Jade City by Fonda Lee

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Jade City by Fonda Lee

Published 2017 by Orbit

A third of the way into Jade City, I found myself feeling sick to my stomach with fear. One of Kaul siblings, the leaders of one of Janloon’s biggest magically enhanced gang families, has just been challenged by the champion of a rival and needs to respond with overwhelming force, even though they could be killed in the process and the outcome is far from certain. Other characters object, but are overruled – in the brutal logic of the world the Kauls live in, this is all they can do, even if their death risks bringing down their entire family. The ten or so Kindle pages for this to resolve were some of the longest reading of my life.

That’s the magic that Fonda Lee brings to Jade City, an epic fantasy set in a modernised world where ancient families wield magic powers through training to control a particular type of jade found only on their island home. Most of the main characters in this book come from the aforementioned Kaul family, who lead the No Peak clan: there’s young Pillar (leader) Lan, trying to establish himself while dealing with forces still loyal to his retired, ill grandfather; his aggressive younger brother and Horn (general) Hilo, whose skill in developing individual relationships does not extend to a general understanding of politics; his estranged sister Shae, who has just returned to Janloon after following a boyfriend abroad to study two years previously and is trying to stay out of the family business; and adoptive youngest “cousin” Anden, still in his last year of school and attempting to overcome prejudice both from being mixed-race and from his mother’s highly stigmatised death from jade overexposure. The clan as a whole are dealing with an increasingly strong and belligerent rival, the Mountain clan, whose quiet machinations to control the production of jade and of a new drug which allows foreigners to harness its power are just beginning to be felt.

While “20th-century-analogue Asian City undergoing a post-war economic miracle” is hardly a common setting for epic fantasy, the level of detail in the world of Jade City, and the sense of complex history and culture behind the characters and their actions, more than justifies the label. As noted above, one of the book’s greatest strengths is how gripping it is – its been a while since a book made me this viscerally fearful for the people in it – and the narrative goes along at a strong pace from start to finish. The other impressive aspect is how successfully Fonda Lee’s characters encouraged me to think like them. Without spoiling anything at all in the plot, there is a point around halfway through where an opportunity is taken by one character when I felt strongly (and I’m sure this was intended) that this person wasn’t suitable and another character should have had it instead. Instead of glossing over that discrepancy, or resolving it in the second character’s favour in some messy pyrrhic victory later down the line (which is what I expected to happen), the apparent unfairness is quickly raised and just as soon dismissed in text by another character, who makes it clear why, in the world of Janloon, things had to turn out in a particular way. Most characters are very morally grey, but in a way where it’s clear they’re always trying to do “good” – it’s just that all of their actions are so tied up in a causal web of obligations and expected behaviour and far-reaching consequences that “good” sometimes ends up being “do an honourable murder”. It’s such a testament to Fonda Lee’s skills that these constraints don’t feel artificial in context, and I always believed the characters were acting in the ways they felt they had to act, even when as a reader I didn’t agree with their logic.

This is a book which takes a lot of its narrative cues and setup from media I associate too much with shitty masculinity to ever watch – things like the Godfather, and similar TV shows that former male “friends” loved to quote to each other over dinner when they wanted to exclude me from conversation. It doesn’t shy away from showing a highly patriarchal society, albeit one where women can break in when they show themselves to be overwhelmingly more competent and/or ruthless than their male counterparts. Again, this was handled well, with casual misogyny (and racism, and occasional homophobia) present among the characters but not at all condoned by the text, and no mentions of sexual violence or lingering descriptions of the particular victimisation of women in the war between the gangs (although as most of the Green Bones trained for fighting are men, and there’s a pretty significant body count involved, the fighting clearly does have gendered impacts). This is hardly a comfort read to begin with, so I didn’t mind reading about discrimination alongside transnational drug trading and arms races and the like – but if you like your fantasy to include a critical mass of unquestioned fighting women at all levels, this isn’t the book to give you that.

In short, this book is excellent and well worth your time if you enjoy morally ambiguous character driven epic fantasy, even if the list of influences leaves you a bit cold. I’m eagerly awaiting the next volume of this unusual series.

My Rating: 9 Pieces of Magical Jade Jewelry out of 10


Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty


Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (First published January 2017)

The Short Version: Six clones wake up on a generation ship with twenty-five years of memory missing and their own dead bodies floating around, and things only get more interesting from there. Six Wakes is extremely readable, using its premise to great effect to build a great story as well as exploring the moral implications of technology and the ways we choose to control it.

Rating: 9 illicit personality modifications out of 10

I’m staying at my parents’ house in the UK for a month, which means my access to physical books and the internet services that can deliver them has suddenly taken a significant turn for the better. This year, a backfiring experiment with Kinokuniya Thailand’s book collection services meant I got to start the haul earlier, and add a kilogram of unnecessary extra weight to what was already a fairly ridiculous amount of luggage.

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(This happens every time I go to Thailand. Every. Time.)

As I don’t want to carry any of these across more continents than strictly necessary, these are all top of my priority list – starting near the bottom of the pile with the lovely shiny* Six Wakes.

According to the author interview at the end of the book, Six Wakes was conceived while the author was playing FTL (Faster than Light), which is the science fictional equivalent of having two cool people who you met in totally unrelated circumstances turn out to be mutual friends. FTL is a game where the player takes a spaceship through multiple sectors of a hostile galaxy, upgrading weapons and defence and picking up crew members and other systems as you go. The advanced edition of the game lets you swap out your medical bay (for fixing up the inevitable missiles-to-face and accidental asphyxiations and boarding altercations which your crew suffer through), with a clone bay, which pops out a new version of the dead crewmate every time they expire; it’s this concept of cloning as a longevity method which Mur Lafferty uses to excellent effect in this book.

The book is set in a future hundreds of years after the invention of the technology on Earth. Society has readjusted with some violence and difficulty to the technology, with humans essentially now split between the classic single-lifespan variety and the clones, who are effectively immortal but subject to a strict set of legal restrictions, the Codicils, which prevent them having more than one copy of themselves active at a time and specify that the most recent version of a clone is the one with the legal right to exist, as well as banning all genetic manipulation between iterations of a clone — so no gender modifications or editing out genetic diseases from a person, unless you are going to an illegal hacker who can program anything they want into your mindmap. Clones regularly back up all of their psychological data and when performed under the right circumstances, they can time their death and reupload into a new body to leave no continuity gaps. However, if something goes wrong and a clone dies unexpectedly, they can lose days or weeks of memories that aren’t stored in the backup.

Things have obviously gone wrong by page one of the main story, when our nominal protagonist Maria wakes up in the clone bay of generation ship Dormire. She and the five other clone crew members all find themselves in new clone forms, looking at the murdered bodies of their past iterations. Moreover, as far as their memories are concerned, they have only just started their voyage; the ship’s date, on the other hand, makes it clear they are already twenty-five years into the voyage. The gravity is off, the AI is malfunctioning, the ship is significantly off course and the 3D printer which synthesises the crew’s meals refuses to print anything but hemlock. It’s up to the crew to get themselves back on track for the sake of the hundreds of humans and clones frozen in cargo, as well as piecing together what went wrong and who is responsible for the carnage they all woke up to.

As in any good mystery, it soon becomes clear that there are shady things lurking in the past of each and every crew member, as well as the traditional untrustworthy AI. Six Wakes builds its narrative through an omniscient third person narrator which switches between character viewpoints, as well as flashbacks to the crews’ lives in the lead up to being selected for the ship. Each crew member knows the others have volunteered for the mission because they are convicted criminals who will be pardoned upon arrival, but they have been told their crimes must remain confidential. From the ship’s doctor who was one of the original people cloned when the technology began, to the AI tech who has been on the verge of a breakdown since waking, to the shady machinations of the captain and the security officer, Six Wakes uses a small cast to great effect, with the world of the clones coming across as claustrophobic and restrictive even in background chapters set on Earth, thanks to both the Codicls as well as the inequalities and power struggles that arise from a society of functionally immortal beings. Six Wakes’ characters aren’t likeable in a traditional sense but I found them generally sympathetic, and the backgrounds go a long way towards making that balance work.

The Codicls set up around cloning also lend themselves to a lot of moral ambiguities, and several of these are explored at some length. It quickly becomes clear that the laws have been developed in response to crisis, rather than being thought out for the benefits of humanity; characters’ lives are full of unavoidable moral dilemmas which the laws seem to complicate even further. For example, early in the book we find out that the complete death of the previous crew wasn’t quite complete, as the captain is in a medical coma; legally, her new clone takes precedence and the crew are required to “recycle” the woman, but are reluctant to do so not only because she might have information on the murders if she wakes up, but also because she’s an actual person whose clone was woken up through no fault of her own. Because of their extended lifespans, several characters have direct links back to the beginning of cloning and the events leading up to the creation of the Codicls: it is no spoiler to say these totally suck for all involved.

The central mystery of the book builds up very well, and while the head-hopping does lend itself to a bit of contrived information withholding (where we are following a characters’ thoughts but they are worded in a vague enough way that we don’t find out what’s going on until later), it’s done in a way where the eventual reveals are too exciting for us to wonder why the audience weren’t let in on secrets earlier. As connections and information pile up, everything builds to a very satisfying conclusion which, again, I won’t in any way spoil here.

In conclusion, this book is really good and well worth a read if you can get hold of a copy without excessive transcontinental carrying and subsequent shoulder strain. Go forth, seek it out and you too can be solving clone mysteries in space!

*Shiny because Kinokuniya wrapped all of my pre-orders in protective plastic for free. Which I… like? Maybe?

A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

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A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski (First published February 1986)

My copy: Kindle edition published November 2016 by Phoenix Pick

The Short Version: On a personal level, A Door Into Ocean was pure comfort for my feminist soul. Objectively, it’s an intelligent and interesting look at one fantastical world in which patriarchy can be fully resisted, with some fascinating speculation around bioengineering and a nuanced look at “feminine” society which doesn’t rely on gender essentialism to make its case.

Rating: 8 successfully harvested shockworm arms out of 10

You know those times when you are having a terrible afternoon/day/week for no apparent reason, everything is getting you frustrated and down, the world is inexplicably awful… and then it turns out you were actually hungry, or you needed to exercise, or leave the house more regularly, and your body just didn’t have the right signals to explain this to you? Well, I think I have this relationship with feminist SFF novels. In theory I can probably live a full and physically healthy life without fabulous narratives challenging patriarchal domination, but after several increasingly frustrating dude-heavy books in a row (shout out to Death’s End, by Cixin Liu, the book I finished before starting this blog and which I never want to talk about again…!) the world of reading was starting to lose its glow, and only feminist SF was going to make things right again.

In this regard, A Door Into Ocean was the right book for the right moment. This is the story of a planet of women, the Sharers of Shora, and what appens when they come back into contact with a patriarchal society (the ruler of the galaxy is literally called the Patriarch, let’s establish right away that it’s that kind of book) after thousands of years of isolation. Shora, a completely ocean-covered planet, is in a binary system with Valedon, a “normal” world; the latter is one of the ninety-odd members of a galactic order decimated by a long-ago calamity, which has led the remnants of humanity to adopt strict prohibitions on certain types of technology, notably nuclear power. The million inhabitants of Shora have only recently been “rediscovered” by Valedon, and have escaped notice of this remnant government, but the situation is not going to last: the representative of the patriarch is due to visit, and thanks to increasing trade between the two planets, he’s finally putting Shora on his agenda.

We get a couple of interesting snapshots of Valedon’s caste-based society, and its internal conflicts and interactions with the galactic patriarchy. However, most of the book’s narrative and effort is expended on fleshing out Shora itself. The Sharers’ entire existence relies on extreme knowledge of and adaptation to the ocean world around them, but the “men = technology, women = nature” stereotype is undermined heavily by the extent to which they rely on advanced biological engineering to maintain their existence. The Sharers themselves are a product of this engineering: they are hairless, with webbed hands and large feet, and they develop a symbiotic relationship with a dermatological microbe that helps store oxygen and prolong the time they can spend underwater, while also turning their entire skin purple. They are also all female, and rely on their technology for reproduction. Sharer women are considered adults when they take a “selfname”, which is supposed to represent their own worst trait – “the impatient”, “the inconsiderate”, “the lazy”, and they are then encouraged to spend their adult lives disowning that name.

Reinforcing their alien-ness, to the Valans if not to the audience, is a completely different outlook on life and society, based fundamentally on the concept of (you guessed it) Sharing. This approach borders on silly at times, and I was unconvinced by the linguistic representation in particular; we are told, in the language, that there is no distinction between subject and object for verbs, so “dog eats bone” and “bone eats dog” are literally the same sentence, represented on the page by “the dog shares eating with the bone”. Slonczewski illustrates this by having Merwen, one of the major Sharer characters, mysteriously say “oh, but does not the bone eat the dog?” a few times with examples picked to be a bit more convincing, but this by the far the most prominent weak link in the otherwise excellent worldbuilding.

(Big spoilers!)

Plotwise, this is a book of two halves. The first half is a slow build introducing the characters, their worlds, and the conflicts between them, through the eyes of Merwen the Impatient One and her daughter Lystra; a Valan called Berenice who is part of the first family to re-establish contact with Shora and tries to straddle the diplomatic line between the two societies; and a Valan boy called Spinel, who undertakes an “apprenticeship” with Merwen when she visits his town and who becomes the eyes through which we learn about the more alien aspects of Sharer culture. Inevitably, despite Berenice’s best efforts, Valedon ends up sending a military force to subdue Shora, headed by her fiance Realgar, and the second book deals with the fallout from and resistance to this occupation and its ultimate effects on both societies.

There’s ultimately no surprises in how the plot unfolds – despite trials and losses (of which the greatest may be… their innocence… *shocked emoji*) the Sharers manage to overcome the Valan invasion through a combination of non-violent resistance, quiet reasoning and good old fashioned winding people up. The galactic patriarch hanging in the background adds useful short-term constraints on Valan behaviour (they can’t commit genocide against the Sharers, because genocidal technology is a power which can only be employed by the patriarch, and he won’t hesitate to use it against them next time he is in town – such is the balance of power when masculinity is on the line) but it also leaves a cloud over proceedings at the end, with Sharer society safe from Valedon but perhaps not from the return of an overwhelming and unreasonable masculine force.

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(Big spoilers end, small spoilers continue…!)

I think what I found most satisfying about Door Into Ocean, particularly compared to similar books in this genre (looking at you, The Shore of Women) is that it provides reasonable justification for all of its more essentialist, tropey choices. Yes, the Sharers are an idealised version of a feminine society, but the explanation is not necessarily because they’re all female – rather, that they have adapted to an extreme living environment in the best way they can, which requires utter adherence to a cooperative, communistic way of life. Sharers still make difficult choices, fall in love, fall out of love, deal with criminals within their societies using a dismal understanding of mental healthcare, and fail to live in close proximity to their annoying mothers, but they don’t have more than the most isolated incidents of murder or violence and or stratification within society, because their society is simply too precarious to allow those things, and their grasp of technology allows them to make their lives both precarious and comfortable and well-connected in a way which doesn’t map onto any human society that I’m aware of. The conflict with Valedon pushes them into more difficult internal debate, particularly regarding the development and use of biological weapons which would be well within their capacity, but the justifications for using these are very different to the usual rationale for inflicting violence on an enemy. On the other side, the Valans and their different factions are a little more broadly painted and generally ended up blending together for me, although I was pleased that most of the military units were depicted as having women at all levels below the very top, and one of those women in particular is very much an ally to patriarchy and instrumental in keeping the conflict going, reinforcing the idea that we are watching a clash of societies and not some narrow, patriarchy-dependent Battle of the Sexes.

The two main POV Valans blend well in that mix, and it’s telling that of these two, it’s  Spinel who ultimately takes the teachings of Shora to heart, though not by completely rejecting the things he’s learned from his own upbringing. Spinel starts off extremely uncertain and closed off to the Sharers, having been brought unwillingly to the planet to satisfy his parents. However, his experiences on Shora, and a brief return to Valedon, allow him to re-evaluate his own identity and the ways in which one can derive meaning and status in a community. Of course, there’s also an inevitable romance with Lystra (for the record, she finds him equal but not superior to her previous female lover, and where none of the characters find her choice remarkable or enviable for gendered reasons – thank goodness!); a small and thankfully minor part of his coming of age is based on learning not to force PIV sex on people who don’t want to do it, and how he’s not actually that good at making women happy when he goes for that anyway. I can’t say the book needed this subplot, although the overall relationship between Spinel and Lystra is useful for providing an in-universe answer to the “is The Other human?” question which plagues the characters on both sides for most of the book.

(There’s also one attempted rape, which is subverted by biological engineering and which ends up causing undefined physical harm to the perpetrator, as well as being denounced by surrounding characters. Although this pushes the conflict further into the realms of the fantastic, I certainly didn’t mind the narrative blocking sexual violence in things I’m trying to read for fun.)


(All spoilers end)

It’s ultimately hard for me to separate my enjoyment of this book out from the fact it’s in a subgenre I love so much, and it avoided most of the missteps that make some other books from around this era more difficult to get behind (looking at you again, Shore of Women… and Gate to Women’s Country…). However I think this is a classic for a reason, and there’s a lot here to enjoy even for a less partial reader, both in terms of the worldbuilding and technology, as well as in its approach to conflict. If you’re not sure whether you like novels about planets of women taking on the patriarchy, you could do a lot worse than to start here — and please let me know when you discover that it’s the best genre ever, so that we can continue to be friends accordingly.

The Book of Heroes by Miyuki Miyabe

book of heroes.jpgThe Book of Heroes by Miyuki Miyabe, translated by Alexander O. Smith

My version published November 2011 by Haikasoru (originally Jan 2010); Paperback, 352 pages.

The Short Version: This book has an interesting, if unforgiving, interpretation of the relationship between heroes and villains and the stories they create, with has a great deal of early promise. Unfortunately, it ends up somewhere geographically boring and ethically distasteful, with some bonus sidelining of the main female character along the way.

Rating: 5 sentient magical dictionaries out of 10

This is the second book by Miyuki Miyabe I’ve read, the first being Brave Story, a more explicitly young adult portal fantasy about a boy on a JRPG-inspired quest after family trauma in the real world. I picked up the ebook sample of the Book of Heroes at the same time, as a contingency read during a holiday to Japan, but it wasn’t until I fell in love with the paperback at a physical bookstore that I decided to bring it home and give it a read. (It has a flipbook animation next to the page numbers! And a note on the typography at the end! Who doesn’t love a book with a note about typography.)

The Book of Heroes is also a portal fantasy at heart, though not a traditionally structured one. It’s also about a kid (this time a girl called Yuriko) whose family undergoes a huge trauma (the disappearance of her brother Hiroki, a model student, after a violent incident at his school in which a classmate dies), and undertakes a magical quest which she believes will bring him back and return their life to normal. But where I remember Brave Story being generous with its characters and plotline, The Book of Heroes is both subversive and unforgiving, and ultimately a much less pleasant tale.

This is a book about how certain types of stories ruin lives, and how becoming caught up in a good vs evil narrative, even on the side of good, can be a terrible thing. Hiroki, we learn, has killed a classmate because he has been possessed by a spirit called the King in Yellow, who is also The Hero: a sort of meta-textual double-headed embodiment of all grand good vs evil narratives. The King/Hero is supposed to be imprisoned within the titular Book of Heroes, looked after by a group of “nameless devouts” in another dimension, but the spirit is also present in various other books throughout the real world and the worlds of fiction, and can escape if he obtains enough vessels.

For obvious narrative reasons, Hiroki is the last vessel the King/Hero needed to escape this time, so he’s out threatening us all, and its up to Yuriko and her talking book(!) sidekick Aju to stop him — except it isn’t, because there are a ton of well trained warriors called wolves who are also on the case. Of course, Yuriko is going to give it a go anyway because she’s a plucky young adult heroine, and these wolves don’t sound like they are going to be interested in saving her brother as part of this King/hero recapturing business. So off we go.

(Moderate spoilers follow!)

There’s the makings of something fascinating here, and it gets more intriguing when Yuriko’s initial jaunt into the nameless devouts’ dimension (which has a harrowing concept behind it) comes to an end immediately after the setup, and she then brings her magical powers and friends back into our world. A few engaging chapters follow with her learning more about what happened to her brother — this plot point which juuuuuuust fell within the bounds of credibility to me, but that’s sort of the point — and using her new powers and understanding to interact with the world as something more than the 11-year-old schoolgirl she has been to this point.

Unfortunately, things start to get both more convoluted and less interesting halfway in when one of these foreshadowed wolves turns up, and we find ourselves moving from our world into a different dimension with a rather uninventive fantasy narrative going on. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with this new world (which has also been affected by the King/Hero, but in a very cliche tropey way), and this is where the rest of Yuriko’s story takes place as she continues her search for her brother while everyone around her gets increasingly secretive and cagey about some inevitable twist.

This is the point at which my gender bullshit alarms became impossible to ignore. As the story goes on, the male characters and sidekicks pile up and take over until Yuriko becomes drowned out by their relationships and problems. We also have to put up with the wolf character Ash constantly bringing her down as “a girl” who isn’t capable of controlling her feelings and completing the quest, producing dialogue which adds literally nothing to plot or characterisation. The sense of Yuriko becoming sidelined in her own story is disappointingly confirmed in the end, when Hiroki reemerges and makes Everything About Him in the most unsatisfying twist possible. To add insult to injury, Yuriko is then informed that literally every (male!) character except for her knew that the twist was coming, hence their caginess, and that they had deliberately misled and manipulated her into a certain path. So much for that “we don’t even need you specifically to go on this quest, we have grown men who can do it better” thing!

Yuriko accepts this. She also accepts that there will ultimately be no justice for her brother or the people he was trying to stand up against in our world, because according to the logic of the book, fighting against injustice will ultimately just bring more pain on people she’s trying to protect. This “revelation” is supposed to be the culmination of the “coming of age” portion of her journey, and the conclusion we are supposed to draw from the “heroes and villains are two sides of the same coin” mythology. Needless to say, I think that’s complete nonsense, and was immensely disappointed to see such an interesting set-up devolve into the narrative equivalent of “maybe both sides are just as bad as each other!” It’s not true for political parties, climate change, or the war between Jedi and Sith, and it’s definitely not true for elderly school teachers who allow and encourage bullying children to the point of suicide, which is what’s under discussion in this case.

(Spoilers over)

As you can likely tell, I desperately wanted to enjoy the Book of Heroes more than I did – the way it explores the impacts of heroic goodness as something inseparable from evil has immense promise, and I’m fascinated by stories which create myths to explore that connection, rather than the seemingly more common strategy of making everything dark and full of antiheroes. Book of Heroes’ mythology starts off unforgiving and, if anything, gets bleaker as the story continues, imposing extraordinary punishments on those who seek to live as heroes. This darkness is not inherently a bad thing, but my disbelief stopped being suspended the moment the book asked us to believe that the best good we can hope for is peace and stability, and that turning a blind eye to chronic injustice is the only thing we can do to bring this about. Ultimately, Miyabe’s mythology creates a world which I don’t wish to learn from or escape to, and that doesn’t leave many reasons to want to read.