Monthly Archives: February, 2023

Messalina: A Story of Empire, Slander, and Adultery

I read this courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher. It’s out in May 2023.

It’s incredibly hard to write modern biographies of ancient women. Not least because most ancient historians didn’t care that much about women as individuals; they only mattered when they intersected with men (… not too different from many wikipedia entries today, actually), and also for Roman historians they were often used as literary devices – history writing being quite different in the first few centuries AD in Rome from what it is generally accepted to be in the West today. SO that leaves a serious paucity of information for the person who wants to write a serious biography of, say, Messalina. I have a fantastic biography of Agrippina the Younger on my shelf, which does a good job of trying to consider Agrippina as a person, rather than just a mother and/or power-mad; one of Theodora that is slightly less successful but made a valiant attempt. And now, at least, Messalina: a woman whose name has become a byword (and at one point medicalised) for the over-sexed and never-satisfied woman, whose sexual depravity was the source of her power, and whose only use of that power was evil.

I loved this biography a lot. Messalina was human! Who knew?

The author gives what I think is an excellent overview of the social and cultural and immediate historical situation in Rome in the early Julio-Claudian period, in particular looking at the ways in which expressions of and usage of power had been altered with the change (albeit begrudgingly accepted) from republic to empire. And the point is to situate Messalina within that. (Had I completely forgotten just how illustrious her lineage was? Oh yes. Perhaps I never really knew – descended from Mark Antony! And from Octavian/Augustus’ sister! Very impressive.)

There’s a good attempt at reconstructing just what sort of thing Messalina was doing after Claudius became emperor, as well as logical (rather than misogynistic) rationale for it: like she’s shoring up her own power base, and that of Claudius, and that of her son. The arguments here are persuasive, although of course we’ll never know. I particularly liked that Cargill-Martin never tries to completely purify Messalina: did she have affairs? Possibly; maybe even probably! Were other women doing so? yes. Could there actually be political as well as passionate reasons for doing so? Absolutely. Was it possible for Messalina to both want to have sex AND be a political actor? WHY YES, IT WAS.

Basically I think this is the sort of (properly) revisionist history that a nuanced understanding of women in history enables. Messalina can be treated as a human, as a worthy subject for serious history: she made mistakes, she made what we would think of today as some poor choices, she was constrained by her historical context, and she really didn’t deserve the way that last 2000 years have treated her. Especially Juvenal’s poetry; he can go jump.

Highly recommended particularly to anyone interested in early Roman empire history, or women’s history.

The Archive Undying, Emma Mieko Candon

I read this book courtesy of the publisher, Tordotcom, via NetGalley. It’s out in June 2023.

I read really weird books. That goes without saying. This book is one of the weirdest I’ve read in a long, long time.

Think Jeff Vandermeer Annihilation weird.

I loved it, don’t get me wrong. There were moments where I had almost no sense of what was going on, but I did enjoy reading it. I think the problem was usually in not being clear who the narrator was – there are (I think!) a couple of first-person POVs, and (just to confuse things), a few bits where the narrator is actually telling the story in the second person… and I wasn’t always sure who that person was, either. I’ll be interested to know whether the official copy will have different fonts to make that clearer, or whether the ambiguity is part of the narrative.

Honestly, given the story itself, I wouldn’t be surprised if that confusion is part of the whole deal. There’s a lot of confusion here – bodily and relationally and politically.

So there are mechas, and there used to be AIs but they’ve been corrupted; there’s a human polity which seems to want to be in charge, but quite how or why is unclear. (At times I wondered whether I had missed the first book in the series, because there were what seemed like significant ellipses that would make sense if there was presumed knowledge I didn’t have… but no, this is the first book in what might be a series.) There are humans who used to be connected in some way to the AIs, and who are either to be avoided or to followed, depending on your attitude towards the AIs. Most importantly, there’s Sunai, who could not be self-destructive if he tried. He’s a salvage-rat, who gets a job to go with a rig to do… something he can’t remember, actually, because he was very, very drunk when he agreed to it. And when he does remember, it turns out to be yet another bad idea, but he goes along with it mostly because of Veyadi Lut, whom he likes a lot more than he thinks he should. Things go from there. Often badly, generally surprisingly, and with consequences for more than just Sunai.

This is a hefty novel – 416 pages in ebook, according to Goodreads. So as you can imagine, there’s a lot that goes on; at the halfway point I thought we must have been coming up on the conclusion, and then everything went sideways again, and something had to be done – note I don’t say “things had to be made right”. It’s not bereft of hope, but it’s one of those stories where what you thought would be the best outcome isn’t what happens, and where a lot of the things that seem like the very opposite of the best outcome do happen. And yet… I wasn’t miserable at the end.

I’ll be cautious who I recommend this to, and in what situation – do not read this if you want a perfectly comprehensible novel that demands nothing from you as the reader. Do read it if you want a novel take on giant mecha, the place of AIs, and an intriguing narrative structure that requires you to actually pay attention. I will be paying attention to Candon’s work from now on.

Hopeland, by Ian McDonald

I was sent this by the publisher, Tor, at no cost. It’s out in late Feb, 2023.

My first reaction was and is: What. On. Earth.

What did I just read?

I mean, aside from “something wonderful”, which is easy and true, but gives no information.

Seriously though I was a third of the way through this book and still had no idea what sort of book I was reading. I was barely even sure of the genre.

Fantasy? – maybe?

Science fiction? – basically yes, but only once I was about halfway through?

Maybe just… fiction? But there were definitely some bits that were too weird to entirely count as mainstream, not-speculative, fiction. Also, it’s Ian McDonald.

I’ll admit I hadn’t read the blurb. It’s Ian McDonald, and it’s called Hopeland… why would I read the blurb? So part of my confusion is my own fault. But having now looked at the blurb it’s actually of little to no use in explaining what on earth this is about, so I don’t feel too bad.

So… the story starts in London, in 2011, during the riots. It’s not about the riots, but they certainly set a scene. Raisa meets Amon entirely accidentally – she’s racing across roof tops, he’s looking for a micro-gig he’s meant to be playing at. He helps her win, she invites him to a party with her family, and… it basically goes from there. Occasionally together, often apart, Raisa and Amon live through the next several decades. And see, it’s not like they become hugely important politicians or scientists or celebrities – this isn’t the story of hugely significant people. It’s a story of two people – and their families – living through the consequences of climate change and everything else in the world right now. They have their impact, it’s true, and sometimes on a large scale, but more often in the pebble-and-avalanche way.

It’s utterly, utterly compelling.

Raisa’s family are the Hopelands – more than a family, really; not a nation, certainly not an ethnicity or religion although with aspects of the latter. It takes the notion of ‘found family’ to extraordinary and glorious places and challenged a lot of how I think about family, how it’s constructed and what it’s for. Amon is a Brightbourne, a very different family but with its own legacy to contribute (and his family is where I started wondering if this was a fantasy of some sort).

I want more stories like this. It’s about the very near future so it deals with climate change – and manages to come out hopeful, ultimately, but not saccharine in any way. It’s about people and their failures and their determination to do better, to make themselves and the world better and leave it better for their kids. England, Ireland, Iceland, Polynesia; young people, old people, challenging gender binaries, and playing with Tesla coils. This book is just amazing.