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“The Love of Beauty” is collected in Bishop’s That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote, and you can read the story free online at the Weird Fiction Review.

Near the middle of the night, Seaming dithered in front of the brick arch – formerly a minor gate in the old city wall and now a decoration in a lane. If there existed a main entrance to the Ravels, it was that arch. It stood only half a furlong from the glitz of Cake Street, but the short distance marked a change of register from the demimonde to the underworld proper. Behind the gaudy theatres and beer halls the streets became dark, the buildings closely pressed, the walls bare of signs, posters, paint – of everything except light-absorbing soot.

Seaming smoked a cigarette, a last procrastination, while a polka spinning down from a loft somewhere invited him to head back, spend the rest of the night with friends, and let that be that.

Act as if you belong, she had told him, and you’ll be safe enough.

“The Love of Beauty” is one of the ur-Etched City stories in Bishop’s collection. Though none of The Etched City‘s characters appear here (unlike the Gwynn-centric “The Art of Dying”), Bishop, in playing out an alternative ending to Beauty and the Beast, here stages some of the central questions and themes that are later enacted between the artist Beth and her duellist-muse Gwynn: the exercise of power and choice by traditionally passive female archetypes; and the ability of art to remake reality, especially through alchemical modes like transfiguration, refinement, and, conversely, the generation of hybrid forms. There are also echoes of Gwynn and the Rev’s amiable debates over the baseness (or not) of humanity’s desires and capabilities: the Decadent hypothesis advanced by several of the characters in “Beauty” is that art simply represents an opportunity for humans to indulge to the maximum their sensual desires, under the guise of exercising “their highest and holiest faculties.”

I read this past summer a biography of John Singer Sargent, and couldn’t help thinking of him on this reread of “Beauty” – self-effacing, determinedly apolitical, fiendishly talented but only timidly experimental, ultimately a bourgeois sensualist, he rhymes rather well with the character of Seaming. Seaming is a traditionalist and idealist, a wan foil to the morbid recklessness of ideas brandished by the rest of the cast. It’s his idealism that invests his art with alchemical potency, but leaves him defenseless against the revelation of a world activated by animal desires. Seaming’s moral universe is incompatible with the notion that the animal might be sublime.

If “Beauty” is Bishop’s “Picture of Dorian Gray” (a connection I also didn’t think of till this read, but which now seems blindingly apparent), Seaming is also easily the analogue of the sincerely anguished painter Basil Hallward, while his poet friend Stroud is on hand to dispense ego-puncturing witticisms as the resident Lord Henry. The Wilde connection is also made easy by the rotting Victorian setting of “Beauty” – I find this story to have a more traditional dark fantasy aesthetic (meaning “Gormenghast” by “traditional,” I guess) than the sort of Symbolist wasteland in “Art of Dying,” or the steamy colonial landscape of Ashamoil.

There’s a peculiar emptiness to the physical setting of “Beauty.” The danger implicit in Beauty’s warning of “you’ll be safe enough” to Seaming prior to his entry into the Ravels never manifests as expected. The Ravels that Seaming encounters is a leashed menace: thickly eerie, but empty. There’s a sense that it’s been locally vacated in order to furnish a space where this particular allegorical drama can take place: Seaming is reserved as victim for spiritual threat, rather than physical. (It’s also a tempting interpretation that Seaming is simply below the notice of whatever is happening in the rest of the Ravels.)

The story unspools with a swift, morbid grace. Scene-setting and backstory feel much lengthier than the actual “action:” Seaming’s interview with Beauty and the Beast, and his completion of the Beast’s portraits. My one dissatisfaction with the story is that balance between build-up and dissolution, the way that the story seems to begin to slip away too swiftly during the turning-point of the interview. This creates a decided aesthetic effect – undercutting melodrama, and Seaming’s weak attempts at harvesting it. (See also the end of the journalist in “The Art of Dying.”) But there’s a larger sense of off-kilter narrative construction: as intriguing as it is, the teasing about the dangers of the Ravels perhaps belongs to a different story; and then, having found its narrative center, the remainder of this story proceeds a little too impatiently to its conclusion. The facts of the case of this Beauty and Beast are revealed in a few paragraphs of very direct exposition, and there’s a coy refusal to show any of Seaming’s artistic process. Somewhere along that stretch, I keep thinking, something could have been lingered over just a bit longer.

For those reasons, “The Love of Beauty” has never rung to me with the assurance of Bishop’s best work. But it is, in addition to being a rich philosophical playground, as thickly beautiful and infuriatingly witty as usual.

Go to:
That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote, by K. J. Bishop (2012): master post
The Etched City, by K. J. Bishop (2003)

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Reviewer: Emera

As might have been suggested over the past couple months, I (and Kakaner too) was engaged in a full reread of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series in order to prepare for the arrival of Goldenhand, the latest book. Some thoughts , mostly high-level, somewhat scattered –

I.

Of the Old Kingdom series, I think Sabriel is the most formally perfect – it’s effortlessly swift and lean; not a single page feels narratively wasted. (There’s an undeniable parallel there to Sabriel’s own character, whereas the later books stretch in proportion to their protagonists’ adolescent angst.) Sabriel also benefits from first-in-the-series effect, where the world, magic, and tone feel most fresh and mysterious. Sabriel is a tiny, dark explosion in my heart; I feel I could read it three times in a row in one week and not get tired of it.

The endlessly oncoming thunderstorm that is the final few chapters is still one of the most spectacular and atmospheric climaxes I’ve read. Though I still remembered much of it with almost paragraph-by-paragraph clarity, this reread still left me wide-eyed and prickling with goosebumps.

Out of context, this probably isn’t as striking, but I’ve always loved this bit of scene-setting when they’re struggling to recover Kerrigor’s coffin – darkness and the Dead are coming –

Sunshine poured down between the trees, rich and golden, but already losing its warmth, like a butter-coloured wine that was all taste and no potency.

II.

Lirael is probably the fan favorite. When I saw Garth Nix speak last winter on the release tour for Goldenhand, he mentioned that he actually first wrote that book starting from the halfway point of its current form; his editor read it, and told him that he had to go back and tell more of Lirael’s younger years. Thank the Charter: Lirael without more Lirael is unimaginable. The book’s opening half is a paean to the sorrow of the out-of-place teenage woman; it was wrenching when I was that age, and I still think it’s sensitive, loving, and engrossing. It is also an unmissable exploration of one of my most most most favorite fictional settings, the Library of the Clayr, in which it makes perfect sense that all librarians ought to be steely women with swords, combat magic, and emergency clockwork mice.

I also really, really appreciate Sameth as the secondary protagonist (be it noted that in the Old Kingdom series, the male characters are always secondary), thanks to many years of struggling with a sense of myself as a useless person. Younger Emera found the women in the Old Kingdom almost deifically aspirational, and inspirational, while identifying with nervous, striving Sam. Thanks, Sam.

III.

Abhorsen is a slog. Is grim slogging a formal prerequisite of books involving an approaching cataclysm? Arguable, but I think the book also suffers from a general shapelessness, in addition to generically motivated villains (though I enjoy the necromancer Hedge purely on the basis of picturesqueness – he looks a lot like Peter Cushing in my head) and (this is Kakaner’s biggest gripe) an overabundance of nearly deus-ex-machina-level magical solutions. Nevertheless, the ending still makes me cry like a baby.

IV.

I talked about Clariel here, and the novellas here.

Goldenhand next!

Go to:
Clariel, by Garth Nix (2014) E

Undercover: Clariel

Two novellas of the Old Kingdom

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: Nov. 2016

I’ve enjoyed the work of Sophie Campbell (formerly Ross Campbell) for 12, 13 years maybe. In high school I spent hours poring over the endless portraits (almost exclusively Wet Moon characters, at the time) in her deviantART account – humid, sexy, angsty, a little uncomfortable, very Goth, all executed in her trademark style of mostly monochrome ink and marker, with lots of lovely wash textures. There was a lot going on that you didn’t see much of in comic art those days – chubby girls, black girls. I was fascinated almost equally by the bodies and the fashion – hair, piercings, soft thighs under ripped fishnets – of all those languorously sprawling, sulkily self-possessed, implicitly vulnerable girls (and very occasional androgynous boys).

I have no good reason for why it took me so long to actually read Wet Moon, except that it used to be harder to find comics from smaller labels.

In the time since, Campbell came out as trans. To put it baldly, this presented an easy resolution to my one discomfort with Campbell’s work: that it could come off as voyeuristic, or fetishistic. To have a lingering male gaze suddenly revealed as [trans]female – suddenly consumption, desire, appreciation, longing are all construed so, so differently. Finding out that Campbell had come out as trans remains the most interesting shift I’ve ever experienced in my perception of an artist and their relationship to their work.

Wet Moon is a dark, dreamy slice-of-life comic, featuring a cast of southern, small-town punks, Goths, and art students, almost exclusively women, and heavily queer. Flavors: cigarettes, hairdye, patchouli, art-supply-store air, pie, swampwater. I’ve also seen comparisons to Twin Peaks, though being only two volumes in, the implied supernatural/mystery element is very slight. There’s a missing student who left a strange dark circular stain on her apartment floor, for example, and inexplicable, moonstruck behavior performed by various characters – midnight swamp immersions, ritualistic circling in front of windows. It’s all lovely and unsettling, and reminds me of, yes, the earliest episodes of Twin Peaks, where I had no idea what was going on, and small moments were rendered all the more terrifying because of it. (Those shots of the traffic light at night, for example – I don’t think I’ve ever been more afraid of what a traffic light might mean.)

The protagonist is Cleo Lovedrop (yes, all of the characters have wonderful, absurd names – Malady Mayapple might be the winner), with the blue forelock on both of the covers above. Her struggles with romantic confusion and low self-esteem have so far provided the most obvious or continuous dramatic impetus for the series. But the drama is deliberately minimal; the interest lies more in mood, in the understated sense of mystery, and in the affectionate evocation of the banter – listless, playful, or barbed – and small upsets within an extended network of friends.

And then, much of the series so far has been implicitly about bodies: resenting them, costuming them, wanting them to be something different, subjecting them to long minutes of mute observation and appreciation. Multiple characters receive scenes of self-examination in mirrors: sucking in stomachs, examining scars, trying to make muscles. Most of the characters are overweight; some have disabilities or deformities. There’s so much bodily difference that different becomes the order of the day. The cumulative effect is, again, lovely; all the soft curves and folds and rumpled, revealing clothing contribute their own sense of soft melancholy.

Wet Moon is a unique and soulful work of art; I’m grateful that it exists. Scuttlebutt suggests that the series does become plottier, or at least more overtly dramatic – as a devoted fan of plotlessness, I’m almost disappointed, but obviously excited too for whatever Gothic mayhem awaits. Now it’s on me to track down the remaining four volumes (hopefully in the updated editions, with Campbell credited as Sophie, and some great cover designs by Annie Mok); volume 7 is still being eagerly awaited.

Related reading:
Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle (2014) E

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Cover art is whatever (actually I quite like the front cover, so perfectly of its era as it is); this BBCF is all about the copy-writing.

Thanks to Pandemonium Books’ sale on used books for R. W. Mackelworth’s The Diabols (1969), and for one-sentence paragraphs:

Their bodies were colored lights; their voices were music. But whatever they touched was incinerated!

For a moment in time their destructive powers were limited to a small portion of Earth. Yet they were determined to burn the whole planet to a crisp.

Was there no hope for man’s survival?

As a last resort Boraston is projected into a future where the Diabols have almost won. Only a few humans remain, struggling to stay alive by holding the Diabols off with skirmishes and holding actions.

Can Boraston devise a method to destroy them?

If he succeeds, Earth can plan to save itself from the Diabols.

If he fails, Earth was doomed to become nothing more than a charred and blackened cinder in the galaxy!

It makes me unironically happy that someone was paid to write this, and that someone was paid to publish this. What a creature is man.

Go to:
BBCF: What a stallion
BBCF: MF&SF, June 1983
BBCF: I Will Fear No Evil
BBCF: The Technic Civilization Saga

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: Jan. 2017

“Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case” appears in Garth Nix’s 2005 collection Across the Wall, and “To Hold the Bridge” appears in his 2010 collection of the same name; both novellas flirt with the notion of everyday life in Ancelstierre (1920’s England/Australia parallel) and the Old Kingdom (magical) respectively, but of course work up into suspenseful adventures.

“The Creature in the Case” follows an escapade of Nick’s, who’s recovering back in Ancelstierre following the events of the final book of the Old Kingdom trilogy. Higher-ups in Ancelstierre are keen on learning more about his experiences with Old Kingdom magic, so he’s dispatched to what’s nominally a country houseparty in order to be covertly questioned by officers there. As the title implies, a cross between P. G. Wodehouse and creature feature ensues.

I disliked this novella the first time I read it; I remember finding it clunky and unfunny. (My antipathy towards Nick as the trilogy’s resident magic-disbeliever couldn’t have helped, but thankfully my no-longer-teenage brain doesn’t see that sort of thing as excruciating heresy anymore.) 180 this time: though the usual Nix weaknesses make themselves known (generic villains, mediocre prose undermining psychology), I found the story zippy, darkly picturesque, and full of moments of quiet wit and thoughtfulness. Nix’s experience as a National Guard and keenness on military history always makes the military elements in his stories particularly sharp and intriguing, so the payoff in a story set partially in a secret government facility is tremendous. So many striking little glimpses like this one, as Nick is being led through the compound:

“…they came to a double-width steel door with two spy holes. Lackridge knocked, and after a brief inspection they were admitted to a guardroom inhabited by five policeman types. Four were sitting around a linoleum-topped table under a single suspended lightbulb, drinking tea and eating doorstop-size sandwiches.”

I admit Nick as a protagonist is still a puzzle to me since I find it hard to overcome the sense that the only reason I have to like him is because the narrative really, really wants me to (and because he’s so forcefully put forward as a romantic match for Lirael, sigh). This prop-ishness means that his numerous moments of heroic resolve feel contrived in comparison to the other protagonists’; they move the plot on, but don’t add up to a unified sense of a character for me. I suspect he’ll reappear in Goldenhand, though, so I do look forward to furthering our acquaintance.

—–

“To Hold the Bridge” is set I’m-not-sure-when in the Old Kingdom. (The Bridge is finished in Goldenhand, so decades prior at the least.) It follows Morghan, a young man from rough circumstances who’s seeking to join the Greenwash Bridge Company, the Old Kingdom’s equivalent of the East India Trading Company – a daring commercial venture with a lucrative royally-issued monopoly. The Bridge Company has invested decades in building a bridge across the vast Greenwash River north of the Kingdom’s capital, in order to open up trade with the northern steppes and mountains; at the time of the story, the bridge is still incomplete, and held by select guards of the Bridge Company.

All of this means that the story is porn for those who enjoy pseudo-historical logistical detail [me]. There is a great deal of touching detail about Morghan’s difficult childhood with pathologically selfish and drug-using parents, and how he survived to become (of course) a quiet, strategic, and resolute young man, talented but nonetheless on the brink of poverty due to his lack of formal training and connections.

But even more detail is lavished on the Company’s operations, training, and recruitment; as always, I find Nix’s observant eye for a sense of practical living in an an invented world very rewarding. There’s a lively, brisk sense of the Bridge Company as colorful and bustling yet shaped by the expectation of danger, and the way the story’s grounded in the experience of a more vulnerable member of society is refreshing compared to the focus of all the other Old Kingdom stories on elites.

I think, though, that the pacing of the novella is a mess; I was forced to admit by the end that that abundance of practical detail ended up being a narrative liability. The vast majority of the story is dedicated to Morghan’s first day trying out at the company, such that the climactic action sequence at the end feels disproportionate (disproportionately small, that is) and unearned. Here again the weakness of Nix’s villains is a factor: we know in advance that the Bridge Company is wary, but there isn’t a concrete sense of what exactly they’re defending against, so that the climactic attack feels arbitrary.

Altogether, I was ready to love this novella, but came away with the sense that it was fragmentary and rushed – the last third feels like Nix was either running out of time or lost interest in developing the narrative, having already established the worldbuilding elements that were most to his satisfaction. Still, I’d recommend it for fans of the series as being, again, a less usual perspective on life in the Old Kingdom, and as usual populated with tough, likable characters with hints of intriguing backstory.

Go to:
Clariel, by Garth Nix (2014): review by Emera
Undercover: Clariel

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.1.2017
Book from: Borrowed from J.

For the diver Kino, finding a magnificent pearl means the promise of better life for his impoverished family. His dream blinds him to the greed and suspicions the pearl arouses in him and his neighbors, and even his loving wife cannot temper his obsession or stem the events leading to tragedy.

Spare, dreamlike, caressing, bitter. I kept having to stop reading every five pages to writhe in the dread and certainty that John Steinbeck was definitely, definitely going to do the Steinbeck thing: kill whatever symbolizes innocence. The graceful nature writing, all pricked with color and sensual detail – sometimes crisp, sometimes impressionistic – it’s just misdirection, dammit.

The Pearl centers on much the same moral territory as Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath – the moral quality of simple people, their vulnerability to the wealthy and cruel, their structural powerlessness – but explores the new dimensions of race and colonialism. Though Kino also traps himself with his inability to deviate from traditional, aggressive masculinity, Steinbeck targets above all else, with rage and sorrow, the systemic ignorance and poverty enforced by colonization of the Mexican natives. The scenes where the town doctor and the pearl buyers collude against Kino are stomach-turning.

Speaking on aesthetic grounds – this is the most unusually filmic, or even balletic, piece of prose that I’ve ever read, in that Steinbeck writes for the narrative an explicit musical “score,” which rises and falls very beautifully and convincingly with the action. The Song of the Family, the Song of the Pearl, the Song of Evil, and other motifs twine throughout, mingle and distort. (I read afterwards that The Pearl had indeed been solicited to be used as a film treatment by a Mexican film company, so the filmic quality’s not just a coincidence – and I do look forward to finding the movie sometime soon.) This deepens the elegiac and dreamlike, nonverbal quality of the narrative.

Now, Kino’s people had sung of everything that happened or existed. They had made songs to the fishes, to the sea in anger and to the sea in calm, to the light and the dark and the sun and the moon, and the songs were all in Kino and in his people- every song that had ever been made, even the ones forgotten. And as he filled his basket the song was in Kino, and the beat of the song was his pounding heart as it ate the oxygen from his held breath, and the melody of the song was the gray-green water and the little scuttling animals and the clouds of fish that flitted by and were gone. But in the song there was a secret little inner song, hardly perceptible, but always there, sweet and secret and clinging, almost hiding in the counter-melody, and this was the Song of the Pearl That Might Be, for every shell thrown in the basket might contain a pearl. Chance was against it, but luck and the gods might be for it.

The sixth and final chapter of the novella also stands out to me for its stark, towering beauty and darkness. I close with some of my favorite passages from early in that chapter:

The sun arose hotly. They were not near the Gulf now, and the air was dry and hot so that the brush cricked with heat and a good resinous smell came from it. …

Kino stirred in a dream, and he cried out in a guttural voice, and his hand moved in symbolic fighting. And then he moaned and sat up suddenly, his eyes wide and his nostrils flaring. He listened and heard only the cricking heat and the hiss of distance.

The “hiss of distance” is so perfectly evocative of immensity, solitude, oppression.

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Another brief interruption for self-promotion:

I have two poems in the fall issue of the literary journal Boulevard. Again predictably, one is about ghosts, and the other is about rats, or a dream of rats.

preview the table of contents | buy digital | buy print

And my first short story, a fairy tale set in 19th-century Russia (issuing rather directly from Joseph Cornell), appeared in the November issue of Gavin Grant and Kelly Link’s zine:

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #35, available digitally and in print

Any eyeball-time that you can spare thereto is appreciated; you might also wish to check out my announcement of publications from 2015 and earlier here.

Happy holidays to all, and thanks to those who have stuck with this blog!

– E

 

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.2016
Book from: Library

 

book-ratqueens-violet

Rat Queens is a rambunctious Dungeons ‘n’ Dragons parody featuring a gang of ultraviolent, foul-mouthed lady adventurers: Hannah the moody, uptight elven mage, dwarven warrior Violet (pictured above with her orc boyfriend Dave), escaped-from-a-Lovecraftian-cult cleric Dee, and candy/hallucinogen-obsessed smidgen (i.e., halfling) Betty. In Volume 1, the Queens deal with the consequences of their inability to rein in their penchant for destructive brawling, which has earned them enemies within the walls of their own town. In volume 2, the airing of old grudges escalates to the summoning of Lovecraftian beasties; the ensuing ruin is intercut with flashbacks that begin revealing the younger lives of most of the Queens.

Rat Queens is inextricably linked with Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga in my mind: they’re both recent Image comics that feature racially/sexually diverse casts, obstreperous women, “pretty” art with a light anime influence, sarcastic humor, and graphic violence. In that match-up, though, Rat Queens comes up lacking. Wiebe writes pretty awkwardly at times, and tonally, the comic is in that regime of sarcastic trope-busting where if you’re even slightly not feeling it, it just comes off as try-hard.

In terms of art, Upchurch is likewise okay. He’s good at facial expressions, and occasional panels are quite pretty, but his art often mashes down into strange scribbled shapes that betray a mediocre sense of volume and anatomy. The backgrounds are weak as well; they often feel kind of incoherent and joylessly drab to me. Here’s a representative Upchurch page – theoretically pretty chicks with wandering facial features, backgrounds blurred beyond usefulness:

book-ratqueens-17

Stjepan Sejic picks up art duty partway through Volume 2: Kurtis removed Upchurch from the series after he was confirmed to have committed domestic abuse. Sejic, not Upchurch, is responsible for the cover art featured up top. Sejic’s work is strong – seductively painterly and with great taste in color and light, as evidenced by the cover – and he’s an excellent match for the comic thematically since he’s done a number of hilarious trope-busting joke comics. His only obvious weakness is his inability to draw kids without them looking like creepy adult heads pasted onto miniature bodies. My understanding is that unfortunately Sejic departed the series after Vol. 2 due to work conflicts.

But between Sejic’s work and increasingly substantive storytelling, the comic did grow on me as I dug into Volume 2. That whole volume felt narratively solid to me: the character development is thoughtful, mostly dwelling on issues of authority, belonging, and trust (familial, cultural, religious), and also deepened my appreciation of the Rat Queens’ friendships.

Still, I think I could drop this series without feeling like I’d missed that much. First, the interpersonal conflicts, while humanely portrayed, are pretty standard for fantasy (“I’m an outsiderrrrr”). (I think a significant part of why Saga is so unique and successful is that Vaughan investigates familial relationships in a much more specific and personally informed manner, rather than drawing from the typical sff stockroom of Generic Angst Causation.) Second, there isn’t yet a compelling overarching external conflict. Finally, though I feel fondly towards several of the characters (mainly Dee, Hannah, and Braga), I’m not so invested that I feel the need to keep reading just to see what happens to them.

Altogether, I’d call this fun but not unmissable. Blessings on the proliferation of media focusing on female protagonists, though.

Go to:
Saga, vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (2012) E
On the road to Saga

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Ali Almossawi, an engineer/designer, elegantly illustrates every subsidiary of the Big Five American publishing houses (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Hachette). Fascinating and pretty to look at (and playing “spot the sff imprint” is fun), but, as always, it’s slightly unnerving to be reminded how conglomerated just about everything we buy nowadays is.

—–

Angela Carter remembered and interviewed by Anna Katsavos, reproduced by the Dalkey Archives; a good part of the interview dwells on Carter’s eventual dissatisfaction with the reinvention or reuse of mythology. The central question might be, “Have we got the capacity at all of singing new songs?”, as Carter says towards the end while discussing gender and representation.

Fevvers is a very literal creation. She’s very literally a winged spirit. She’s very literally the winged victory, but very, very literally so. How inconvenient to have wings, and by extension, how very, very difficult to be born so out of key with the world. Something that women know all about is how very difficult it is to enter an old game. What you have to do is to change the rules and make a new game, and that’s really what she’s about.

There are some fun things as well about speculative fiction:

One kind of novel starts off with “What if I found out that my mother has an affair with a man that I thought was my uncle?” That’s presupposing a different kind of novel from the one that starts off with “What if I found out my boyfriend had just changed sex?” If you read the New York Times Book Review a lot, you soon come to the conclusion that our culture takes more seriously the first kind of fiction, which is a shame in some ways. By the second “what if’ you would actually end up asking much more penetrating questions. If you were half way good at writing fiction, you’d end up asking yourself and asking the reader actually much more complicated questions about what we expect from human relationships and what we expect from gender.

Also, she delightfully describes The Bloody Chamber as “cholesterol-rich.”

-E

Go to

Reviews: Angela Carter’s “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”
Wayward Girls and Wicked Women, ed. by Angela Carter (1986) E

More essays and interviews: Chamber of Secrets: The Sorcery of Angela Carter
Astrological Angela Carter

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 8.11.2016
Book from: Personal collection 

Newly orphaned Peggy Grahame is caught off-guard when she first arrives at her family’s ancestral estate. Her eccentric uncle Enos drives away her only new acquaintance, Pat, a handsome British scholar, then leaves Peggy to fend for herself. But she is not alone. The house is full of mysteries—and ghosts. Soon Peggy becomes involved with the spirits of her own Colonial ancestors and witnesses the unfolding of a centuries-old romance against a backdrop of spies and intrigue and of battles plotted and foiled.

Elizabeth Marie Pope wrote a grand total of two novels in her lifetime, which is a damn shame. She spent most of her time as a professor of English at Mills College in California, Wikipedia informs me (in addition to being a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, oh gosh); I can only assume that she was delightful in the classroom. Her first novel, the dark, Tudor-era Tam Lin retelling The Perilous Gard, is one of my tippy-top favorites – I had a probably 10-year streak of rereading it annually, starting from when I was about ten. It took me quite a while longer to turn my attention to The Sherwood Ring. Subconsciously I was afraid it couldn’t possibly measure up.

Resemblances between the opening chapters of The Perilous Gard and The Sherwood Ring:

  • Habitually solitary heroine
  • approaches an ancient estate
  • through a dripping wood
  • where she encounters a mysterious hooded lady.
  • (Also, the two novels are alike in taking inspiration from folklore/balladry: The Sherwood Ring‘s title isn’t a coincidence, as the spirit of Robin Hood is present throughout.)

All of this made me smile hugely – how comforting to see the familiar shape of a beloved story subtly transfigured (and to recognize an amusing partiality on the part of the author).

The Sherwood Ring immediately strikes a different tone from Gard: even shot through as it is with the melancholy of Peggy’s solitary childhood and her cold treatment by both her father and uncle, The Sherwood Ring quickly registers as a comedy – a sparklingly witty and romantic comedy. Though battles, imprisonment, and privation all eventually, necessarily feature in Peggy’s ancestors’ wartime history, Pope plays a game of sustaining suspense while nimbly dodging any possibility of mortal stakes. The protagonists, both female and male, are all clever, dashing, and buoyant, executing numerous daring escapes and double-crosses in order to emerge triumphant (and happily engaged).

The Sherwood Ring falls short, though, in its breathlessly brisk handling of Peggy herself. Though Peggy receives a few scenes in which we can fully register her as a person – her quiet determination, her hopes for companionship from Pat, and her loneliness – Pope, unfortunately, mostly uses her to perform a few perfunctory acts of mystery-solving, thereby cueing the reemergence of her ancestor-ghosts, so that they can continue to unreel their bigger, brighter story.

So while The Sherwood Ring absolutely measures up to The Perilous Gard in terms of brilliance of prose, historical detail, and dialogue, it feels more like a charming pageant and less like a full, human story; I truly wish Pope had treated the framing story with more depth. Still, the mischievousness and elegance of her writing is rare and to be treasured: The Sherwood Ring has both sweetness and panache in spades.

Related reading:
Tamsin, by Peter S. Beagle (1999): review by Emera

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