Review: The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin


The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: February 2010

The Broken Kingdoms: November 2010

The Kingdom of Gods: October 2011

Omnibus and The Awakened Kingdom (sequel novella): December 2014

Finally got around to it: January 2016


Things are going to be different this year on Backlisted. I’m intending to do fewer but more in-depth reviews, both as a function of how much time I have to write for this blog (between my own fiction writing as well as reviewing for three other publications, that amounts to not a whole hell of a lot), and in an effort to spend more of that time ruminating on the works that matter most to me, without feeling the need to simply pump out a thousand or fifteen hundred words before moving on to the next title in my to-read pile.

And holy shit what a way to start the year.

This trilogy (quartet if you count the novella added to the omnibus) had been recommended to me by at least three people whose taste I trust implicitly yet still I dragged my heels on this more than I care to admit. Why? Because it’s fantasy, and with the exception of K.J. Parker’s Engineer trilogy, I’ve always been a bit hit and miss when it comes to fantasy lit—or more to the point, hesitant to even dive in in the first place. For the record, I’m pretty picky about sci-fi as well, though I’m usually more inclined toward the future speculative side of things than I am vaguely medieval worlds filled with magic, kingdoms, and occasionally elves (who always—always—come across like the most arrogant of pricks). Likely this has to do with having read and greatly disliked The Hobbit at a young age, and then years later having to force myself to make it through to the end of The Lord of the Rings—a truly gruelling task I would not wish on anyone.

I’m making so many friends right now, I’m sure.

Imagine my surprise then to discover that not only was I immediately pulled into Jemisin’s intensely vibrant world, which is so effortlessly realized, but like an addict following his first taste, I now intend to seek out everything else she’s ever published. And again, I don’t even like fantasy. Or so I thought.

It’s fortunate, too, that this comes so quickly on the heels of having read the entirety of Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief trilogy, a series that I was very much looking forward to, and in which I was profoundly disappointed. In this sense, The Inheritance Trilogy was a much-needed breath of fresh air. Curious that the exact same thing happened to me a year ago when, over the Christmas break, I read through Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X: The Southern Reach trilogy and was as disappointed in it as I was Rajaniemi’s work, and for the same reasons—a propensity toward ideas over any semblance of narrative cohesion or character depth and development—only to rebound with Kameron Hurley’s exquisite (and brutally violent) Bel Dame Apocrypha. Such is the way of things.

And as with all entries on this site, the longer the review the more plentiful the spoilers. And since this is, without question, the longest review I’ve ever written, well…


The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

There were three gods once.

Only three, I mean. Now there are dozens, perhaps hundreds. They breed like rabbits. But once there were only three, most powerful and glorious of all: the god of day, the god of night, and the goddess of twilight and dawn. Or light and darkness and the shades between. Or order, chaos, and balance. None of that is important because one of them died, the other might as well have, and the last is the only one who matters anymore.

The Arameri get their power from this remaining god. He is called the Skyfather, Bright Itempas, and the ancestors of the Arameri were His most devoted priests. He rewarded them by giving them a weapon so mighty that no army could stand against it. They used this weapon—weapons, really—to make themselves rulers of the world.


In the first of Jemisin’s books, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, we’re introduced to the family line at the crux of the entire series: the Arameri. They are the ruling family of the land and of the Amn people, and devotees of the god Itempas, of whom it is said, during the God’s War that precedes the narrative by many centuries, killed his sister Enefa, and offered his brother Nahadoth to the Arameri as a slave. As can be expected from any family with as much wealth and power as the Arameri, they are revealed to be a brutal, power-obsessed family all-too focused on the “purity” of their highblood status. The seat of their power is a palace within a city, both named Sky. The palace itself floats in the air around an impossibly thin column separating it from the city that bears its name—a clear if narrow sign of the division cultivated between the ruling family and their subjects below.

It’s through the eyes of a nineteen-year-old woman named Yeine dau she Kinneth tai wer Somem kanna Darre that we first come to know the Arameri, and to understand the world in which they rule—one where gods and godlings do in fact exist, though several have been enslaved and the rest cast from the mortal realm in the centuries since the God’s War and Bright Itemptas’s vicious retribution. Yeine is a Darr baroness, and the daughter of Kinneth, late, disowned heiress of the Arameri who fled her kingdom, and Dekarta—her father and the current ruler of Sky—following the suspicious murder of her mother. Darr, of which Yeine is a member of the ruling class—an “ennu”—is a matriarchal society, where the men are only called to fight if a situation is truly dire. Otherwise they are designated as the protectors of the home and of the community’s children. Yeine herself is described as a warrior. She has Amn eyes, faded green in color, more unnerving than pretty. Otherwise, I am short and flat and brown as forestwood, and my hair is a curled mess.

In the book’s opening, Yeine is called to Sky by her grandfather, Dekarta Arameri, to challenge her scheming cousins Scimina and Relad for her grandfather’s rule (the finer details of which—such as the fact that to lose means certain death—are obfuscated until her arrival, when it is too late for her to leave). But it is not just Yeine’s life that is at risk—both Scimina and Relad, though sister and brother, will turn as readily on one another as they will on Yeine to determine who will reign in Dekarta’s footsteps. Thus, alliances must be made, and threats levied. Such is the Arameri way. Throughout all this, Yeine must contend with her cousins’ poor expectations of her. (Scimina is especially cruel and condescending, describing the Darr as “a race that has never been more than savages, no matter how prettily we dress you.”) As well, her gradual realization of what it takes to be considered Arameri. In the words of Yeine’s aunt, being a member of said family means knowing “How to be cruel…. How to spend life like currency and wield death itself as a weapon.

But Yeine is not alone in her time at Sky. Along with several of palace’s helping hands, many of whom she comes to realize are Amn, though not treated with the same degree of respect as highbloods (like the good-natured T’vril), she is occasionally hunted, and desired, by the god and godlings imprisoned by the Arameri: the Lord of the Night Nahadoth, Itempas’s brother, sister, and sometimes lover; Sieh, the Trickster god and the first and oldest of the godlings made from the Three; Kurue, the goddess of wisdom; and Zhakkarn, goddess of war and battle. It’s through the relationships that develop between Yeine and the gods confined within Sky, especially Sieh and Nahadoth, that she learns the truth about the Three—Itempas, Nahadoth, and Enefa—the Big Bang-like astrological phenomenon known as the Maelstrom that birthed them, and the jealousy and resulting war that tore their family asunder.

As the story progresses and Yeine finds herself becoming further embroiled in the lives and plight of the gods surrounding her, she learns an unexpected truth about herself: that when the goddess Enefa was murdered by Itempas, her soul remained, though horribly wounded. Sieh and the other gods discovered Enefa’s soul and placed it within a mortal body—Yeine’s—where it is to be nursed back to health. This helps to clarify certain things—chief among them why life in the universe continued following Enefa’s apparent death, when it is said that the true death of any one of the Three would mean the end of all things, and the unbalancing of creation. Upon learning this, Yeine agrees to ally herself with Nahadoth and the godlings, to assist in ensuring their freedom, in exchange for the protection of her homeland, Darr, regardless of whether the makes it through the succession competition alive.

It’s in the narrative’s final moments, however, that the truth of things is laid bare and, following a sequence of events that sees Yeine murdered to curry favour with Itempas and Scimina turning viciously on her brother Relad (sadly the one character in the story I felt was given the proverbial short end of the stick—often feeling like an afterthought, or a pale echo of his more conniving and terrifying sister), Yeine is reborn as a goddess, the imprisoned gods are freed, and Bright Itempas is thusly and efficiently subdued. Simultaneous with her rebirth, Yeine brings to life a massive World Tree (basically the Yggdrasil from Norse cosmology) to grow up and through the palace of Sky, connecting it to the city below in a very real and material manner—something much more substantial and meaningful than the narrow column that had existed previously, more as a symbol than anything with actual social weight or promise.

From separation to forced unity, the rebirth of Enefa/Yeine brings the Arameri, and Itempas, down to earth, effectively setting things on the slow path to equality, if such a thing is to be achieved in a world so fractured by haves and have-nots. All in all, a rather fantastic, aesthetically powerful means of illustrating the rebuilding that must now take place that the Arameri have literally lost the power of the gods, that their highblood status has taken a severe hit from which it is impossible to rebound, and that they are going to be forced to have increased communication with the world and divergent classes they’d for so long floated carelessly above.


The Broken Kingdoms

My education didn’t help. Like most people, I was taught that there were three gods once, and then there was a war between them, which left two. One of them wasn’t actually a god anymore—though he was still very powerful—so really that left just one. (And a great many godlings, but we never saw them.) For most of my life, I was raised to believe that this state of affairs was ideal, because who wants a bunch of gods to pray to when one will do? Then the godlings returned.

Not just them, though. Suddenly the priests began to say odd prayers and write new teaching poems into the public scrolls. Children learned new songs in the White Hall schools. Where once the world’s people had been required to offer their praises only to Bright Itempas, now we were urged to honor two additional gods: a Lord of Deep Shadows and someone called the Gray Lady. When people questioned this, the priests simply said, The world has changed. We must change with it.

You can imagine how well that went over.


The second book in the series, The Broken Kingdoms, takes place ten years after the events of the first. It focuses on the city once called Sky, now called Sky-in-Shadow (or simply Shadow), as it exists beneath the shadow of the towering World Tree created during Yeine’s rebirth as a goddess. The Arameri’s power has been diminished if not done away with entirely, and they are now ruled by T’vril, who Yeine installed as Dekarta’s successor at the close of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. And alongside the Arameri’s partial dismantling, the world is again overrun by godlings given free reign.

The narrative this time around belongs to a young Maroneh woman named Oree Shoth—a blind artist who can somehow see the magic that surrounds her, especially now that the world is once again flush with it. Oree sells her art to tourists and passers-by on Shadow’s Promenade. Early on she describes herself as such: They love my long legs, my graceful neck, my storm of hair, my breasts… they also commented on my smooth, near-black Maro skin…

Like Yeine before her, Oree does not walk through this world alone. Though she has left her Maroneh family behind, to make her own way in the world, she is accompanied by a host of fellow artists, a godling named Madding with whom she was once involved when she was seventeen and new to the city, and a strange man she comes across one night covered in muck—a man who repeatedly discovers new and horrible ways to die (re: kill himself) while always returning to life; a man who Oree can see when he starts to magically glow at the break of daylight. Seeing as the sad, perpetually suicidal man refuses to talk but still gloms on to Oree like a stray dog, she’s forced to name him herself: she calls him Shiny.

Of course it’s clear pretty early on that Shiny is really Itempas in mortal form—stripped of his godhood but not his immortality, forced to wander amongst humans and to learn from them until such time as Nahadoth and Yeine consider him to be redeemed—or merely punished enough. The trick of it all: he has to learn how to love, unconditionally. But while this is pretty obvious from the jump, in no way is Shiny’s journey anything less than utterly compelling. But I digress…

Soon after meeting Shiny, Oree’s world is thrown for a loop when a godling is found murdered in an alley just off the Promenade—one of Madding’s sisters. Madding and other godlings, meanwhile, have a side operation going on selling god’s blood to average mortals, gifting them with magical highs, for a price. During the investigation into the godling’s death that follows, Oree’s magical side begins more and more to reveal itself, independent of Madding’s bloody (literally) influence: as a function of her art she learns she has the ability to create passageways in space. Her magic is unstable, though, and it is eventually revealed that Oree is in fact part demon—a species of humans created by the mating of gods and mortals, believed to be all but wiped out on Itempas’s orders, in the aftermath of the God’s War. Why? Because demon’s blood is anathema to a god’s existence. It is the one thing that can harm them—beyond their catastrophic, universe-shattering infighting that is.

Once Oree’s abilities are discovered, she’s kidnapped by a radical organization known as the House of the Risen Sun that believes the gods are to blame for humanity’s ills, and that Nahadoth especially must be destroyed (because, of course, the Risen Sun is organized my Arameri highbloods who’ve lost a significant amount of status since the freeing of the gods; and because Nahadoth, due to his years of imprisonment, hates the Arameri second only to Itempas—minus the complicated familial-type love he shares with the latter). The Risen Sun, led by the Arameri Serymn and her husband Dateh, aims to use Oree’s blood to construct god-killing weapons, citing the need for vengeance and protection against the changing face of the world. It’s here that Oree learns the truth behind her father’s fateful words: that “There’s no such thing as magic that does no harm.

Of course the Risen Sun don’t realize that were they to succeed and actually kill Nahadoth, all of existence would be negated. The universe previously sustained the death of a god by the fact that Enefa’s soul survived where her body did not; were any of the Three to actually be obliterated from existence, so too would all life cease to be. But the Risen Sun are about as up their own asses as a cult can be, as evidenced by the fact that Dateh is eating the hearts of murdered godlings to gain their strength.

Which is just all kinds of fucked up. Amazing and disturbing and holy shit why didn’t I think of using that in a story? But still, totally fucked up.

Beyond Dateh’s clear and villainous insanity, however, the most frightening thing he does is to clarify to Oree the sad truth about the Arameri and their relationship with Bright Itempas: “We worship Him not because He is the best of our gods, but because He is, or was, the greatest killer among them.” Which, to me, reads as a terrifyingly perfect analogue to those among us, in the real world, who would beat their chests for the God of the Old Testament—a being to be feared, not loved, for the ways in which It can completely, effortlessly, wreck literally all of humanity, and without a shred of remorse.

And of course there is an epic as all hell showdown with Dateh, wherein he’s confronted with the horrors of what he’s done. But as exciting as the climax was—and unexpected, coming after I thought most things had been neatly wrapped up and placed on a shelf—the most fascinating aspect of this second book is in how it humanizes Itempas through Oree’s interaction with him. He’s forced to admit to his mistakes (as much as he’ll admit to anything at this point), and confront the fact that he is learning to love, and indeed is falling in love with a demon—an individual that in a previous life he would have condemned to destruction out of his own capacity for self preservation (and that whole fearing the destruction of the universe thing):

“You’re saying you started the God’s War,” I said. “You’re saying the Nightlord was your lover—that you love him still. You’re saying he’s free now and he’s the one who did this to you.”

In this moment, and many that follow through the remainder of this book and into the next, Itempas, the harshest of the gods, responsible for untold death and destruction, is effectively humanized, and not at all in a way that felt cheap or manipulative. He reveals to Oree that his actions in starting the God’s War were a result of having experienced a moment of utter, incomparable loneliness for which he blamed Enefa—for taking Nahadoth from him, and for being completely incapable of sharing his love.

In the end, he was a spurned lover incapable of being alone, who lashed out at those who loved and cared for him most because change, as it were, was simply not in his nature.

At the close, it’s revealed that Oree was in fact telling the story to another person all along—hers and Itempas’s daughter. After the climax in which she loses her ability to see the magic in the world around her, becoming now entirely blind, she and Itempas go into exile—he a deposed god, she a demon whose existence many fear as being a threat to all. And to add insult to injury, she is visited, well before the birth of her child, by Nahadoth and Yeine, who for the most part sit out the events of the second book—the threat of Nahadoth looms over many of the book’s events, though he rarely makes an appearance. They inform Oree that either she must die, or that she must abandon Itempas, for he no longer suffers with her by his side. And Nahadoth especially is not willing to let him off the hook after only ten years spent wandering the Earth in pain and isolation.

While the ending of this book is an emotional stomach punch, Oree nevertheless rises to all occasions. Despite her blindness, she is never treated as less than, nor is she ever placed in a physically compromised position by any of the gods. Any persecution she faces throughout is not a result of her disability but of her heritage as a demon. And that she survives and accomplishes all she does, without help from, and often in spite of the gods, is why, at the end of all things, she emerged as my favourite character in the entire series.


The Kingdom of Gods

A godling defying a god. It seemed impossible. We were such low things compared to them; they could kill us so easily. Yet we were not powerless. Some among us—myself, once upon a time—were strong enough to challenge them directly, at least for a few moments. And even the least of us could keep secrets and stir up trouble.

One godling’s mischief did not trouble me. But if many of us were involved, conspiring across mortal generations, implementing some complex plan, it was no longer mischief. It was a revolt. One far more dangerous than whatever the northerners planned for the Arameri.

Because if the godlings revolted against the gods, the gods would fight back, as they had done when threatened by the demons long ago. But godlings were not as fragile as demons, and many of us had no vested interest in keeping the mortal realm safe. That would mean a second God’s War, worse than the first one.

This had been brewing right under my nose for fifty years, and I hadn’t a clue.

Beyond me, in silent rebuke, the bloody sky went gradually black.


Right away one notices the tone of the third book in this series is decidedly different than what’s come before. The narrator this go around, the Trickster Sieh, informs the reader up front not to expect the same old tricks: You will not reach the end and suddenly learn I have been talking to my other soul or making a lullaby of my life for someone’s unborn brat. And he’s right. Down to the very structure—split into four parts where the previous books were only divided by chapters—the third book in the Inheritance Trilogy is a decidedly unique but no less riveting affair. And upon reflection, its focus—a godling faced with mortality—is a perfect third act for this series, having spent the first two books exploring immortality and godhood from the perspective of mortals, to varying degrees (Oree, of course, being a demon).

Far more time has passed between the second and third books than between the first and second—many decades as a matter of fact. It begins when Sieh meets and befriends two Arameri highbloods—children. He’s wary at first, because children or not, a highblood is a highblood. The memories of his incarceration are not so easily wiped clear. In spite of this, he is intrigued by the children and offers to meet them again, one year from their first encounter. Things continue like this until the children manage to encourage Sieh to become their friend, and the three of them take a blood oath to that effect. In the moment the oath is made, however, and their blood is shared, Sieh is hurtled away without knowledge of what has happened to him, how much time has passed, or even where he is. When he wakes in Nahadoth’s care, he learns that not only have eight years passed, but also that he has become afflicted with, of all things, mortality.

Upon returning to the mortal realm and to Sky, Sieh seeks out the two Arameri children with whom he took the oath—Shahar and Dekarta, named for two of the family’s most important (re: infamous) rulers. Their mother Remath, granddaughter of T’vril, is the new ruler of the Amn people. When Sieh is reunited with Shahar, he learns from her what really happened that faithful day—from their perspective:

Eight years ago,” she said in that same clipped, edged tone, “you and I and Deka took an oath of friendship. Immediately upon which you unleashed a flare of magic so powerful that it destroyed the Nowhere Stair and much of the underpalace—and then you vanished, leaving Deka and me buried in the rubble with more bones broken than whole.”

Sieh, of course, never intended for any of that to happen—from the children getting hurt to his forced mortality. Worse, he learns that the boy, Deka, was blamed for what happened and sent away to become a scrivener. Despite his selfish, childish nature, Sieh wishes to get to the bottom of things and seeks out what might have caused the oath they took to have such grave effect.

Simultaneously, The Kingdom of the Gods goes into terrific detail to illustrate the degree in which the world is changing as the Arameri’s control continues to slip. The World Tree still grows throughout the palace of Sky, splitting it into inconvenient pathways and disrupting the Arameri’s sense of a power in a very material way. What we learn as we follow Sieh’s investigation is that the Arameri line is dwindling in accordance with their diminished power, and that highbloods have been the target of attacks and assassinations for some time.

Eventually Sieh’s journey leads him into the paths of several characters around which the central themes and conflicts of the entire trilogy’s narrative to some extent revolve: Ahad, a man shaped from the mortal prison Nahadoth was forced into during his Arameri captivity; Glee Shoth, the grown daughter of Oree and Itempas, who keeps the latter safe from those who might seek to destroy or abuse him; and the villain of the piece, Kahl Avenger—the offspring of Sieh and the original Enefa.

The existence of the last of these individuals is one of the most interesting and unexpected twists in the entire series. Prior to the God’s War, it is revealed, Enefa courted Sieh and made for him a child from his seed. But as Sieh’s nature is forever that of a child himself, the maturity inherent in having a child proved anathema to his existence, almost killing him. It would have, actually, had Enefa not hidden the child, Kahl, where no one, god or mortal, would know to look, and subsequently locking the knowledge of his existence from Sieh’s memory. But when Enefa was killed, the chains on Kahl’s imprisonment were loosened; and when Enefa’s soul was reborn in Yeine, they were shattered altogether, and for decades, “Kahl, son of death and mischief, Lord of Retribution, was loosed upon the realms to do as he would.

And what’s Kahl’s endgame? The creation of a God’s Mask, which would afford the slighted individual the power of a fourth god, thus upsetting the balance of the Three and throwing all of existence into disarray, calling forth the Maelstrom from which all life began to subsequently wipe clear the universe.

Really though, he’s just a petulant shit frustrated that his parents never paid him any attention.

I’m of course being reductive here, but Kahl’s ambition serves as an interesting parallel to Itempas and the rashness of his actions, which also could have destroyed all of creation had he truly been successful in killing Enefa the first time. And really, that’s what this book is all about: parallels and understandings. Much of this is shown in how Sieh grows and matures, aging rapidly as he does, but also in Itempas, who has changed considerably since the second book and now willingly and gratefully places his life in the hands of his demon offspring, Glee. He has gone over the course of three books from viewing the mortals as subservient and the demons as a pure threat, to living amongst, loving, and fighting for mortals, and viewing his child, and all demons, as a necessary countermeasure to the gods themselves—because balance must exist in all facets of the known universe. And sometimes even a god needs to be taught this very simple lesson. Similarly, Sieh learns the value in having a life to give, and others to give it too, and is discovering such things not only from his interactions with Dekarta and Shahar, but also in the troubled and difficult, though evolving relationship he finds with the subdued and surprisingly level-headed Itempas.

But of course it’s in Sieh’s love for the two Arameri children, now adults, in which his biggest transformation takes place—especially the passionate relationship that develops between he and Dekarta following the latter’s return from exile as a powerful scrivener not to be trifled with.

What’s fascinating is that over the course of this one book, Jemisin manages to reframe the entirety of the Three’s troubled history within the smaller, more compact narrative of Sieh, Shahar, and Dekarta (including the very end of this book, in which it’s revealed the story of the Three is, in some ways, being retold and gifted to a new generation). And in doing so, she manages to also satisfy and resolve the conflict between the Three, giving them what was needed for old wounds to be resolved, and new promises made.

Behind all of this, though, is Kahl’s long con, using the northerners and those otherwise dissatisfied with the remains of the Arameri’s rule to don similar but more unstable god masks and sacrifice themselves to his greater good, in the process killing Remath, destroying Sky, and toppling the World Tree in one of the series’ most amazingly well-realized sequences. Which is to say nothing of the intensity that follows as Kahl, having assumed for himself a true god’s power, calls forth the Malestrom to bring about the end of all things:

The Whorl was not as high as Sky had been, but it was as good a vantage point as any. From there, the heavens were a terrible, awe-inspiring sight. More than half of the sky had been devoured by the swirling, wavering transparency. As the sun rose and passed into the space of change, its shape turned sickly and distorted, its light flickering on our skins like a campfire. This was not an illusion. What we saw was literal, despite the impossibility of the angles and distance. Even Tempa’s rules for physics and time had been distorted by the Maelstrom’s presence. Thus we beheld the slow and tortured end of our sun as it was torn apart and drawn into the great maw. There would be light for a while longer, and then darkness such as no mortal has ever seen.

I was reminded when reading the above of the television show Farscape. For years, they teased the existence of a “wormhole weapon”—a device of such terrible power that to use it would mean the end of all life in the galaxy and beyond. After four seasons and a movie that served as the series finale, they finally employed said wormhole weapon, creating a flame-wreathed singularity in space that would double in size every few seconds until it swallowed existence whole. Needless to say, after so many years’ worth of build up, it did not disappoint. This was the image that sprang to mind as I entered into the final conflict of this book, and the Second God’s War, as the Maelstrom, this almost impossible to imagine non-entity that had been discussed in hushed tones for two full books, was brought to life, and was actually, genuinely, terrifying as fuck.

And this right here is why I adore this series so much. While it excels, effortlessly, at representation, at discussing race and class, at normalizing same-sex relationships and having gender-fluid characters (Nahadoth) and disabled characters (Oree) at its core, at plot and pacing and tossing about analogues to our world that feel so fully thought out it seems almost obvious, it also manages to be absolutely epic in scope, never disappointing or becoming confounding in its action. And at the height of such devastating events, to find a way to bring it all back down to Earth, so to speak, with a hand on a former lover’s shoulder and the words By such small gestures are wars ended. Such is the strength of Jemisin’s writing. As endings go, this was damn near perfect.


The Awakened Kingdom

You were wanted! Mama and Papa and Naha wanted you lots. You know this, and you know there is a space carved into existence which is shaped like a godling, and that godling is supposed to be you! The hole was left when Biggest Sibling went away. By that I mean, he died. His name was Sieh. Now imagine you are supposed to be Sieh! Well, not really. Sieh is dead. But you were made to fill the hole he left behind—to be the Trickster and the wind, mischief and cruelty, the cat and the boy and the cranky old man. Imagine the Three have shaped you so, so carefully to match the hole. You will be different from Sieh-that-was, but you will be important in the same way. You will be powerful in the same way. The planets will follow you and the mortals will tell tales of you and you will steal all the suns, but only keep the ones that want to be your friend. Without a Trickster the universe will not end, bit it will be a much duller place.


The fourth entry in this series, a sequel novella that takes place three hundred years following the close of the third book, is a decidedly quieter affair that feels more like an extended coda than it does a full-fledged tale. (That’s not intended as a slight, by the way—the narrative is substantial and worthy enough to be included in the omnibus.) It’s told from yet another new perspective—that of a godling, the first child of Itempas and Yeine following Sieh’s death at the end of the Second God’s War. This new god is still learning the ropes, which sometimes means accidentally levelling cities or shouting at a register somewhat torturous to mortal ears. To this end, she goes to Earth to learn from mortals how to be a better god. As Itempas puts it when discussing the untold strength of human beings and why it’s important to study them: “They were made to endure death on a scale we cannot imagine.”

The new godling, after some fumbling around, decides to name herself Shill, and befriends a young Darr man named Eino. Eino’s grandmother Fahno is a former “enulai”—a mortal from whom a god learns in a mentor-mentee relationship. This position, as it were, did not exist prior to the Compact, an agreement made three hundred years earlier when, following Kahl’s defeat and the world’s rather narrow brush with obliteration, the Three left mortals to manage life on their own terms, so as not to unwillingly involve innocent life in their squabbles and occasional wars.

As Shill begins to taste what it means to be a mortal, she sees in Eino a young man struggling to accept the society in which he’s been raised—one that has, over the centuries, reduced men to mere objects to be married off, for status and/or wealth it would seem. The courting of men in this society includes a gift: a knife that their future/new wife will use to circumcise them, as if to enforce their ownership. The reasons for this are told by way of another enulai named Mikna:

But not long after Skyfall, “Mikna continued, “in the new golden age that Darr had begun to enjoy with the ending of the Bright, and the rebuilding after the war—our men turned on us. Not all, certainly, but enough to pose a real threat…. That’s the way of men, you see, when women don’t keep them in check.

Shill, though, being an innocent for whom all things are currently equal, and for whom histories and politics are largely unknown, is baffled by the rights that have been taken from Eino and the other Darr men. And in her quest to learn her nature, as it were, she discovers in the unbalanced Darr society that hers is to be the embodiment of balance, capable of bestowing power to those who need it, at the expense of her own wellbeing. Because, as Yeine tells her, power cannot be given but only taken. Too much is a danger, as can be too little. This, then, is Shill’s purpose—her nature: to regulate; to delegate. To be the peace the blossoming world needs—the very antithesis of a god’s rule.

While The Awakened Kingdom is certainly a more light-hearted finale than I would have expected, given the bleak, near-cosmic destruction of the previous book, it’s quite satisfying on its own merits. Though Shill’s voice is a rather dramatic departure from that of Yeine, Oree, and Sieh, it functions almost as an exhalation, as if telling the reader “this is going to be a little different, and that’s okay—you can un-tighten the giant fucking knot in your chest.” Because as captivating and exciting as the trilogy was, it was also rather exhausting—not in a bad way, but in the way one feels like they need a breather after a pretty fucking amazing rollercoaster.

But Shill’s brief tale is not merely a surface-level romp to show the reader what became of the world following a few centuries of life without the influence of the Three, or for that matter the Arameri. It also serves as a thematic bow of sorts to many of the more pressing themes presented throughout, such as the equality gap between certain races and genders (an intriguing and welcome flip of the narrative that exists in a lot of fantasy lit, where men are the kings and warriors and the like, while women tend to the home and protect the children), and the presence—and danger—of magic in the hands of those not fit to wield its power.

Additionally, ending things with a tale focusing on the Darr and not the Arameri was a lovely way to bookend things, in a sense bringing Yeine’s journey full circle. For when she visits the people for whom she once sought the power to fight, or at least to defend against her cousin Scimina’s encroaching forces, she is now very aware that power alone would not satisfy their problems, nor would it absolve them of their sins, as it would not do for any nation on the Earth. In this way, Shill, her child, is brought about to be the thing that she could not be to Darr as a mortal, or to any nation as a god: the ability to empower safely, and with the knowledge and wisdom to do so in a way that would not grant any one group of people more power or authority than they deserve, or would know how to handle. This is also a pointed stab at what the Arameri represented at the start of everything, during the time of the Bright: cruelty, enslavement, and oppression—the poisons of power unchecked.

At the end of all things, the series is not just about power, or corruption, or the varied social strata represented throughout; it’s about family, first and foremost. It’s about how no matter their scope or strength or influence—be it a trio of gods that loves one another as strongly as they hate, fucking and spawning and battling to the death at the dawn of time and beyond, or a new trio of souls formed in a different universe, or possibly in an afterlife, at a much later time and in a place known only to them—family, by blood or by choice, is at the heart of every glorious success and every unimaginable tragedy one can consider. This is the strength of Jemisin’s work—beyond the florid writing and goddamn stunning imagery, this series survives on its ability to turn even the mightiest of gods into flawed, fucked-up individuals as capable of as many good deeds and miracles as they are back-stabbings and affairs.

As is likely incredibly fucking obvious to anyone who’s read this far, I don’t have a lot of negative things to say about this series. Sure, there are a few things I would have loved to see padded out—as mentioned earlier, Relad in the first book is a rather slight character until the plot demands he step forward and offer Yeine an alliance. Additionally, I would love to have had some resolution with Oree’s friends and fellow artists from the Promenade in the second book, and the scrivener corps in the third. Oh, and there was not nearly enough of the godling Lil the Hunger. She absolutely stole every scene she was in—her and her enormous mouth of rotating, buzzsaw teeth. Just give me an entire book with her as the protagonist and I will be happy.

But these aren’t so much points against the series, or even missed opportunities, as they are simple wishes for more. In no way did I feel the narrative was lacking or void of any one thing or another.

The older I get and the more I read, the harder I find it is for me to feel the rush of excitement or joy I used to gain from just picking up practically any old book. But more than those sensations, these days I find satisfaction to be my magical, elusive unicorn in the woods—that thing that I almost never feel, the sense that what you’ve read could only have been written by this one person, and that they’ve shown you their very best hand. The most recent instances I can think of where I felt this way have been in books that I now consider among my favourites, regardless of genre: The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes; Daytripper, by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá; the previously mentioned Bel Dame Apocrypha, by Kameron Hurley. These are all books that twigged my specific loves and interests so strongly as to feel they were not so much things I discovered as they were written for me.

This is how I felt after finishing Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy. This was, truly, one of the most satisfying reads I have had in quite some time, and I can’t recommend it enough.


2016: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

1. The Inheritance Trilogy: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin
2. The Inheritance Trilogy: The Broken Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin
3. The Inheritance Trilogy: The Kingdom of Gods – N.K. Jemisin
4. The Inheritance Trilogy: The Awakened Kingdom – N.K. Jemisin
5. The Society of Experience – Matt Cahill
6. The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson
7. Generation Loss – Elizabeth Hand
8. Available Dark – Elizabeth Hand
9. Widow Basquiat – Jennifer Clement
10. On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light – Cordelia Strube
11. Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It – Kate Harding
12. The Passion According to G.H. – Clarice Lispector
13. The Monstrous – Ellen Datlow (ed.)
14. The Mercy Journals – Claudia Casper
15. Blame – Trevor Davison (unpublished manuscript)
16. White is for Witching – Helen Oyeyemi
17. Straight to the Head – Fraser Nixon
18. God in Pink – Hasan Namir
19. Practical Jean – Trevor Cole
20. The Angels of Our Better Beasts – Jerome Stueart (unpublished manuscript)
21. City of the Lost – Kelley Armstrong
22. Citizen: An American Lyric – Claudia Rankine
23. Binti – Nnedi Okorafor
24. Job Shadowing – Malcolm Sutton
25. Bad Things Happen – Kris Bertin
26. The Horrors – Charles Demers
27. Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi
28. Blackass – A. Igoni Barrett
29. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi
30. We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
31. The Extra Cadaver Murder – Roy Innes (unpublished manuscript)
32. Silver Screen Fiend – Patton Oswalt
33. The Heartbeat Harvest – Mark Jaskowski (unpublished manuscript/re-read)
34. The End of Memory: A Natural History of Aging and Alzheimer’s – Jay Ingram
35. Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
36. Black Moon – Kenneth Calhoun
37. It’s An Honest Ghost – John Goldbach
38. Weekend – Jane Eaton Hamilton
39. And Again – Jessica Chiarella
40. Even This Page is White – Vivek Shraya
41. The Opposite House – Helen Oyeyemi
42. Leak – Kate Hargreaves
43. I’m Not Scared of You or Anything – Jon Paul Fiorentino
44. Heart-Shaped Box – Joe Hill
45. Somewhere a Long and Happy Life Probably Awaits You – Jill Sexsmith
46. Pedal – Chelsea Rooney
47. North American Lake Monsters – Nathan Ballingrud
48. Rockets Versus Gravity – Richard Scarsbrook
49. Lexicon – Max Barry
50. Untitled/Life Story – Jenna Avery (unpublished manuscript)
51. I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Iain Reid
52. The Conjoined – Jen Sookfong Lee
53. The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman
54. The Sandman: The Doll’s House – Neil Gaiman
55. The Sandman: Dream Country – Neil Gaiman
56. The Sandman: Season of Mists – Neil Gaiman
57. The Sandman: A Game of You – Neil Gaiman
58. The Sandman: Fables and Reflections – Neil Gaiman
59. The Sandman: Brief Lives – Neil Gaiman
60. The Sandman: Worlds’ End – Neil Gaiman
61. The Sandman: The Kindly Ones – Neil Gaiman
62. The Sandman: The Wake – Neil Gaiman
63. The Sandman: Endless Nights – Neil Gaiman
64. The Sandman: The Dream Hunters – Neil Gaiman
63. The Sandman: Overture – Neil Gaiman
64. The Humanity of Monsters – Michael Matheson, ed.
65. Hair Side, Flesh Side – Helen Marshall
66. Lines of Flight: An Atomic Memoir – Julie Salverson
67. Evenings & Weekends – Andrew Baulcomb
68. The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor Lavalle
69. The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger – Stephen King
70. Lagoon – Nnedi Okorafor
71. Three Years With the Rat – Jay Hosking
72. Testament – Vickie Gendreau
73. I, Death – Mark Leslie
74. This Census-Taker – China Miéville
75. The Last Days of New Paris – China Miéville
76. You Are Having a Good Time – Amie Barrodale
77. Guy – Jowita Bydlowska
78. White Teeth – Zadie Smith
79. Gutshot – Amelia Gray
80. Tokyo Decadence – Ryu Murakami
81. Three Moments of an Explosion – China Miéville
82. Shadow of the Colossus – Nick Sutner
83. Chrono Trigger – Michael P. Williams
84. The Dilettantes – Michael Hingston
85. Death Valley – Susan Perly
86. Survivor’s Club – Lauren Beukes
87. Bottle Rocket Hearts – Zoe Whittall
88. Border Markers – Jenny Ferguson
89. Anne & Kit/Untitled Manuscript – Michael Matheson (Unpublished Manuscript)
90. The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
91. Mad Cow – Alexis Kienlen (Unpublished Manuscript)
92. A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay
93. Two Brothers – Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá
94. Becoming Unbecoming – Una
95. The Best Kind of People – Zoe Whittall
96. Stories of Your Life and Other Stories – Ted Chiang
97. You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain – Phoebe Robinson
98. Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories – Kelsi Morris and Kaitlin Tremblay
99. Everything Belongs to the Future – Laurie Penny
100. Pacn Heat – Terri Favro and A.G. Pasquella
101. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander
102. Downwind, Alice – C.C. Adams (unpublished manuscript)
103. Five Roses – Alice Zorn
104. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts I and II – J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, Jack Thorne
105. The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality – Julie Sondra Decker
106. Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie

Review: Moving Parts, by Lana Pesch

Book-Cover-Moving-Parts_large>>Published: October 2015

>>Finally got around to it: December 2015

They had discussed it for weeks, maybe even months—the insanity and illegality of the plan, the explanation, the cops, the evidence. The reasons not to do it. The pact. Cody kept saying over and over how he couldn’t live with himself anymore. He was done. The guilt about Joseph, his heartbreak over Astrid, the shame he woke up with every day. Hardly a breeze on the lake. The boat was barely moving, only a slight rocking on the water. He tied Cody’s hands and feet together like a calf’s at a rodeo. He should have gone to Canadian Tire and got new twine. The rope was bristly against his hands as he wove figure eights in and out of Cody’s legs, each end secured with a sailor’s knot.

“You’re a good—”

In one motion, Brent stuffed a sport sock deep into Cody’s mouth and straddled him. Cody’s eyes widened. Brent placed his thumbs together just below Cody’s Adam’s apple. Cody’s eyes closed. His lashes were long, like a girl’s, against his tanned face. His black hair was windswept and messy from driving with the windows down. Brent gripped his best friend’s neck like it was any other thing: a basketball, a can of paint, a plastic patio chair. He positioned his hands as if he was about to pop a cork and pressed his fingers against Cody’s throat. Not even a groan from behind the sock. The boat floated in the current’s natural flow. The sunlight glinted on the surface of the water and looked like a bag of new screws scattered over concrete. It was like some kind of backwards ritual. The opposite of baptism. Brent applied pressure, and Cody wriggled his feet at the bottom of the boat. He pressed harder. A breeze wafted through the birches as if to say, watching, watching.


Comprised of nine stories, Lana Pesch’s first collection of short fiction is a character-centric exploration of individuals at or near crossroads of one sort or another. For the most part these forks are emotionally driven, as people embark on new relationships or jettison old ones for the promise, or even the mere possibility, of something better. In a few of the stories, paths diverge in less obvious ways: a person re-examines what they thought they knew about themselves via the criminal actions of a childhood friend; a nephew is forced to accept the inevitable passing of a loved one as he navigates the schism between his mother and a medical specialist; and one young man has to figure out for himself what “brotherhood” truly means, and to decide whether or not to cross certain ethical boundaries as a result.

The opening story, “Moving Parts,” introduces us to Edie and Ditch, who catch sight of one another in the cashier’s line at a No Frills. Ditch proceeds to follow Edie to her car in order to ask her out. And while he’s the sort of person whose train of thought travels down the darker side of things, Edie’s narrative spirals into future possibilities of what their lives together might entail, should they hit it off. It’s a sweet if simple opener about expectations, fears, and the reality in taking a chance.

In “Deffer’s Last Dance,” a young financial mind’s uncle suffers a stroke. The narrative follows the main character through the crucial first forty-eight hours, which will determine whether or not his uncle lives, and what type of existence might follow. To help navigate this difficult time, the uncouth corpse of a homeless man befriends the distraught nephew and attempts to impart upon him a certain degree of afterlife wisdom.

“Brotherhood,” the strongest story in the collection, is a dark tale of childhood friends and the lengths one considers in order to honour a pact made years prior. The narrative follows Brent and Cody, two young men whose lives have remained somewhat intertwined all the way into adulthood. But Cody harbours many dark secrets, including an extraordinarily diminished sense of self and years of stockpiled guilt for the unintentional death of his younger brother. When Cody calls on Brent to obey the letter of their pact, if not the law, the resulting actions threaten to destroy whatever equilibrium exists in their lives, and the lives of their loved ones. It’s intimate and effective storytelling.

An interesting pairing with “Brotherhood,” “Natural Life” explores to striking effect the divergences in childhood friendships as one young woman working for a Fifth Estate-style documentary series travels south to visit a former friend whom she’d not seen in years, imprisoned now for her participation in the murder of an elderly woman during the attempted theft of a mobile home. While “Brotherhood” explored this sort of break in understanding from an immediately personal point of view, in “Natural Life” there already exists such a divide, and it’s the main character’s goal to understand its development, and to marry the memory of the child she knew with the criminal now sitting in front of her. While I prefer the narrative in “Brotherhood,” the writing in “Natural Life” is among the strongest in the collection, as Pesch delicately constructs the language of a woman experiencing an apparent lack of “self” and consequence, straddling the line of psychopathy.

One of my favourite moments in the entire collection, however, comes from a good but not especially great story. “Chewing Slower is a Sign of Mindfulness” follows a middle-aged woman on a bus trip from Kingston to Toronto as she reflects on her third failed marriage. Near the story’s end, she is out walking a dog to whom she is able to say everything she only wishes she could say to her destructive soon-to-be-ex-husband. And of course, the dog reacts adorably, as a dog would when addressed enthusiastically. It’s a small moment, but a very human one… despite one half of the conversation being canine. The emotional disarmament works exceedingly well.

But not every story in the collection is as strong as the entries already mentioned. “Habits of Creatures,” a series of vignettes coalescing around a Thanksgiving dinner during which a husband announces he’s leaving his wife for another man, is entertaining but light on character depth. Similarly, “The Rogues and Scoundrels Among Us,” a story masquerading as a letter of complaint about a company’s shoddy, brutally painful waxing strips, has a lot of fun with its premise but in the end offers little in the way of an emotional core.

It’s only the final two stories, though—“Faster Miles an Hour” and “Landing Area”—where I found myself rather disinterested in and detached from the narratives being told. The latter follows two women, an artist and a pilot, brought together after the pilot crashes her plane in the woods. The former… well I couldn’t tell you about that story if I had to as, truthfully, it simply didn’t resonate with me on any level.

If I had one additional complaint to lodge against this collection, it would be with the interior voice of the nephew at the centre of “Deffer’s Last Dance.” To be frank, much as I enjoyed the story for it’s slight supernatural twist, its tone was entirely off-putting. I’m speaking specifically about the nephew’s thoughts as he, while hearing about his uncle’s condition from a medical specialist, is also thinking rather extensively about his inappropriately timed hard-ons, not to mention what he’d like to do to the medical specialist currently discussing his uncle’s lack of options. Maybe it’s just me, but this all felt very out of place and inauthentic—it read as if written by someone imagining how a man must think based on the loosest and most stereotypical of ideas, and as a result almost destroyed my interest in said narrative. It was by the strength of its larger plot and character work that the story did not buckle beneath this unfortunate misstep in tone.

Despite the aforementioned issues and misgivings, I want to be clear that I thoroughly enjoyed this collection—enough that I read it in a single sitting. Pesch’s work isn’t especially flavourful or image heavy, but her command of character and voice is (mostly) quite strong. This is an enjoyable if not exceptional collection of work and I’d be curious to see what she does next.

Review: Pétronille, by Amélie Nothomb

41FbTBKmfZL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_>>Published: October 2015

>>Finally got around to it: November 2015

And that evening, when she informed me that she was going to be doing a signing in a prestigious Parisian bookstore, and I congratulated her, I saw her begin to fume with anger. I tried to get to the bottom of it. Out it came:

“Those bourgeois booksellers ought to be paying the writers who come and waste two hours of their life signing books for them!”

“Now now, Pétronille, what are you on about? Booksellers already have a hard enough time as it is making ends meet. As far as a bookseller is concerned, they’re taking a risk, inviting an author to sign at their store, but for the author, it’s a gift!”

“You really buy all that, don’t you? You’re so naïve! I maintain that all work deserves a salary. To do a book signing without being paid puts you in a precarious situation.”

I was speechless.

“Hey, the tide’s gone out,” she complained, handing me her empty champagne flute.

“We’ve drunk the entire bottle.”

“So let’s kill another one.”

“No, I think we’ll leave it there.”

I had noticed that the more she drank the more she ventured into the far left of the left.

“What, only one bottle? You, Amélie Nothomb, with your apartment bubbling over with champagne? It’s obscene! It’s disgusting. It’s…”

“Making things precarious?” I suggested.



In late 1997, thirty-year-old rising literary star Amélie Nothomb moves to Paris. While there, she embarks on a search for a drinking companion—not just any old lover of liquor, however; Nothomb is in search of a partner whose adoration for champagne, specifically, matches her own. Hers is a love unbridled by proper etiquette or thoughts of what goes best with what—an obsession for the drink itself, no matter its source or vintage. To this end, she meets at one of her book signings a young woman named Pétronille Fanto. The two had been corresponding for some time—Pétronille is an academic and literary hopeful who has admired Nothomb’s career from afar. Upon meeting for the first time, Nothomb is immediately taken by the young, somewhat androgynous fan and invites her to join her in imbibing. Thus, a friendship is born.

Nothomb and Fanto’s relationship, however, is unconventional and segmented by large gaps of time and stark ideological differences—some rooted in politics (Nothomb is the daughter of a diplomat; Fanto the child of a proletarian upbringing), others in the ways in which authors function both within and outside of the traditional literary scene and with varying degrees of success. These differences in viewpoint form the crux of the narrative’s conflict, much of which has to do with Fanto’s suspicious nature. From the beginning she views Nothomb’s invitation to go drinking as a person belonging to the literati deciding to “slum it” for a night with a member of the working class:

“Are you going to start up with the class struggle and dialectical materialism?” I asked. “When I invited you, I didn’t know the first thing about your background.”

“Your caste senses these things.”

The narrator does eventually succeed in winning Fanto’s trust, to some extent, as the two rotate in and out of each other’s lives—as Nothomb continues to publish to expected levels of success, while Fanto’s tumultuous literary career begins in earnest. Gradually, as the two reconnect over and over again, Nothomb begins to see in Fanto a dissatisfaction and arrogance at odds with her own success, as Fanto’s views inch ever closer to the far left, to the point where nothing about being a creative satisfies her anger and frustration at the realization that she is indeed a part of a system she so despises, and has not managed to dismantle it from within or succeed in spite of it.

This dissatisfaction hits its apex when Fanto, having had enough of the literary world and all associated with it, embarks on a trip to the Sahara, which she travels on foot over the course of thirteen months. When she returns from said trip, her distaste for Parisian and literary culture is even greater than it was before she left. She sees, in her inability to survive solely off her creative output, the flaws inherent to the very industry she’s a part of: that it is not output or talent or even who one knows, but personality—that a personality as strange and untethered as Nothomb’s is that percentage of a percentage needed to truly stand out amongst all other creatives in an otherwise unforgiving field. It’s then that Fanto is forced to supplement her income, first as a pharmaceutical test subject, and then as a performance artist of sorts staging actual games of Russian roulette for a potentially unsuspecting audience.

Much of Nothomb’s output veers into the semi-autobiographical. Several of her books, including Fear and Trembling and Tokyo Fiancée, are fictions based in reality, with locations, characters, and cues pulled straight from the author’s life. Pétronille is different—while it is autobiographical in that it stars an author named Amélie Nothomb who has written and published books identical to what’s detailed within the text, the novel feels more deliberately existential than some of the others of this ilk, with its titular character, potentially, an entirely fictitious construction meant to externalize a facet of the author’s personality. For the most part, this existentialism is kept to a minimum, with the author occasionally remarking on difficulties faced in her career, such as the time she was accused of plagiarism or the hostile response received by her novel Sulphuric Acid. It’s in this novel’s close, which I will refrain from spoiling, where the existential subtext is made text and an act of performative aggression becomes the author’s undoing as Fanto, whom Nothomb was fascinated by for so many years, is revealed as the stark underside of the frivolity to which they’d celebrated in so many instances—a gloriously disgruntled down note criticizing artistic identities inherent, constructed, and stolen.

It’s of some curiosity as to whether Pétronille Fanto, or some version of her, ever existed in the first place. From her introduction, Fanto’s appearance seldom changes—she almost always resembles that of a fifteen-year-old boy, even after more than a decade has passed. As the story progresses, more and more she appears the voice of Nothomb’s doubts as to her own writing and success. This is driven home in sequences such as when Nothomb goes to London to interview dame Vivienne Westwood and is met with an obstinate, disinterested subject who would sooner have Nothomb walk her dog for her than entertain any one of the author’s questions. In the aftermath of this unfortunate meeting, Nothomb calls Fanto and offers to pay her way to London—seeking Fanto as if she were a switch the author flips to silence whatever questions she might have regarding her worth.

In many ways, the novel’s thesis is isolated in a motto ascribed to both Christopher Marlowe and the titular Pétronille: Quod me nutrit, me destruit (That which nourishes me destroys me). Nothomb writes about her career and the literary scene into which she has inserted herself as a nervous child might discuss a popular group into which they’ve been drawn yet still feel isolated from. In Fanto, she’s given her doubts and loneliness a name and a career all its own, one that directly questions and confronts her own concerns toward the Paris literary scene and its aggressively bourgeois leanings. In Pétronille, the author finds new ways in which to strip her skin for the audience, revealing increasingly personal depths—something that she continues to do seemingly effortlessly, and with exceptional skill.

Review: Mouthquake, by Daniel Allen Cox

9781551526041_Mouthquake>>Published: September 2015

>>Finally got around to it: October 2015

Our conversations are magical. Stutterer and deaf person, we have such interesting ways of communicating. We meet somewhere in the middle of the other’s irregular speech. He lipreads my thoughts through a stutter, and I read his through his slur. When we speak to each other, Eric stares at my mouth, and I stare at his hands. I don’t understand sign language so he doesn’t sign to me, but his fingers still try to decode what he’s saying. He can’t help it.

He places his hands on my neck to feel the vibrations. Sometimes I think he knows what I’m going to say a few seconds before it comes out. And sometimes, maybe even before I know what I’m going to say. I place my hands on his sternum, not to feel the vibration, but to feel the pain in his sighs and what happens between words. He’s a breathy one. Having a conversation with him engages so much of our bodies. It’s so sexual. I think the real reason we talk is to have an excuse to fondle each other. We’re real pervs that way. I wonder if I’d love Eric as much if he were a hearing person. And I wonder if he wonders the same about my speech.


Mouthquake, Daniel Allen Cox’s fourth novel, is very much about memory and those locked away; and is itself, in both writing and structure, a bit like a memory—fractured and disseminated in uneven shards like a breadcrumb ouroboros.

Taking place in Montréal in the 80s and 90s, the novel follows our protagonist, belaboured by a stutter, as he, imagining himself a German Shepherd a la The Littlest Hobo, befriends a mysterious local figure—the Grand Antonio, a large, woolly mammoth of a man who pulls buses with his hair and sells postcards of himself alongside such luminaries as Dean Martin, Carly Simon, Johnny Carson, and even, mysteriously, Marilyn Monroe to unsuspecting passers-by.

Immediately, Cox’s novel blurs the line between realities with surreal, often poetic descriptors—in sharp contrast to its stuttering protagonist. For example, when referencing the Grand Antonio:

“He laid a hand on my head, which made me still. When he patted my toque, it felt like I was being bashed by a warm, raw steak. When he laughed, it sounded like the engine of a bus in trouble.”

The extensive, colourful language used throughout syncs with the narrator’s experiences as a stuttering child, one who learns to see the world more cohesively through sound and music. In the novel’s second and strongest section, taking place in the 1990s, he is introduced to his other half—a deaf young man named Eric. Together they discover different modes of communication as the narrator further explores the correlation between his experiences, his sexual appetite, and different forms of physical punishment and how it all relates to the construction of his identity.

I’ll be honest, I struggled with this book. I’ve enjoyed Cox’s work in the past, especially the incendiary and awesome Krakow Melt; however, as I read, I discovered that the narrative of this book simply wasn’t sticking with me. I found myself wanting more from Mouthquake’s young narrator than the book seemed willing to provide.

As beautiful as much of Cox’s language is, it comes in this instance at the expense of its characters—ultimately, I thought the narrator somewhat impenetrable, and as a result the novel had a difficult time maintaining my interest. I’ll readily admit that part of this, I think, has to do the perhaps unfair expectation that the concept introduced near the novel’s close, that people are songs in and of themselves, would resonate more deeply than it does. Instead it feels like a rather brilliant idea not successfully executed throughout. In other words, given the premise, I think I expected more of a synaesthetic approach to theme and identity.

It’s a strange thing to be reviewing a book, knowing that there is quality to its writing and to the story being told, but having been unable to connect to it—and, if I’m honest, feeling as if there was more attention paid to its construction of a sense of time and place than to developing its characters or what links them to one another. In the end, while I appreciate that each of Cox’s novels (of which I’ve read three) feel radically different from one another, Mouthquake washed over me with unfortunately little impact. I really wanted to like this book, but I just couldn’t find anything in which to sink my teeth.

Review: Armada, by Ernest Cline

ZZ48DF98EC>>Published: July 2015

>>Finally got around to it: September 2015

The Moon Base Alpha hangar bay was a breathtaking sight. The curved walls of the armored dome around us were lined with hundreds of gleaming Interceptor drones arrayed in the belt-fed launch racks that would fire them out into space like bullets from a high-velocity gas-powered machine gun. These were the drones we had been brought up here to pilot, I realized. We would use these very ships to wage war with the enemy when they arrived here, just over five and a half hours from now.

In that moment, I felt like Luke Skywalker surveying a hangar full of A-, Y-, and X-wing Fighters just before the Battle of Yavin. Or Captain Apollo, climbing into the cockpit of his Viper on the Galactica’s flight deck. Or Ender Wiggin arriving at battle school. Or Alex Rogan, clutching his Star League uniform, staring wide-eyed at a hangar full of Gunstars.

But this wasn’t a fantasy. I wasn’t Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon or Ender Wiggin or anyone else. This was real life. My life. I, Zackary Ulysses Lightman, an eighteen-year-old kid from Beaverton, Oregon, newly recruited by the Earth Defense Alliance, had just been reunited with my long-lost father on the far side of the moon—and now, together, we were about to wage a desperate battle to prevent the destruction of Earth and save the human race from total annihilation.

If this were all just a dream, I wasn’t sure that I would want it to end.


When is a story not a story? When it’s a masturbatory pastiche of pop culture references built atop the bones (i.e., ripping off) of better, more original narratives, and almost literally nothing else. When it adheres too closely to the old adage of plagiarism being theft from only one source, while research is to steal from many.

When it brings absolutely nothing new to the table—nothing original, no cleverness or evidence of thought and analysis beyond what’s on the surface, and not an ounce of fun to be found anywhere in its three hundred-plus pages.

Such was my experience reading Ernest Cline’s second book, Armada, which has the distinction of being, so far, the most disappointing, embarrassing, and at times infuriating novel of the year. And this from someone who quite sincerely enjoyed Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One.

And let’s talk about Ready Player One for a sec, as what that novel employed to pretty decent effect is at the core of what obliterates Armada from being anything remotely resembling a worthwhile read. I’m referring, of course, to the references.

To anyone who thought the obsessive, almost encyclopaedic amount of references to video games, film, television, and other assorted pop culture ephemera in Cline’s first novel was overwhelming, distracting, or just plain annoying… well, I’ve got some bad news for you, as Armada dials that shit up far past the threshold of good taste. And it’s in these references that all the novel’s problems are laid bare—including the attempted use of said referential material to mask its startling inadequacies (for example, every single woman, including the main character’s mom, being a skeletally sketched, manic pixie nerd dream girl). So let’s go through the book’s problems one giant red X at a time.

First up, the novel’s base narrative. It’s been said before but it bears repeating: this book is The Last Starfighter, WarGames, and Ender’s Game smashed together and repurposed as if it were the remains of three different types of deli meat rolled up as one and re-sold to the public (that’s how they make hot dogs, right?). The story follows Zack Lightman, a somewhat unhinged teenager with a history of schoolyard aggression, a love of video games, and a mother who loves and supports him and his nerd obsessions, many of which she shares. Zack’s father Xavier is thought to have died in a “shit factory” explosion when Zack was just an infant. (Spoilers, and also posted in the segment above: his death was a fake-out. For reasons, apparently.) Zack spends the bulk of his time when not working his after-school job at a Gamestop-like store playing the online flight sim Armada with his two best friends, and generally wishing his life amounted to more. Which, of course, it will, when the sim is revealed Ender’s Game-style to have been real-life training for the upcoming alien invasion that will decimate the planet, unless a plucky, sugared-up cavalry of the world’s best gamers can rally to save the day.

Armada is the hero’s journey filtered through a pop culture lens spanning almost four decades of content. Cline employed this same trick in his previous novel; in Ready Player One, however, the pop culture odds and ends had merit—the obsessive amount of detail presented through its references all played into the larger narrative, of uncovering a trail of Easter eggs left by an eccentric child of 80s and 90s multimedia and culture. While often overcooked, much of this content felt as if it had a reason for being there within the scope of that narrative. This is not the case with Armada. Take a look at that segment I quoted at the start of this review, where Cline jumps from one reference to another like a kid filling a plastic bag with one five-cent candy from every bin in a store. This is not an isolated incident; this is the norm—the entire book is a barrage of one reference after another, many repeated (there was a moment where I read one Master Yoda quote too many and audibly told the author to fuck off while sitting alone in my apartment), and few if any having an actual point within the context of the scene. Rather than being read as yet another encyclopaedic love letter to the shit from Cline’s (and my) youth, the sheer number of references smashed together reads as if the author could not decide or set himself to just one thing through which to make his point, which in turn reads as if he himself did not have an actual emotional ties to any one scene in this novel, as every scene is being compared to ten different things at once, forcing the reader to sift through and figure out what the author really feels or intends for you to feel in any given moment. And even then, not a single reference is delved into with any degree of analysis—it’s all there on the page for the author to show us the veritable shit ton of stuff he can rattle off, in hopes that we’ll be so stunned by the amount of content and accrued “knowledge” that we won’t look for the meaning beneath any of it, of which there is none. The references are manic in how they’re flung out, with no thought to the narrative’s artistic or emotional ambitions.

This shit is nerd-by-numbers—in place of developing an authorial voice, Cline’s writing distracts and infuriates by relying on surface-level comparisons for everything without taking even a moment to scrape beneath that first layer for some shred of actual substance. At one point, when referencing the construction of a military base, a character states, “The team of engineers who designed and built this place were in a huge hurry, so they borrowed from a lot of existing designs.” To which I only had to laugh, because no shit—everything in Armada feels as if it’s been pulled from something and somewhere else, but with no consideration as to why or how it actually fits within the world.

Next up, the women. There aren’t any. Actually, let me rephrase that: there are human females in this narrative, but they don’t actually exist unto themselves. They’re all kind of magical in that they don’t really have their own personalities or ambitions within the narrative; rather they exist as objects to pad out the gender balance. And the ones that are given anything at all to do (which isn’t saying much), are Zack’s mother, Pamela (who, of course, reminds him of Ellen Ripley, or Sarah Connor, or…), and Lex, whom he meets when first learning of the very real danger facing Earth from the invading alien Europans. And what’s Zack’s immediate reaction to the cooler than cool Lex? Basically, like she’s a unicorn in the woods:

I did a double-take at her. No one had ever gotten the Iron Eagle/Peanuts mash-up in my call sign without me first having to explain it to them—including Cruz and Diehl. I felt a strong urge to reach out and touch her shoulder, to confirm that she was real.

Here and throughout Cline falls into the very easily avoided trap of treating nerd girls like they are mysterious and almost non-existent, so much so that when one finds an elusive girl who’s intelligent, funny, AND likes video games, she must be touched and fawned over—otherwise she’s not real, just a figment of the imagination.

This shit is so very tired.

And when other women are introduced, they too are spouting references like there’s no tomorrow. Cline attempts to differentiate a bit by giving Whoadie biblical and Shakespearean quotes to rattle off instead of just the usual litany of may-the-force-be-so-say-we-live-long-and-prosper, but then goes on to say that all those interesting quotes were her uncle’s and not necessarily compiled via her own interest or volition, which helps ensure that most if not all of the women in this narrative exist as either a repository for the same information as the guys, usually provided to them by men, or they are themselves objects of wonderment and fascination. And yes, Lex and others do get to kick a fair amount of ass in the not-that-climactic end battle (I seriously wanted to skim the battle scenes as they are grossly overwritten and void of rhythm), but they don’t ever feel as if they are there for anything but to back up the men (and in the case of Pamela, to be worried, to patch up her wounded thought-dead husband, and then to get knocked up by him after getting over, in record time, the fact that he abandoned their family so many years prior, regardless of the reason). And in the end, despite how cool Lex is presented as being, she vanishes almost as quickly as she’s introduced, sits out much of the meat of the book’s second act, and in the close is there to make sure Zack gets his happy ending.

However, in this arena I will afford Cline a small—very small amount of leeway: none of the characters, male or female, really feel as if they have much in the way of their own voices or personalities. They are so thinly drawn, their histories and memories constructed by way of the art and creations of others, that in every instance the characters feel as if they exist only to give voice to the author’s own obsessions and not to have any personal development of their own, on or off the page. It’s like watching a film or television show and seeing every character introduced as “Ernest Cline as So-and-So.” His characters aren’t characters but cardboard cut outs designed to show us as readers just how clever and well read/watched/played he is.

Every now and then we see a spark of self-awareness in Cline’s writing with respect to the gender differential, such as when during a conversation about how men supposedly make the best fighter pilots, because of such historical figures as Maverick, Goose, and Iceman from Top Gun, a young woman responds by saying, “You’re aware that those are all fictional characters, right?” Sadly, this moment evaporates as quickly as it occurs, with no evidence that this comment causes any of the guys, or anyone in general, to take a step back and realize how deeply their obsessions have bled into, and in some ways usurped their realities.

And resulting from all this is the sense that Cline is not ironically commenting upon nerd culture and the problems therein, but bathing in the culture’s shortcomings. He employs gamer stereotypes, like how we supposedly sustain ourselves on a diet consisting purely of Cheetos, Slim Jims, and Diet Mountain Dew, and like how our most pertinent conversations have to do with what is the more badass weapon: Sting from The Lord of the Rings or Mjolnir from Thor. By about a hundred pages in, I was severely annoyed by the non-stop assault of references and more references that almost always seemed to divert from the larger narrative; by the end, I was feeling embarrassed by my own obsessions and gaming- and film-based interests. It’s as if a dyed-in-the-wool “old school” nerd, fifty years from now, was sitting around a campfire, reciting to a crowd of his most loyal mouth breathers about the one time his singular obsessions mattered a hot damn to anyone but himself.

So much of what’s wrong with this book comes from feeling like Cline is not so much searching for or working to figure out his voice, but cribbing it from others instead of doing any heavy lifting himself. It’s kind of like how in the mid-late 90s we saw a whole bunch of Tarantino-style rip offs following the unexpected success of Pulp Fiction. However, most of those copycats failed because they assumed the trick was simply tossing in a fuckload of references and asides, and to be all edgy with curse words and racial epithets, thinking that did the job, when it wasn’t in the plethora of shit being tossed out at viewers but in how and why it was used. And to that end, as much in what wasn’t used as what was—just because you can compare your character to Luke, Apollo, and Ender doesn’t mean you have to, and certainly not all fucking at once. But then, it’s easier to say “this person is like this, this, and this,” than it is to tell us who they really are, for you, the author, on the inside, just like it’s easier to pull a Yoda quote out of one’s ass for the umpteenth time rather than write an original joke or rely on actual character-to-character interaction, without the façade of their obsessions to fall back on.

Possibly the most infuriating thing about the whole book, however, is that in spite of everything I’ve said, there was a moment where crisis could have been averted, at least to some small degree. As the narrative hurtles toward its end, the heroes come to the realization that the invading aliens were responding to the humans by basing their attacks, and indeed much of their attacking force (including its built-in weaknesses), on the media they’d absorbed from transmissions from Earth. They’ve watched Hollywood and the entertainment industry as a whole showcase and glorify mankind’s aggression toward not only itself but to invading alien forces time and time again, and are using that to dismantle Earth’s meagre defences:

It almost seemed as if the Europans were unable to differentiate between reality and fiction. Either that, or they were intercutting the two on purpose, in an effort to make some kind of point.

Of course our pop culture-obsessed protagonists figure this out, realizing they’re being tested (before being flat-out told they were being tested in the conflict’s final moments). But instead of looking inward and seeing what’s happened, understanding that the content our species has put out into the universe can be construed as representing a barbaric and incredibly violent species with limited analytical depth, and then having our main characters turn that magnifying glass on themselves in order to realize that their obsessions with such things are all they amount to and that not one of them has taken the time to go any deeper than first-level passion with any one thing, Cline sidesteps having his characters make any sort of introspective analysis. In this, the narrative glorifies obsession with pop culture while ignoring the critique, analysis, and investigation into such things that lead to personal growth independent of simple, base-level obsession. The material is there for analysis, but Cline instead opts to pander to the audience, thereby reducing the value of the content within and his ability to command reference to it at the drop of a hat. As much as women are treated as objects, so to is the stuff Cline claims to love so dearly—it’s there to pad out the book’s word count without adding to its cultural currency.

This isn’t a book; it’s a list of what not to do if you want to write about nerds and nerd culture in today’s day and age. It’s as much about the actual cultural implications of such passions and interests as The DaVinci Code is about the actual tenants of Christianity. And to top it all off, the ending is rushed and emotionally manipulative—or should I say, it attempts to be manipulative, but has not done the ground work to carry it off. What I mean by this is that we’re told Zack’s dad died when Zack was young, only to discover midway through the story that not only is Xavier alive, but that he is the top-ranked Armada pilot in the world and will be leading the attack on the invading Europans. Zack gets a couple of scenes with him, but then during the first part of the final battle we’re led to believe he’s killed himself, going off on a kamikaze run against one of the lead alien ships. He survives, though, and Zack is able to save him and have a shred of hope that he’ll be able to piece his family back together again, only to have his father engage in a second suicide run during humanity’s final push, and this one actually succeeds.

See? Emotional manipulation, whereby extreme actions are used to attempt to get us to feel shit for a character we barely know, already feel next to nothing about, and then are tricked—twice—into thinking dead. All of which leads to us not actually caring when he’s dead for real.

We don’t even have time to wonder whether or not we should grieve, however, as the conflict shudders to a stop and an A.I.-ex-machina reveals itself as having built the Europan armada to test whether or not humanity is ready to join the Sodality, an intergalactic sisterhood of races a la the Citadel in Mass Effect. And Zack, being the hero, alongside dear old dead dad, who helped stop humanity from revealing themselves as the ultimate aggressors unworthy of association in this super secret galactic clubhouse, is made humanity’s mouthpiece, ending the war and ushering in a new era of human prosperity so fast you’d think the author was creeping close to his set page limit.

Fuck, even at the very end, when the A.I.-ex-machina reveals that this is just the first step humanity will take, and that in time it will take another… it’s not a reference to Sagan’s Contact, it’s just a rip-off.

It’s interesting to have looked at this book immediately following Sassafras Lowrey’s Lost Boi, which posited a modern-day queer punk Peter Pan who hasn’t so much succeeded in avoiding growing up as he exists in denial to the changing world around him and how he himself is changing alongside it, whether or not he’s willing to acknowledge it. Cline, meanwhile, intentional or otherwise, has crafted a novel based entirely about not growing up and, in fact, living through the media of one’s past. Simply having fun obsessing over video games and movies is fine, but as one gets older and experiences more of the world, for those passions to become elevated beyond the level of mere hobby—to be treated as art—they must be looked at in a different light, one that places said media within the surrounding world and not set apart from it. In its startling lack of analysis, Cline’s novel is actually quite depressing, as it appears oblivious to its own stark limitations and lack of critical thought. In this sense, Cline’s Armada is a Neverland unto itself. This is not a good thing—it paints the author as having not thought all that hard about his own story.

Right about now you probably think I’ve been too hard on a book toward which many will shrug their shoulders and say, “but it’s just supposed to be fun, right?” And that’s fine—if you can turn your brain off and have a blast with Armada, more power to you. But Cline, whether by design or by circumstance, has become something of a forward-facing voice for nerd culture’s literary ambitions. There aren’t many authors I can think of using fiction to really deep dive into our generation’s pop culture love affairs, at least to this extent. And maybe it’s unfair to place that weight on Cline’s shoulders, and I get that. But these are the conversations that are happening right now. They have been for years, and are currently, with no thanks to shitstorms caused by GamerGate and the Sad Puppies and other gaping, enflamed assholes crying foul when faced with any mention of equality, equal representation, or academic/critical depth relating to video games, science fiction, fantasy, or any number of their prized obsessions. And to be clear, Cline’s book doesn’t cater to any one of those horrid misappropriations of sperm. But neither does it do anything to further the conversation in the right direction. Armada is not misogynistic, but it is oblivious; it’s not unreadable, but it doesn’t engage. If anything, it feels like an immediate response to the success of Ready Player One, but without as much care given to its execution or style; Cline’s use of references is a one-trick pony, only this pony is dead and Armada is the thing pulled from its festering corpse.


Review: Lost Boi, by Sassafras Lowrey

LostBoiCover>>Published: April 2015

>>Finally got around to it: September 2015

Finally, after not getting useful answers out of Pan, Wendi asked him where he lived. Pan’s eyes glittered as they always did when he talked about Neverland, about us bois. He told her that we had our own warehouse, a paradise we were always working on, patching the shot-out windows, hanging swings and slings, and about the day we added hammocks for each of us to sleep in amongst the rafters with our pigeons. Pan told Wendi he had a pack of bois who jumped at his command, who had sworn themselves to him and wore his cuff. He told her we too loved stories.

I don’t know exactly what Pan promised Wendi in that little pink bed. Probably nothing more than adventure, with his crooked grin and the way his eyes twinkled when he talked about the things they could do together, but he locked a leather cuff around her wrist that night. It had been enough for me; there was no reason to think it wouldn’t have been enough for her. Later, Wendi said that he told her about grrrls, how there weren’t any of them in Neverland ,and how lonely that made him, us. How there was something special about a grrrl like her, something she could give him, us. Pan talked of how we would cherish and worship her, how she would always care for and feed her bois. “I love the way you talk about grrrls,” Wendi whispered through glossed lips, placing her hand on Pan’s denim thigh. She tried for a kiss, but Pan was already distracted, looking out the window to check on Erebos. Pan didn’t want a grrrlfriend, he wanted a Mommy to tuck him in and put him in his place, but he would never had said that last part.


With leather daddies substituting for pirates and loyal carrier pigeons in place fairies, Sassafras Lowrey’s Lost Boi is a trans/genderqueer punk interpretation of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan that, while at times interesting and quite well written, is more a transposition than a subversion of the text.

The book, narrated by Pan’s “best boi” Tootles, follows the introduction of Wendi and John Michael, who Pan convinces to abandon their security at the Darling’s halfway house for girls in order to follow him to his industrial warehouse paradise of Neverland. Once there, John Michael, an acknowledged tomboy, is inducted into the “Lost Bois,” Pan’s loyal, battle-hardened followers. Wendi, meanwhile, becomes a Mommy not just to the bois but to Pan as well—an ideal of a grrrl elevated to a position of authority amongst the bois, to fill a void they deny needs filling by the absence of their “true” mothers, and their pasts represented therein.

Pan himself is described in the pages of Wendi’s journal as being genderless, with baggy sweatshirts, work pants, and red hair. He’s the “street” to her coifed, educated demeanour; when she enters Neverland, she immediately helps clean up the Lost Bois’ act, so to speak, encouraging tidiness and responsibility as she attempts to disperse her love to the entire group, and to Tootles in particular.

But Pan isn’t interested in a Mommy who wants to upend the status quo. Originally, he appears to envision Wendi slipping into the established narrative as an addition to their cast, not a director unto herself, which is exactly what she reveals herself to be—someone who lusts after Pan and the freedom Neverland represents, but is also unable to divest herself from the outside world and the presence of time always ticking by, aging the lot of them whether or not they are willing to admit to its effects.

For Pan, though, Neverland’s stability hinges on two things: loyalty, and the power of make-believe: “When you became Pan’s, you swore an oath that you would never doubt or question him. That’s what kept the magic alive.” As such, when a boi decides for one reason or another to grow up, Pan acts as if he forgets their very existence. It’s as if they’re pawns knocked off a chessboard, never to be played or battled with again.

There’s much to like in Lowrey’s interpretation of Barrie’s Peter Pan mythology: Hook’s obsession with good form even as his leather daddy pirates do “battle” with the Lost Bois; the crocodile reimagined as heroin, fairy dust as cocaine; the mermaids as a group of fucking tough femmes living on a boat they’ve named the Lagoon. However, it’s the reimagining of the Pan character himself that I found most intriguing.

The original story is a children’s fantasy, with Pan representing a child’s fear of aging, of growing up and being foisted into the adult world of responsibilities, careers, finances, and mortgages. The Pan in Lowrey’s novel, however, is no fantasy; this Pan is a sad, almost tragic figure that hasn’t managed to avoid growing up so much as he’s managed to separate himself entirely from the world outside Neverland’s walls. When Pan appears near the novel’s end, long after Wendi, Tootles, and the other Lost Bois had departed Neverland to grow up and re-enter the world they’d run from or been abandoned by in the first place, his hair is wisped with grey—he has clearly aged, even as he propositions another young woman to come away with him and join him in Neverland. There’s a distance to Lowrey’s Pan—a lack of willingness to accept the world for what it is. This is at once beautiful and unsettling. His life is his and his alone; it exists in a bubble limiting exposure, and more critically, growth.

While occasionally lacking in subtlety (every now and then Lowrey takes an extra, unnecessary step to explain the process of transposing original facets of the Peter Pan story with hir own—“Fairy? Pigeon? There is magic everywhere around you, but most people are too busy being grownup to notice it.”), Lost Boi is an oftentimes intelligent, well-crafted inversion of a classic tale. But perhaps its greatest achievement is also one of its simplest and most straightforward—the repurposing of Neverland, from a fantasyland apart from the world to an abandoned warehouse very much within it. In doing so, Lowrey strips Pan and the Lost Bois of some of their power—their agency remains intact, but the glamour they’ve placed upon the world, the illusion that helps them to see the safe confines of the world Pan has helped construct for them, is forever threatened by the mere fact that it exists within the greater, gentrifying world that can at any point encroach upon their safe haven. Theirs is a fantasy in the sense that it’s a bandage curling up at the edges—it hasn’t yet lost its stickiness, but it might one day, and when that day comes all their wounds, Pan’s especially, will be displayed for the rest of the world to see.

Review: The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

{D04B7CAE-8E0D-452B-9227-931DB8A993FB}Img400>>Published: March 2015

>>Finally got around to it: August 2015

‘Ah, the mist. A good name for it. Who knows how much truth there is in what we hear, Mistress Beatrice? I suppose I was speaking of the stranger riding through our country last year and sheltered here. He was from the fens, much like our brave visitor tonight, though speaking a dialect often hard to understand. I offered him use of this poor house, as I’ve done you, and we talked on many matters through the evening, among them this mist, as you so aptly call it. Our strange affliction interested him greatly, and he questioned me again and again on the matter. And then he ventured something I dismissed at the time, but have since much pondered. The stranger thought it might be God himself had forgotten much from our pasts, events far distant, events of the same day. And if a thing is not in God’s mind, then what chance of it remaining in those of mortal men?’

Beatrice stared at him. ‘Can such a thing be possible, Ivor? We’re each of us his dear child. Would God really forget what we have done and what’s happened to us?’

‘My question exactly, Mistress Beatrice, and the stranger could offer no answer. But since that time, I’ve found myself thinking more and more of his words. Perhaps it’s as good an explanation as any for what you name the mist. Now forgive me, friends, I must take some rest while I can.’


Upon finishing Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, his first novel since 2005’s Never Let Me Go, I found myself pondering the litany of poor-to-“meh” reviews that populated the Internet right around the time of the novel’s release, not to mention that whole kerfuffle over whether or not it’s genre—the author claims it falls squarely to the “lit” side of things. (And while I do see Ishiguro’s point in making that distinction, I really do believe this to be fantasy—it’s just very light fantasy with, given its propensity toward overarching metaphor, a strong, market-friendly literary undercoating.) Pondering because, to be frank, I thoroughly, unexpectedly enjoyed my time with this book. I wouldn’t necessarily say I loved it, but, well, it’s pleasant, all the way through.

That’s it. Pleasant. Non-offensive and elegant in its presentation. This is not a case of a heavyweight literary author deciding to venture into uncharted territory and upend the genre status quo; no, it feels a little like an experiment in tone—as if Ishiguro had been searching for a new venue in which to toy with the ramifications of memory and obfuscation. It just so happened he found said venue in Arthurian times, where following a war between the Britons and the Saxons a strange amnesia-causing mist has descended upon the countryside like an obscuring veil draped over an entire land mass.

The story follows an older couple—Axl and Beatrice—as they decide to depart the small community in which they live, to journey to a neighbouring village to find their son, whom they’ve not seen for years. Though Axl and Beatrice have been together for quite some time, their shared history is full of holes perforated by the aforementioned mist. Along the way, they encounter a Saxon warrior named Wistan and his charge Edwin, a young boy exiled for having been bitten, supposedly, by an ogre. Additionally, they are met by Sir Gawain, an Arthurian knight who, along with his faithful steed Horace, seeks to rid the land of the she-dragon Querig—the beast responsible for the mist clouding the thoughts and minds of all in the land.

There is conflict, however, as Wistan has also been charged with ending the she-dragon’s reign. And both men being so prideful, their shared goal, of which only one of them can complete (for the sake of honour, or something equally pointless and hubristic), causes their brief union to splinter, revealing, in doing so, Sir Gawain’s ulterior motives.

The she-dragon’s breath, however, is merely the device that sets in motion the novel’s more interesting and important narrative—the slow realization that Axl and Beatrice’s past, hidden from them for so long, might not be as they imagined, bringing to the foreground the question of whether or not they are who they think they are, and whether their true selves will stay together once all is revealed.

There’s nothing in any of the above description that screams “new” or “ground-breaking,” and that’s all right. The Buried Giant walks very familiar fantasy territory, but it does so with a light touch that, as I’ve stated, worked quite well to evoke a sense of place—not so much one’s place in the world as among this small group of characters. It effortlessly inserts the reader into Axl and Beatrice’s relationship. Their quest is, on paper, a simple one; however, it’s how and when Ishiguro slowly, deliberately extracts pieces from within the gaps in their memories that provides the narrative with its heft, soft-spoken though it is. To this end, the novel’s final revelation—that of their son’s fate—while not especially surprising, is handled gracefully and forms a tight thematic bow around the entire piece.

Simplicity of detail is this novel’s strength—it plays with fantasy as if the genre is a colour in an overall palette and not a type of paint altogether. As a reader who seldom reads fantasy, I liked the light dipping of the toes into genre conventions without diving right into the deep end of the pool. I can understand why it might have frustrated some, but The Buried Giant certainly worked for me. As stated, this is a tone piece, more than anything else, and to that end it succeeds.

Review: Under the Poppy, by Kathe Koja

41punffajIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_>>Published: October 2010

>>Finally got around to it: July 2015

If only she were Istvan’s true apprentice! or even Puggy’s, she could do a better job with the stagecraft than Jonathan, as willing as he is to fetch and build, he has no eye for it; he is an ear…. The idea makes her grin. Jonathan the ear of the Poppy, yes, as Puggy is the hands, as Omar is the fist, as Velma is the cooking pot. As Decca is the purse, as she and Laddie and the girls are, what, the holes…. And Mr. Rupert is the mind. An anxious mind, truly, see those furrows dug between his brows, even worse since Istvan came—and yet he is far more alive, now, his movements swifter, his eyes troubled and alight. Those two strike sparks from one another, anyone who looks can see that—

—though Decca is quick to deny it, quick and fierce and perhaps she, Lucy, ought not have said what she said yesterday, though everyone has a snapping point and the Lord knows Decca has trod hers times past counting. But still… She and Velma and Vera in the downstairs kitchen, sifting through the daily oatmeal for weevils, Vera complaining about the soldiers, they are too rough, too quick, not quick enough—until Decca, counting coal, flew down her throat: You’ll take what walks through the door and there’s an end to it! Or try your chances on the road! Vera crumpled into silence, Lucy flicked a weevil to the floor and, consolingly, Oh the road’s not so bad, with an eye to Decca, Mr. Istvan’s told me all about it. May be he’s on his way soon anyway, and he’ll take you along if you ask him nice.


Set in 1870s Brussels, right around the time of the Franco-Prussian war, Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy is like an amorphous trip through time, politics, and the bed sheets of its many characters. It’s lyrical, at times stunningly beautiful, and only occasionally baffling—but not for reasons of narrative inconsistencies or decisions made within the confines of its story.

The titular Under the Poppy is a popular and somewhat successful brothel owned by Decca and Rupert. The two present themselves as siblings, though in reality Decca is very much in love with Rupert. Rupert’s love, however, is Decca’s true brother, Istvan, a man whose myriad names are matched only by his talents as a puppeteer. When Istvan rolls into town with his puppets—mecs, as they are called—his arrival sets off a chain of events that threaten to upset the Poppy’s station as a fulcrum around which soldiers and the slow start of war revolve. And as old loves are rekindled—and the potential for others outright extinguished—both Istvan and Rupert find they are at great risk of being used by those more powerful and affluent than they.

As admitted near the start of this review, I found myself at times confounded by the goings-on in Koja’s narrative. This was not, as I mentioned, due to problems with the plot, or even with the many relationships and dalliances that sometimes seemed to erupt from nothing more than a flirtatious glance. No, my confusion had to do specifically with Koja’s writing style, which can best be described as “labyrinthine.”

Make no mistake, Under the Poppy is gorgeously written, and there were moments where I felt utterly swept up in the effortlessness with which this world exists. However, the very precise rhythm and flow that Koja has crafted (which can be seen, to some small extent, in the section quoted at the start of this review), wherein multiple characters speak without paragraph or even sentence breaks, having entire conversations without ever breaking stride, has a tendency to overwhelm, sometimes requiring the re-reading of certain scenes. It’s a little like strolling through a hedge maze and being struck by the quality of the trim and the density of the growth, but finding oneself entirely lost as to one’s position within the whole, or even how much time has passed. As a result, while I adored my time with the book, its technical merits to some extent overshadowed its characters, whose moment-to-moment machinations I felt only partially invested in, and as such they seemed more loosely drawn than I’d have liked—products of style over substance.

There were some additional, smaller technical aspects that I found lessened my experience to some degree, such as the flagrant overuse of EM-dashes when segueing from paragraph to paragraph. It builds a certain amount of almost filmic tension, causing things to flow together almost without breaking thought, but after a while the tactic felt diluted, losing its impact as a result of simply being used too often.

But if I were to point a finger to my single largest complaint, it would be in how the novel jettisons the Poppy in its second half. Presented merely as a structure in which the characters all congregated, the brothel itself was in actuality a character, and a strong one, too, filled with a colour all its own. When in the second half of the book the narrative splinters to follow the lives of Lucy, Istvan, and Rupert, it loses some of what made it so compelling in the first place. And while the change in scenery is necessary for the aforementioned characters to grow, the Poppy’s loss—and the absence of Decca as well, a force in her own right—was most certainly felt.

In the second half, though, the character of Lucy grows considerably, becoming one of the standouts of the entire narrative. While in Istvan Decca saw trouble, and Rupert conflict (both internal and external), Lucy saw providence, opportunity to learn and become more than she was under the Poppy’s influence, and under Decca’s watchful eye.

And while the love triangle between Benjamin, Istvan, and Rupert never totally landed for me (because Benjamin was such a pale, almost two-dimensional character when compared to Istvan), I appreciated the organic manner in which Istvan and Rupert were once more brought together in the end. It was, however, appreciably simplistic when drawn against the love pentagon of the novel’s first half, with Decca being in love with Rupert, Rupert with Istvan, Istvan with his mecs, and Lucy with both Istvan and his puppets—and the possibilities represented therein.

For one reason or another I don’t tend to devote that much time to historical fiction. However, Under the Poppy was, from beginning to end, an enticing, incredibly well composed and enjoyable read, even if at times I felt as if I needed a road map through its characters’ individual plots, betrayals, and objects of affection. Truthfully, I don’t know if the strength of the narrative alone would be enough for me to recommend this book, but Koja’s writing is an experience in and of itself, and is certainly worth the price of admission. It elevates as it confounds.

Review: Music for Love or War, by Martyn Burke

9781770864283>>Published: April 2015

>>Finally got around to it: July 2015

At the top are those guys who are practically shrink-wrapped in the flag. They get it! And no matter how hard I try to be like them, I never get there. Cast from some alloy of history and patriotism, they know exactly why they’re risking the package. They’re the guys who look you right in the eye as they coat you with a thick layer of geopolitical goo beginning with September 11 and working back to some wormhole in your convictions as they remind you how you’d damn well better atone by charging into the great machine gun of history. These guys never blink. I envy them. I love having them in my platoon. But I sure as hell won’t be hanging out with them telling war stories years from now.

In the vast middle are the guys who are over here because they can’t stand mortgage payments, PTA meetings, malls, marriage counseling, plumbing courses, and all the other avatars of two thousand years of testosterone drilled into a single drop of present-day ambivalence. Over here in the war, that one little drop gets re-distilled into a hundred-proof buzz that comes out shooting flames. These guys cling to war because they’ve peered into the abyss and seen themselves punching a time clock for the rest of their lives.

And then there’s me and Danny. I now know it was no accident we found each other in this maelstrom.

Right from the moment he asked about us being in the same unit with the psychic I knew each of us was there because of a woman.


I can’t think of another book that goes to war with Liberace as both good luck charm and weapon. This is to author Martyn Burke’s credit: through a psychic, identical twin Playboy Bunnies, a divergence into madcap Hollywood insanity, and the aforementioned man for whom no fashion cow was sacred enough, Music for Love or War manages to effortlessly sidestep predictability in a war-based narrative.

The story follows two men: Hank and Danny. Hank is a Californian; Danny is from Toronto. Besides enlisting to fight in post-9/11 Afghanistan, the two men share a unique bond: the women they love have been taken from them. In Hank’s case, it’s Annie Boo—Ann Boudreau—who along with her sister Susan jumped/fell into the fame spiral, becoming two of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy harem.

Danny’s story of love and loss, meanwhile, is quite different and far more tragic. Ariana, the woman he fell in love with when they were just teenagers, is the daughter of a man named Sayyid Shah, who we learn (through Ariana’s brother Omar) managed funds for bin Laden in the years preceding the 9/11 attacks. As we experience more of Danny and Ariana’s story, which is interspersed with Hank’s, it becomes clear that not only is their love illicit—were Sayyid to find out there would be no end to the hell Ariana would pay—but it was, from minute one, destined to end badly. And so it does when, years after they first met, became friends, and subsequently lost contact, Omar, having imbibed in his father’s Kool-Aid, sold his sister to an Afghani warlord named Zadran for weapons, ammunition, and fake passports.

So what are two lovelorn souls to do when faced with such loneliness? Enlist, naturally. Except their reasons for doing so were very different from one another: while Hank enlisted to escape the twenty-four-hour “paparasshole” news cycle guaranteed to splash images and video Annie and her sister and their very old and very creepy lover across every magazine and website available, Danny enlisted for the noble purpose of finding Ariana and bringing her home again. As such, while Hank is the voice through which we view the narrative as it unfolds in the present, it’s Danny who gives this book its heart.

There’s a lot to love in Music for Love or War. Split between time periods and locations—Hollywood, Toronto, and “The Mountains,” referring to the mountain range between Pakistan and Afghanistan—the narrative moves at a brisk clip. The connection between the two men is also well realized, with Hank, either directly or indirectly, assuming the role of Danny’s protector. And while Danny’s unwavering conviction is in stark contrast to Hank, whose personality errs a little more on the practical side of things, one never gets the sense that Hank looks down on or dismisses Danny’s belief in what he’s doing. If anything, it feels sometimes like Hank envies what he sees as Danny’s drive and sense of nobility.

While I felt deeply invested in Danny’s story, I can’t quite say the same for Hank’s, or for that matter the subplot involving the psychic Constance Amonte, who both men lean on for advice on how to handle their troubled love lives. Initially I was intrigued by the Hollywood side of things and all its accompanying craziness; however, the section of the book that takes place in Hollywood, about two-thirds of the way through (the longest section, incidentally), feels as if it was pulled from a different story altogether, with its ridiculous pace of events and equally ridiculous and over-the-top personalities. I’m not saying the sorts of people and situations depicted don’t exist, because they most certainly do, only that the section seemed to diverge enough from the more compelling narrative—Danny’s quest to save Ariana—to be distracting. It was kind of like the bureaucracy scene in Jupiter Ascending, which felt less like something directed by the Wachowski siblings and more like a scene from a lost Terry Gilliam film. It wasn’t bad; it just didn’t fit.

Actually that ludicrous scene was the best part of that film, but I digress.

Overall, I quite enjoyed my time with Music for Love or War. Burke’s narrative has a lot of heart to it, and Danny and Ariana’s troubled history felt real—lived in. I almost wish the book had been only their story. That’s not to say Hank’s had no merit, as he is I think a necessary counterpoint for Danny. But when all was said and done, it was Ariana and Danny, and to a lesser extent Omar, who made this story sing.