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Posted by Matt | April 25th, 2012

Martha Wells, The Cloud Roads. Night Shade Books 2011 (US): paperback.

A blog post! Not something that happens every day around here. I do have several half-finished potential posts written, so there may be more content here sooner rather than later. And in fact the reason for today’s post began as one of those half-finished pieces: my latest book review, of the first two volumes of a new fantasy series by Martha Wells, has been published by Strange Horizons. The books are The Cloud Roads and The Serpent Sea; the series is called The Books of the Raksura. I had started writing something on The Cloud Roads last year, but gave it up as too similar to things I had already written when reviewing the author’s previous book. Reading the second book in the series this year made me want to revisit and finish the piece, if only to sort through my own conflicted feelings about the series so far.

When I’m reviewing an unfinished series I like to make some sort of public guess or prediction about future content–a way of putting myself on the line a bit, of testing whether I’ve understood the pattern of information and possibilities that the author has provided. I couldn’t fit that into this review–it was long enough already–so I’ll state it here. In the first book of the series, we learn that the evil Fell have begun a program of abducting young Raksura–the similar winged species to which the protagonist of the series belongs–for use as breeding stock; weaponized rape as a species survival tactic. We know that Moon, the series protagonist to-date, believes his colony of Raksura was wiped out by Fell when he was only a small child, although he was too young to remember any details. But we also know that the Fell’s breeding program has gone on for at least long enough to produce a hybrid of a similar age to Moon. So it’s not really much of a prediction to suppose that some of Moon’s siblings might in fact have been abducted rather than slain; that they might have been young enough to have fallen in with the Fell; that Moon might have hybrid relatives who he will have to confront in later volumes of the series.

But we’ll see.

Selected past reviews at other venues:

Posted by Matt | June 19th, 2011

As Deathless so often plays with the folktale “rule of three” so, too, does this review, split into three parts. This is the third and final part; part one (“Love in the Time of War,” on the book’s foreground character story) and part two (“Nation-building,” on the book’s construction of Russia) are best read before this.

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente. Tor, 2011 (US).

The third time I follow the path set down by Catherynne Valente’s new novel Deathless, what I notice is that it is a story about stories, about the struggle for power and control over stories. As it must be. In Deathless as is often the case with Valente’s works, the recognizable story on the surface–the familiar folktale, or fairytale, or history, or in this case all three–is an entry point to the deeper fairy tales that rule the dreams of modern societies, and so become loci of conflict. By digging into the hidden kinks and power dynamics of the historical tales, Valente reconnects those tales to modern times, reconnects us with our past–and gives us a sense of just how much could still stand to change in the future.

Soviet Russia is doubly significant ground in this regard, first because of its attempt to erase stories of the past:

“Would you … get me a firebird’s feather, or fetch a ring from the bottom of the sea, or steal gold from a dragon?”

Ivan pursed his lips. “Those sorts of things are so old-fashioned, Masha. They are part of your old life, and the old life of Russia, too. We have no need of them now. The Revolution swept all the dark corners of the world away.

And Soviet Russia is equally of interest because of its founding belief in a new story of the future. “The Soviet Union was founded on a fairytale. It was built on 20th-century magic called ‘the planned economy’, which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things,” to quote the blurb for Francis Spuford’s Red Plenty–another good candidate to complement Deathless. Of course one might equally say that the United States was founded on a fairytale–of the inherent fairness of the market economy, of expansionist manifest destiny–or the same of any nation. But in addition to the self-consciousness with which it related to stories, the Soviet Union uniquely presents a modern, 20th century tale that at this point feels told, a failed and dead experiment.

Not for the last time, Valente uses the logic of folktales here as a tool to isolate just the elements of the world she wants to focus on: stories and their role in life, and in death. Much of Soviet Russia’s sweeping of dark corners involved literal death. Stalin’s purges of those who would tell a different story, political or religious; famine when the economy proved less susceptible to planning than planned: both loom unspecified in the background of Valente’s tale, but ever-present in its war against death that is “always going badly.” More to the foreground is death in the time of war, as Valente illustrates with a heartbreaking chapter on the Siege of Leningrad. And alongside these literal deaths, more sweeping of dark corners was done in the death of Russian national culture and spirit: Valente has Koschei’s brother Viy, the Tsar of Death, represent both equally. As a character who dwells in Viy’s land tells Marya:

I would never [...] be caught committing the crime of remembering that anything existed before this new and righteous regime. [...] The redistribution of worlds has made everything equal [...] Equally dead, equally bound. You will live as you live anywhere. With difficulty, and grief. Yes, you are dead. [...] But what does it matter? You still have to go to work in the morning.

Except people did remember; and eventually, in the late 1980s, people in Russia stopped going to work in the morning.

As with the relationship between nation and character in the book, Valente’s use of this historical knowledge gives the relationship between nation and story in Deathless a tight focus–enough to satisfy as a narrative, but not enough to escape the feeling that the story is not quite doing justice to the concepts that Valente has brought to bear. The dates, and the manner that the novel positions Russia on either side of the Soviet Union’s history, for example, and the way St. Petersburg is noted as returning to its old name, all make it feel like “Russia” is being affirmed as an intrinsic, irrepressible feature of the world. That it is deathless. There’s not much material on the degree that Russia itself is a story projected onto the world, that once was not; something that has changed and grown over time (St. Petersburg indeed being a relatively recent addition, in the 18th century), and something that may yet change more in the future. On how all nations are stories, often defined by conflict. And again, Valente doesn’t have much to say of those who believed in the Soviet system as an agent of life, rather than death; the hopeful Revolutionaries who believed that Communism would usher in that better world. Or at least, a better alternative to Tsarist rule. They should have seen the obvious problems, the sense of the book is. Instead, Valente here is in the unusual (for her) position of celebrating the story of the historical victors.

This, of course, is no bad thing. The years following the collapse of the USSR have been filled with works drawing remembered folktales and history out from the dark corners of the world and back into the heart of the former Soviet states. Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History of Moscow, Sergei Lukyanenko’s World of Watches series, and Dubravka Ugrešic’s Tiptree-winning Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, to name only a few. And another excellence of Deathless is how it justifies itself in just this way. Marya and Koschei go underground, become subversive figures, quietly working for and waiting for the day when they can emerge and be told anew, when all these books can be written, when Valente can write Deathless.

Valente, as is her wont, emphasizes this by never letting us forget that we’re being told a story. Some of her techniques are readily apparent: the repeated phrases, the triads of encounters, the book within the book, the question of narration raised by the story itself. Deathless also strikes me as Valente’s strongest work to-date with common, baseline elements of story. While many of her past works focused on the inner conflicts of her characters, the addition of an external antagonist, Viy, here helps throw the plotting into greater relief, lends the telling more urgency. At the same time, the spotlight on Marya allows Valente to delve deeper into a single character study than she’s done in her previous big-press novels. (Which according to her back-flap bio are all that exist–”Catherynne M. Valente’s first novel, The Orphan’s Tales, was released in the fall of 2006 when Cat was twenty-seven”–speaking of stories that erase history.)

Other techniques that emphasize the storytelling of Deathless are more subtle. Symbols are used that excite the mind because of the commonalities in their seeming contradiction–like birds, which seem to represent both a symbol of freedom, of flying away, and also the urge to family and domesticity, nesting. (Safety is one thing I’d suggest they share in common.) Important themes may be introduced without fanfare: it’s a delightful feeling, after having finished the book, to remember the demand that the title of the prologue makes, to notice anew that the prologue depicts a trial for desertion. And indeed Valente is excellent with the timed release of information throughout. Only gradually do we learn just how alive the city of the Tsar of Life is; only gradually do we learn what kind of character Madame Lebedeva is; which all emphasizes how we are at the mercy of the storyteller.

Withholding information in this manner is in a sense a power play, and this feels very natural here. More even than in Valente’s past novels, Deathless teases out the implicit kink of storytelling. Storytellers are seducers, in a fairly obvious sense. Less obvious are the power relationships in storytelling. The storyteller might be assumed to be the dominant partner, but the reader can always stop reading; throwing a book across the room is the ultimate safe word. And writers, to at least some degree, publish in the hope of being read well, of having their writings understood. Not unlike Koschei. It makes me wonder who is who in this story? Meanwhile, reviewers of course attempt to overlay stories of their own: like, a good way to get the most out of Deathless is to consider it according to these three conceptual levels….

Which is all to say, the question of power in a story is the question of who gets to define the narrative.


The fourth time I follow the path set down by Catherynne Valente’s new novel Deathless, what I notice is that there is a fourth time, that I’ve been led off the path. The storytelling “rule of three” popularized by Russian scholar Vladimir Propp in Morphology of the Folk Tale–and often invoked when discussing Deathless–is based on patterns of two wrongs and then a right, two failures and then success. Three is the minimum number required to establish and then break a pattern. So Cinderella is the third sister, Rumpelstiltskin’s name is correctly spoken on the third night, the third bed that Goldilocks sleeps in is the one that is the right size. But Marya is the fourth daughter (it is Ivan who is the youngest of three sons); after seeing her three sisters marry three birds, the man Marya marries is not really a bird; her first three attempts at ordering her relationships all end unsatisfactorily. So there is here, one final time in Deathless, a subtle but important rejection of the usual pattern of such stories: important because it represents Marya finding her own personal path; important because it represents the rejection of a simple, neat dialectical pattern–thesis (“too big”), antithesis (“too small”), synthesis (“just right”)–in favor of a view of the world and its relationships as a series of more complicated, ongoing conflicts.

Which is apt. Deathless is not an unproblematic novel, but it comes by its problems honestly, by ambitiously melding a variety of complicated subjects, and making hard choices of focus in order to say something interesting about almost all of them–while remaining at heart a well-written, compelling character drama. For all its awareness of itself as a story I do wish that Deathless showed more awareness of the limits of its story, of what is being left out. But for the most part Valente’s newest novel has conflicts and contradictions because our world that it represents has conflicts and contradictions; because an unproblematic story is a dead and lifeless story. Far from that, Deathless lives up to its name.

Posted by Matt | June 13th, 2011

As Deathless so often plays with the folktale “rule of three” so, too, does this review, split into three parts. This is part two; part one (“Love in the Time of War,” on the book’s foreground character story) and part three (“Storytelling,” on the book as a story about stories) are best read in sequence.

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente. Tor, 2011 (US).

The second time I follow the path set down by Catherynne Valente’s new novel Deathless, what I notice is that it is a story about the struggle for power in shaping a nation, Russia, from before the First World War to after the Second.

This focus on the idea of a nation is rare for Valente. Her past novels have dealt mainly with the household, the city, and then outward to the level of worlds; when she has dealt with nations, they have often been city-states. And to a large degree Deathless does use Marya’s home of St. Petersburg to represent Russia. As St. Petersburg becomes Petrograd and then Leningrad, as Gorokhovaya Street where Marya lives becomes Kommissarskaya Street becomes Dzerzhinskaya Street, we see in these re-namings both an echo of the political changes the nation is going through, and again–as with the changes Marya’s own name undergoes–the way that naming is used by those in power to define the parameters of a narrative, to establish and reify a history of rule.

In a larger sense this illustrates Valente’s tendency to focus on ideas both at a high conceptual level and, simultaneously, at the low level of the individual on the street–while often avoiding a certain middle layer of organizations and institutions. It’s again a question of register; again, and not for the last time, Valente uses the logic of folktales as a tool to isolate just the elements of the world she wants to focus on.

Indeed folktales are among these elements, and the way folktales can represent a nation. It is remarkable how thoroughly Valente populates Deathless with figures of Russian folktale, and how directly their presence identifies the novel’s setting as Russia. She mixes and matches elements from several different versions of the Koschei tale–mainly the version from Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book, along with some cleverly modernized images from Stravinsky’s The Firebird. To these she adds a who’s-who of Russian folktale personages and monsters:

“You can see there a firebird on the door, and Master Grey Wolf on the chimney, and Ivan the Fool scampering over the walls, with Yelena the Bright in his arms, and Baba Yaga running after them, brandishing her spoon. And that’s a leshy, creeping in the garden, and a vila and vodyanoy and a domovoi with a red cap. And there–they’ve put a rusalka near the kitchen window.” Kseniya turned to Marya. “And Koschei the Deathless is there, too, near the cellar. You can see him, painted on the foundation stones.”

That last line feels doubly significant. The deepest tenets of a nation are often embedded in its folktales–folktales can represent the foundation stones of nations. Valente’s catalog of monsters is thus not just there for cultural authenticity; rather, it is a statement of artistic intent, of the argument the book is making about the ties between the Koschei tale and Russia.

Indeed, while Marya is the central figure of Deathless, the novel’s kickstart choice is Koschei’s: his choice to pursue Marya, after hundreds of times choosing a very different type of woman. From the domino of this choice, all others fall. The question of what led Koschei to pursue a different type of bride is unasked and unanswered by the novel, but the implication, I’d suggest, is that it is the changing face of Russia that brings about a corresponding change, and need for change, in Koschei. This introduces the notion that plays out over the rest of the book, of the connection between the state of Russia and the state of the war between Koschei and his brother, between Life and Death.

Subtler but more pervasive: while I would not want to equate Marxism with Russia–other countries are or have been Marxist, and Russia was a particular strain of Marxism–the story of Deathless has conceptual ties to Marxism in that it is not merely a story of conflict, but of conflict that is dialectical. That is, there is a sense in the book’s conflicts–in people and in nations–that ideas are unstable, and that they create their own opposition. And that, as in Marx, that instability, that conflict, is a continual dialogue that drives progress. Valente’s style of writing, which so often encapsulates the performance of an argument, feels very much at home here. Her writing has always incorporated a seeming tension between luxurious language, and stories of those pushed to the economic and social margins of societies. Russia, land of caviar and champagne, land of the proletariat revolution, has a long history with both.

The street-level focus on Marya lets Valente use a minimum of formal description and depiction of the nation–people don’t think too much about what they’re familiar with looks like. That, and the fact that many of Marya’s adult years take place outside of Russia in various magical realms, mean that while the feel of Deathless is often of Russia–in addition to the above, there are matters of weather, recreation, animals, writers, and perseverance by black humor even when the end is never in doubt, which all point to the nation–there’s a universal aspect to the novel as well. Folktales and relationships are good pathways to understanding Russia; but Russia is also a good pathway to understanding folktales and relationships.

There are downsides to Valente’s somewhat distant treatment of the nation, however. For one, Deathless can feel like it is romanticizing the past. It largely dodges what it might have meant to be in the middle class during Russia’s years of revolution and civil war, in the city seat of Lenin’s power. Not only does nothing much happen, but there is no worry that anything might happen, to Marya’s family or their acquaintances. Yet Marya’s middle-class beginnings also mean that Russia’s Revolutionary history is presented as a linear slide downward, whereas I suspect that for large masses of the working class the historical journey was more complex. This sense that the past was better, safer, is further exacerbated by an otherwise excellent sequence where pillars of Russia’s political history, de-clawed, are gathered into a sort of Fletcher Memorial Home: Rasputin harmlessly reenacting his own death for the amusement of Tsarina Alexandra. It’s a wonderful mix of cute and macabre–one can almost see cartoon lil’ Leon and lil’ Joseph, two young brothers fighting again only to make up by dinnertime–but because this setting is our only view of the power figures of pre-Revolutionary Russia, its hazy golden perfection can easily be taken as a statement of the novel’s perspective on that era.

Deathless also feels murky in the ways it relates Russia’s history to the lives and actions of its characters. There’s a promise implicit in that early line that Marya “surmised that love was shaped [like] a treaty between two nations,” between equals, and then saw her surmise proven wrong, that instead love is a battlefield; a promise implicit in the linkage between Koschei and the nation of Russia, between the war with his brother Death and the war for control of Russia. The promise is that the novel will draw interesting parallels between the personal and the national, the interpersonal and the international. For the most part, however, the connections that Valente gives us have the feel more of isolated wordplay and tweaking of the folktale back-story than conceptual payoff. “I befriend your friends; I eat as you eat; I teach you the dialectic!” says Marya to Koschei–but it’s an isolated line, we see no indication that Tsar Koschei (or by then, Marya) care about the dialectic. It is a throwaway morsel of local color. Several lines do work better in capturing the feel of relationships vis-à-vis nations and wartime–a foretelling of Marya’s fate comes to mind–but they, too, are isolated rather than extended metaphors. The problem is not that the statements don’t all cohere into a sensible whole; the parallels between national and personal are too complex for simple coherence. But the hope in any such comparison is that it will be a useful engine for spinning out insights, and that potential feels largely untapped here.

Some of this, I think, is down to an ahistorical aspect to Valente’s narration. The story’s telling ends in 1952, near the end of Stalin’s life and rule. Yet there are flashes of a more contemporary perspective and knowledge. Deathless begins “in a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again”–that final name reversion only occurring in 1991. Even more interesting, Valente essentially ignores the creation of the USSR: no mention is made of it whatsoever. This is a novel of Russia, written with an awareness that Russia existed before the USSR and would–does–exist after it. This is an enormous double-edged sword for the book, an enormous gamble on Valente’s part. On the negative side, it cuts down the potential for human insight by transforming statements and actions into a theater of the ridiculous, that which should be ridiculed. When Ivan, having found a job in Leningrad with the Cheka national security bureau, tells Marya that “I am good at arresting. It is an art, you know. The trick is to arrest them before they have done anything wrong”–it is just the sort of buffoonish statement we expect from Ivan, but more than that, it is just the sort of buffoonish statement we in the West expect from a fictional character who believed in the Soviet system. And yet, real people did believe, and Deathless abdicates its chance to say anything about the potential for such belief–as it applies to countries, as it applies to relationships. On the positive side, however, the omission of the USSR in favor of Russia from start to finish makes the novel’s thesis unmistakeable: that history is always a story accompanied by a struggle for point of view; and that some stories can never be wholly suppressed, even on pain of death. And it finally does allow Valente to make her claim of connection between the idea of nation and the idea of the personal. Who is to rule? is a question in both cases that must be asked, cannot be ignored in favor of fantasies of perfect, static equality. The negotiations of power in a relationship don’t end after marriage, not for people who keep learning and growing; the negotiations of power in a nation don’t end after revolution. The best we can do in both, Deathless seems to suggest, is to better understand what it means to rule and to be ruled, and then to have the freedom and the strength to choose when, and to who, we do each.

It is deeply ironic–but apt, considering that both are books that demand to be read in their own particular registers–that Valente’s Deathless and Adam Roberts’s Yellow Blue Tibia actually make an interesting and mutually-rewarding reading pair. Valente’s book chronicles the death of one sort of fantasy–the folkloric cultural identity of Russia–in the wake of another, a modern fantastic narrative of equality and science, in the forty years leading up to the end of the Stalinist era. Roberts’s book in turn begins with the Stalinist era, and deals in that modern narrative’s own death throes forty years later. What both novels suggest is that the question of power in a nation is the question of who gets to define the nation’s narrative.

* * *

Back to part 1 of the review | Continue to part 3 of the review

Posted by Matt | June 11th, 2011

As Deathless so often plays with the folktale “rule of three” so, too, does this review, split into three parts. Part two (“Nation-building,” on the book’s construction of Russia) and part three (“Storytelling,” on the book as a story about stories) are best read in sequence.

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente. Tor, 2011 (US).

The first time I follow the path set down by Catherynne Valente’s new novel Deathless, what I notice is that it is a story about the struggle for power in shaping a relationship, a household. When Marya Morevna, the youngest daughter of a bourgeois family in early-1900s St. Petersburg, sees a bird fall from a tree and turn into a man who knocks on the door and asks to marry the girl in the window, she feels that she has “seen the world naked,” discovered its secrets–even when the bird marries her oldest and most beautiful sister. After her two other sisters succumb to avian engagements of their own, Marya is primed for her own turn, one up on her sisters because “they did not know what their husbands really were. They were missing vital information. Marya saw right away that this made a tilted kind of marriage, and she wanted no part of that. [...] This was how Marya Morevna surmised that love was shaped: an agreement, a treaty between two nations that one could either sign or not as they pleased.”

So Marya waits for her bird, secure in her knowledge of what is to come and thus paying only casual attention as the world changes around her: as Tsarist Russia falls, as Leninism turns to Stalinism, as her family’s house is redistributed among eleven other families. And thus, waiting for her bird, Marya is–despite her anticipatory readiness–quite unprepared when the suitor who shows up at the door is the demonic figure of Koschei the Deathless.

There are no treaties in their courtship: Koschei wages war on Marya, tempting her mind with knowledge of the secret world-behind-the-world she had only glimpsed before; tempting her senses with food and sex and luxury; seducing her with words, and with the abjection of surrender. And surrender she does, for a time. But as Marya becomes accustomed to Koschei’s world–to the magical living city of Buyan which Koschei the Deathless, as Tsar of Life, rules; to being a center of attention rather than a fourth daughter; to pain and pleasure both–surrender becomes not enough, not right for her. Koschei will sleep with her, shower her in luxury, but he will not marry her. Nor will he share the location of his death, which he has ripped from himself as a gambit in his endless war with his brother Viy, the Tsar of Death. To facilitate the marriage, Marya must perform three impossible tasks for Kochei’s sister, Baba Yaga; to earn Koschei’s trust as his match, she must show herself to be as rapacious as he is himself, must realize her own power over him:

“If you want me, Koschei Bessmertny, tell me where your death is. Between us there must be no lies. To the world we may lie and go stalking with claws out, but not to each other. It is only fair: You know where my death is, at the point of your knife or between strangling fingers or in a glass of poison. Show me that you can rest in my hand like a chick, small and weak and knowing that I could crush you if I wished it, but that I will not, will never.”

And never she does; til death do they part, and beyond death–Koschei and Marya share surprisingly few pages in Deathless, yet those pages are ripe with the passion implicit in the nondenominational idea of marriage, of never and forever and til death.

But then, enter Ivan, and the world changes again.

There is always an Ivan in these tales. Marya has been told to expect him; has been told she must reject him; has been told she will not reject him. Always there is an Ivan, a human man who falls in love with Koschei’s bride, who saves her–in this case, from that endless, unwinnable war against Viy. Always Koschei’s bride falls in love with Ivan, too; always Ivan finds Koschei’s hidden death and kills the Deathless, again and again through history. Always, in Valente’s version of the tale, Koschei-who-cannot-die exacts his revenge by forcing his unfaithful love to labor in a factory full of unfaithful loves, producing soldier puppets for his war against Death. But these are modern times, revolutionary times in Russia, and Marya is not Koschei’s usual love. At the heart of the story is Marya’s attempt to find a third alternative, her exploration of ways to be true to both her monstrous love for Koschei and her mundane love for Ivan.

Not for the last time, Valente here uses fairly tale logic as a tool to isolate just the elements of the world she wants to focus on. Love, for one, and representation, and the link between the two. Implicit in Deathless is the question of why people love each other, and the story’s answer is largely a matter of representation. Marya appears to love Koschei, to grossly oversimplify, because he represents the secret world she had wanted to be part of since childhood, a world she felt able to know and empowered to participate in fully; she loves Ivan because he represents what she might have been, if she had never seen the secret world, never lost her red scarf, never left Leningrad and been thrust into Koschei’s war against Viy. Koschei in his turn loves Marya because she has proven herself capable of seeing the secret world, and he desires to be seen–because she represents change, and after endless failed brides, he desires change, a participant rather than a supplicant. And Ivan loves Marya, one suspects, as a matter of conquest, as what securing one such as her for a wife would represent about himself. From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs, then.

These characters–Koschei and Baba Yaga and Ivan and Marya–are like Harlequin figures of Russian folktale, stock characters who in different combinations act out a variety of tales. An excellence of Deathless is how Valente manages to tell a thoroughly modern version of the “Death of Koschei the Deathless” folktale while staying true to these archetypes and to most of the core tale, yet satisfying best when these characters are seen as individual people beyond their archetypes. It is easy to generalize that each character wants a sense of normality, a sense that they fit into someone else’s narrative; harder is figuring out the best fit, which consumes Valente’s tale. It is easy to see Marya’s explorations with Koschei as explorations of dominance and submission, harder to affix labels onto the characters like “dominant” and “submissive,” “top” and “bottom.” It is easy to see the movement of the book as towards polyamory, harder to affix that label to the state of the character relationships at any point in the book. The relationships keep changing, as the characters keep learning. Valente tracks this through the series of names, titles, and endearments each character is given as the tale progresses–Marya becomes Masha becomes Mashenka becomes Morevna. And the result is that Marya in Deathless is like other Maryas, but also unique; and so with Ivan; and so with Koschei: and the tale works out as it does both because of their usual traits and because of their unique ones.

This register of storytelling, that melds a modern concept of serious psychological drama with a folktale-like circumscription of motivations and possibilities, is I suspect one of the more common bars to appreciating Valente’s work. Why would a character do X? and Why didn’t they just do Y? are questions that leap from the text; why is there so often a gap between how imaginatively Valente’s characters speak and how constrained they act? There’s the temptation to tally these questions up as just poor characterization, except that the same questions are often wondered of real people in real situations, real relationships. Valente’s storytelling register, the register used in Deathless, is a way of conceptualizing–if not necessarily understanding–these decisions. It is a register that I imagine speaks most to, or most of, people most aware of the weight of stories on their decisions, people who most feel the constraint of predefined roles upon their lives. Those most aware that there’s a difference between what they feel is true and what they’re told is true, between what they feel is right versus the actions they’re told should be right.

This doesn’t mean that the character story of Deathless is above criticism. Most notably, the unique story that follows from these particular characters seems at times to be fighting with a common narrative that Valente tends to impose on her revisionist tales: the foolish but stubborn male suitor whose attempts to heroically save his beloved, in accordance with the typical pattern of fairy tales, are at best unwelcome by, and at worst disastrous for, a woman who has learned to love monsters. This narrative appears in many of Valente’s recent novels–Habitation of the Blessed and Palimpsest and both volumes of The Orphan’s Tales, without even trying to be exhaustive–but its presence here feels problematic not merely for its expectedness. Valente is a very honest writer, and when her work presents a politicized idea for consideration–such as D/s and poly relationships here–she never shies away from portraying both the constructive and destructive possibilities inherent. What’s being advocated is not so much a single specific way of life, but rather an open-mindedness towards people’s right to discover what way of life works best for them. “No one should be judged for loving more than they ought,” as one character puts it. Marya’s journey in Deathless is very much a process of discovery of how much she can love, and how best to go about it. There’s a rather touching scene when Marya attempts to define her relationship with Ivan by following the same script of control that Koschei led her through, and it fails miserably. Marya and Ivan must write their own script, what works for one lover will not necessarily work for another: these are not matters of stock roles but of individual negotiations. And yet, this ideal of open-mindedness towards individual solutions feels compromised here by the presence of what, for readers of Valente’s work, is becoming just as much a fixed narrative as the one she’s trying to subvert. It becomes not so much an open-minded narrative as a narrative that exchanges a lack of place for one group with lack of place for another: for all the pages Ivan occupies, Valente doesn’t really seem sure what to do with him–his inclusion at the end of Deathless feels less than half-hearted–and yet she is reluctant to replace him with a better model of human male. The sense that Valente is stuck on the same revisionist narrative in these types of tales, and the limited options this narrative appears to give her characters, suggests that Deathless may itself be a demonstration of the very sort of entrapment by traditional roles that the novel otherwise speaks so successfully against.

Of course, what makes this so evident is the relationship between Marya and Koschei. Perhaps it is because Koschei is not a human male, that Valente is able to introduce a deep level of personality and urgency in his and Marya’s union that’s been rare in her depictions of relationships. Valente’s writing in past books could seem distant and impersonal, due to multiple points of view; could seem languorous, with elaborate layers of structure and long lists of bling. Here, the close focus on Marya makes the story feel more personal; here, minus a short prologue, the structure is straightforward. Here, the sentences are shorter and sharper. “Punishment doesn’t mean you aren’t loved. On the contrary. You can really only punish someone you love,” says Marya, as she begins to realize that those who would sleep with monsters must inevitably become monsters themselves. And that the question of power in a relationship is the question of who gets to define the relationship’s narrative.

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Continue to part 2 of the review

Posted by Matt | April 15th, 2010

N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Orbit, 2010 (US & UK): trade paperback.

There’s a narrative that I think of as “the country mouse narrative,” after the Aesop fable. There’s probably a better critical term for it, and it is at any rate simply a particular form of portal fantasy. In a country mouse narrative, a person from a backwater land goes to the sophisticated city, discovers that its “sophistications” are immoral, maintains their own morality, in doing so attracts the support of the few others in the city with a working moral compass but not enough power/courage to act on their own, often gains a life partner, and together they clean up the joint.

The classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a country mouse narrative; so is The Secret of My Success. And it is a narrative that figures large in the fantasy genre proper, not least because one of the projects of popular fantasy (particularly epic fantasy) has long been the moral rehabilitation of the city. In Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris, to pick a recent example, the princess Sarene travels from a small but just kingdom to the ruling city of a large but corrupt kingdom, stands by her principles, makes allies, comes to love and be loved by a living god, and together they avert disaster, mete out justice, and live happily ever after: yay.

This is also a fairly close synopsis of N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first volume of her Inheritance Trilogy. What makes Jemisin’s novel worth considering in depth is its attempt to infuse the standard country mouse narrative–whose rote movements and innate conservatism tend towards mindless amusement, at least for those who can identify with the protagonist–with a contemporary awareness of gender, sex, race, religion, and empire.

Consider the initial setup of the novel. In most modern formulations of the country mouse narrative, the country mouse is eager to go to the city in order to do good, either directly or through exercising some skill that they seem put on the world to exercise (another country mouse example: Roy Hobbs in the film adaptation of Malamud’s The Natural). In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, however, when Yeine Darr is summoned to Sky, the seat of the world-spanning Arameri religio-political empire, she is reluctant to go; she is compelled to make the journey only out of fear for herself and the Darre people she is chieftain of. The dark-skinned Darre were brought into the empire of the pale-skinned Arameri and converted to the Arameri’s religion centuries ago on threat of obliteration; they’re still considered barbarians. So from the start Jemisin is adding a new layer to the stock narrative: the archetypal city is not immoral because it is full of immoral people and amusements, the archetypal city is immoral because it is the seat of empire. And empire, as a function of the way it exercises power, is immoral.

Here is what the priests taught me:

Once upon a time there were three great gods. Bright Itempas, Lord of Day, was the one destined by fate or the Maelstrom or some unfathomable design to rule. All was well until Enefa, His upstart sister, decided that she wanted to rule in Bright Itempas’s place. She convinced their brother Nahadoth to assist her, and together with some of their godling children they attempted a coup. Itempas, mightier than both His siblings combined, defeated them soundly. He slew Enefa, punished Nahadoth and the rebels, and established an even greater peace–for without His dark brother and wild sister to appease, He was free to bring true light and order to all creation.

At the same time, the narrative underpainting Jemisin is working with isn’t fully amenable to her insights. In terms of drama, while the initial sections of the book turn on Yeine’s gradual realization that the Arameri religion she had learned contains numerous lies and omissions, the narrative structure of the novel tips this hand well in advance. (It’s noteworthy, for example, how quickly the members of a Barnes & Noble reading group guessed several of the novel’s key plot revelations well before they occurred.) Of course the Arameri religion is made up of lies: that’s dictated by the country mouse narrative structure. So while the secrets of the backstory are interesting, the foreground story of Yeine’s discovery of these secrets is less so.

The other early problem area is the role of objective truth in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The Arameri empire has suppressed religious beliefs which are factually, objectively correct in the world Jemisin has created. That’s a qualitative simplification of one of the much-discussed contemporary problems of empire, the suppression of one culture by another when neither have any objective claims to correctness. It is easy to root for one side when it has an objective claim on the truth; the belief in this, after all, has sustained all sorts of imperialism throughout history. It is odd, then, that this moral calculus is what Jemisin asks of us in her novel. The more relevant and interesting challenge for humanity, after all, is how to deal with cultural conflicts in the absence of objective absolutes. To what degree do people have a right to their own culture regardless of being able to prove that their beliefs are correct; to what degree should others defend that right, even if they do not themselves share the culture’s beliefs? But instead of grappling with these questions, Jemisin falls back on the conservative absolutes of the country mouse narrative: the correctness of the rural as opposed to the urban; the correctness of the old as opposed to the new.

There is more of this as Yeine becomes situated in the city of Sky and resigned to her legacy as granddaughter of Dekarta, the dying Arameri emperor. After rather too much plot thrashing, it is revealed that Yeine has been summoned to Sky in order to choose a successor to Dekarta, herself becoming a sacrifice to the Arameri god Itempas in the succession ritual. Dekarta (file under “incompetent”) has selected two possible heirs to the empire: one, Relad, is a womanizing emo drunkard; the other, Scimina, goes out of her way to terrorize Yeine, knowing full well Yeine will be the judge of her candidacy (file under “incompetent” and “wicked”). Dekarta also shows himself to be the least suspicious person in the world (see above parenthetical), giving as he does no thought to the timing of the assassination of Yeine’s mother–Dekarta’s beloved daughter, who forsook the Arameri to marry a rare male Darre chieftan–shortly before the events of the novel begin.

Two objections need to be raised here. The first is that this rendering of the antagonists of the country mouse as caricatures of wickedness and incompetence is uncomfortably close to the demonization of the adversary that is often used to justify imperialism. The easy equation of they are wrong with they are less than human (or in this case, less than characters) is too hypocritical a tactic for Jemisin to rely on in this narrative. The second objection is that while these characteristics aren’t necessarily unrealistic–history has shown us how empires often rot from within due to wickedness and incompetence–this cast of adversaries in a story simply doesn’t make for interesting drama. These types of characters are common enough in shorter forms of the country mouse narrative, like film, particularly morally simple productions that rely on humor or melodrama (the film examples I’ve used here were chosen for a reason). In a novel they work less well. Incompetence in a character is not intellectually interesting; pure wickedness in a character is not morally interesting. That Dekarta and Scimina are dictates of the narrative rather than characters is an issue for the story thematically; that they are dictates that don’t force Yeine, as the protagonist, to think, say, or do anything interesting is an issue for the story, full stop.

This is a shame, as Yeine is an otherwise engaging storyteller–and indeed, amongst the nuts and bolts of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’s writing, what I think Jemisin does best is convey Yeine’s character through the right mix of thoughts, words, and actions. When Yeine is angry, she doesn’t dwell on her anger: rather, she speaks angry words. When Yeine is frantic, or fatalistic (or both), we can tell from her actions. When Yeine is feeling alone, we can tell because she seeks company, or thinks of the loneliness of others. There’s much less redundancy to Yeine’s characterization than many epic fantasy protagonists, and a greater range and fluidity to her reactions. This is important because Jemisin is dealing very directly with pillars of fantasy–bondage, masks, recognition, and metamorphosis are just a few terms whose entries in Clute & Grant’s The Encyclopedia of Fantasy read like plot outlines of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms–and there is, in parallel, a very Le Guin-like mapping of the outward fantastic to the psychological interior (in Jemisin’s case Freudian more than Le Guin’s Jungian). Yeine thus always risked being buried beneath symbolism, risked (ironically) having her personhood denied. That Yeine always feels like a person keeps the story readable, even when she isn’t allowed to be actively interesting.

And in truth, Yeine does a great deal for the story even while relatively passive. One of the key potential narrative pitfalls that Jemisin manages via Yeine is the tendency of portal fantasies towards what Farah Mendlesohn has called infantilization (in her Rhetorics of Fantasy), the need for protagonists in strange new lands to have everything explained to them in a mediated interpretation of the world that they–and thus the reader–cannot challenge. Yeine enters Sky with greater than average knowledge of its customs, however, due to her mother’s teachings; further, she’s intelligent enough to wonder at the agendas of (most of) those who do provide her with information, and to seek out alternate sources. [Edit 25 April 2010: I've just discovered that Mendlesohn herself has made this same argument.] But most importantly, Yeine is essentially telling the novel’s story to herself, after the fact. It’s a style reminiscent of J.M. McDermott’s Last Dragon, although less consistently poetic and without the same shifting ambiguities.

I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore.

I must try to remember.


I must remember everything, remember and remember and remember, to keep a tight grip on it. So many bits of myself have escaped already.

Yeine is thus able to explain and interpret a lot of the backstory to herself, as it were, rather than having it explained to her. There is a limit to this self-exposition, based on the absolutes that underpin the story. But Jemisin helps make what infantilization does result bearable by giving Yeine strong senses of pride and dignity. Yeine simultaneously doesn’t enjoy knowing that information is being doled out only on a need-to-know basis, refuses to conform if the rules she is told violate her own morals, tries to learn as much as she can on her own, and when justice requires sacrifice on her part, she does not complain about her lack of agency. And in a sense, learning–or rediscovering–one’s own story is a gaining of agency, and can be deeply resonant with those touched by real-world imperialism, making Jemisin’s narrative choice thoroughly in keeping with her novel’s themes.

All of these elements come to the fore in the final sections of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The conflicts that dragged through the book’s middle chapters are revealed here to be largely elevator music on the climb to the true conflict of the story, that between the gods of the world. There are the expected issues with this. To the extent that the gods of Sky are bound, their availability as engines of agency for others forces the story into some odd contortions. For example Yeine, who grew up in a largely matriarchal society where “only weak women allowed men to protect them,” is confronted with an intricate political challenge in Sky and a military situation back home in Darre. Goddesses of both wisdom and war have pledged to help her. Instead of consulting with them, she keeps her council with, acts with, and is indeed protected by the two enslaved male gods. It feels out of character. On the other hand, to the extent that the gods do have agency, there enters the question of what poor humans are to do–of how responsible and accountable the Arameri can be for their empire. Jemisin muddles the question of responsibility further by introducing the notion of the Maelstrom, which has apparently spat out the three primary gods stamped with their designated aspects and roles. And so with the gods themselves dancing to some unknown tune, the language of inevitability enters the story.

Amazing. How convenient that [he] turned on me.

I prefer to think of it as fate.


Perhaps she was always meant to die at some point.

This brings the consolation that all acts committed were necessary as part of some extra-divine plan that required them, which runs rather against the ideas of personal responsibility present in the story.

With such strong enforcement of the narrative shape, and with Yeine so constrained as an actor, drama in the story must come from more quotidian character interactions and insights. Fortunately, once we move past the obvious antagonists, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms isn’t entirely lacking in this regard. Sieh, the child god, is a fine evocation of the trickster spirit that seems to grace so many divine pantheons: in him Jemisin captures something true about childishness, the combination of innocence, neediness, curiosity, and unthinkingly-selfish, mischievous cruelty of the child (if there’s a flaw to this characterization, it’s that Jemisin shows us the good but only tells us about the negative). Several of the secondary denizens of Sky–T’vril the steward, Viraine the Scrivener–are also presented intriguingly, with enough disparate details to avoid status as mere plot coupon holders.

But the make-or-break character dynamic in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the relationship between Yeine and Nahadoth, the enslaved night god. On the surface, this relationship has the contours of stock paranormal romance, of the kick-ass human woman inexorably drawn to the pale, broodingly masculine creature of darkness. Jemisin doesn’t exactly discourage this impression: “Love” is the title of the chapter, barely a quarter of the way into the book, featuring the first private conversation between Yeine and Nahadoth. Yet I think the surface reading is too shallow: here is a narrative that Jemisin does interrogate, at least somewhat. Yeine’s story, and Jemisin’s writing, is often in the language of wish-fulfillment, of ugly duckling specialness, but I’m not sure Yeine’s fate is one meant to be envied. Yeine has none of the typical relationship angst regarding Nahadoth; for the two, god and human sacrifice, can seemingly have no future together. Instead, Yeine’s desire for Nahadoth increases in proportion to the immanence of her sacrifice. In her behavior there is a very Freudian intermingling of the drives for sex and death, pleasure as a respite from troubles. Yeine maintains her concern for moral dignity even here; the sexual relationship between herself and Nahadoth charts her perception of the power relationship between the two, with sex occurring only when she can perceive them both as, if not equals, then at least equally bound. (In contrast, one primary way evil characters show their evil is that they use love or betray love–sexual, familial, patriotic. Scimina’s “favorite weapon is love. If you love anyone, anything, beware. That’s where she’ll attack.”) So there’s a sense that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms can be read as rationalizing some of the problematic aspects of paranormal romance through tropes of epic fantasy such as dynasty, divinity, and destiny. And in doing so, it brings a welcome awareness of female sexuality to epic fantasy, where women who initiate sex are still only rarely depicted in a positive light.

Beyond their role in characterization, the intermingling of sex and love seem to exist at the roots of Jemisin’s created world. The ruling castle of Sky is magically held above the world by a single pillar, a metaphor of both the Arameri attitude and the source of their power. Jemisin then goes out of her way to add a further simile to this metaphor, equating Sky to a flower–and flowers are sex organs. In parallel, the great death and rebirth of the novel occurs when a seed travels up and out of a large column (killing a man in the process, his actions a sacrifice for love): la petite mort, indeed. This deeply sexualized construction of the world is reminiscent of such fantasists as Jacqueline Carey, Tanith Lee, and Storm Constantine (with whom Jemisin shares several motifs, including love as catalyst for healing, redemption, and rebirth), although not as edgy: no sooner do we learn that Itempas the day god and Nahadoth the night god (both always shown as male in this story) had been lovers, than Jemisin is quick to tell us that Nahadoth could assume a female form as well. Which feels like another over-adherence to the conservative norms of the country mouse narrative.

It does however add an intriguing messiness to the world. Itempas and Nahadoth are positioned as opposites: day and night, light and darkness, order and chaos. Between them, and responsible for the balance between them, was Enefa, the goddess of dusk and dawn. It would be easy to assume that the divinity responsible for balance and transition would be the one most mutable, and an element of interest as the trilogy continues will be seeing Jemisin work through her vision of a balance of power, especially vis-a-vis qualities like gender and sexuality. Similarly, if the gods can say both “We were made to be Three, not two” and “We made you [mortals] in our image,” what does this mean for human relationships in Jemisin’s world? Are marriage dyads an unnatural situation, another of Itempas’s distortions? Conversely, are same-sex relationships possible; are they in some sense ungodly? Are there divinely established gender roles in this world? What has it meant for the world to have the divine feminine so long absent? How much of what is divinely established is changeable for Jemisin’s divinely-created humanity?  And can the world become a place where a woman like Yeine–biracial, capable, dignified, sexually demanding–can live?

Jemisin seems committed to working through at least some of these messy elements: one of the book’s significant points of departure from the country mouse narrative is her acknowledgment that cleaning up the mess left at the story’s resolution will be a long process. It is a beginning as much as an ending, and it seems that the process will figure large in at least the next volume of the trilogy. Towards the end of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Jemisin, via Yeine, lays out for us that the narrative of the next book will be a story of redemption–and further, I suspect we’re given signals of the endgame of the trilogy overall in Yeine’s repeated questioning of whether humanity wouldn’t be better off without these gods. It’s likely, then, that the next books will again rely not on questions of what will happen but on details of how events happen, and against what backdrop. So there’s the possibility of interest, and Jemisin has certainly shown she can sustain narrative drive even with a less-than-ideal narrative. But my sense, after reading this first volume, is that if the series is to reach its potential, it must begin to interrogate the values of its narrative underpinnings with the same vigor as it does the elements of story closer to the surface.