that is more about the humans than the robots, because it’s about how humans teach robots and what we can unconsciously impart, and how that can be manipulated and used for profit, or nefarious purpose. I found this story distressing, actually, because it’s so very believable: how algorithms can be used to affect society. Including law enforcement.
In-built obsolesce crops up a few times, and perhaps nowhere as poignantly as in John Chu’s “Dancing with Death” which features a robot that should be on its way out and a mechanic who is more than he seems and also a really, really good mechanic. This one really is beautiful.
Sofia Samatar contributes probably my favourite story, in “Fairy Tales for Robots.” Onyebuchi presented a nightmare scenario for what might happen with the way humans teach algorithms; Samatar presents someone trying to teach a ‘robot'(ish) to think for itself, to consider how stories might guide decisions and attitudes. The way Samatar takes fairytales and myths – some familiar to my Anglo-Australian upbringing, others not so – and demonstrates how they can be seen as relevant to an artificial life is just breathtaking, it’s so imaginative. I really, really loved this piece.