Sunday, November 26, 2017

Recent Movie Roundup 27

The blockbuster movies of 2017 are winding down--there's really only The Last Jedi left to go--and then it'll be time for Israeli movie theaters to furiously start scheduling the year's Oscar movies before the ceremony (still bereft of release dates: The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Lady Bird, and probably several others I'm forgetting).  Here are my thoughts on a few of the stragglers (though really, only one of them has proven to be a bona fide blockbuster) in what has proved to be a strong year for solid popcorn entertainment, even if there have been no genuine exceptional examples of the genre (except possibly Get Out, which is really more of a horror movie).
  • Blade Runner 2049 - I have trouble deciding how I feel about Denis Villeneuve's 35-years-later follow-up to Ridley Scott's cult classic.  On the one hand, this is a beautiful, evocative work of science fiction of the kind one doesn't get to see in the movie theater very often.  On the other hand, it's self-indulgent, overlong, and most importantly, adds almost nothing to the original movie.  You see this most distinctly in the film's decision to reveal, in its opening minutes, that this iteration's blade runner, the cop tasked with "retiring" runaway replicants, is a replicant himself.  There's an obvious argument for choosing to front-load this shift to the story, thus forestalling much of the debate that has come to consume the original movie (which is especially valuable since "is Deckard a replicant" is literally the most boring, pointless question you can ask about the original Blade Runner; no matter what answer you come up with, it tells you nothing about the character, his world, or his story).  But it also means that the already-not-particularly-deeply-buried subtext of the original movie--that this a world in which the distinctions between human and inhuman are imposed by the demands of capitalism, and have nothing to do with how human replicants actually are--is right there on the surface.  The same is true of the film's backbone of story, in which Officer K (Ryan Gosling) must track down a child born to a replicant, and brutally suppress the knowledge that such a thing is even possible.  It's a profound reduction of the original Blade Runner's humanism--which extended to recognizing the personhood of flawed, murderous beings like Roy Batty or Pris--to suggest, as Blade Runner 2049 does, that replicants can only "prove" their humanity if they have fertility (which, in typical Hollywood fashion, is treated as interchangeable with female fertility).

    Or maybe the problem lies with the original concept.  Villeneuve has shown himself to be an exceptional director, including of SF stories, and he pulls out all the stops with 2049, all-but gorging the viewer on cyberpunk cityscapes, dust-covered ruins, junk deserts populated by dehumanized scavengers, and the corporate-architecture-on-acid interiors of the offices of Wallace corporation (the inheritors of the original movie's now-defunct Tyrell).  But it doesn't take very long in this rather overlong movie to realize that all this splendor is in service of very little in the way of ideas.  As Aaron Bady wrote last year about another work, all robot stories are ultimately about slavery, and there's really not that much you can say about that concept when your starting position is "are slaves human?"  Blade Runner 2049 keeps teetering on the verge of interesting SFnal ideas, such as the fact that K spends much of the movie trying to convince himself that he is the child he's been looking for.  Or his holographic live-in girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), an AI playing house with a robot, each trying to convince the other that they are real people even as they consume each other like the products that they are.  Or the idea that the world's economy now includes replicants like K or the prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), who live as pseudo-humans, consuming resources such as food and living space even as they're viewed as subhuman.  But the film is too caught up in homages to the original movie (including a brief and not very satisfying appearance by Harrison Ford) to ever give these ideas the space they deserve.  For all its visual expansiveness, its world feels narrow and predictable.  It never manages to be more than a retread of what came before it, a variation on a theme.

    As we saw last year with Westworld, trying to tell a slave story with robots almost inevitably skews the racial and gender politics of your story to an extent that can render it worse than useless.  Once again, these are issues that 2049 could have done interesting things with.  The fact that almost all the replicants we meet are white, or that non-white humans seem to have been relegated to the outskirts of even the degraded, dystopian society at the film's center, could have been a commentary on how racial prejudice plays out in a society in which it is possible to manufacture an underclass.  Instead, it's treated as so unremarkable as to not even require an explanation.  Similarly, the increasingly oppressive images of female commodification and objectification that keep cropping up in the movie--the giant, holographic naked women that K walks past in the city, the statues of equally naked women he encounters in the ruins of Las Vegas, the naked female replicant that Niander Wallace (Jared Leto in a distracting, tedious performance) fondles and then murders--end up feeling cynical and self-satisfied.  Yes, the film is calling attention to the misogyny of its world (and a premise where sexbots, again almost always female, are de rigueur), but once again it has nothing to say about the issue once it's raised it, and its actual female characters are mostly devoid of personality.  Joi, for example, can only "prove" that she is a person by expressing devotion to K that goes beyond her programming and eventually gets her killed, while Mariette proves hers by being catty to Joi, reminding her that she isn't real.  It's enough to make you root for the film's villain, Wallace's assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a replicant who seems to realize just how disturbed and monstrous her boss truly is, but who nevertheless kills remorselessly for him because it's her only way to express her anger at her enslavement.  It's only in Luv that 2049 achieves anything close to the complexity of the original Blade Runner, and it's fairly typical of this latter-day repetition's shallowness that it doesn't seem to realize this.

  • Thor: Ragnarok - Marvel has spent several months pumping up Taika Waititi's attempt to revitalize its least successful (critically and artistically, if not financially) sub-franchise, bombarding us with lush posters and trailers that parade its psychedelic, 80s-arcade-inspired visual style and irreverent sense of humor.  It's perhaps inevitable, then, that the actual film, enjoyable and fun to look at as it is, doesn't quite live up to the hype.  Waititi and the film's writers make several very smart choices when they come to craft the third solo outing for their title character.  They play up the fact that he's a bit of a dimwitted jerk, and they constantly put him in situations in which these qualities get him into trouble, as he bites off more than he can chew and incorrectly assumes that everyone around him will be impressed by his pedigree and fighting prowess.  Ragnarok quickly wraps up the dangling threads of plot left by The Dark World, and then sends Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Tom Hiddleston's Loki on a quest to find their missing father, which quickly becomes more serious when they encounter Hela (Cate Blanchett, chewing the scenery with tremendous and exhilarating gusto), their hidden older sister, who wants to claim the throne of Asgard and use its armies to conquer the multiverse.  This, through yet more convolutions of plot, leads to the brothers being dumped on a junkyard planet, and to Thor being made to fight in gladiatorial combat against the reigning champion, who turns out to be Mark Ruffalo's The Hulk.

    It's all a lot of fun, but also a bit much, especially when you consider that there's a parallel storyline about Hela's takeover of Asgard, and a redemption story for lost Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, fantastic despite the really unfortunate choice to attempt an accent) who has been drinking away her traumatic memories while procuring fighters for the fey, casually psychopathic Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), the majordomo of the games arena.  These are all great performances who make the film feel vital and exuberant, not to mention extremely funny (though it must be said that every genuinely funny joke, there's at least one moment that's more like "isn't it funny that we chose to make a joke, here, where another movie might be serious?").  Taken together, however, they're a bit of an assault, and the film doesn't really give any of them enough time to shine.  Despite what the film's trailers promise, Ragnarok isn't really a buddy comedy--the Hulk is only prominent for a few, albeit extremely funny, scenes in the middle of the movie--but instead yet another journey of self-discovery for Thor, as he remembers that beneath his bluster, he genuinely cares about his people and the fate of the world.  And while the choice to stress (and puncture) Thor's arrogance, even as it reaffirms his sense of responsibility and his courage, means that Ragnarok is a much more satisfying iteration of this story than either Thor or The Dark World, it is still, ultimately, the same story we've seen before and probably will again, albeit in a much shinier and more humorous guise.  That might be enough for MCU fans who are more attached to the character than I am, but for those hoping that Ragnarok will seriously break the mold, it might be wise to manage expectations.

  • Justice League - There's a part of me that thinks that in another year, Justice League might have been received more positively.  I think we've gotten all we're going to get out of the (richly deserved, but in hindsight a little overwrought) collective hate-on of the DC movies occasioned by Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad.  And with Wonder Woman's success and the behind the scenes upheaval at Justice League indicating that WB have definitely gotten the memo, a little indulgence might have been in order.  The problem is, Justice League comes to us at the tail end of what has, completely unexpectedly, been a truly excellent year for superhero movies.  Think about it: until the third week of November, the worst superhero movie of 2017 was Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which wasn't bad so much as redundant and a little mean-spirited.  And aside from that, we've enjoyed a slew of extremely well-made crowdpleasers such as Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok, as well as some more adventurous fare like Logan and Colossal.  That Justice League, in comparison, is merely rather dull, with a tepid villain and character work carried almost exclusively by its actors, might have been enough in a weaker year, but it won't fly in 2017.

    Justice League wastes little time in assuring us that it's changed and eager to do better.  After an opening scene that feels almost like a coda to Batman v Superman, and especially its Nietzsche-for-dummies take on Superman as a living god whose existence gave humanity a sense of purpose, the film jettisons all that thematic weight in favor of pure comic book storytelling--an alien villain who wants to destroy the world.  The problem is that as tepid and juvenile as Zack Snyder's ideas were in Batman v Superman and Man of Steel, they were at least ideas.  When Justice League abandons them, it's left with nothing but warmed-over Avengers.  And unlike that movie, it lacks humanizing points of interest to make us care about its shopworn, underwritten plot.  The villain, Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds in motion capture as some sort of horned demon), has no personality, and his motivations are as generic as they come.  His plan--to collect a set of McGuffins with which he can construct a mega-McGuffin--is so boring that the film itself can't be bothered to take an interest in it, quickly racing through the interim acquisitions so that it can get to the main event.  But this, too, is fairly perfunctory, a CGI extravaganza with little flair or excitement.  Joss Whedon, parachuted in to freshen up the film's script (and take over directing duties from Snyder after a family tragedy, which can't have improved the film's action scenes) tries to recreate the magic he managed with Avengers with some very obvious Whedonisms.  But these almost invariably fall flat, and in a few cases, are actively skeevy.

    Justice League thus ends up resting on the shoulders of its characters, which is to say its actors.  This is not the worst thing.  Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck continue to do good work as the grown-ups in the room, weary soldiers who recognize the enormity of the task before them but also the necessity of seeing it through.  Jason Momoa is given almost nothing to work with as renegade Atlantean Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman.  One senses that his backstory is being held back for his own movie, but in Justice League this means that Arthur comes off as blustering and thoughtless.  Happily, Momoa has so much charisma that he manages to make even this underwritten type leap off the screen, but Aquaman's handling is typical of how Justice League approaches its characters, reducing them to types instead of making a case for them as complicated heroes in their own right.  Ezra Miller's Barry Allen, for example, is laden with the bulk of the film's comedic moments.  He's up to the task, but along the way the film loses sight of Barry as a person, and his only dramatic scenes are retreads of material only recently (and more effectively) covered bin The Flash.  The most interesting character is Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher), but even that comes down to the actor's choices, amping up Victor's ironic detachment as he's slowly taken over by an alien machine.  (Henry Cavill's Superman, who returns halfway through the story, is probably Justice League's biggest misstep.  There's a palpable attempt to move away from the brooding, joyless Superman of the Snyder movies, but Cavill can't seem to unbend sufficiently to actually make Superman heroic, or even likable.  He ends up coming off as a condescending jerk.)

    Buried deep in the core of its underwritten character interactions is Justice League's sole claim to originality, the barest hint that it has an idea of how to distinguish the DC movies from the MCU without wallowing in unearned angst.  As in Wonder Woman, this comes down to the difficulty of continuing to fight for an inherently broken world, and there are some solid and refreshingly unsensationalistic exchanges between Batman and Wonder Woman over the figures they could both cut in a world without Superman.  Unfortunately, Justice League is completely the wrong movie for these conversations to happen in.  Unlike Avengers, it can't figure out how to tie together its characters' personal problems and the threat to the world.  It becomes, instead, a story of how its heroes kicked a nondescript villain's ass and along the way got their groove back, but this is far too thin a frame on which to hang not just this overlong, CGI-heavy movie, but an entire cinematic universe.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Recent Reading Roundup 45

This is a funny bunch of books: a few that I picked up on a whim; a few that I've been breathlessly waiting for since they were announced; and one that's been sitting on my shelves for years.  The result isn't as exciting--in good ways and bad--as the last roundup of books I published, but nevertheless there are some reads here that I can already tell are going to be highlights of this swiftly-concluding year.

  • White Tears by Hari Kunzru - I freely admit that the main reason I picked up Kunzru's latest was its title, which made me laugh with its deliberate provocation.  The actual novel, however, starts out a lot less pugnacious than you might expect, sort of a cross between Donna Tartt and Stephen King, albeit with a much more sophisticated awareness of issues of race, class, and cultural appropriation.  Carter and Seth are music producers who specialize in an analogue, "authentic" sound that hearkens back to the early 20th century.  Carter, in particular, is obsessed with the blues and early jazz, African-American music that is often available only on rare vinyl records that he and other collectors--almost all of them white--hoard and covet.  When Seth, on one of his trips through the city to record sounds for use in their sample library, captures an anonymous black singer singing what appears to be a true blues original, Carter turns it into a rough-sounding track and puts it online.  He claims to have discovered a lost artist, Charlie Shaw, in the hopes of luring collectors from whom he can buy more albums.  But the song quickly takes on a life of its own, and as it does so does Charlie Shaw, who seems to bear a particular resentment towards Carter's wealthy and shady family.  Seth, a hanger-on who has basked in Carter's attention and reflected glory, suddenly finds himself at the center of the story, as the only person who realizes that there is something supernatural going on.

    The early chapters of White Tears are perhaps a little familiar in how they describe Carter and his family's privileged floating through the world, and Seth's profound hunger for them--for recognition that his friendship with Carter is real and not just a paid arrangement, or for the affections of Carter's sister Leonie.  Underlying all this, however, is the growing realization of how much of a role race plays in establishing the characters' positions.  Carter and Seth are white men marketing to white musicians an idea of authenticity rooted in treating black people, and their suffering, as exotic.  The very fact that they're obsessed with the blues is telling--it's music rooted in oppression, in suffering that the white protagonists feel free to fetishize because they have no fear of ever experiencing it.  It's therefore not a surprise that part of Kunzru's project with White Tears is to remove that veil of safety, the protective claim of "yes, bad things happened, but it's not my fault".

    Like so many ghost stories, White Tears is about the victims of the past coming back to demand justice, but unlike other authors, Kunzru doesn't treat these ghosts as villains or monsters (or at least, he doesn't seem to feel that this should keep him off their side).  As the book approaches its end, its prose grows more fevered and hallucinatory, and the lines between past and present blur and disappear.  It's all in the service of a simple truth--that the past isn't over, and that its injustices are still continuing.  Ultimately, White Tears is about theft--of culture, of money, and of lives--and its ending, though gruesome, is arguing for a full restitution.

  • The Accusation by Bandi - This is one of those books where the story of the book is, inevitably and perhaps even intentionally, more interesting than the story in the book.  The Accusation is presented as a collection of short stories about life in North Korea, published pseudonymously because the author is still living under the regime, and smuggled out of the country by human rights activists.  I have, obviously, no way of knowing whether this is true, but having read the book, I find myself believing it.  There's something earnest about the stories here, a lack of ironic distance that convinces me they were written by someone grappling with a horror that was very close to them.  A recurring theme in the stories in The Accusation is disillusionment--the realization of characters who had believed in the North Korean project that their government doesn't care about them, and of characters who had thought that they had the system of the country figured out that there is simply no way to embody the "good" citizens they've been trained to be.  The emotion underpinning it all is very real and moving, but the portrait the stories paint isn't particularly revelatory.  Perhaps because most of the stories were written in the early and mid-90s (when the North Korean economy collapsed, leading to a horrific famine that left millions dead), the details they reveal are mostly things I've read about before (for example in Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy, a collection of interviews with North Korean defectors).

    The Accusation thus ends up more interesting as an artifact than as a work of literature, but nevertheless there are moments of great emotion and horror here--a grandmother's guilt over having been randomly "favored" by the Great Leader even as her family were left to scramble for their survival; a young mine worker's desperation to see his mother on her deathbed, despite being denied a travel permit; in the background of all the stories, the growing desperation as food supplies dwindle and citizens resort to extreme measures to survive a famine whose existence the government won't admit.  It's a book that leaves you feeling rattled, even if that's rooted more in what's happening outside its covers than within them.

  • The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara - Yanagihara's debut was one of the most talked-about literary novels a few years ago (and then slightly upstaged by her Booker-nominated follow-up, A Little Life, which I also own but haven't read), but for one reason and another it's taken me a while to get to.  Also for whatever reason, I ended up reading it at a time when its subject matter feels unpleasantly apt.  Just a few weeks after the revelations about Harvey Weinstein have kicked off a flurry of conversation about the prevalence of sexual harassment and the ways in which society orders itself to protect abusers and vilify victims is maybe not the best time to crack open a novel whose first chapter, a newspaper clipping reporting that a renowned scientist has been accused of rape and molestation by his adopted children, ends with one of the scientist's colleagues calling the situation "a great tragedy"--for the accused, of course.  The People in the Trees is presented as the memoirs of Abraham Norton Perina (the name is obviously significant, though it was never clear to me what the reference to America's one and only emperor was intended to evoke), the founder of the field of "medical anthropology", and a Nobel-prize winner for his discovery that a "lost tribe" in the Micronesian island nation of Ivu'ivu suffer from a degenerative disease that confers upon them seemingly eternal life at the cost of their mental faculties.  In the framing story, Perina's last supporter and friend Ronald Kubodera describes the aftermath of Perina's denunciation by several of his 43 adopted Ivu'ivuan children, and laments the ease with which the world turns on this "great man".

    The spirit of Nabokov wafts over this book.  It is, at one and the same time, the self-justifying narrative of a child abuser trying to spin his actions as rooted in love, a la Lolita, and the final work of a renowned intellectual, annotated and heavily-footnoted by a hanger-on desperate to demonstrate his importance to a man who probably doesn't even notice him, as in Pale Fire.  But Yanagihara's interests take her in directions completely different to Nabokov's, and which she handles with impressive flair.  The bulk of the book is taken up with the description of Perina's first journey to Ivu'ivu as a young doctor, recruited to assist a pair of anthropologists conducting a more traditional study of the tribe, before he makes his own discovery.  The descriptions of the jungle, its strangeness and fecundity, are almost overpowering, but through them it's easy to sense Perina's own detachment, his disgust with anything living that doesn't come from himself.  The descriptions of the Ivu'ivuan society are similarly a masterwork of both worldbuilding and character work.  Yanagihara constructs a fascinating, unusual, not always admirable social structure for her invented tribe, and through Perina's observations of them makes it clear just what a monster he is--how he sees everyone, regardless of race or culture, as inferior to him, and merely a means to his ends.  Even without the accusation of child abuse, Perina's publication of his findings has such a catastrophic effect on Ivu'ivu and its people, as pharmaceutical companies race to take the island apart in search of a workable elixir of eternal life, that it's impossible not to hate him--especially when we realize that to him, this is merely a reason for self-pity, as "his" paradise is lost to him.

    It's a brilliant portrait and a brilliantly constructed world, and I found myself racing through The People in the Trees, unable to put it down no matter how unpleasant its narrator and events.  But as I said, I'm not sure this was the right time for me to read this book.  As little as two years ago, I might have been able to read this kind of story with enough detachment to enjoy it, or at least appreciate it more.  But right now we're surrounded with so many examples of how abuse is excused and ignored, how exploitation is justified  and forgotten, that Yanagihara's conclusion that the accusations against Perina would cause his career to evaporate and even lead to a short prison sentence feels positively rose-tinted.  More importantly, I'm just not in the mood right now to wonder about the psychology of this particular kind of monster. As we keep seeing on the news, people who see others as subhuman are a lot less interesting and complicated than we'd like to believe.  Yanagihara never coddles Perina, and never expects us to feel anything other than disgust for him.  But she also thinks we should be interested in him, and through no fault of her own, that's something that feels wrong at this moment.

  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden - I don't know whether Arden's debut was inspired by Naomi Novik's Uprooted, or whether (as seems more likely) the two books ended up plugging into the same hunger for new ideas in the fantasy genre, which has landed on retellings and remixings of Eastern European folklore.  Either way, Nightingale has a few too many similarities to Uprooted to stand on its own.  Both books are about a young girl in a rural, medieval community slowly becoming aware of her magical powers, just as an ancient evil arises in the nearby forest.  Both feature an ally character who is a powerful, ancient magical user, with whom the heroine develops a prickly relationship with an undertone of quasi-dangerous romance.  Both are driven by the conflict between the restrictive role the heroine's community affords women, and her own desire for purpose and adventure.  And both, as noted, take place in a lightly-fantasized medieval Eastern European setting, with strong lashings of Russian and Slavic folklore.

    Having read (and enjoyed) such a close variant on this story only last year, I ended up appreciating Nightingale a lot more for its realistic details than its fantastic plot--the minutiae of how the farming community at the book's center survives the long, harsh northern winters; the protocols that govern the lives and aspirations of the heroine's gentleman farmer father and his sons; the hints of political intrigue and geopolitical scheming, especially as regards the dissatisfaction of Russian nobles, at that point still paying tribute to the Tatar empire.  That's not to say that there's nothing to enjoy in Nightingale as a story.  Heroine Vasya is delightful, genuinely curious about her world and clear-eyed about the flaws and strengths of the people around her.  Her antagonist, the charismatic priest Konstantin, who tries to punish Vasya for his attraction to her, is fascinating precisely because you can see how much of his evil is rooted in his self-importance, and how easily he could have been a better person if he'd learned to set aside pride and male entitlement.  This is also a story about the tension between rigid social conventions and human flexibility.  Vasya's father and brothers, though certain that she has only one possible life path before her, also realize how easily she could be made unhappy in a life like that, and many authority figures in the novel see it as their role to balance strict rules with common sense and compassion.  As enjoyable as these human details are, when they give way to the novel's fantastical plot, the result is too familiar--not just from Uprooted, but from so many other stories like it.  I found myself wishing that Nightingale had started where it actually ends, with Vasya leaving her home to have adventures, finally shaking off the expectations that had hemmed her--and her story--in.

  • Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado - It seems like only yesterday that I was telling everyone I could find about this amazing new author I'd discovered, whose stories were a magnificent blend of humor, horror, and an earnest handling of the myriad complications of female sexuality.  In the intervening years, I've watched Machado deservedly become a superstar, both for her stories and her essays, and now with her bestselling, National Book Award-nominated debut collection.  (Meanwhile, the Hugos managed to sleep on Machado in both the short fiction and Campbell categories.  The latter was partly the fault of the various puppy factions, but still: not a great look, guys.)

    It's perhaps inevitable that my reaction to Her Body would be less intense than that of readers new to Machado's unique voice and sensibilities.  I already had the top of my head taken off by "Especially Heinous", a phantasmagorical reimagining of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in which a critique of the show's attitude towards rape and rape culture gives way to multiple ghost stories and forays into alternate universes.  Or "The Husband Stitch", a queasy tale in which a seemingly happy marriage is unmade by the husband's refusal to accept his wife's one limitation on their intimacy.  Of the eight stories collected in Her Body and Other Parties, four were familiar to me, as was the general impression formed by them of an author following in the footsteps of Kelly Link and Sofia Samatar, and incorporating their use of surrealism and wry pop culture references into her own fascination with--as the title suggests--female bodies, how they're perceived, policed, used, and how they feel.  The new stories continue that fascination, for example in "Real Women Have Bodies", in which a prom dress saleswoman in a world in which some women have begun to fade into nothingness discovers a horrifying connection between the disease and her wares.  Or "Eight Bites", about a woman undergoing bariatric surgery whose choice seems to permanently sever her connection to her daughter.  Interestingly, the collection omits several of Machado's publications, such as "Descent" or "My Body, Herself", perhaps because they didn't fit with this theme, so for a lot of readers this will be more of an introduction to Machado than a summation of the first stage in her career.  Either way, it's an essential collection for anyone interested in the more slipstreamy edge of genre short fiction, and for anyone looking for an example of how genre fiction can grapple with issues of gender and sexuality.

  • Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng - The only thing I knew about Ng's debut before reading it was that it was a fantasy about Victorian missionaries in fairyland.  This led me to expect something Strange & Norrell-esque, or perhaps similar to Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown--a wry puncturing of Victorian self-importance in the face of the implacable strangeness of the magical world.  Minus the tone, that's more or less what the novel delivers, but that tone makes a big difference.  Under the Pendulum Sun is a great deal stranger and darker than I was expecting.  It owes a very obvious (and acknowledged) debt to the Brontës, and particularly to Jane Eyre.  It sprinkles those references onto an edifice that is pure Gothic, a story about a young woman who arrives in a mysterious castle where she keeps stumbling across long-held secrets, whose dark past continues to send out tendrils that ensnare her.

    Catherine Helstone arrives in fairyland in search of her brother, Laon, a missionary whose letters home have stopped.  Deposited in the twisty castle, dubbed Gethsemane, where the fairy queen has sequestered her guests seeking to spread Christianity to the fairies, Cathy finds her search for Laon stymied by the riddling answers and deliberate obfuscations of her fellow inhabitants: the changeling Ariel; the gnome Benjamin, fairyland's sole convert; and the fire-breathing housekeeper, Salamander.  The early chapters do a little to sketch in the shape of a world in which fairyland is not only a known place, but a potential site for colonization and cultural imperialism.  We learn, for example, that changelings like Ariel, who grew up thinking she was human, are recruited as ambassadors and go-betweens by the fairies, better able to explain their masters' strangeness to literal-minded humans.  But this is not, ultimately, what Under the Pendulum Sun is about.  Some readers might find the novel a bit slow-going, but Ng is working very squarely within the Gothic tradition, in which Cathy's task is not to explore the breadth of fairyland, but to delve inward into Gethsemane's secrets.  When Laon returns, heralding a visit from the fairy queen herself, it becomes clear that the siblings' relationship is nearly as fraught and full of unspoken truths as their new home.  Faced with a world where none of the rules--of society or of reality--seem to apply, the Helstones are forced to confront the reasons for Laon's decision to flee so far from his sister, and the question of what they do now that they've been reunited.

    Another thing that surprised me about Under the Pendulum Sun was the importance of religion, not just to the novel's Christian characters, but to its plot.  I was expecting Ng's handling of missionaries to veer towards the political, but in fact she spends a lot more time debating theology with Cathy, Laon, and Benjamin, as they try to puzzle out how fairyland fits in with Christian cosmology.  In theory, this should have been my jam--I'm always fascinated by depictions of faith and how characters relate to it.  But I'm not very interested in the kind of nitpicky conversations that the Helstones and Benjamin get into, trying to keep afloat what is essentially a rickety, patched together bit of worldbuilding that can no longer accommodate their new understanding of the world.  To be clear, this is the sort of thing that did (and still does) happen, and Ng is very good at capturing the twisty, headache-inducing turns of argument that people can get into when they refuse to separate the core ideas of a religion from the edifice of tradition erected around it.  But as the novel progresses, it feels less and less as if these questions are important to the characters, a way of showing us how they see and relate to the world, and more as if they're just objectively important.  The question of whether changelings like Ariel have a soul ends up having a concrete significance to the plot, whereas to me the fact that Ariel is clearly a thinking, feeling person renders such discussions moot.  It's possible that this is the conclusion Ng is aiming at as well--the novel's ending sees Catherine and Laon struggling with their own, possibly damning, sins, and whether they're even interested in seeking forgiveness for them.  But if so it comes to that conclusion long past the point where I was ready for it.  Still, it's sufficiently unusual to see fantasy grapple with religion--and particularly this branch of 19th century, empire-tinged Christianity--that even a frustrating attempt is worth exploring.  Which is ultimately my conclusion about Under the Pendulum Sun as a whole.  It's a strange novel, and not entirely satisfying.  But it's so much its own thing that I don't hesitate to recommend it, and am extremely curious to see what Ng does next.

  • A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge - One of the problems--or, well, "problems"--of Frances Hardinge being an exceptional writer who is also quite prolific is that you can end up developing an over-familiarity with her favorite tropes and themes.  Hardinge's perennial focus is on characters who are damaged, sometimes by abuse, but sometimes also by difficult circumstances such as poverty or racial persecution.  Her books repeatedly drum in the point that for her protagonists, the damage caused by their twisted upbringing--the isolation inflicted on Neverfell in A Face Like Glass, or the emotional manipulation to which both heroines are subjected in Cuckoo Song--can't be undone, but that they can learn to come to terms with it, and forge a good life in spite of it.  It's a powerful, important message, and especially effective coming from an author of Hardinge's skill, who never shies away from the ugliness of what her characters are capable of.  But especially for an adult reader, it can get a little wearying to encounter again and again.  But then you get a novel like A Skinful of Shadows, which reminds you that even when she's working within a familiar scheme, Hardinge is so full of ideas that she can always find ways to make her preoccupations feel new and affecting.

    A Skinful of Shadows is set in the 17th century, in the early years of the English Civil War.  Our heroine, Makepeace, is raised first among Puritans, and then given work as a kitchen girl in the house of an old noble family, whose illegitimate scion she is.  In both of these settings, Makepeace is forced to contend with her ability to see and manipulate the spirits of the dead.  Her strict, emotionally withholding mother taught Makepeace to fight off the ghosts who tried to possess her, but her unacknowledged family, the Fellmottes, have more sinister plans for her.  They're keeping her around as a "spare", a vessel into which to pour the spirits of long-dead ancestors in case one of the legitimate Fellmottes, raised to this task since childhood, should die.  The ghost metaphor is evocative, especially after Makepeace, seeking to escape the Fellmottes and rescue her already-possessed half-brother James, starts amassing a menagerie of spirits to help her in her task.  And Hardinge finds multiple uses for it, each of which relates in a different way to the central theme of her writing, the abuse perpetrated by individuals and systems.  Early in the novel, Makepeace takes in the spirit of a sideshow bear, whom she constantly has to calm and acclimatize to her new situations.  He becomes a representation of her anger, and of the difficulty that a mistreated child has in opening up and showing trust.  The Fellmotte ancestors, who use their descendants as receptacles, not caring that doing so usually destroys the original personality, are a predatory system that sees everyone as subservient, a means to the preservation of the elite.  Late in the novel it's revealed that the legitimate Fellmotte heirs, though raised in privilege, are subjected to routine alterations to their personality by the ghosts in order to make them more suitable receptacles.  The end result of this, as exemplified by Makepeace and James's cousin Symond, is psychopathic, a reminder of what can happen when child abuse is combined with almost limitless privilege.

    A Skinful of Shadows follows Makepeace back and forth across the English landscape as she tries to first escape the Fellmottes, and then accrue enough leverage against them to bargain for James's freedom.  Along the way she collects a coterie of spirits--a conceited doctor, a deserting Puritan soldier, one of the Fellmotes' spies--whom she must corral and negotiate with.  In her journeys, she also gains several perspectives on the war, and while the book ultimately sides with Parliament in the conflict, its main conclusion is that both sides are prone to abuse and exploitation--there's a particular emphasis on Puritan authoritarianism and misogyny, for example when Makepeace runs afoul of a witchfinder who is certain that her possession is a sign that she's made a deal with the devil.  As in her previous books, Hardinge's interest in abuse isn't confined to a single abusive relationship or household.  She sees abuse as a product of broader social choices, in this case the belief that some people are simply worth more than others, which is taken to irrational extremes in the form of the Felmottes, whose exploitation of their lessers continues even after death.  None of the institutions Makepeace encounters in the novel--the Fellmotte estate, the court of Charles I, the Parliamentarian army, or the Puritan church--are free of this belief, and she ends up rejecting all of them.  She offers a counterpoint in the form of the community she forms with the ghosts she carries, and in making an active choice to respect their right to happiness and self-determination.  By the end of the novel, both Makepiece and James have committed to living as multiple beings, offering homes to people who weren't given a fair shake in life.  It's the kind of ending you can't imagine any author but Hardinge delivering, and certainly not with her level of assurance and skill.