The Library of Lost Things

Aug. 23rd, 2017 01:00 pm
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Posted by Matthew Bright

Welcome to the Library of Lost Things, where the shelves are stuffed with books that have fallen through the cracks—from volumes of lovelorn teenage poetry to famous works of literature long destroyed or lost. They’re all here, pulled from history and watched over by the Librarian, curated by the Collectors, nibbled on by the rats. Filed away, never to be read. At least, until Thomas, the boy with the secret, comes to the Library.

 

The Librarian turned his eyes upon me, reversed the single sheet of paper once, then neatly back again.

“An excellent candidate,” he said.

And:

“Thomas Hardy. An apropos name. We have one of his, you know? No relation, I assume?”

And:

“‘Favourite grammatical form: passive voice.’” He looked me up and down, pinprick eyes narrowed, and licked his dry bottom lip. “Marvellous.”

“Sir?” I said.

The Librarian’s tongue flickered. “So wonderfully uninterested. Most boys, well they come here with their nasty adverbs and their present tense, or, God forbid, second person.” When he shuddered his spine cracked like an old hardback opened in one swift, cruel motion. “Quite unsuitable. You on the other hand…”

And, after some deliberation:

“Very well. The job is yours, young Thomas.”

“Tom,” I said and swallowed with relief that he hadn’t asked me why I wanted to work for the Library. I’d prepared a response, but I doubted it would impress. The Librarian’s eyes were sharp and astute, shadowed in the hollows beneath a foxed brow. He would have picked apart my half-truths, separating non-fiction from fiction and, suspicious, sniffed around the superlative adjectives.

“Come along.” He unfolded his eight-foot frame from the armchair. A stick insect stretching. He led me out of his office, down a long hall which echoed our footsteps, and to a set of ornate double doors. “Through here,” he said, “is the main hall of the Library. You must always treat this place with the utmost respect. We serve a greater good. Stay long and you will know this.”

He guided me through the doors. On the other side, bookshelves reached the horizon.

The Librarian bent close to my ear. He reeked like damp second-hand bookshops, or comic books left to moulder in the bottom of a wardrobe. “How would you describe it, Tom?”

I was still being tested. The interview was not truly over. Perhaps it never would be.

I looked from one behemoth shelf to the next: it was a graveyard of spines, leather, paper, string, the wormed carcasses of all those books, buried next to each other one after another into the dark. The feeling of disintegrated sentences hung in the air, a deadness of language, like a word abandoned mid-syllable.

“It’s impressive,” I said.

“Impressive.” The Librarian outstretched his arms to the expectant hall. “It takes you three syllables to encompass all this?”

I had been memorizing Roget’s 1911. “Large,” I said.

He chuckled. “Better to be faced with an eternity of literature and render it down to one uttered word, one brief sound. ‘Large’—I think you’ll be perfect.”

From beneath a shelf of peeling grimoires, scratchy muttered sounds could be heard. At first I interpreted them as squeaks, then realized instead that they were voices. Words, I realized. “Stripling! Gangrel! Pilgarlic!” A scurry of grey tiny shapes crossed our path and disappeared among the nearest bookshelf.

“Ignore the rats,” the Librarian said. “So bothersome. I try to keep them away from the books, but they over-run the place. They have a particular taste for the folios. I suppose it’s only natural they’ve picked up some words. But such bothersome words.” He licked a spindly forefinger and thumbed his lapel as if he could turn the page of his suit. “To work then, my unremarkable boy.”

He led me through the stacks, past row upon row of books. Some were bound in leather, some gaudy, some decrepit, some little more than stapled paper, and some emanating a faint electric glow. Skittering around in the shadows, the rats could be heard in our wake: “Jackanape! Welkin!”

Voila!” said the Librarian. “The Index.”

Like a still pool in a forest, the library had given way to clear empty space containing a circle of doors, freestanding and unsupported, each unadorned apart from a single round window at head height. Narrow bookcases stood attendant by each, laid out like spokes within the wheel of doors.

“Observe.” The Librarian plucked the first volume waiting on one of the bookcase-spokes. It was gently smoking; the Librarian carefully patted out its glowing embers. He inspected both of its covers. “Sonnenfinsternis by Arthur Koestler. You do know German? I’ve been waiting for this one. File this under Wartime Casualties.”

And:

A sandy pile of barely bound papers. “The Visions of Iddo the Seer—fascinating. File under Myriad Apocrypha.”

And:

A sheaf of laser-printed paper. “Untitled Novel About a Boy with No Hands (Incomplete) by S. Berman. That’s one for the Self-Doubt section—half a novel deleted in a crisis of confidence, if I’m not mistaken.” He coughed. No, it was a laugh. “I’m never mistaken.”

And:

A threadbare exercise book missing one of its staples. “The Collected Works of the Poet Jeremiah Blenkinsop, Aged 13-and-Three-Quarters. Much as I regret that we must collect such ephemeral dross: file under Adolescent Verse. Do I make the task at hand clear? Take the volume, examine its cover, file in the appropriate section.”

I nodded.

“Under no circumstances do you open the book. Is that clear?”

When I was late in responding, he peered at me. “You are not a curious boy are you? I insist on no aspirations, no predilections. Books are not to be read.”

“I haven’t read a word since my GCSEs, sir.”

He smiled. I suppressed a shudder. His teeth were spotted, like the acid foxing on old paper.

In the round window of the door directly behind the Librarian, a face appeared. It was a wide, flat face, that of a rag doll’s, or a scarecrow’s—the look emphasized further by thick stitches that shut his eyes. The door opened to admit the lumpish creature. Behind it, I saw a vista: not the Library stretching away but a courtyard at night. A mound of books burned and the silhouettes of men watched from below scarlet flags. At the sound of a bugle, each figure raised their right arm high in salute.

The Librarian noted how I stared. “1943 Common Era,” he said in a grave tone. “So many books lost forever. We were understaffed—had been since the Great Pandemic.”

The rag-doll creature unloaded an armful of still-smoldering books onto the case before turning back to the door. The Librarian stopped it. “This is a Collector,” he said, then added, squinting at the nametag sewed on his chest, “Gadzooks.”

“Why are his eyes sewn shut?”

The Librarian scowled. “That’s only a metaphor.” He squinted at me. “You know…symbolic? Not real?” He sighed and bent an arm around my shoulder. “Gadzooks, this is Thomas Hardy. Passive voice, mind you. He’s our new Indexer.”

Gadzooks bowed his head.

“I trust you’ll show him the ropes,” said the Librarian, “and then to his chambers at the end of the day.” He picked up the next book on the shelf. “Misguided Pornography,” he said, then placed it into my hands and shuffled away.

So:

I worked, for an indeterminate number of hours, filing away the books as they were deposited on the stands for my inspection. I saw many more Collectors, barging in and out of their respective doors, carrying armfuls of books; through the frames, I caught glimpses of a multitude of places—a sun-baked Jerusalem, a Scottish highland under water, the underwear-strewn floor of a teenager’s bedroom. 1943 remained where it was even as the others changed; clearly there was much work to be done there. Gadzooks lumbered around gloomily beside me, pointing in the right direction for each department: “Censored Tracts? By the fountain. Suicide? Fourth on your left. Hard Drive Failure? Up the ladders by Rejected First Novels.” His gentle voice belied his maimed face.

Occasionally on my journeys I would spy the rats. One might dash close and spit out a forgotten word at me—“Nidgery! Boyborygmus!”—then skitter away back beneath the stacks. Gadzooks grunted and chased them away. “They seem to like you,” he said.

And then:

The day closed, Collectors unloaded their last piles and vanished. All but Gadzooks, who gestured for me to follow him. I did so, because I was a curious boy, and let him lead me into the deep warren of the Library. We arrived at a rickety spiral staircase at the back of Reformation Sermons. The small room at the top was drafty and sparsely furnished, nothing much more than an unmade bed and a little writing table.

“Your room,” said Gadzooks.

I thanked him, expecting him to leave. Instead he hovered in the doorway, wringing his massive and scarred hands.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Sometimes at night, we—well, I wondered if you might like to come…to a party?”

And then:

A trio of Collectors recited couplets from Love’s Labour’s Won, regaling each other with smutty double entendres. In another corner, a gaggle of Collectors poured over Byron’s diaries, pausing frequently to ooh and ahh. Another group gathered in armchairs, pouring absinthe over sugar cubes into their glasses, and repeating lines to each other from Rimbaud’s La Chasse Spirituelle. “Welcome to the Speakeasy.” Gadzooks moved with a bit of mirth.

He led me to the bar, introducing me to those we passed on the way, a series of names—Tango, Philtrum, Esperanza, Pushkin—that I immediately failed to correctly attribute to their proper owners. “This is Tom, the new Indexer,” he said, and they all earnestly shook my hand and recited couplets for me by way of introduction.

“Whiskey,” said Gadzooks at the bar. “You do drink whiskey?”

I felt bold. “Naturally.” A glass was pressed into my hand.

Perched on a bar stool atop a table, there was another boy, who looked older than me because of his long silvery hair. He played an elegant tune on the violin. “From the Library of Music across the Silent Canyon.” Gadzooks caught me looking, and perhaps mistook the expression on my face. “They sneak across when the Librarian isn’t looking. That tune he’s playing—Mozart and Salieri’s Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ophelia. One of their prize possessions.” But I wasn’t thinking of a boy from the halls of lost music; instead, I was remembering a boy from a place far more ordinary and humdrum, though his fingers were no less nimble on the strings.

Still—he was a long way away, and I was here, in the Library, and that was the price I had paid.

They refilled my glass a second, then a third time, and I gladly accepted.

The door burst open and two Collectors entered, flanking a man covered entirely by a threadbare blanket. The door safely closed behind him, he threw off his covering, and spread his arms; he was greeted with a cheer. At first glance he appeared emaciated, almost consumptive, resembling a child’s pipe-cleaner puppet, but he had a flamboyant assertiveness that belied the wispiness of his physical presence. “Ladies and gentlethings, I am here! Quite enough of the sad songs, don’t you think?”

The musician switched to a guitar and launched into a rendition of David Bowie’s “Jean Genie,” though this version of the lyrics weren’t those Tom remembered; a lost version, he supposed, like everything else here. The song seemed to prompt a sea-change in the party; a Collector with beautiful silver stitching climbed up beside him and swayed her hips, the bartender began acrobatically tossing bottles, the patrons starting to turn around the dancefloor with a newly giddy energy.

“That’s more like it,” said the man, sauntering to the bar. “And, why hello to you! Gadzooks, who might this handsome fellow be?”

“Tom—the new Indexer,” said Gadzooks.

Although I had known the man was referring to me, I feigned surprised.

“A shame—one must never fall for an Indexer; the lamps are lit, but there’s never anyone home.” The man seized a glass from the bar, and tapped me on the nose. “Lovely you might be…but I require a tryst to possess a modicum of intelligence. What comes out of a mouth is just as vital as what goes in.” He gave me a lingering look and then left for the swell of partiers.

“Who’s he?”

Gadzooks looked at me as if I’d spat on his paws. “Jean Genet. We recovered the original Notre Dame des Fleurs. The Librarian has no idea.”

Genet perched himself atop a suitcase in the centre of the room, thumbing theatrically through a sheaf of papers in his hand. “Shall I read?” he called out to the crowd, who cheered and held their drinks aloft. “Very well, very well. ‘I wanted to swallow myself by opening my mouth very wide and turning it over my head…’ Oh, this is one of my favourite bits! I remembered it word for word—got this one just right!”

Gadzooks handed me another glass. “That’s Hemingway’s suitcase that he’s standing on,” he said, with great import.

When I did not react with awe, he sighed and abandoned me.

I didn’t remain alone for long.

Genet plucked at my shirt-sleeve. “Remarkably, I find it easier as the night wears on to ignore your lack of discursive faculties. Animals rut, and they cannot reason.”

I sipped from my glass, holding it as a meagre barricade between myself and him. I had been with men. I preferred it. But never with a Genet.

He summoned two tall conical glasses from the barman, and placed a slotted spoon across each one, on which he placed a sugar cube. His fingers—contrary to his otherwise louche presence—were long and nimble, executing his actions with quiet delicacy. I found the practiced nature of his preparations reassuring.

Absinthe trickled over the cube, dissolving the sugar, and pooling in the bottom of the glass. Genet interlinked his arm through mine, bending it back around to reach his mouth. “Thank goodness you’re not Rimbaud,” he said before taking a gulp. I sipped and coughed. He laughed. His warm breath traced across my cheek before he kissed me hard. He drank again, and determined, this time, I matched him sip for sip. It lit an emerald fire in my belly.

There were boisterous shouts rippling around the Speakeasy—Genet wheeled around, discarding his empty glass. “What’s that? You want me to go on a night run?”

I swayed on my stool. “What’s a night run?” Was it the longest sentence I had said all day? It felt marvelous.

“Wait and see,” said Genet. I caught a glimpse of Gadzooks across the room. He shook his head, and I wondered if the gesture indicated disappointment or a warning. No matter—Genet took my hand and pulled me up. “I’m hearing…‘The Ocean to Cynthia’ by Walter Raleigh? Any other offers?”

Calls sounded from around the room.

The Romance of the Devil’s Fart!” “Inventio Fortunata!” “A Time for George Stavros!” “The Poor Man and the Lady!

Genet gestured as if he had tasted a bad oyster. “Boring!”

“Plath’s Double Exposure!”

Genet grinned. “Excellent. Come along, my handsome witling!”

And then:

The overhead gas lamps were extinguished, but a kind of luminescence, much the same lustre as moonlight, emanated from the stitching of the oldest books on the shelves like silvery skeletons. I crouched low.

Genet swaggered ahead of me. I half expected him to burst into song, or start skipping.

At the Index firelight still burned in one door window, casting a lone spot of colour across the flagstones. Genet stood and looked through, waiting for me to catch up. “1943,” he said. “I escaped from one hell into another.”

He spun on his heel. “Just through that door and a few streets away there is a room above a tavern. And in that room is a bed with springs that sing as you fuck. Would you like to discover conjugating?”

A rat scurried. I jumped, startled, which he mistook for virginal anxieties.

Genet laughed. “Relax. We must forge a path to Plath.” He led me away from the ring of doors. He seemed to have a knack for moving without eliciting noise; I did not share it. Each footfall of my own rang back at me from the shelves. I fell behind. Genet had vanished, leaving lazy spirals of disturbed dust in the air, and I was on my own.

I anticipated he would be thumbing through the Suicide section, but I arrived and found it solemn. Rather than being alphabetized, here the shelves were organized by methods of dispatch. Most works were incomplete. I traced my finger along the shelves, moving from gas oven to hanging, then finally to razorblade. I squatted, tilted my head to read the spines.

And there it was:

The Sum of All Our Tales. Barnabus Hardy. A single slim volume, it seemed insignificant in the vastness of the Library. I pulled it carefully from the shelf, and ran my fingers over the plain cover. The type was raised; my skin prickled. To hold the book in my hands had been worth the exhausting pretenses of the day.

A tiny voice spoke in the dark, inches from my ear. “Swivet.”

I nearly fainted.

I envisioned the Librarian leaning down from the ceiling, his hands armed with a needle and cord with which to sew my eyes shut.

The rat sat bolt upright on the fourth shelf, grooming its snout. “Zamzodden.”

I looked around before uttering “Rumblegumption.” The sheer delight of multiple syllables, held dammed up inside me all day, burst onto my tongue. I added another for good measure. “Falstaffian.”

It paused and cocked its head. Shiny black eyes stared at me. “Anopisthograph.”

I thought for a second. “Sardoodledom.”

The rat twitched its nose and long whiskers and dashed away, throwing back over its scaly fine tail a disgruntled, “Ninnyhammer.” It dislodged a book, which fell with a ponderous thud.

“Well now, my handsome library boy. This is a surprise.” Genet was leaning casually against Shotgun/A-G, watching me. He stepped close to me. In the moonlight, it was almost possible to describe his gaunt face as handsome. “I was injurious in my dismissal of your mind. Hiding such an”—he reached out and grabbed at the crotch of my trousers—“impressive vocabulary would be grounds for”—he squeezed and I gasped (truth be told, I was hard, rigid, tumescent then, both by the wickedness of the man and my discovery)—“termination.”

I stepped back and he released me. His scuffed shoe nudged the fallen book. Double Exposure. “Of course,” I said. “We should go back.”

He tsked. “Say it right.”

I sighed. “It would be auspicious for us to return to the Speakeasy before our mischief is discovered by a certain overseer.” Somewhere within me a door opened.

 

The Librarian found me on the morning of my second day’s employment hungover and only a few breaths short of whimpering at every book deposited by the Collectors for me to index.

“How’s our young man doing?” he said, unfolding his papery frame from between the stacks.

Behind him, Gadzooks mumbled something. He had barely glanced at me beyond the necessary since the night before, when Genet and I had burst into the Speakeasy out of breath and disheveled and sweaty.

“Fine,” I said, enunciating the single syllable with care.

“Tremendous, tremendous,” he said, rubbing his endpapers together. “The Index is looking pleasingly sparse. Fine job, fine job.” He paused, mid-flow, and looked around, wrinkling his nose. “Hmmm.”

And:

Hmmmmm.”

I rubbed my bleary eyes. “What’s wrong?”

Gadzooks looked away.

The Librarian took a deep breath which expanded his torso like an accordion. “Something smells amiss,” he said. “No. Something smells…missing.”

I risked a glance over his shoulder, to where the slim pink spine of Double Exposure sat on the shelf.

The Librarian sniffed again. “Most incomprehensible.” He departed, dragging his long coat on the ground, which rather than wiping them bare instead lined the flagstones with dust in his wake.

 

I fretted all the day. Shelving volume after volume of lost books, I slipped more than a few times on the cold brass ladders. Behind texts, the rats devoured the deracinated and the archaic. Gadzooks labored next to me, but he still avoided conversation.

That night he did not invite me back to the Speakeasy. I didn’t mind: I had other things to occupy my time. Before he had been smuggled back to 1943, Genet had pressed the worn copy of Our Lady of the Flowers into my arms, suggesting that it might make good bedtime reading, and departing with a lascivious wink. (Thinking on it later, his precise words had been, “Take this and think of me in bed,” which I supposed wasn’t quite the same thing.)

And so it was for a week or so. The Librarian would appear unbidden and unnoticed, sniffing the air before vanishing, leaving me to dreary tasks—filing the assembled works of a seven-volume fantasy epic into Doubt, box after box stuffed into Teenage Diaries, navigating the complex organization of Pantos/Variations/Peter Pan.

Gadzooks had been correct about the rats’ fondness for me; they would appear amongst whatever shelf I was tending. “Anopisthograph!” said one in particular. I was convinced it was the very same rodent with which I had exchanged words on the night run. “You’ve already had that one,” I said, and shooed it away.

The next day I saw the Librarian sniffing around the display that featured famous luggage—the Library must have had other workers, still unseen, who tended to the glass-enclosed exhibitions of the detritus of authors—and with that long finger tapped by Hemingway’s suitcase. I was thankful that—for tonight at least—Genet’s manuscript was not hidden within as it usually was, with such fragrant prose that the Librarian could not have failed to scent its presence.

Yet, for all his strange behavior, the Librarian didn’t seem to suspect I possessed an intellect or a libido.

Eventually Gadzooks thawed, and reappeared at my bedroom door. “Would you like to—y’know…?”

At the Speakeasy, Genet regaled the crowd from atop the suitcase. (I wondered what had Hemingway done to Genet to deserve such roughshod disregard for his possessions, and eventually asked him; he said only “The man is famous for writing about a fish. Not a whale but a fish.”) Genet greeted me loudly. “Witling! I don’t suppose you have my book on you? I’ve drunk enough to chase away the memory of what I wrote ages ago. That I can remember my own name is a wonder.”

He pirouetted drunkenly, and toppled over. He chuckled. “Perhaps I shall just be Jean tonight and let Genet stay on the shelf.”

I helped him to the bar. I arranged two glasses, placed spoons over them, and a sugar cube atop each. Genet watched my hands as I poured the absinthe over it.

“Why do you leave it here?” I said.

“It? Pronouns are the weakest of words. Even an adverb has more panache.”

I leaned into him. He thought I meant to kiss him and I moved at the last moment so my lips touched his ear. “Your book,” I whispered into it, and felt Genet press vigorously against me; after all, what words could be more seductive to a writer? “They smuggle you in, they smuggle you out—couldn’t you take it with you?”

Genet held my face in his hands and blinked a while. “A first draft—a mere masturbatory fantasy. It belongs right here, one more lost book. It’s a dirty rag for my spent fantasies, written in the throes. What was published is superior.” He frowned. “At least, that’s what the Collectors say. I’ve only sold…” He let go of me and began to count on his fingers but quickly lost his way. “Well, not many, but they tell me that one day—”

I kissed him. Our teeth clicked and thankfully parted. We had yet to even drink the sugared absinthe but I found his mouth so pleasing that I did not notice someone tugging at the cuff of my trousers.

No, not someone. A rising wave of noise broke the familiar chatter. The minstrel faltered in his song; the assembled revelers bloomed into panic. The single rat at my feet let go of the fabric and leapt for my knee, claws digging through my trousers into the skin. “Anopisthograph. Anopisthograph!” and then at the doors the noise crescendoed with a tumult of panicked rats spilling through and across the floor.

Genet cursed. I shouted, “The Librarian!”

And:

“Run!”

And:

We dashed, and it was hard not to laugh with how Genet smiled as we escaped. I pulled him towards the Index; he pulled me towards the staircase; in the tension between the two we spun in each other’s arms as if we were dancing. In the end, I did not deny him another night spent in my bed. I shut the door fast, almost crushing the rat that scampered in and took refuge in my writing desk.

“Ow,” Genet said as we collapsed onto the mattress. “How can you sleep? What is in this? Horsehair?” He wet my lips. “Have you ever eaten cheval?” He groped me. “It’s an acquired taste.”

Authors were indeed.

 

I nibbled on the sweet rolls they fed us. I had pocketed an extra one for Gadzooks.

“The last Indexer would give me his meals,” Gadzooks said as he chewed. “He never came to the Speakeasy. He wasted away in his room.”

“Lost in a book?” I said.

“Oh, no. He didn’t dare read. I think that’s why he faded to nothing. Every time he spoke he lost the words in his head.” Gadzooks rapped on his misshapen skull. “If you don’t replace that with something…even feelings, then you stop.”

I had so many words in my head but I wasn’t sure if there would be enough feelings if I lost my vocabulary.

A rat scurried into the middle of the Index.

“Anopisthograph.”

And then:

“Thomas Hardy,” said the Librarian. His fingers traced down my cheek and neck, and far from the brittle dryness I had imagined, they felt sharp, as if they might leave a trail of papercuts on my skin. “Quite fascinating. Such a faultless resume should have been enough to make me doubt. Clever boy…I was lulled by the passive voice. I should have checked your references.”

The rat turned slowly, almost apologetically, and backed away beneath the stacks. I sighed.

“Indeed,” I said. “That would have been prudent of you. Judicious. Shrewd. Discerning, even.”

The Librarian winced.

Gadzooks attempted to fade away into the shelves. “Ah-ah-ah,” said the Librarian. He beckoned Gadzooks closer with a crooked finger. “Surreptitious sneaking—I’m afraid I cannot allow that.”

With one hand the Librarian covered my face. I feared he meant to smother me; his skin against my nose smelt of spilt ink, the emaciated palm against my mouth made me choke with its taste of glue.

Then I heard Gadzooks scream.

The Librarian released me. All that remained of my Collector friend was a large hessian sack and some old wooden toys. A yo-yo stopped spinning, its thread a last umbilical cord.

“Don’t think of it as murder,” said the Librarian. “Think of it as a metaphor for murder.”

I swallowed.

“The old beak warned me. Something missing. Boys before you sneaked into Unwarranted Adventures or Illegal Pornography. But you went there.” He gestured at the door. Neither of us needed to say aloud the section.

“What am I to do with you?” He plucked from his coat pocket a book that made my heart sink. “And more importantly, what am I to do with this, found in your mattress.” He inspected the spine. “The Sum of All Our Tales, by Barnabus Hardy. Father? Grandsire? Brother?” He leered. “Lover?”

“Father.”

“Pity,” the Librarian said. “You must have been so young. The age when you were warned about razorblades in Halloween candy—not the bathtub.”

I stiffened.

“No note. Just his final manuscript. Did the literary world mourn his loss?”

“Stop.”

The Librarian shut the book hard enough that his clothes rippled. “By all means. But tell me, young Hardy, have you ever heard the word ‘deaccession.’ Not so common any more, which is a shame.” He opened the grate of the nearest gas lamp. I screamed at him to cease, to desist, but still he poked one corner of my father’s only book into the flame.

He dropped the papers curling into ash as the fire spread.

“A lesson, a dear lesson in realizing what a lost book is,” he said.

The Librarian’s immense arm pressed me back, anticipating me wrestling free, though I didn’t know what I would do even if I could escape his grasp—perhaps throw myself on the fire in hopes of extinguishing it, rescuing the scorched remnants of the manuscript from the ashes? But it would be futile: it does not take long for poetry to burn. Verses are highly flammable—it’s because they were dear fuel in someone’s imagination.

“Consider that a written warning—obviously it cannot be filed away, but…well, I am a practical man. With the elder Hardy’s esprit in ashes perhaps you will no longer want to open a book again.” The Librarian straightened his bow-tie. “You may take the rest of the day off. If I find you at the Index in the morning, I will know your decision to stay with us. At a reduction in salary.”

Perhaps my gaze was too wet with tears to set his retreating backside ablaze.

I trudged to my room. The Librarian’s search had torn apart bed and desk. I sat down on the floor and wrapped my arms around my knees.

Something climbed up my back and to my ear. “Empressement.”

I stroked the rat with two fingers. It chirped and then nipped gently at my earlobe. “Frantling.” It leapt to the ground and ran towards the door, stopped and looked over its shoulder at me and squeaked. “Usative.”

I followed it through the maze of the Library. The lighting where we tread was dimmer. I had not been everywhere. Some subjects were unknown to me. Down one path I saw a familiar figure reclining on the penultimate shelf devoid of books. The rat scampered away as Genet peered up at me.

“Sometimes I do not go back,” he said, looking chagrinned. He handed me the book his head had been resting on. A Scheme for a New Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling by Benjamin Franklin. “How he loved whores. Once they brought him to the Speakeasy and all he wanted to do was steal a boy’s glasses and find the door leading to ancient Lesbos.”

Genet stretched, a gesture that was part exercise and part pretense to embrace me suddenly. “I doubt more than a handful of authors end up in Wasted Graphemes so it is safe here.” He touched my face, my cheeks. “Ahh, but you recently had a terrible encounter with the wicked regent, I see.”

I told him of my father, of his poetry. It had been years since I spoke of being away at school when they found his body, of life at the homes of distant relatives who could not look at me without seeing a debt to family they wanted little part of. My last name was all I had of my father’s until I learned of the Library.

“You must feel his loss keenly.”

I shrugged. “My father is a long-closed chapter.”

“Ah, I see. The book, then—you mourn the loss of the book.”

“Something like that.”

“We shall toast to both the man and his book at the Speakeasy tonight,” Genet said, laying a hand on my shoulder.

I rested my cheek against Genet’s fingers. “Actually—I had another thought. If you don’t mind.”

And finally:

1943 smelt of fire and paper. Feet stamped in unison, close by; voices intoned, “Heil Hitler!”; the books of Germany burnt in the courtyard, a gout of gluttonous smoke bearing their words into a sky already thick with many volumes. I backed away from the bonfire as fast as I could, pushing through the crowds that railed against the soldiers, shouldering my way through and away. Away from the crowd, away from the noise. Ducking into an alleyway, I paused to breathe, heaving against the damp wall.

One hand was in Genet’s as I pulled him along behind me; the other clutched tight to the worn leather handle of Hemingway’s suitcase. Several street corners away, I pulled Genet into an alleyway. “You said you had a room near here—the room above the tavern, where the bed-springs sing?”

He pressed against me, mouth close to my ear. “How forward of you—I like it.”

He led me a few streets further, arriving at a narrow doorway in the shadow of rotting tenements, the tavern windows the only warm thing in sight. He fumbled with a key, whilst I wrapped my arms tight around myself and shivered. Away from the book-burning, the city was freezing. Eventually, Genet persuaded the door to open, and he led me up rickety stairs to a room reminiscent of my chambers at the Library: sparse, furnished with a bed and a writing table. The greying sheets were balled on a threadbare mattress, and the table was strewn with papers. The floorboards creaked and wobbled beneath our feet.

There was a murine flicker by the doorway, and a scaly tail darted between my feet. A whispered word floated back in its wake. “Anopisthograph!”

I sat on the bed, still shivering. Genet watched the rat depart and closed the door. The sound of the key in the lock released me; the tension of weeks in the Library, fumbling around under the Librarian’s watchful eye, drained away. I sank back.

Genet lay down beside me, his skin warm against mine. He smelt of absinthe and book dust; I had the urge to bury my face in his chest, but my bone-weary limbs wouldn’t co-operate.

“Will you read to me?” I said.

He arched an eyebrow, and nuzzled against my shoulder. “My handsome witling—foreplay, is it?”

“This isn’t foreplay.”

“I have nothing to—”

“The suitcase.”

The bed-springs sang as he arose; I heard the grate of the lock opening, and the rustle of papers, then Genet returned to me with the contents of the suitcase in his hands: the first manuscript of Our Lady of the Flowers, where I had returned it when I had finished.

Genet smiled faintly. “My slack-handed first draft—but if you insist…” He cleared his throat, and raised the first page to his eyes. “‘Wiedmann appeared before you in the five o’clock edition,’” he began.

“No,” I said. “Turn it over.”

He did as I asked, squinting at the fresh scrawl that coated the reverse of his pages.

“Sorry about my handwriting,” I said. There had not been light in my Library chambers, or much space with which to work. My letters had been shrunk to the smallest I could manage to cram in everything I needed to write on the pale underside of Genet’s own pages.

Genet sat up on the bed, crossed his legs, looked from the page, to me, and to the page again. He cleared his throat theatrically. “‘The Sum of All Our Tales, by Barnabus Hardy’,” he began.

 

“The Library of Lost Things” copyright © 2017 by Matthew Bright

Art copyright © 2017 by Red Nose Studio

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Posted by boyhowdy


aida


Aida was an outlier in my very first English class, a summer school test-run after years teaching media and instructional technology. Bright, beautiful, articulate, and quietly confident at just thirteen years old, she didn’t really belong in the remedial program, but she had lost most of a year to hearing issues and poor health, and now, recovering from implant surgery, she was mostly just there for the credit, to justify her existence in high school.

So while other students struggled to focus, to read, and to care, Aida wrote volumes, and shared with me the fruits of her blossoming awareness and skill. I gave her my copy of The Poet’s Dictionary, and spoke quietly to her in passing and after class about sestinas and pantoums, rhythm and language as a path to the self. She could talk literature and heartache with a wisdom far beyond the capacity of most adults I know. And that smile was the sweetest ever – grateful, knowing, wry; one that lingers in the memory, even now.

I’ve taught thousands of students in over two decades in education. In a very real way, I’ve loved them all. But once a year or so, if you’re lucky, you get a couple of students that connect on a much deeper level – the kind of kids you happily break the rules for, and drive them to work in the shampoo warehouse on the other side of the city because you just want a chance to chat with another bright, vibrant human being, and to be a part of their climb out of the city, to the stars.

Aida wasn’t the first of these kids, and she wasn’t the only one from her year – being a class advisor tends to bring you closer to the cohort, I think. But she was something special all the same. Hers was a smile that could light up a room, one that never faded, and always seemed authentic. Even in sorrow or stress, she was positive and proud. Her cheerful, unapologetic arrival at prom, solo and shimmering and hours late after her hair took too long to come together, lives as a high point in my year. Watching her walk across the stage three years ago as a graduate made my heart jump.

And today, struggling to define that inimitable something, I know that more than almost any student I have ever had, a shining star among thousands, Aida knew herself joyfully, like a natural-born Buddha, having discovered earlier than most that hers was truly a self worth knowing, and worth waiting for.




I last saw Aida in person purely by accident, a year ago this week; she was working as a cashier at Target to pay for school; we were there to buy school supplies for my classroom, and for the kids. Afterwards, as before, social media provided an opportunity to watch her from a distance, as the precocious, beautiful child I had first encountered continued to grow, into an increasingly articulate and determined career-minded adult, spouse, and very recently, just this summer, a mother, loved by and loving to so many of us.

But in the end, Aida’s health was her undoing. A car crash with her infant son a few weeks ago left her shaken and in pain, and stirred up old injuries. For a while, she was recovering, alive and proud of her struggle, as always. And then, this morning, we awoke to the news that after a seizure, Aida had passed in the night.

There’s a video on Aida’s husband’s Facebook page from just three days ago, a short clip featuring her beautiful son, wailing for mama while her father coos reassuringly behind the camera. Aida was alive when this was filmed, just working – on the last course for her degree, on her health, and on her ever-changing beauty, a rare trifecta among our inner city youth. Forever, that clip, and every other artifact of Aida’s life that lives on in so many of us, will break my heart.

I owe Aida so much, and I think I never told her. She was the right kid, in the right place, at the right time: the one who reminded me, way back when I needed it most, that teaching has both love and friendship in it, even – maybe especially – in the darkest of communities, and the most sullen of crowds. She will forever exemplify the positive attitude, kindness, and grit I wish of every student I teach. I will treasure the memory of that smile forever, even if it were not all I have to remember her by – that, the company of her friends and schoolmates, and the space on the bookshelf where my Poet’s Dictionary used to live.

May there always be those among us us who bring us joy, however brief, and remind us that we are in the right place in the world. May those we serve go from this life as they found us in it: alive and kicking, determined and bright, at peace with the world even as they push themselves for more.

May we love, fiercely, those who bring out our best.

And may there always be Aidas, that we may remember ourselves.



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Posted by Fred Clark

Alas, the evangelicals of the faculty lounge cannot speak for most white evangelicals. Even worse, the faculty lounge cannot speak to most white evangelicals. That's not something they've generally been able or allowed to do.
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Posted by rbarenblat@gmail.com (Velveteen Rabbi)

Scribe-small-amended-banner-01-1468593439

I just wrote my first piece for Scribe at the Forward. It's about the work of midlife -- and the work of this time in the Jewish year. Here's a taste:

...Every life involves course corrections, and the midlife years are a ripe time for change.

For those of us who’ve had children, perhaps our children are old enough now that we can step back and think about something bigger than diapers and sleep deprivation. For those of us who’ve been partnered, this can be a time to look at whether our partnerships are sustaining us in body, heart, mind and soul. For those of us who care for aging parents, this can be a time to readjust the balance of responsibility to reflect current realities. For all of us, these years are a good time to say: are my choices working? Should the remaining decades of my life look like the previous ones? And if not, what do I need to shift?...

Read the whole thing: This Hebrew month, challenge yourself to look inward.

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Posted by Niall Alexander

The Massacre of Mankind US cover Stephen Baxter book review H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds

The chances of anything coming from Mars were a million to one, but still, in The War of the Worlds, they came: they came, in aluminium cylinders the size of ships; they conquered, with their towering tripods and hellish heat rays; and then, believe it or not, they were beaten—by bacteria!

So the story goes. But the story’s not over—not now that the estate of H. G. Wells has authorised a superb sequel by science fiction stalwart Stephen Baxter which, while overlong, turns the terrific tale Wells told in his time into the foundation of something greater.

The Massacre of Mankind takes place a decade and change since the aliens’ initial invasion, and though the Martians may have been beaten, it would be foolishness in the first to conclude that they’re completely defeated. As Baxter has it, all we did was knock out the scouts. And it seems that those scouts served their purpose perfectly, because when the bad guys come back, they come back bigger, and better. Add to that the fact that they’ve adapted; I dare say no mere microbe is going to be their undoing on this day.

We puny humans have learned a few lessons, too. From studying the artifacts abandoned by the Martians in the aftermath of the First War, we’ve developed better weapons, and managed to manufacture a few meatier materials. Alas, our advancement has made us arrogant. We’ve begun to believe we have the beating of our technological betters, when in truth the shoe’s on the other foot:

Many had believed that England would not be subject to a second Martian attack, but enough had believed it possible, and enough more had feared it, that the authorities had been compelled to prepare. The result had been a reconfiguring of our military and economy, of our international relationships, and a coarsening of the fabric of our society. All this had delivered a much more effective home army, and when the attack had finally come, the mobilisation, after years of planning and preparation, had been fast and effective.

But as a result of that promptness of mobilisation a little less than half the new British Army, as measured in numbers of regular troops and front-line materiel, was destroyed in the first minutes of the assault—most of the lost troops leaving no trace.

So it begins—again: another war that brings people as a species to its knees. But Baxter’s is a wider and worldlier war than Wells’. No deus ex machina “like the bacteria which had slain the Martians in ’07” nips this narrative in the bud, thus The Massacre of Mankind occurs over a period of years; nor is the carnage confined this time to Surrey and its surroundings. In the fast-escalating last act, we’re treated to chapters set in Melbourne and Manhattan, among others, as the menace from Mars eventually spreads—though why it takes our interstellar oppressors so long to look beyond the borders of little Britain is perhaps the plot’s most conspicuous contrivance.

It’s notable that our new narrator comments not on this quandary, however her more humane perspective is a welcome departure from The War of the Worlds’ in every other respect. Baxter casts “the great chronicler of the First War” as one Walter Jenkins, and the author of the Narrative does appear here as a sort of aged sage, predicting this and planning that. That said, the star of this more global story is his ex sister-in-law, the journalist Julie Elphinstone:

Let me warn the reader from the off that if it’s the grandeur of the cosmos that you want, all told in the lofty prose of a man who was once paid to scribble such stuff, then it’s another correspondent you should seek out. On the other hand if it’s an honest, factual account of my own experience you’re after—a woman who survived the First Martian War and had her life pulled to pieces in the Second—then I humbly submit this, history as I saw it.

Humble Miss Elphinstone may be, but her character is far from passive in Baxter’s narrative. Her role in the unfolding of the whole is in fact of significant import—more so even than Walter Jenkins’ was in Wells’ text. She’s not just an able narrator, but a pivotal participant, and her “extraordinary journey, one which took [her] from the lobby of the world’s tallest building in New York to the foot of a Martian fighting-machine in London—and beyond!” is a pleasure to observe.

But the greatest of this book’s numerous goods is its willingness to work with the world—indeed the worlds—of the original author’s envisioning. As Baxter asserts in the afterword, Wells’ text is essentially “an alternate history, with a ‘jonbar hinge,’ a branching point, coming in 1894 when a mysterious light on Mars is interpreted as the casting of a huge gun,” and The Massacre of Mankind carefully maintains that hinge rather than replacing it with a more modern model.

In short, the science of Baxter’s kitschy fiction takes its cues from the specious speculations made when The War of the Worlds was written and not the knowledge of the now, thus there’s some weird and wonderful stuff in here, such as “the commonality of the hominid form across the worlds,” not to speak of the worlds themselves: Mars with its canals and a “dripping wet” Venus—populated, possibly, by yet another intelligence greater than man’s.

The Massacre of Mankind is far from the first of its ilk, but of the several pseudo-sequels I’ve read, be they short-form or long, it’s far and away the most fitting and filling follow-up to one of science fiction’s great standard-bearers. It could have been a touch tighter—much of the second act is ultimately rendered redundant—and a little less reliant on certain mechanisms of intervention, but by and large, Baxter’s book is a smart and successful salute to a story that helped spawn a genre.

The Massacre of Mankind is available now from Crown (US) and Gollancz (UK).

This review was originally published January 19, 2017.

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.

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Posted by Spencer Ellsworth

Star Trek V The Final Frontier camping Spock cooking

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

When I was thirteen, I got shipped off to one of those wilderness camps for troubled youth that are all around the American Southwest. And… I didn’t hate it! I liked knowing how to build a fire without matches, to carve my own spoons, bowls, and very ineffective boomerangs, bows and arrows. Later in life I returned to work there many times, in the off-terms between college semesters.

As a storyteller, there’s a lot you can learn from making fire, using the resources on the land… and from lentils.

Lentils?

I’ll explain.

The best way to make a fire, for a beginner, is with a bow drill. Flint and steel are great if you’ve got a metalworker buddy and your tinder bundle is dry enough to catch from mere sparks.

But the bow drill is the workhorse of fire-making, ever since the invention of string. Take one flat, dry piece of wood, carve a small notch into the flat top, and another notch into the side to vent the coals onto a knife or piece of leather beneath. Into that top notch, set the pencil-shaped spindle. Hold the top of the spindle with a socket rock or socket log of very hard wood, and use a bent branch and string, (the “bow” of “bow drill fire”) string wrapped around the spindle, to turn the spindle to create the friction. The process is similar to any fan belt turning a piece of machinery, for a similar kinetic result. You’ll need an equally steady arm to work the bow and turn the spindle.

With a hand drill, you simply take a long spindle and work it with your hands until the friction at the bottom produces coals. Hand drills, though, require both very tough hands, patience and a specific technique. (This is my way of admitting that I could never get the trick of them.)

In the American Southwest, use some nice, dry, non-bug-eaten sawtooth yucca, seep willow or deadfall saguaro cactus to make your fireset. (Deadfall saguaro cactus often come apart into individual rods. Don’t mess with a standing one—the state of Arizona will have words with you.) Cottonwood trees will do in a pinch, but they are a hardwood—you’ve got to make sure get a good light branch that will produce shavings, not just polish when rubbed against another piece of wood.

Once your shavings, produced by the rapid movement of the spindle in the fireboard, form a coal, blow it to flames in a tight bundle of dry grass, bark shavings and pine needles.

Once you have a fire, everything changes. You are warm, can cook your food, can boil your water if needed, and the land no longer feels so harsh. If you have shelter, and you camp with no impact, you might just feel like you and the unforgiving desert have an understanding.

Of course, if you don’t have the Army surplus ponchos we had, your best chance for shelter is animal skin. Yeah.

Point being, a Stone Age society used a lot of energy to stay fed & sheltered. To make fires, you have to maintain your fire set and keep it dry. You can’t stay in one spot too long, given that water sources are rarely reliable all year round, and those edible roots and berries go fast. You would probably have to roam pretty far to find the right kind of stone for flintknapped knives, or nice straight piece of flexible yet hard wood that will bend into a good bow without splitting. And arrows. Did you know that most reeds aren’t straight enough to make perfect arrows? You can straighten them over a fire, with some help from your teeth, but it’s not a short process.

(While we’re at it, it is not possible to underrate the process of digging your own latrine with nothing more than a sharp stick. Those hobbits would have thought twice about six-meals-a-day after their first #2 in the wild.)

This is why I was glad not to go full Stone Age entirely. Our weekly food packs, on the program, had a lot of treasures—powdered milk, an apple, rice, a tiny bit of brown sugar and Kool-Aid mix, but it was a good bet that by the end of the week, you’d have eaten your treasures, and you’d be left with green lentils.

Just green lentils.

The esteemed fantasy author Randy Henderson has declared that “there are few foods less magical than lentils.” This is very true. I can attest to it. For seven weeks, I wished upon a cup of lentils to go home. Back to where there was chocolate, butter and showers, where rain didn’t find ways around my poncho shelter and I didn’t have to walk through a creek to get anywhere.

Wishing did not work. Randy was right.

You’ve seen ubiquitous protein packs in science fiction before, of course. They’d be a natural consequence of long trips in space. Perhaps you wonder what they taste like? I can’t speak for Firefly, but in my book, A Red Peace, they all taste like stale, mashed green lentils, with a bit of ash. Maybe a few rocks.

Truly, I was grateful for the lentils. Unlike the fire, and unlike anything I gathered or made with my own hands, they came every week and you could count on the calories. We like to romanticize the Stone Age society as a simpler time, but most of use, even in an artificial “wilderness camp,” have never known what it’s like to rely on only our own hands to make the tools, make the fire, kill and skin an animal, and use all the parts of its body for shelter.

Every society needs stories, but a professional storyteller is held up by a whole system supplying food on a massive level. So I must thank those lentil growers.

Starfire: A Red Peace Spencer EllsworthSpencer Ellsworth’s short fiction has previously appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Tor.com. He is the author of the Starfire trilogy, which begins with Starfire: A Red Peace. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and three children, and works as a teacher/administrator at a small tribal college on a Native American reservation.

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Posted by Emily Asher-Perrin

Children of Dune cover, Frank Herbert

This week we’re going to get stuck in a spice trance and agree to a very messy betrothal that could potentially result in a murder. That’s the plan, at least.

Index to the reread can be located here! And don’t forget this is a reread, which means that any and all of these posts will contain spoilers for all of Frank Herbert’s Dune series. If you’re not caught up, keep that in mind.

Summary

(Through “This rocky shrine to the skull of a ruler grants no prayers.”)

Leto wakes to find Gurney Halleck is his captor at Jessica’s orders. They plan to force him into the spice trance, as Gurney tells him that refusing to do what his father could not will haunt him forever if he doesn’t attempt it. A woman surfaces in his mind and vows to protect him from the other identities inside of him. Leto keeps coming back to the thought that his skin is not his own, begins to learn from moments in the past and the future, gains control over all the lives within him. When he wakes, Namri is there, prepared to slay him. Leto asks him to do it, and that fact stays Namri’s hand—he claims he was told to look for indifference in Leto as a sign hat he should kill the boy.

Alia and Irulan are trying to convince Ghanima to accept a proposal to Farad’n. She is furious at the thought and insists that she would kill him for Leto, even knowing that he has blamed and denounced his mother for it. She also knows that the Fremen would never accept a Corrino, and they would curse her if she did. Alia points out that Jessica is being held by them, and also Duncan. Irulan tries to use the Voice on Ghanima and she laughs. Alia and Ghanima come to an understanding—Ghanima says she will accept the proposal to get her grandmother and Duncan back, but she would kill Farad’n. Irulan advises against it, but Ghanima is insistent. The plot is set.

Leto continues his trances, knowing that every time he comes out of one Namri might kill him. He finally surfaces to speak to Gurney and Namri, and after much philosophizing, comes to the conclusion that the problem with the Empire and Muad’Dib’s rule was that it sought to bring peace… but peace only as defined by a certain way of life. That way has not left people contented, but they are told to be. He tells Gurney that he will work with Jessica and the Sisterhood, though they may come to regret it. He realizes that even though these people want his cooperation, but the time he is done they may long for the “good old days.”

Farad’n finally makes his hands change as Jessica asked him to and learns the first most important lesson, that his mind controls reality. Jessica admits that she didn’t not expect him to manage it so quickly, but that he is only on the very cusp of learning. She wants him to be able to do this aging of his hands at will, and will also begins to teach him how to move every muscle in his body individually. She promises him that when he is done with this course of learning, he will be completely his own man, and control his destiny.

Leto is continually put into the spice trance, growing angry at his grandmother for using such a drawn out gom jabbar. He nearly loses sight of himself within the boundaries of time, but he comes back to it. Waiting for him when he wakes is Namri’s niece Sahiba, who is ready to act in her uncle’s stead. He tells her what he has seen in his vision; a future without the worms, unless he can correct the course they are on. He also tells her that in one version of the future, they are a couple, despite the fact that he is eight years younger than her. She doesn’t believe him in either account, but they head back to the sietch so he can reveal what he’s learned.

Ghanima wonders if she is doomed to share Alia’s fate and calls up a conversation she had with her grandmother about abomination, where her grandmother explained that it occurs because the benevolent persons that exist in the preborn are useful, but the malignant ones join together and overwhelm their host. Ghanima decides that her hate for Farad’n will make her strong enough to resist. Irulan comes out to scold her for being out in the open, and also to tell her that Farad’n has accepted her proposal, but wants to delay the ceremony and they don’t now why. Duncan is being sent home, but Jessica is staying with Farad’n. Irulan wants to dissuade Ghanima still, but she tells her that the Atreides descend from Agamemnon; their history is bloody and they adhere to it. (Irulan does not know who Agamemnon is.) Ghanima tells Irulan that Alia plans to send the princess away after she marries Farad’n, but Irulan won’t hear of it—she loves Ghanima as her own child and would protect. Ghanima finds this laughable, saying that there is a chasm between them, since she is Fremen and Irulan is not. She insists that if Irulan wants to help her, she must understand the many lives that live within her. Irulan stoops to hug her, and Ghanima worries that she might have to kill her.

Leto wakes from his vision and sees Sabiha making coffee. He thinks of what he saw in his visions, of the two of them together. Sabiha feeds him, as he’s very weak, then he has her sit while he tells her his visions about them. While he’s talking, he puts her in a kind of trance and she falls asleep. Leto escapes and Gurney and Namri have to find him. Namer is insistent that he has to be killed if he escapes, though Gurney doesn’t want to commit to that despite Jessica’s orders. Duncan is returned to Alia and realizes that there is nothing of her left. She demands to know why he took her mother to the Corrinos but he insists that she told him to make it look realistic. At the same time, Alia realizes she can no longer trust Duncan, and plans to send him away and have someone take care of him. She sends her guard to take him in a thopter to Sietch Tabr, but on instinct, Duncan insists on flying himself. He bursts into tears, permitting himself to feel Alia’s loss, then realizes that she had planned to have him killed on this trip.

Commentary

Again the parallels between Leto and Paul’s journey; Leto begins having visions of a woman who will “save him,” and that woman is someone who he sees himself becoming romantically involved with. But this is an important deviation—Leto ends up veering away from this path in order to continue on with his destiny. It begs a lot of questions about the choices that Paul made, which this entire book is really meant to do; if Paul had neglected the personal aspects of his life, focused only on his mission to dismantle the Imperium, would things have turned out differently? I would hope that isn’t the overall “message,” as I have an natural aversion to any narrative that touts the ‘personal connections make you weak’ chestnut, but this is a poignant reminder of the ways in which Paul and Leto are different.

A brief aside for the fact that Leto’s musings on his potential future with Sabiha get a little raunchy and Frank Herbert really should have refrained from writing anything so sexually specific, because the term “beefswelling” will now not leave my brain and I’m very angry with him over it. Cripes.

The importance of the Bene Gesserit breeding program is something else that this story brings to the forefront; the concern for gaining control of the Kwisatz Haderach and stripping the “Abominations” that the Sisterhood has wrought is deeply embedded in the narrative. Dune Messiah deals more with the importance of the Guild and the Mentats, the Bene Tlielax as a player we were previously unaware of. But Children of Dune recenters on the concept of how the Sisterhood has shaped this universe. There are a lot of philosophical questions at work here, specifically once Leto thinks of the universe without the sandworms and without spice. He envisions a universe where space travel is no longer an option and the planets once more grow disconnected and fall way from one another.

As this has been the state of their universe for quite some time, the desire to preserve it is not surprising, but in the grand scheme of things you have to wonder if anyone would ever make that choice. Let the worms and the spice die, halt space travel, break up the ruling classes, have each planet become its own ecosystem. There would be a wide swath of deaths from all the rich people who are addicted to spice no longer getting their fix, and the Spacing Guild would cease to be. So many of these frightening and poisonous organizations would be no more. What’s fascinating about the Dune universe is how many of these groups are taken as unstoppable givens that will always wield a certain amount of power. All of these major players are now essentially acting on behalf of the Sisterhood because that is currently their best option.

We find out what Jessica said to Ghanima in regard to the Sisterhood’s stance on Abomination, and once again, we see a universal order based on the concept of absolutes that were decided millennia ago. There is a belief that the preborn are eventually overwhelmed by the darker personalities of their history, that they are powerless against them. But if Alia hadn’t been abandoned, it’s possible that we could have observed a different outcome. Jessica herself worries over that possibility, that she left when Alia needed her most and allowed this to happen.  Ghanima herself has plans to avoid this trap and Leto is learning to overcome it by attempting to integrate all of his previous lives into himself in a manner that allows him to access all their information without being subsumed. While we have the reveal that the Atreides are apparently descended from the legendary Agamemnon, their future doesn’t have to be bloody in the same manner.

There are questions about worldbuilding here, though. I’m inclined to believe that Herbert hadn’t come up with the idea of Abomination when he decided that Alia would be preborn. There’s not indication of Jessica being about that precise problem when she gives birth to Alia, at least not in those specific terms. So it’s likely that Herbert created the concept of Abomination after writing Dune, as this was the clearest way to further the story in the direction he wanted it to go. There’s a part of me that wishes, despite how interesting Alia’s journey is, that she had been the one to correct Paul’s errors rather than his children. It would have been a fascinating arc, for sure.

With Duncan’s tears we get a potent reminder of who this story treats as human; it’s most commonly the old guard Atreides men, men like Duncan and Gurney. They are the people whose emotions we are most often privy to, and that is even still true after Duncan has been made a ghola and trained as a logical mentat, a human computer. The Atreides and the Fremen all have a manner of reserve and withholding, either from training or from environment and upbringing. But the men whom Duke Leto I trusted, they are always painted as men of deep emotion who react in a manner that is far more humane. The same could possibly be said for Irulan at this point, but that is because we are meant to view her with great pity and sadness—the woman who loved Paul Atreides an didn’t know it, a woman without children, a woman who cannot possibly keep up with the children she then adopted. It’s not my favorite storyline, in all honesty. Irulan seems as though she could have been far more effective in any number of ways, had the story decided to have use for her.

Farad’n is proving an adept student to Jessica’s teachings, and it always strikes me as strange that he’s so easy to root for. I think it’s really just be he’s incredibly no-nonsense and pretty humble compared to the people around him. Not quite as vicious and conniving, despite his plots. When everyone else around you is pretty much a monster, it’s easy to come out looking squeaky. And Jessica’s favor certainly doesn’t hurt him either; she trained Paul, and we’re inclined to accept her favor as a good sign… despite the fact that it technically has led to disaster already where her son was concerned.

Emily Asher-Perrin is really stuck on that horrible beef word now. Ugh, gross. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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Posted by Liz Bourke

Starfire: A Red Peace book review Spencer Ellsworth Tor.com Publishing

Is Starfire: A Red Peace a weird space opera? Hell, yes. Is it good?

I couldn’t put it down, which is one answer to that question.

Starfire: A Red Peace starts in about as much medias res as anything I’ve ever read. A Resistance against a corrupt Empire has just succeeded. Its leader was John Starfire, and he led an army of human-Jorian “crosses”—part human, able to use the advanced technology of the long-gone pure Jorians by virtue of their DNA, and used as slaves and cannon-fodder by the Empire—to victory. Now, though, Resistance has turned into “consolidation,” and all full humans are marked for death.

Jaqi, an eighteen-year-old “cross” who’s been working as a navigator among aliens, finds herself in some trouble on a habitat in the region of space known as the “wild worlds.” Having survived a con by the skin of her teeth, and hungry for real food, she stumbles across three human children in hiding. These children are maybe the most wanted people in the galaxy. Not only are they human, but they’re carrying information that John Starfire wants to have.

Jaqi wants a normal life. Or whatever she can get that might pass for a normal life. But she’s not willing to leave the kids to die, either, and so—accompanied by a three-horned Zarra called Zaragathora—she tries to get the children to some kind of safety. Unfortunately, pursuit is close, and Jaqi keeps bouncing from the frying pan ever closer to the fire.

The narrative is recounted in the first person, with all the urgency of the present tense. Jaqi’s viewpoint is only half the story. The other half belongs to Araskar, a “cross” in the Resistance’s Vanguard. Araskar is five years out of the vats where he was made, and has been at war for all that time. He’s a senior officer, a survivor, a man with a conscience and a man with a drug problem. He doesn’t want to keep fighting: the war’s over, isn’t it? But he follows orders, despite his growing certainty that the ongoing consolidation is a project of genocide, and his growing unease with this certainty. His drug addiction complicates his feelings, and so does his relationship with Starfire’s daughter Rashiya, who used to be his subordinate and now is a special operations type who outranks him.

Araskar is part of the pursuit of Jaqi and the kids. His growing disillusionment makes him easy to sympathise with—especially when he sees most everyone he ever cared about die.

Starfire: A Red Peace is a tight, tense little book. And it has some weird and engaging worldbuilding. This is a galaxy with a Dark Zone filled with things called Shir that eat worlds and stars, where instead of fighter pilots, Starfire’s Vanguard use the shells of dead creatures from a world without atmosphere, and where the “crosses” use soulswords that not only kill people, but suck out their memories and allow the soulswords’ wielders to know what these memories contain. Swords! Duels! Stabbing! And extremely modified people called “Suits” who can survive vacuum. Some of this stuff is batshit. All of it is cool.

Ellsworth gives each of his protagonists compelling, individual voices. I’m not particularly fond of directly representing dialect variation in the text, such as “en’t” here for “isn’t” or “aren’t.” But here it works, alongside Ellsworth’s use of invented jargon, used so consistently and in such a measured way that it seems natural.

The depth and variety of Ellsworth’s world feels a little overwhelming in a short space. It reminds me, in certain deliberate ways, of a darker, weirder, more lower-class Star Wars, with elements of Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker in the tone. (I might compare it to Becky Chambers’ work, but it isn’t nearly as kind.)

Starfire: A Red Peace is really good. It’s fast, it’s entertaining, and it works. It’s also only the opening installment in a longer story, and I’m rather looking forward to seeing what comes next. I’ve always had a soft spot for space opera—and it’s really satisfying when the space opera is this much fun.

Starfire: A Red Peace is available now from Tor.com Publishing.
Read an excerpt here.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign

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Posted by Leah Schnelbach

I’m going to state that the idea of being crushed beneath a building is fundamentally different for New Yorkers than for most USians. People’s minds go to different places based on what they fear. In Florida, I feared tornadoes and hurricanes in the way that Californians fear earthquakes and Hawaiians fear tsunamis. Now I live in New York (and work in a historic building no less) and I fear building collapses in that same way—a dull throb behind all of my conscious thought, occasionally bubbling up into a nightmare.

It’s this aspect of New York that has marked the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and set it apart from the DCU. Marvel is New York. As was said over and over again at the Defenders SDCC 2017 panel, New York is another character in the MCU. As was made clear by Spider-Man: Homecoming, changes to the city itself reverberate through the lives of its characters. In a way that the DCU, with its fictional cities, can never match, New York’s (real and fictional) buildings are the skeleton of the MCU. And that skeleton has been permanently marked by 9/11/01, and the ongoing fight against terrorism in the world. I would argue that it’s this aspect that gives the MCU films a dimension of emotional resonance that transcends their status as popcorn movies.

This post contains spoilers for the entire MCU, the Netflix/Marvel productions, the Spider-Man Trilogy, the Amazing Spider-Man Duology, and The first two X-Men films.

 

Marvel Before the Cinematic Universe

To talk about this topic, I’ll need to hop back a few years, and start before the MCU took over every aspect of pop culture. When Bryan Singer made the first X-Men movie in 2000, he ushered in the new age of superhero movie. He was working with a team of heroes who were based in upstate New York, but whose backgrounds, like a lot of New Yorkers, are cosmopolitan. The X-Men films feature Brits, Jewish Holocaust Center Concentration Camp survivors, Canadians, Russians, Cajuns, German circus workers. They all come together at the school in Westchester. They go into the city fairly often, and when they face-off with Magneto at the end of the first movie it’s at the Statue of Liberty, because Singer wanted to fashion an iconic terrorist event.

Then reality gave New York a better one.

Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies (2002 and 2004) took Marvel’s connection to New York and ran with it. After he had to photoshop the World Trade Center towers out of the first film, Raimi added a scene in which a bunch of New Yorkers pelt Green Goblin with bits of asphalt and yell: “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!” Spider-Man 2 doubled down with a train full of people protecting Peter after a fight with Doc Ock (the train is elevated, which is dumb, but it’s still a great scene), and then the culmination of the film is a potentially city-flattening explosion.

Both of the Webb/Garfield Spider-Man films feature scenes of ordinary New Yorkers helping the hero:

Emily Asher-Perrin talks about it in her piece “Spider-Man: Homecoming is the Clearest Vision of Spider-Man’s Most Important Message”—Spider-Man’s essential New Yorkness is part of what makes him such a great hero. No matter where you live, the specificity of his life and struggles in the city become universal, especially to the nerdier among us, so seeing the city embrace him when he needs them is more uplifting than all of the generic statements of Superman giving people hope.

 

The Marvel Cinematic Universe Confronts Terrorism

But it’s in the MCU that we get the clearest response to the way terrorism has impacted New York. You can read the MCU as an allegory of the US response to terrorism, and its shifting role in the world. Tony Stark is the American warmonger, who saw the light and now wants everyone to stop being mad at him, even though his weapons and tech are still causing misery to people he’ll never know. Cap is the best of America, for better and worse, the deeply moral, well-meaning golden retriever, bouncing around the world trying so goddamn hard to help, and desperately trying to resolve his love/hate relationship with his old buddy Russia, er, I mean, Bucky. Widow’s the espionage community who always has to stay one step ahead, Clint is the military grunt just trying to get through the mission, Banner’s the science community with his own complicated relationship to government and military. That’s all fine. But it’s in their particular obsession with a couple of images that the larger theme comes out.

Did 9/11/01 happen in the MCU? It seems easiest to assume so. The World Trade Center Towers are absent from the MCU skyline, which does feature Stark/Avengers Tower in the films and in the motion posters released for each Netflix series. (No Baxter Building, though.) When we meet Tony Stark in 2008, he’s selling weapons to the U.S. military in Afghanistan, so it’s safe to assume that the US of the MCU is engaged in the same war that our world’s US was. Later, in an outtake from Iron Man 3, a Secret Service agent references Rhodey’s time in “Gulf War I,” so it’s also safe to assume that the earlier war with Iraq happened in the early 1990s, and that Rhodey fought in it when he was in his early 20s. So the situation in the Middle East is essentially the same as it is in our universe.

Iron Man is the one that gives us the closest one-to-one comparisons with the world’s current worst terrorists. It’s also worth noting that of all the Avengers, Tony is probably the least New York of all of them. He’s aggressively Californian, from the house in Malibu to the increasing obsession with health food. (He’s totally the Dawn of the group, is what I’m saying. Cap is the Kristy, Banner’s the Mary Anne, Natasha’s the Claudia, Hawkeye’s the Logan, Falcon’s the Stacey, Scarlet Witch and Peter Parker are Mallory and Jesse.) Tony Stark has an intimate relationship to terrorism in the Middle East. His trilogy pits him against Middle Eastern terrorists, a throwback Cold War terrorist with a personal grudge against Tony, and two rival arms dealers, plus a faux bin Laden character who makes fearmongering videos, and eventually snuff films, that line up precisely with things the Taliban and ISIS have posted online.

In Iron Man, Tony is captured by terrorists in Afghanistan, and only builds his Iron Man suit (in a CAVE, from a box of SCRAPS) because he’s being forced to build a missile. The group broadcasts a video of demands, holding a gun to Tony’s head and forcing him to stare, terrified, into the camera. In Iron Man 2, the terrorist is Ivan Vanko, a Russian who attacks the Stark Expo, a celebration of technology and futurism. In Iron Man 3, the terrorist is the Mandarin, who makes horrifying Taliban-esque videos, plans bombings, and shoots a hostage live on camera.

Now, the interesting thing is that none of these are quite accurate. The first group, while based in Afghanistan, is a multi-ethnic coalition, with members from India, Afghanistan, the Arabian sub-continent, and Hungary—but they aren’t calling the shots. We soon learn that they’re just muscle employed by Tony’s business partner, Obadiah Stane, who wants Tony out of the way. Stane kills them once he’s done with them. The next Big Bad, Vanko, only attacks Tony because of a personal vendetta against the Stark family. Here again, though, the villain is a pawn used by Tony’s main competitor in the fine art of war-profiteering, Justin Hammer. And finally the trilogy’s conclusion takes this theme to its natural endpoint by setting up the Mandarin, who isn’t even a terrorist–he’s just a drug-addled, lascivious actor named Trevor. He’s a fake terrorist funded by yet another man with a personal grudge against Tony, inventor Aldrich Killian.

In each instance, the real Big Bad, behind all the showy terrorist trappings, is a white man who wants to win at capitalism—or more specifically, wants to beat Tony Stark at capitalism.

Tony, meanwhile, receives an abrupt lesson in mortality from his chestful of shrapnel. I find it easiest to read Tony’s career in warmongering as a response to the terrorism that happened in our timeline—he grew up profiting from it, and developing his own StarkTech with money made from wars he never had to fight in. Once he realizes what life is like for those in war he backs away as fast as he can, and begins converting his work to peaceful causes. And because the MCU started with Tony, its themes are permanently interwoven with the conversation about terrorism.

 

The Battles of New York

There are two battles of New York, but only one is really discussed. The first is in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, when two giant rage-monsters, science experiments gone wrong, rampaged through Upper Manhattan and, well, “broke…Harlem” as Bruce Banner later sheepishly admits. This incident, the centerpiece of one of the MCU’s least successful films, is played for laughs in The Avengers, but we later learn that this battle had a giant impact on the City, which I’ll discuss more below.

Five years later, aliens invade New York. I need to look at this closely to unpack why this is such an important moment in the MCU. When Loki goes to Berlin that isn’t an invasion, just a showy heist, and while the moment of him telling humanity to kneel is horrific, it’s also quickly thwarted by Cap, Widow, and Iron Man. The Chitauri invasion of New York is different: it’s protracted, broadcast on TV. An iconic building—this time Grand Central Station—is partially destroyed, and the film shows us Cap helping people out of the rubble and instructing the police on how to keep the crowd safe. So far, the parallels with 9/11/01 are obvious.

But the film also makes this a New York-centric event. This isn’t an Independence Day or Arrival type situation where the aliens showed up over the White House along with multiple other world capitals. In fact, the US government fires a nuke at New York, preferring to flatten the city in a bid to save the rest of the country. New Yorkers don’t even realize this is happening—there’s no warning, no time to say goodbye or try to flee. And that’s when the film goes in a fascinating direction that’s nearly a Jungian play on emotions. Tony learns about the nuke, intercepts it, and carries it up into the Chitauri’s wormhole. He tries to call Pepper, but first she’s so riveted to the news that she doesn’t see the call, and then his connection cuts out as he goes further into space. So we watch his phone ring and ring, with no answer.

And then Tony Stark, in front of millions of people, falls back to earth limp and apparently lifeless. This is the moment that shocked me when I saw the film in the theater. The call doesn’t go through. Tony and Pepper don’t get to say goodbye. Millions watch him die on television.

Again, the parallel with 9/11/01 should be obvious. But then the story turns. The Hulk catches his friend, and roars at him, which seemingly startles Tony back to life. The ending has been rewritten and New York has been saved, and as the credits roll we see the people who have been saved thanking the heroes, the beginnings of a superhero celebrity merchandising complex, and the way the media begins framing the heroes. We don’t see any bodies. We don’t hear that anyone died. The terrorist attack has been defeated. And here the film turns again with a tiny, seemingly flippant decision: Tony suggests they all go for shawarma. Not pizza or bagels or a buttered roll or a pastrami sandwich from the Carnegie Deli, but shawarma, a quintessentially Middle Eastern dish with an Arabic name. So having just created a new version of 9/11/01 with a different outcome, where the villains are an alien force rather than a human one, the heroes all celebrate with Middle Eastern food, affirming Arabic culture as another thread in the weave and warp of New York.

 

Processing the Aftermath on TV

While the films spun out across the universe after this point, the Marvel Netflix shows took us down onto the ground to deal with the aftermath of these “Incidents,” which is where we see something far more profound. The five seasons of Marvel shows on Netflix are probably the New Yorkiest of all the Marvel properties. (To start with, Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk say the words “Hell’s Kitchen” more often than those two words have ever been said, by anyone, in human history.) Since these shows are “on the ground” they give us a non-superpowered view of life in New York in the Age of Marvels. Even more than that, though, they make constant meditative mention of The Battle for New York and The Battle of Harlem.

People search out the connections between the shows, the references, the photos of Stan Lee, but there is one thing that all the Netflix shows have in common. At some point in every single show, the heroes find themselves underground, threatened with a constant motif of collapsing buildings and scenes of heroes digging themselves out of rubble. In each series, they have returned over and over to scenes of rubble, destruction, bottomless pits, building’s foundations being dug up or compromised in some way. New York City is as much a character in these shows as Trish Walker or Foggy Nelson, and it’s New York City, over and over, that is hurt by the villains.

The entire first season of Daredevil jumps off from the idea that Hell’s Kitchen was particularly damaged during the Incident, and that it’s only just beginning to recover and rebuild. Thus the show becomes a discussion of Lower Manhattan in the early days of 2002, touching on the economic turmoil that came in the wake of massive destruction, and the lingering fear and trauma that affected people who were on the ground in New York during the attack. Wilson Fisk, rather than just being a drug-dealing thug, is now part of a larger network of people all trying to exploit the damage done to the city.

In the episodes “World on Fire” and “Condemned,” Fisk goes through with a plan to blow up buildings in Hell’s Kitchen as part of his overall scheme to rebuild New York in his own image. So…more urban destruction. But unlike the movies, we don’t experience this from the hero’s points of view. No, we’re with Foggy, Karen, and an elderly lady named Elena Cardenas when the building collapses around them. It’s their fear that we experience. Only after that, in the next episode, do we rejoin our hero Matt, and even then we have to deal with the reality of destruction far more than when we were watching Cap and Widow hop around in rubble. We go with Foggy, Karen, and Mrs. Cardenas to the ER, and we see a flood of injured people sitting in the hospital. No noble sacrifices or wormholes to fly into, here: just scared people, and pain, and nurses trying to help them. And underneath it all the terror of not knowing why buildings are blowing up.

Fisk the terrorist is using violence to foment fear, confusion, and division among people he doesn’t really see as people. When we check in with Matt Murdoch, he is tracking a Russian gang, and has, of course, found one of them in one of Fisk’s demolished warehouses. The two end up fighting each other while also fighting, together, to survive in a structure that’s collapsing around them. The episode cuts between the two as they work their way through the shambles of the building into the subbasement, and Foggy and Karen at the hospital, who are calling Matt increasingly sure that he’s under the rubble—which he is, but not in the way they think.

Karen and Foggy stand in for everyone who was left waiting during terrorist attacks, listening to a ringing phone and hanging in a liminal space between knowing and not knowing. It’s the human, mortal, non-billionaire/playboy/philanthropist version of Tony’s fall from the wormhole. Matt’s a hero, yes—he’s trained in martial arts, he has super senses—but he’s also still mortal, and this isn’t Jessica Jones with her super-strength or the nigh-indestructible Luke Cage. It’s a fascinating way to update the 9/11/01 motif for the grittier Netflix shows, because Matt is stronger than most of us, and we can live through him vicariously as he survives the falls and the crumbling concrete, but he is also under constant threat of death in a way that Cap and Tony never are. If Matt dies under a building, only his closest friends will mourn—no one’s going to watch him become a hero on TV.

Jessica Jones touches on the trauma of The Incident in two ways. First, in the episode “AKA 99 Friends,” Jessica is ambushed by Audrey Eastman, a woman whose mother died in The Incident. Audrey hates all super-powered people, and is trying to seek vengeance one person at a time. This moment is initially played almost for dark slapstick comedy, but then Audrey’s waving a very real, very loaded gun around, and sobbing about her mother, whom she will never get back. Jessica can tell her to “take it up with the Green Guy and the Flag Waver” but that doesn’t help anything. The deaths are real, the destruction is real, and most non-Stark (or Stark-funded) New Yorkers don’t have the resources to deal with their grief. Normal humans are still suffering because of the battle between Loki and the Avengers, all these years later.

Later on in the series we learn that Jessica and Reva Connors, Luke Cage’s wife, were forced to dig up a pen drive that showed Kilgrave’s parents experimenting on him—a pen drive that was hidden inside the foundation of an abandoned warehouse. Once again we follow one of our heroes into a crumbling derelict building, down into the rubble, and once again it leads to suffering as Kilgrave forces Jessica to murder Reva Connors immediately after this scene. The reason I’m focusing on this is simply that it doesn’t need to be here. Reva’s a psychologist, and Jessica Jones is a private investigator. They both work in offices, on computers (plus, as we learn in Luke Cage Reva’s also based in Georgia for much of her career), so why exactly is the pen drive buried under the foundation of a building in the West Side of Manhattan? Why not hide it literally anywhere else? But again, Marvel needs to use urban destruction as a visual shorthand for pain.

In the second season of Daredevil we return again to the foundations of a building, this time the mysterious warehouse on 9th Avenue that seems to be a cover for The Hand’s Mysterious Bottomless Pit that will presumably tie into a huge cosmic plot which will mean I have to listen to Stick drone on about weakness and strength for another goddamn season.

Sorry. I just…can we just drop Stick into the Mysterious Bottomless Pit? Please.

Finally, in Luke Cage, the other Incident is dealt with in a fascinating way.

But first, let’s back up a little.

When people talk about the MCU, they don’t often mention 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. (Edward Norton was a serviceable Bruce Banner; CGI Hulk looks a bit more CGI than the later version we see in The Avengers; things are smashed. There, you’ve seen the movie.) As I mentioned earlier, Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner makes one deadpan joke, saying that last time he was in New York he “kind of broke… Harlem” which is funny until you put it in the context of the whole MCU.

What we have in that movie is a government experiment gone terribly wrong, co-opted by the military, which then crashes into the heart of Black America. (Any similarity to similar government experiments gone wrong is surely merely coincidental, right?) Two huge, terrifying monsters battle in Harlem, causing millions of dollars worth of damage to residential buildings, neighborhood shops, and the street itself, as well as to the historic Apollo Theater. And what we see, eight years later, is that the buildings are still a wreck, and people are still psychologically scarred. But no one talked about The Battle of Harlem in any of the other shows—we had Ben Urich’s front-page story framed on a wall, but that was it. This Battle is a footnote, the other Battle is The Incident. The US government broke Harlem, then walked away and left the residents to try to clean up the damage. Finally, eight years later, Marvel picks the thread back up to deal with the emotional fallout from the Other Incident, but you’ll notice that while people across the country were concerned with the Chitauri attack, Luke Cage makes it clear that the citizens of Harlem, largely people of color, are the ones doing the work in rebuilding that neighborhood, with little press or support.

When we look at Luke Cage’s personal arc across Jessica Jones and his own show, we return to the motif of the collapsing building. First he plants explosives in his bar, under orders from Kilgrave. He’s fine, physically, but now he has the wreckage of a building standing in as a big fat symbol for the failure of his attempt to build a new life. So he moves up to Harlem, and for a while seems to be finding a home in the heart of New York’s historic Black community. But wait: He lives in a small room above a Chinese restaurant called Genghis Connie’s.

Connie is his landlady, and is actually pretty nice about letting him pay in cash and occasionally run a little bit of a tab. But when he tangles with the local crimelord, Cottonmouth, things get ugly quickly, and Connie, longtime Harlem resident, true New Yorker, purveyor of Chinese food, is caught in the crossfire.

Once again a Marvel show decides on a very particular way to depict violence. Cottonmouth shows up on Luke’s corner with a freaking rocket launcher. Rather than trying to poison or drown Luke, Cottonmouth goes for the destruction of a building. And while this is obviously a great tactical show of force, it’s also the work of a terrorist, not a crime boss. And it leads to an extended sequence that plays again on Marvel’s particular obsession with the destruction of buildings.

Now here’s where I go out on another psychological limb. The episode “Step into the Arena” (IMO, the best episode of the series) sees Luke’s horrifying present cut together with his just-as-horrifying past. In the present, he’s trapped under the rubble of Genghis Connie’s, and while he’s fine, Connie herself is terribly injured. Luke begins to try to shift the concrete so they can escape. In the past, Luke is sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and then forced into an illegal fighting ring. Luke is trapped in every possible way—physically he is beaten and abused, mentally he is subjugated and humiliated by the racist guards. It’s all just as horrifying as you’d expect. And these flashbacks to his origin story aren’t triggered, as they are in most superhero stories, by the decision to become a hero, but by being physically trapped beneath the collapsed building. This is what he thinks of, as he painstakingly shifts concrete blocks to create a path for Connie. Once again we’re under a building with a hero as concrete shifts and groans above us. It’s the weight of the city itself that threatens our lives.

The only saving grace here is Luke, falling with her. Luke, with his indestructible skin and super-strength, moves rock after rock, and digs both of them out. The two little guys, an underemployed black man and a Chinese restaurant owner, were supposed to pay for the illegal dealings of Justin Hammer—whose military-grade weapons have, of course, found their way to street-level—but instead they live. Just like all the commuters saved by Cap in The Avengers, the ordinary New Yorker survives because a super-powered New Yorker is there to shield them from a falling building.

Luke goes back the next day, and in sifting through the wreckage of his apartment he finds the swear jar that used to hold pride of place in his friend Pop’s barber shop. He’s able to easily pick up rocks and bits of wood, no fear of the shifting beneath him because even if it all caves in and takes him with it, he can just brush it off. He’s able to rescue the tiny piece of Pop’s life, put it back in the barbershop where it belongs. After all the trauma, he’s able to move on again.

 

Cosmic Terrorism

I’m focusing on New York, for obvious reasons, but throughout Captain America’s Trilogy and Avengers: Age of Ultron, terrorism = the mass destruction of cities, including Lagos, Johannesburg, and Sokovia. Even when Marvel goes cosmic it uses the language of collapsing buildings and cities under siege to make its emotional points. Ostensibly Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange are supposed to take us to new realms, outer space, alternate dimensions—so why in both films does the final battle take place in a city? GotG could have had any plot, but the writers chose to make the antagonist a second-generation terrorist, and while Ronan falls prey to the usual “underdeveloped Marvel villain” syndrome (despite Lee Pace’s best efforts) his few flashes of spark come down to this: he wants to destroy a vibrant culture because it offends his own fringe religious beliefs. He’s a fundamentalist Kree who wants to destroy the pointedly diverse, inclusive culture of Xandar, and he’s doing it against the wishes of his own culture. This is the story of every terrorist raised in a hateful belief system, from KKK members to Taliban suicide bombers to ISIS kidnappers. Of all the stories they could have told, Marvel chose to bring the cosmic down to the human level by showing us a madman attacking a city as civilians fled. What is this but yet another retelling of 9/11/01? An attack on the ideals of inclusiveness and freedom of choice that are at the heart of the American experiment, the ideal we’re all supposed to be working towards? And in Doctor Strange, a story where people could literally fight as astral projections, the big ending battle still comes down to a city filled with vulnerable, non-super-powered humans, who, fortunately, have a few super-normal people protecting them.

Obviously we’re in Hong Kong, not New York, but Marvel still wants to be sure we understand the true cost of superheroes and villains duking it out, and to do that they keep returning to the visual language of terrorist attacks. When Strange’s twisting of time finally reveals Wong’s fate, we learn that he wasn’t killed by Kaesilus himself, of even one of the mystical minions: he was crushed under rubble and impaled on rebar. Not stabbed by a magical weapon or felled by a spell, but instead killed in a building collapse like a regular human. And then Strange turns time again, the chunk of concrete flies back up, the rebar extracts itself, and Wong is alive again. Doctor Strange uses the Eye of Agammotto to literally turn time back, to undo the attack, bring the people back to life, rebuild the Sanctum. We watch the building in reverse flying back up into the sky, bricks joining, city healing.

 

 

Writing a New Ending: Save the Villain

In Spider-Man: Homecoming we get a new rewrite of terror. We meet the children who grew up in the shadow of the Incident—and it soon becomes clear that in this version of the Spider-Man mythos, the most New York of all Marvel’s heroes will try to give us a new ending to a terrorist attack.

The movie begins in the rubble of The Avengers. Adrian Toomes, the head of a salvage crew is cleaning up the mess the Chitauri left behind…until a Stark company comes in and screws him out of the contract. Here, finally, is the villain Marvel has always needed. Just as Marvel’s heroes are complicated, even morally grey at times, Toomes makes some extremely good points during his villain monologue. He did get screwed over by Tony Stark. He wouldn’t have turned to a life of crime if his business had been respected. He is just trying to give his family a good life. He is a class war personified: the blue collar construction guy now has a huge house and pool in the suburbs, a nice car, a loving wife who can afford stylish clothing (we never learn if she works) and a daughter who can be the pretty, well-dressed, popular queen bee of a nerd high school. He’s paid for this life with his crime, and if he tries to stop now, it all collapses—no more upper middle class. What does that do to his daughter’s college prospects? What does it do to his stable marriage? What does it do to his pride as a provider?

Here are stakes that reflect our world as it is now, and here, as in the Defenders, the sort of conflict that force otherwise good people to treat terrorism as a solution to their problems.

On the other side is Peter, living with his newly widowed aunt, and trying to make life as a hero work, and the New Yorker all of us want to be: friendly, resourceful, snarky, heroic, but down-to-earth enough to argue about bodega sandwiches with Miles Morales’ uncle. (!!!! DO IT, Marvel. Don’t just hint at Miles and then not give him to us.)

(But also please don’t kill Peter off to do it.)

Anyway. Of course he jumps in to foil the arms deal on the Staten Island Ferry, and of course he fails—unlike the previous Spideys he’s truly just a kid. The Ferry, The Spirit of America no less, is not the big iconic THIS IS NEW YORK moment, however. As I hoped when I saw the first trailer, it’s only the halfway mark. Here is this iteration of Spider-Man’s take on that iconic subway fight: once again, the kid from Queens attempts to save New York’s commuters while posing in as cruciform a manner as possible. But here, crucially, he screws up. His interference in the Staten Island Ferry situation nearly kills a lot of people, and pisses Tony off so much that his suit is revoked, he’s publicly humiliated, he loses any hope of joining the Avengers, and is finally sent home to his terrified aunt.

For a few scenes, the film is all about Peter learning to be a normal teen again, devoting himself to friends, family, and school, and trying to apologize and be there for the people he let down. The film could have continued in this vein, with Peter learning the importance of being a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man by seeing how much good he does in small ways. Instead, the film turns and becomes a commentary on New York’s unique relationship to terrorism. Peter learns that Toomes and his henchman plan to hijack a Stark plane and steal Chitauri tech to create more weapons of mass destruction. Since the grown-ups refuse to listen to his warnings, Peter has to be the hero again.

He confronts Toomes in a giant warehouse, and the man intentionally monologues in order to trick Peter into letting his guard down—Peter having been trained by all superhero narratives that once a villain starts monologuing, you’ve all but won.

Then Toomes demolishes the supports beams and brings the roof down.

We’re with Peter—say it with me now—TRAPPED UNDER A BUILDING. And for a good five minutes something happens that I don’t think has happened in a Marvel movie before—all heroics are dropped, and for a little while Peter is just a terrified crying kid. Because, far more than Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield, this Peter Parker is a kid. He forgets he has powers. He doesn’t have Cap or Luke Cage under the rubble with him to help. He isn’t engaging in some giant moral dialogue like Daredevil, or undoing time like Strange—he’s just scared. Alone. And then he sees his reflection in a puddle, wearing his old, homemade Spider-Man mask, and he rallies:

“Come on Spider-Man. Come on, Spider-Man.”

Peter Parker, kid from Queens, can’t move the rubble. But Spider-Man is New York’s hero. He rescues bodega cats. He risks his skin to hold the ferry together. He can’t allow Vulture to hurt the city again, and without Iron Man or Cap around to be the hero, it falls to him. The first time I saw this film it was in a packed theater in Brooklyn, and I heard plenty of people around me crying. What does it mean to a New Yorker who maybe teared up watching those New Yorkers pelt Green Goblin with rocks in the first Spider-Man all those years ago, to now see Spidey stand up and shake rubble away? What does it mean to see him emerge from that building?

He goes after Toomes, and the next few scenes are Spider-Man fighting a villain on a hijacked plane as it flies low over New York City landmarks. He uses his webbing and sheer strength to steer the plane over Brooklyn, barely misses a residential building, and crashes the plane into Coney Island’s beach. The only landmark harmed is the Parachute Jump, and the borough’s citizens are safe, but now Peter is at the mercy of Toomes.

This is Peter in his old suit, with no snazzy Stark Tech cushioning, no taser webs, against a tough adult man in a metal flying suit, but Toomes doesn’t hold back. Their fight soon turns into a beating, with more the brutality of a fistfight between Cap and Bucky than any of Spidey’s previous cinematic battles. Toomes only stops short of killing Peter right there on the beach because he sees a box of Chitauri artifacts and decides to escape with them.

But then the story turns again. Toomes’ wings short out. And in contrast to all the previous Spider-Man films where Peter is lectured on morality, and tortured over doing the right thing, Tom Holland’s Peter calls out a warning with no hesitation or moral quandary.

Toomes ignores him and the whole rig explodes in a fireball. Watching the film the first time, I thought we were going to go down one of two paths: either a cut to black, followed by Peter waking up on the beach and The Vulture escaped to wreak havoc another day, or The Vulture dead, with a morally-conflicted Peter free of the man who threatened him with a gun, swore to murder everyone he cares about, and brutally beat him, but also scarred by his experience. Either ending would set the film up for a sequel, and leave Peter darker and older than he was at the start of the adventure. But the movie rejects both of those possibilities to, once again, rewrite the ending to a tragedy. Peter drags himself up off the sand and walks into the fire to rescue the villain. After all the horror Toomes has wrought, he’s still a person, and Spider-Man is obligated to save his life. Rather than dying in the wreckage of a hijacked plane, both men get another chance at life.

 

Writing a New Ending: The Heroic Terrorist 

The Defenders gives us the apotheosis of this drama. When a series of tremors rock New York City in the opening episodes, the idea that it’s an earthquake is quickly dismissed by most people. When New Yorkers call into Trish Talk, they ask if it’s another Incident or earth-grown terrorism, but when she tries to investigate she soon finds higher-ups heading her off. The T-word pops up almost as often as the H-word over the first seven episodes. And then, of course, we have the culmination of Marvel’s obsession with urban destruction: the heroes become terrorists. Colleen Wing suggests that blowing up the Hand’s headquarters might finally stop their horrible plans for New York, and the rest of the Defenders reluctantly agree. True, they have a very good reason, but once again purest evil is described in terms of explosions, falling buildings, and free-form chaos. Once again the narrative lands us in a pit, with the foundations of a giant building collapsing into dust around us.

And of course this is complicated by Daredevil. Matt hangs back, tells his friends to go ahead and escape, and succumbs to the siren call of Elektra. Because at the core of Matt’s moral struggles, and his open desire to “save” Elektra, there is also his desperate, self-destructive love for her. You could argue that he didn’t want to abandon her, or that he thought he might shield her body, or even that he could convert her in the last moments, but the grin on his face as the building collapsed did not suggest a man meditating upon spiritual matters…which, I would argue, is what keeps Daredevil interesting. But to go a step further, Matt has fulfilled the destiny started with those unanswered phone calls two series ago, as we see when Foggy and Karen gradually realize he hasn’t made it back alive. The MCU has now given New York its own religious martyr to balance out the religious martyrs who attacked the city on 9/11/01.

We later learn that Matt’s final words to Danny Rand were “Protect my city.” New York, battered and nearly destroyed by terrorism, has now been saved by it, one of its homegrown heroes has sacrificed himself for it, and his mission has passed to a new hero, whose arc reaches its own climax a few scenes later, when he admits that New York is starting to feel like home. Cheesy, yes, but it was enough to make me (grudgingly) like Danny Rand.

The MCU has been defined by terrorism since its inception. And while it made sense for Tony Stark, war profiteer, to reckon with the consequences of his career as a weapons manufacturer, over the past decade Marvel has come back to this primal, man-made horror over and over again, forcing its audiences to relive the attacks at the turn of the century. Buildings fall over and over again, we watch rubble and explosions, we see people pinned under foundation beams and crawling out of broken concrete. Even in a universe where Norse Gods wrestle Hulks, the gravity of a situation is measured by how it affects a city’s infrastructure, nearly always New York—because attacks on New York are personal to Marvel. But in Marvel’s universe there are heroes to turn time and put the buildings right again. The hero can rise above all the anger and hatred to rescue the terrorist, meeting hatred with love. And if even that doesn’t work? The heroes will take terrorism into their own hands to ensure New York’s safety.

Marvel keeps processing this tragedy, replaying the attacks and finding new ways to save their city. Each time you can see them tilting the narrative, looking at tragedy from new angles. For the MCU and its Netflix progeny, terrorism is a puzzle to be solved. If they keep repeating the collapse and the terror, they seem to say, someday they’ll find a hero who will defeat it.

Leah Schnelbach likes the newest Spider-Man’s method the best. You can come discuss rubble with her on Twitter!

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Posted by Liz Bourke

The Gates of Tagmeth P.C. Hodgell

I may have forgotten how to talk about books. I hope not, but let’s find out!

Kate Elliot’s Buried Heart, the final entry in her Court of Fives trilogy, marks an astounding culmination to an excellent trilogy. Building on the events of Court of Fives and Poisoned Blade, Buried Heart puts half-Efean half-Saroese athlete Jessamy in the middle of a war between her father’s people—the Saroese “Patrons” who rule Efea, and who have relegated the native Efeans to a state akin to slavery, the Saroese who’re invading as part of machinations among royalty—and the Efeans who want to take back their country, their history, and their gods.

Jessamy’s position is complicated. She’s in love with Kalliarkos, a Saroese prince who doesn’t want to be king—but Jess thinks that if he’s king, then he can change things in Efea. At least, that’s what she thinks until he actually becomes king.

Buried Heart Kate Elliott Court of Fives seriesUnfortunately for Jess and Kalliarkos, the problems in Saroese-ruled Efea run deeper than the ability of any single person to fix. Becoming king just put Kalliarkos in the middle of the snakepit he’s spent his whole life trying to escape. And caused Jess to realise that the only way forward for Efea, and for her, is to overthrow the Saroese Patrons entirely. That means overthrowing Kalliarkos, too.

Of course, first she’s going to have to survive.

Buried Heart is an accomplished epic fantasy that focuses on the individual costs of being torn between societies and between loyalties, and on the toll that colonialism exacts on the people who live under it. It’s a really good book, and it does things that epic fantasy really doesn’t do enough—like understand a revolution from the perspective of systems that need to be overthrown, rather than individual bad rulers that need to be replaced. It also went places that I really didn’t expect.

I really enjoyed it. Also, it has metal war spiders, weird athletic contests, cultural clashes, and interesting family dynamics. More, please?

The Gates of Tagmeth P.C. HodgellP.C. Hodgell’s The Gates of Tagmeth, the latest novel in her long-running Chronicles of the Kencyrath series, came as a surprise to me. I didn’t realise it was out until a friend mentioned it on the internets—I’ve clearly been spoiled by all the publicists who send me press releases.

The Gates of Tagmeth follows The Sea of Time (2014). Much as I enjoyed the wild hijinks of The Sea of Time, I’m really happy to see The Gates of Tagmeth placing Jame—avatar of That-Which-Destroys, one of the faces of the Kencyr’s three-faced god—in a mediating role, one where she has to create things. And really happy to see The Gates of Tagmeth go some way towards resolving some of the dangling issues that loom between Jame and her brother Torisen, High Lord of the Kencyrath.

The Gates of Tagmeth is a fun romp, expanding Hodgell’s world and giving us more of Jame’s entertaining if haphazard approach to life and leadership. In the background, the looming conflict between the Kencyrath and the world-eating power of Perimal Darkling that has chased Jame’s people from world to world still lingers. One of these days maybe this series will reach a crisis point for that conflict, but in the meantime? I’m happy to just enjoy the ride.

My to-be-read pile is overwhelmingly large. I’m not even sure what’s in it right now, except that it might fall over and crush me at any moment… What are you guys reading lately? What are you looking forward to reading?

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

Support new Jewish poetry in 5778

Aug. 22nd, 2017 06:30 am
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Posted by rbarenblat@gmail.com (Velveteen Rabbi)

I'm a longtime admirer of Ben Yehuda Press. They published Rabbi Jay Michaelson's The Gate of Tears, and Sue Swartz's we who desire, and Rabbi Shefa Gold's Torah Journeys, and they've recently brought out Jews Vs. Zombies. (No, really.) They also published my most recent volume of poetry, Open My Lips -- and will be publishing my next one, Texts to the Holy. And I've had the opportunity to read a couple of the other poetry volumes they'll be bringing out in the coming year, and oh, wow, are they fantastic. 

They're doing a Kickstarter to support the publication of six volumes of new Jewish poetry in the year 5778 (that's 2017-2018, for those of you on the Gregorian calendar). Here's some of what they have to say about that:

People need poetry. Jewish people need Jewish poetry. Not only Jewish poetry, God forbid — we would never part with our Robert Frost or Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver or the rest of our shelf — but we also need poetry that expresses our specific culture and language. "Poetry," Frost wrote, "is what gets lost in translation." So too, translated yiddishkeit isn't quite the same. Hence, Jewish poetry. At Ben Yehuda Press, we publish poems (and other genres) whose Jewishness is integral.

Our Jewish umbrella casts a very wide shadow. Some of the poets we publish are intoxicated by God. Others look for spirituality in a world without God. Some allude to the Bible, others to Jewish experience. Ben Yehuda Press believes there is no one true Judaism, no one authentic Jewish voice. It is the multiplicity that defines our community, and our Judaism, and, optionally, our God.

With this Kickstarter campaign, Ben Yehuda Press is launching its poetry volumes for the Jewish year 5778. Immediately after Rosh Hashanah, we hope to publish three books of poetry. Three more volumes will be published in the spring.   

These six titles come on the heels of the four we already published, starting with one volume in 2007, then three more in 2015. Now, with our ambitious line-up for 5778, we hope to begin a regular commitment to publishing Jewish poetry. But we need your help, to prove that there is a community of readers open to these new Jewish voices, and to help us grow that community.

I've donated toward this project, because as far as I'm concerned this is holy work that the world needs. (In the words of William Carlos Williams, "It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.")

Take a look at their Kickstarter, and if you can throw a few bucks toward the project, please do. Support the bringing of new Jewish poetry into the world!

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Posted by Lish McBride

Terry Pratchett

I can tell you the exact moment I discovered Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I was about fifteen and fortunate enough to be on a trip to England with my father and stepmother. Though I considered myself to be lucky, I was also in dire straits—my Walkman was dead, I’d read all my books, and I was stuck in a car with two adults who were constantly fighting and all of my coping mechanisms had been used up. I was desperate for a book. I think any lifelong reader will understand the panic of being stuck somewhere stressful without a good book. (Or really any book, for that matter.)

We had stopped to see some famous rock circle—I can’t remember which one, only that it wasn’t Stonehenge. However, I do remember that they had a little gift shop, and in that little gift shop amongst the knickknacks and postcards was a single spinner rack of paperback fantasy titles written by a man named Terry Pratchett. I’d never heard of Terry Pratchett, and I didn’t care. I grabbed the first two and proceeded to beg my stepmother for them. Another lucky stroke in my life—both my mother and my stepmother were readers and they almost always supported my book habit. I’m forever grateful for this.

There are a few other authors that I remember discovering so clearly, though in very different ways. My stepmom handed me David Eddings thinking that I’d like his books based on the covers. My brother, Darin, introduced me to Ursula Le Guin. My Grandma Lee lead to me discovering Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books when I was stuck on yet another stressful family outing and out of books. We’d stopped in to a grocery store and she handed me The Lunatic Café saying, “This looks weird. You’re weird. I think you’ll like it.” My mom read and reread the Chronicles of Narnia to my brothers and me over the years.

I loved all of them and they certainly all impacted me as a reader and a writer, but none of them in quite the way that Terry Pratchett did, because the Discworld books were the first to really prove to me that fantasy books could be funny and smart. They were silly and deep at the same time. Since I was constantly being told to stop being silly and that my sarcasm would get me nowhere, Pratchett’s books were a validation.

Rincewind was a terrible wizard and a total coward and I understood him in a way that I didn’t understand the usual heroes that threw themselves into battle and trekked across whole countries to right wrongs. I approved of those things, but I’d never done them. I didn’t really know what being a hero felt like, but I’d been a Rincewind. Sadly, not a wizard, but I’d been afraid. I’d been overwhelmed. I wasn’t a hero and I was awkward and weird. Rincewind was a character I could get behind.

The deeper I delved, the more the books resonated for me. There was hopefulness and a kindness to the humor along with the bite of satire. To this day I read Pratchett’s books and laugh and then suddenly stop and reel at the bigger ideas that he’s thrown in with all that humor.

Up until that point, I’d been trying to write stories and most of them fell into the epic fantasy or horror genres, and they weren’t really working. I couldn’t seem to articulate the kind of story I wanted, because I was trying to be serious. I don’t know why… Serious has never worked particularly well for me in life, but there you go. Once I’d read Terry Pratchett, well, a light didn’t go off per se, but the fuse was lit. I could combine my love of humor writing and my love of horror and fantasy, and it would be okay.

As a published author, I had my very first book event in Portland at Powell’s and while I was there I happily discovered an illustrated copy of Wee Free Men, the first Tiffany Aching book. (Which, much to my horror, has since disappeared from my library.) I have a soft spot for many of Discworld’s inhabitants, but much like Rincewind, I got Tiffany in a way that made a lot of things click into place. Tiffany is a witch, not because she’s special or magic or gifted, but because she’s so very practical. The village doesn’t have a witch. Tiffany not only understands the necessity of the witch role, she wants to right the wrong made against the former village witch. There is a need to be filled, so she puts on her boots, grabs her frying pan and gets to it. This was such a wonderful departure from the Chosen One scenario or the handwringing heroines I’d been reading. Not that I don’t enjoy those, too, but there was something so appealing to me about Tiffany’s pragmatism. She reminds me of Suzette Haden Elgin’s character, Responsible of Brightwater. Responsible was practical and got things done, paying little heed to the people who told her she couldn’t. I wish I could ask Terry if he’d read those books, and if Tiffany was a hat-tip to Responsible.

In one of those rare moments of fate, I got to see Terry Pratchett speak. After my first book had come out, I’d picked up a job at a local bakery and coffee shop. We were struggling financially and I needed a steady paycheck now. The bakery was attached to a bookstore, which appealed to me for obvious reasons. One day on my break, one of the booksellers mentioned that Terry Pratchett had an event at Town Hall the next day, which had somehow passed by my radar. I wanted desperately to go, but it was a ticketed event, which means I had to purchase the new book in order to attend. I have never had any problem throwing my cash down for a new hardcover book, mind you; in fact, I prefer getting books in hardcover if I love the author, because I know they will last longer. (Also because I know the author gets paid a little more for those book sales, which is nice.) That being said, I had about enough cash for the book and nothing else. We were living paycheck to paycheck and broke, something that gets a little less charming when you have a kid. But it was a chance to see Terry Pratchett speak. Live. In the same room as me. At this point, he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I didn’t know if he would ever tour again. He had himself to look after, and as much as I was greedy for more books, I didn’t want them at the expense of his health.

So I spent my last thirty bucks on a copy of Snuff and a chance to see Terry Pratchett speak, and I don’t regret a single penny. I knew going in that Terry wouldn’t be signing anything or meeting anyone—again, the organizers were trying to protect his health; touring is an exhausting business at the best of times. To get there in time I had to go straight from work, smelling like coffee and looking a bit of a mess. I didn’t care. I got to sit in a room with people dressed as wizards and listen to one of my favorite authors speak. It was wonderful.

Then, a surprise—they announced that a lucky few would get to meet Terry Pratchett after the event. If we opened our books and had a red ticket, we were in. I opened my copy of Snuff and there it was, a glorious red ticket. I was going to get to meet Terry Pratchett.

I don’t usually get starstruck. I’m pretty good at remembering that they’re really just people at the end of the day. I had no problem meeting Julie Andrews when she came to my bookstore. She was utterly charming and we discussed my time in New Orleans after she saw the fleur-de-lis on my hoodie. Occasionally, though, it happens—I get completely and utterly starstruck (only with authors. And it turns out that Pratchett in particular managed to turn my brain into pudding.)

After the event, the red ticket folks were herded downstairs and into a line. I think it was one of the most freaked out lines I’ve ever really seen; people ahead of me could barely speak because of nerves. Usually I wouldn’t have cared about my own nervousness, but rather unfortunately, because I also write books, the booksellers handling the event knew who I was. They would likely see me again at events and things and I didn’t want to be the author who lost their freaking mind over Terry Pratchett. I was trying rather desperately to play it cool, and failing.

The line edged closer and I attempted to form some sort of coherent thought. What I did remember was that if I’d ever met Terry Pratchett, I’d told my friends that I’d ask him for a hug…which is funny on several levels because I’m not really a hugger. I don’t like touching strangers, generally. But I insisted that I would hug Terry Pratchett so they should likely get the bail money ready, in case I was ever arrested for what could be possibly categorized as assault depending on the enthusiasm and aggressiveness of said hug.

When it was finally my turn, I managed through many garbled words to get my story across. I was ready to be turned down. I understood that hugging strangers was weird, and that’s what I was to him; I didn’t think that he owed me anything at all. He’d already given me so much.

But Terry just tilted his head and looked at me. “You want me to hug you?”

“Yes,” I said. “If it’s okay with you. No pressure.”

“Okay,” he said, and stood up. The bookstore staff kindly asked me if I wanted a picture and I quickly handed them my phone. Terry put his arms around me and then leaned back and said, “I hope I’m not doing anything inappropriate.”

I hastily told him no, he absolutely wasn’t doing anything inappropriate at all. To which he replied, with a completely straight face, “Do you want me to?”

I cracked up, and I was able to relax a little. Making a joke was likely a reflex for him, but for me it was one more gift, because suddenly I was comfortable. The bookseller snapped the picture and I thanked Terry and left. It was an utterly perfect moment. Since I was now shaking too hard to drive home, I walked two blocks to a bar that my friend bartended at and proceeded to drink a glass of whiskey and calm down. I’m fairly certain that I babbled to her the whole time. I had hugged Terry Pratchett, and it was amazing. I’m so very glad that I went.

Lish McBride Terry Pratchett hug meeting in person fan story

Photo courtesy of Lish McBride

I haven’t read The Shepherd’s Crown yet. Despite my love for Tiffany Aching, it feels too much like saying goodbye, and I’m not ready. So I’m saving it. Someday, I’ll be ready and I’m okay with waiting.

On occasion, at my own book events, I meet a reader that’s a nervous wreck. They’re shaking. They can’t talk. They clutch my book and tell me that they can’t believe I’m there. And it’s so, so weird to be on that end of things. I’m proud of my books, yes, but I don’t see myself through the same lens. I don’t really understand why they’re so freaked out to meet me—I’m not that big of a deal. Even four books in, it all still feels too new to me. So I tell them that I understand, because every author has at least one story where we’ve met another author and lost our composure. I tell them about the time that I made Terry Pratchett hug me, and I know that in that moment, my reader and I completely understand each other. And I hug them, if they want, and it isn’t hard for me, because my brain doesn’t categorize my readers as strangers.

But even if it were difficult, I would do it, because of that photo. The picture may be poor quality because my phone was crap, and I look rough from pulling coffee shots all day, but I don’t care. I am being appropriately hugged by Terry Pratchett—savior of car trips, champion of humor, kindness, and practical witchery. Terry Pratchett, whose books not only changed everything, but continue to remind me why funny books are important. That’s all that really matters, in the end.

Pyromantic Lish McBrideLish McBride currently resides in Seattle, spending most of her time at her day job at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. The rest of her time is divided between writing, reading, and Twitter, where she either discusses her desire for a nap or her love for kittens. (Occasionally ponies.) Her debut novel, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer was named an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and was a finalist for the YALSA William C. Morris Award. Her other works include Necromancing the Stone, Firebug, and Pyromantic.

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Posted by Brandon Sanderson

Oathbringer Brandon Sanderson

Start reading Oathbringer, the new volume of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive epic, right now. For free!

Tor.com is serializing the much-awaited third volume in the Stormlight Archive series every Tuesday until the novel’s November 14, 2017 release date.

Every installment is collected here in the Oathbringer index.

Need a refresher on the Stormlight Archive before beginning Oathbringer? Here’s a summary of what happened in Book 1: The Way of Kings and Book 2: Words of Radiance.

Spoiler warning: Comments will contain spoilers for previous Stormlight books and the available chapters of Oathbringer, along with speculation regarding the chapters yet to come.

 

 

Prologue: To Weep

SIX YEARS AGO

Eshonai had always told her sister that she was certain something wonderful lay over the next hill. Then one day, she’d crested a hill and found humans.

She’d always imagined humans—as sung of in the songs—as dark, formless monsters. Instead they were wonderful, bizarre creatures. They spoke with no discernible rhythm. They wore clothing more vibrant than carapace, but couldn’t grow their own armor. They were so terrified of the storms that even when traveling they hid inside vehicles.

Most remarkably, they had only one form.

She first assumed the humans must have forgotten their forms, much as the listeners once had. That built an instant kinship between them.

Now, over a year later, Eshonai hummed to the Rhythm of Awe as she helped unload drums from the cart. They’d traveled a great distance to see the human homeland, and each step had overwhelmed her further. That experience culminated here, in this incredible city of Kholinar and its magnificent palace.

This cavernous unloading dock on the western side of the palace was so large, two hundred listeners had packed in here after their first arrival, and still hadn’t filled the place. Indeed, most of the listeners couldn’t attend the feast upstairs—where the treaty between their two peoples was being witnessed—but the Alethi had seen to their refreshment anyway, providing mountains of food and drink for the group down here.

She stepped out of the wagon, looking around the loading dock, humming to Excitement. When she’d told Venli she was determined to map the world, she’d imagined a place of natural discovery. Canyons and hills, forests and laits overgrown with life. Yet all along, this had been out here. Waiting just beyond their reach.

Along with more listeners.

When Eshonai had first met the humans, she’d seen the little listeners they had with them. A hapless tribe who were trapped in dullform. Eshonai had assumed the humans were taking care of the poor souls without songs.

Oh, how innocent those first meetings had been.

Those captive listeners had not been merely some small tribe, but instead representative of an enormous population. And the humans had not been caring for them.

The humans owned them.

A group of these parshmen, as they were called, clustered around the outside of Eshonai’s ring of workers.

“They keep trying to help,” Gitgeth said to Curiosity. He shook his head, his beard sparkling with ruby gemstones that matched the prominent red colors of his skin. “The little rhythmless ones want to be near us. They sense that something is wrong with their minds, I tell you.”

Eshonai handed him a drum from the back of the cart, then hummed to Curiosity herself. She hopped down and approached the group of parshmen.

“You aren’t needed,” she said to Peace, spreading her hands. “We would prefer to handle our own drums.”

The ones without songs looked at her with dull eyes.

“Go,” she said to Pleading, waving toward the nearby festivities, where listeners and human servants laughed together, despite the language barrier. Humans clapped along to listeners singing the old songs. “Enjoy yourselves.”

A few looked toward the singing and cocked their heads, but they didn’t move.

“It won’t work,” Brianlia said to Skepticism, resting her arms across a drum nearby. “They simply can’t imagine what it is to live. They’re pieces of property, to be bought and sold.”

What to make of this idea? Slaves? Klade, one of the Five, had gone to the slavers in Kholinar and purchased a person to see if it truly was possible. He hadn’t even bought a parshman; there had been Alethi for sale. Apparently the parshmen were expensive, and considered high-quality slaves. The listeners had been told this, as if it were supposed to make them proud.

She hummed to Curiosity and nodded to the side, looking toward the others. Gitgeth smiled and hummed to Peace, waving for her to go. Everyone was used to Eshonai wandering off in the middle of jobs. It wasn’t that she was unreliable. . . . Well, perhaps she was, but at least she was consistent.

Regardless, she’d be wanted at the king’s celebration soon anyway; she was one of the best among the listeners at the dull human tongue, which she’d taken to naturally. It was an advantage that had earned her a place on this expedition, but it was also a problem. Speaking the human tongue made her important, and people who grew too important couldn’t be allowed to go off chasing the horizon.

She left the unloading bay and walked up the steps into the palace proper, trying to take in the ornamentation, the artistry, the sheer overwhelming wonder of the building. Beautiful and terrible. People who were bought and sold maintained this place, but was that what freed the humans to create great works like the carvings on the pillars she passed, or the inlaid marble patterns on the floor?

She passed soldiers wearing their artificial carapace. Eshonai didn’t have armor of her own at the moment; she wore workform instead of warform, as she liked its flexibility.

Humans didn’t have a choice. They hadn’t lost their forms as she’d first assumed; they only had one. Forever in mateform, workform, and warform all at once. And they wore their emotions on their faces far more than listeners. Oh, Eshonai’s people would smile, laugh, cry. But not like these Alethi.

The lower level of the palace was marked by broad hallways and galleries, lit by carefully cut gemstones that made light sparkle. Chandeliers hung above her, broken suns spraying light everywhere. Perhaps the plain appearance of the human bodies—with their bland skin that was various shades of tan—was another reason they sought to ornament everything, from their clothing to these pillars.

Could we do this? she thought, humming to Appreciation. If we knew the right form for creating art?

The upper floors of the palace were more like tunnels. Narrow stone corridors, rooms like bunkers dug into a mountainside. She made her way toward the feast hall to check if she was needed, but stopped here and there to glance into rooms. She’d been told she could wander as she pleased, that the palace was open to her save for areas with guards at the doors.

She passed a room with paintings on all the walls, then one with a bed and furniture. Another door revealed an indoor privy with running water, a marvel that she still didn’t understand.

She poked through a dozen rooms. As long as she reached the king’s celebration in time for the music, Klade and the others of the Five wouldn’t complain. They were as familiar with her ways as everyone else. She was always wandering off, poking into things, peeking into doors . . .

And finding the king?

Eshonai froze, the door cracked open, allowing her to see into a lush room with a thick red rug and bookshelves lining the walls. So much information just lying around, casually ignored. More surprisingly, King Gavilar himself stood pointing at something on a table, surrounded by five others: two officers, two women in long dresses, and one old man in robes.

Why wasn’t Gavilar at the feast? Why weren’t there guards at the door? Eshonai attuned Anxiety and pulled back, but not before one of the women prodded Gavilar and pointed toward Eshonai. Anxiety pounding in her head, she pulled the door closed.

A moment later a tall man in uniform stepped out. “The king would like to see you, Parshendi.”

She feigned confusion. “Sir? Words?”

“Don’t be coy,” the soldier said. “You’re one of the interpreters. Come in. You aren’t in trouble.”

Anxiety shaking her, she let him lead her into the den.

“Thank you, Meridas,” Gavilar said. “Leave us for a moment, all of you.”

They filed out, leaving Eshonai at the door attuning Consolation and humming it loudly—even though the humans wouldn’t understand what it meant.

“Eshonai,” the king said. “I have something to show you.”

He knew her name? She stepped farther into the small, warm room, holding her arms tightly around her. She didn’t understand this man. It was more than his alien, dead way of speaking. More than the fact that she couldn’t anticipate what emotions might be swirling in there, as warform and mateform contested within him.

More than any human, this man baffled her. Why had he offered them such a favorable treaty? At first it had seemed an accommodation between tribes. That was before she’d come here, seen this city and the Alethi armies. Her people had once possessed cities of their own, and armies to envy. They knew that from the songs.

That had been long ago. They were a fragment of a lost people. Traitors who had abandoned their gods to be free. This man could have crushed the listeners. They’d once assumed that their Shards—weapons they had so far kept hidden from the humans—would be enough to protect them. But she’d now seen over a dozen Shardblades and suits of Shardplate among the Alethi.

Why did he smile at her like that? What was he hiding, by not singing to the rhythms to calm her?

“Sit, Eshonai,” the king said. “Oh, don’t be frightened, little scout. I’ve been wanting to speak to you. Your mastery of our language is unique!”

She settled on a chair while Gavilar reached down and removed something from a small satchel. It glowed with red Stormlight, a construction of gemstones and metal, crafted in a beautiful design.

“Do you know what this is?” he asked, gently pushing it toward her.

“No, Your Majesty.”

“It’s what we call a fabrial, a device powered by Stormlight. This one makes warmth. Just a smidge, unfortunately, but my wife is confident her scholars can create one that will heat a room. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? No more smoky fires in hearths.”

It seemed lifeless to Eshonai, but she didn’t say so. She hummed to Praise so he’d feel happy telling her of this, and handed it back.

“Look closely,” King Gavilar said. “Look deep into it. Can you see what’s moving inside? It’s a spren. That is how the device works.”

Captive like in a gemheart, she thought, attuning Awe. They’ve built devices that mimic how we apply the forms? The humans did so much with their limitations!

“The chasmfiends aren’t your gods, are they,” he said.

“What?” she asked, attuning Skepticism. “Why ask that?” What a strange turn in the conversation.

“Oh, it’s merely something I’ve been thinking about.” He took the fabrial back. “My officers feel so superior, as they think they have you figured out. They think you’re savages, but they are so wrong. You’re not savages. You’re an enclave of memories. A window into the past.”

He leaned forward, the light from the ruby leaking between his fingers. “I need you to deliver a message to your leaders. The Five? You’re close to them, and I’m being watched. I need their help to achieve something.”

She hummed to Anxiety.

“Now, now,” he said. “I’m going to help you, Eshonai. Did you know, I’ve discovered how to bring your gods back?”

No. She hummed to the Rhythm of the Terrors. No . . .

“My ancestors,” he said, holding up the fabrial, “first learned how to hold a spren inside a gemstone. And with a very special gemstone, you can hold even a god.”

“Your Majesty,” she said, daring to take his hand in hers. He couldn’t feel the rhythms. He didn’t know. “Please. We no longer worship those gods. We left them, abandoned them.”

“Ah, but this is for your good, and for ours.” He stood up. “We live without honor, for your gods once brought ours. Without them, we have no power. This world is trapped, Eshonai! Stuck in a dull, lifeless state of transition.” He looked toward the ceiling. “Unite them. I need a threat. Only danger will unite them.”

“What . . .” she said to Anxiety. “What are you saying?”

“Our enslaved parshmen were once like you. Then we somehow robbed them of their ability to undergo the transformation. We did it by capturing a spren. An ancient, crucial spren.” He looked at her, green eyes alight. “I’ve seen how that can be reversed. A new storm that will bring the Heralds out of hiding. A new war.”

“Insanity.” She rose to her feet. “Our gods tried to destroy you.”

“The old Words must be spoken again.”

“You can’t . . .” She trailed off, noticing for the first time that a map covered the table nearby. Expansive, it showed a land bounded by oceans— and the artistry of it put her own attempts to shame.

She rose and stepped to the table, gaping, the Rhythm of Awe playing in her mind. This is gorgeous. Even the grand chandeliers and carved walls were nothing by comparison. This was knowledge and beauty, fused into one.

“I thought you’d be pleased to hear that we are allies in seeking the return of your gods,” Gavilar said. She could almost hear the Rhythm of Reprimand in his dead words. “You claim to fear them, but why fear that which made you live? My people need to be united, and I need an empire that won’t simply turn to infighting once I am gone.”

“So you seek for war?”

“I seek for an end to something that we never finished. My people were Radiant once, and your people—the parshmen—were vibrant. Who is served by this drab world where my people fight each other in endless squabbles, without light to guide them, and your people are as good as corpses?”

She looked back at the map. “Where . . . where is the Shattered Plains? This portion here?”

“That is all of Natanatan you gesture toward, Eshonai! This is the Shattered Plains.” He pointed at a spot not much bigger than his thumbnail, when the entire map was as large as the table.

It gave her a sudden dizzying perspective. This was the world? She’d assumed that in traveling to Kholinar, they’d crossed almost as far as the land could go. Why hadn’t they shown her this before!

Her legs weakened, and she attuned Mourning. She dropped back into her seat, unable to stand.

So vast.

Gavilar removed something from his pocket. A sphere? It was dark, yet somehow still glowed. As if it had . . . an aura of blackness, a phantom light that was not light. Faintly violet. It seemed to suck in the light around it.

He set it on the table before her. “Take that to the Five and explain what I told you. Tell them to remember what your people once were. Wake up, Eshonai.”

He patted her on the shoulder, then left the room. She stared at that terrible light, and—from the songs—knew it for what it was. The forms of power had been associated with a dark light, a light from the king of gods.

She plucked the sphere off the table and went running.

 


 

When the drums were set up, Eshonai insisted on joining the drummers. An outlet for her anxiety. She beat to the rhythm in her head, banging as hard as she could, trying with each beat to banish the things the king had said.

And the things she’d just done.

The Five sat at the high table, the remnants of their final course uneaten.

He intends to bring back our gods, she’d told the Five.

Close your eyes. Focus on the rhythms.

He can do it. He knows so much.

Furious beats pulsing through her soul.

We have to do something.

Klade’s slave was an assassin. Klade claimed that a voice—speaking to the rhythms—had led him to the man, who had confessed his skills when pressed. Venli had apparently been with Klade, though Eshonai hadn’t seen her sister since earlier in the day.

After a frantic debate, the Five had agreed this was a sign of what they were to do. Long ago, the listeners had summoned the courage to adopt dullform in order to escape their gods. They’d sought freedom at any cost.

Today, the cost of maintaining that freedom would be high.

She played the drums. She felt the rhythms. She wept softly, and didn’t look as the strange assassin—wearing flowing white clothing provided by Klade—left the room. She’d voted with the others for this course of action.

Feel the peace of the music. As her mother always said. Seek the rhythms. Seek the songs.

She resisted as the others pulled her away. She wept to leave the music behind. Wept for her people, who might be destroyed for tonight’s action. Wept for the world, which might never know what the listeners had done for it.

Wept for the king, whom she had consigned to death.

The drums cut off around her, and dying music echoed through the halls.

Oathbringer: The Stormlight Archive Book 3 copyright © 2017 Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC

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Posted by Fred Clark

OK, then, we think, we'll try not to do that. And we prepare ourselves for the possibility that at some point we'll be confronted with a stark, conscious, volitional choice between sin and not-sin, complete with a little devil on one shoulder whispering "Go ahead, commit racism" and a little angel on the other shoulder saying, "No, don't, just keep on not committing racism."
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Posted by Brit Mandelo

The New Voices of Fantasy edited by Peter S. Beagle Jacob Weisman book review

Jacob Weisman notes in his introduction to The New Voices of Fantasy that it is, in some sense, a successor to Peter S. Beagle’s previous anthology The Secret History of Fantasy (2010)—a follow up on the idea of an exploding field of literary fantastic stories appearing over a wide range of publications. This collection focuses specifically on writers who are in the early stages of their careers, with all stories included “published after 2010.” Considering the seven-year range that encompasses, it’s a bit broader than a new-writers collection focusing on folks in their first few years of publication.

However, this also gives Weisman and Beagle a wealth of stories to choose from to represent the tone and caliber of the movement they’re pointing to in fantastic fiction. These are charming stories, often focused on the personal experience of a character, and all are fantastical in scope rather than scientific, though their approaches do have some variation. The New Voices of Fantasy includes stories in modes from the mythic to the horrific, with some traditional approaches mixed in as well.

Several of these stories I’ve reviewed previously in original publication or, in one case, myself been the editor for in original publication. Shared among them is a certain delicacy or lightness of touch: sometimes this comes across in the fragility of the magical elements such as in “Wing” by Amal El-Mohtar, and sometimes it’s in the themes of otherwise direct pieces like “Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon. Thematics are a connecting thread in these disparate pieces—frequently concerned with gender, race, and culture, these stories bring in a broader range of perspectives, nations, and approaches to the idea of the fantastic.

Initially, I read without consulting which publications the given stories or writers had come from. As The New Voices of Fantasy mixes liberally between stories published in-genre and stories that come from mainstream literary pastures, it seemed prudent to leave myself in the dark about the origin of the works I was reading. There are interesting slips between the modes, of course, with several writers occupying both “sides” of the field in turns. However, two of the stories from mainstream publications were remarkably similar in their concern with fatherhood from a masculine perspective that was somewhat myopic and ultimately frustrating.

While I enjoyed the general concept of “The Philosophers” by Adam Ehrlich Sachs, the execution was dull and self-involved at best—the sort of story I’ve read in a hundred creative writing classrooms. The use of disability as a fantastic trope also itched at me a bit in a way it’s hard to pin down. “Here Be Dragons” by Chris Tarry was nominated for the Pushcart prize, and certainly has its moments of interest, but in the end I found the piece’s romantic approach to the protagonist to be offputting. There are moments where the text is aware of his failure and his flaws, but those are fundamentally subsumed in favor of his desire to go off and live his glory days again. The flutter of an argument or criticism of the character turns on itself to become a reification of the thing that it initially seemed to be critiquing, and also, I have very little sympathy for this equally self-involved perspective.

Otherwise, however, I found the stories to be engaging, varied, and somehow well-matched despite their differences. Some pieces that stood out which I have not previously discussed are “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers,” which also is concerned with mothers and fathers but in a much more self-aware and ultimately awful fashion. These characters, monstrous as they are, have responsibility to each other and a sense of consequence and cost for their selfishness, unlike the protagonist of “Here Be Dragons.” I also appreciated “Left the Century to Sit Unmoved” for its lack of closure and its approach to family; it gives the reader the same sensation of jumping into the pond that might disappear a person that the protagonist has—damn skillful.

Max Gladstone’s “A Kiss With Teeth” tackles fatherhood, marriage, and the fantastic as well, with a firm sense of responsibility and consequence—plus, it’s damn funny as a concept: Dracula raising his son with his suburban ex-vampire-hunter wife. “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado is also about families and parenting; moreso, it’s about men’s thoughtless hunger and ownership of women, and ends exactly as awful as you think it will. The point is rather clear.

Truly, issues of parenting and families appear in a large number of these stories, perhaps as a result of the editors’ efforts to include stories that contain a deeply personal element—none of these pieces are shallow action-oriented romps. All, even the silliest of the bunch, are invested primarily in character dynamics in general and often familial attachment in specific. The total result is a collection that leaves the reader with a thoughtful sensation, the idea that these stories have all worked their way in deep but subtly. Nothing here is wrenching; everything here is designed to prod gently at the emotional involvement of the audience.

It’s an interesting choice, and I don’t know that it represents the whole of new fantastic fiction, but it certainly represents a specific and hard to define corner of it. The inclusion of the longest piece, Usman T. Malik’s “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn,” is a fine choice in this vein—it closes the volume, which is not where I’d expect to see the most hefty of the stories included, but it works. Having this engaging, clever, often-breathtaking story as the closing note leaves the reader with a solid echoing sense of the book, one I appreciated thoroughly.

The editors have done a solid job of collecting a range of a specific type of fantastic story that has grown popular in recent years. Though each of these pieces differs, sometimes significantly, from the others, the collection as a whole is remarkably cohesive in terms of affect and intention. I’d recommend it for anyone who has an appreciation for the literary fantastic or stories about families, and especially both.

The New Voices of Fantasy is available now from Tachyon Publications.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone TellingClarkesworldApex, and Ideomancer.

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Posted by Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer

This is the moment, people! Grab a box of tissues and keep your companion animals close at hand—we’ve reached the chapter with the raid. Nothing good is going to happen here.

This reread has an index, which you can consult if you feel like exploring previous books and chapters. Spoilers are welcome in the comments if they are relevant to the discussion at hand. Comments that question the value and dignity of individuals, or that deny anyone’s right to exist, are emphatically NOT welcome. Please take note.

Mark and Bel Thorne lead the Dendarii into House Bharaputra, and then their plans go horribly wrong. This is, in large part, because they didn’t have a plan. Mark wanted to be the clone who stuck it to House Bharaputra and saved some other clones, and Bel Thorne wanted that too. Neither of them gave sufficient practical thought to the challenges involved. The strategic mastermind that drives the action this week is hidden somewhere in the bowels of Bharaputra’s in-house ops division, which they clearly have because they’re very well-prepared.

I’ve spent a lot of the last month thinking about Mirror Dance, and my conclusion right now is that everyone needs a reason to live. The idea of saving his fellow clones is Mark’s reason. His life has been pretty limited—he hasn’t been able to run across a lot of other potential reasons. In an odd way, he’s taking advice from his mother. Having only been exposed to her genetically, and not grown up in her orbit, Mark has a limited ability to understand the idea that if you desire an outcome you should act in a way that leads to that outcome. This is a pretty crucial issue right now, but I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s not even one of his more intense personal limitations—the kid is twenty and he doesn’t have a name he thinks of as his own. Mark wants to save everyone Jackson’s Whole has ever cloned, so he’s off to save some clones! Cordelia would have urged Mark to plan more thoughtfully.

I’m not sure what Cordelia would say to Bel. I have some ideas about what I would say. Bel has their own reasons for wanting to take down House Bharaputra, dating back to “Labyrinth.” As the raid goes badly wrong (to the tune of several Dendarii lives), Bel will admit that they knew they were dealing with an imposter, and simply hoped that the raid would work out. Mark is an adult now, and he is responsible for his own actions. But Bel knew who Mark was, and chose to allow him to continue the fraud of being Miles until Green Squad took losses. Bel abdicated responsibility as a Dendarii commander because they were excited about an opportunity to pursue personal goals.

I like the idea that Bel, Mark, and some of the Dendarii would go rogue and take on the Jacksonians. That would make sense for both Bel and Mark, and it would offer some interesting insight into what they’re like as strategists. That’s not the story I’m here to read. It seems unfair that Miles could create the Dendarii through deception and Mark and Bel can’t co-opt them for this mission in the same way. Seventeen-year-old Miles was not a lot more skilled than twenty-year-old Mark, and he was certainly not more honest. Miles had Bothari, Elena, Arde, and Baz. I believe Bel is capable of many things, but he’s not loyal to Mark. Mark can’t tell because he has no personal experience with loyalty; He wants a reason to live so badly he’s willing to give up his chance at life to get it. Bel and Mark are like Kevin and Arnold from The Book of Mormon if Arnold was severely depressed. They want to do something incredible (and Bel is willing to take on a sidekick) and make the world a better place through the overwhelming force of their idealism. They fail (at least for now) because they don’t understand the situation on the ground.

Bujold makes sure I’ve noticed the stories I’m not reading by talking about them on the shuttle ride down to Jackson’s Whole; Taura and Mark talk about her life before her rescue. Mark realizes that they’re from the same neighborhood and they have a lot in common. He wonders what it would be like to get to know her as himself, and not just while posing as Miles. I really like this alternate scene, and Mark’s alternate life in this alternate Vorkosiverse. I imagine it would be part of a progression towards an alternate raid. I’ll admit that might all go a little too smoothly, and the next thing would be Mark becoming Naismith while Miles goes back to Barrayar to be Lieutenant Vorkosigan. I’m glad not to have that ending, even though I’m sad to miss that conversation.

Taura points out that House Bharaputra was bad, but not overtly abusive. She talks about undergoing medical tests that hurt, but not because they were supposed to be a form of torture—she describes pain as an unfortunate occasional side-effect of science. She says House Ryoval was worse. Thanks for the foreshadowing, Taura! Of most immediate importance is the treatment of cloned children in House Bharaputra’s care. The Bharaputrans murder children. They abuse those children by grooming them to be complicit with their own coming slaughter. Further abuse can be carried out to order, at the direction of their clients, but most of Bharaputra’s clones are happy with their lives. They aren’t savvy enough to identify the twisted mix of lies and manipulation that helps send them to their deaths, even when they’re aware of their intended purpose. The clones aren’t savvy enough to fight it either.

Mark expects to walk into the clone dormitories, talk the clones into boarding the Dendarii drop-shuttle, and depart in an orderly fashion with the clones sitting cross-legged in rows on the floor. I’m not convinced he’s given a lot of thought to their future after that. He doesn’t have a facility selected to provide therapy and education; he’s planning to take them back to Escobar where they will get help. Mark is at the end of his resources—he’s not going to be funding the Dendarii Therapeutic Group Home for Abused and Exploited Minors, or finding fosterers for sixty teenagers. He would have to leave that for the government of Escobar, if he ever got that far.

The Bharaputrans aren’t running a Dickensian workhouse; they’ve put some careful thought into how to brainwash their victims. The clones are physically well-cared for and treated with emotional sensitivity because treating them kindly makes them easier to handle while they mature. Bharaputra isn’t making anyone suffer in any way that isn’t needed to promote their business plan. This is unfortunate for Mark because it means that the clones are terrified to be rescued. Their resistance is disorganized and inept, but it gives the Bharaputrans enough time to destroy the Dendarii shuttle with Dendarii thermal grenades—against my will, I am impressed by Bharaputran thrift and efficiency.

With the shuttle destroyed and the rescue in shambles, Bel blows Mark’s cover and orders the Dendarii to fall back to the dorms. The chapter ends on a cliffhanger—the Dendarii don’t have any way out, and they don’t have any means of completing their rescue. Everything they do now will be a holding action while they cross their fingers and wait for the real Admiral Naismith to bring the fleet to their rescue. I’d like to say that Miles will rescue them or die trying, but sadly, this is more of an “and” kind of situation.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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Posted by Stubby the Rocket

Discworld Infographic, E.G. Cosh

Look, there are a lot of books in the Discworld universe, and a number of central series and character to keep track of. Whether your a seasoned fan, or just trying to dip your feet into the pool, it can be daunting to have everything sorted in your brain space.

Now, there’s a lovely infographic to help you out.

Put together by data visualisation designer and director Emma Cosh, the infographic not only breaks down the release date of each Discworld novel, it also demonstrates the character and arc overlaps between books. A-like so:

Discworld Infographic, E.G. Cosh

E.G. Cosh

You can head over to tableau for the full graphic, and check out Cosh’s website for more examples of her stellar data design!

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