The Descent of Man – Grayson Perry

I am an unashamed fan of Grayson Perry and his work as an artist and cultural commentator, so I was delighted to receive a copy of his latest book, The Descent of Man, from the publishers Allen Lane, a Penguin imprint.

Gender politics is a very live and current issue.  Many of us who are passionate about equality are fearful of a mood in the world that seems determined to row back on much of the progress that has been made by successive waves of feminism.  For some the battle appears to be won, and the struggles necessary to secure what has been achieved are forgotten and the results taken for granted.  Those who continue to agitate for further progress to tackle the remaining hidden and cultural barriers can often be perceived as extremists, our accounts of the lived experience of being on the receiving end of sexism (personal or institutional) discounted or seen as hysterical exaggeration.

Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man looks at the impact of this changing social dynamic on men.  He rightly points out that men have been as much the victim of narrow gender stereotypes as women have.  A macho culture that prizes men as dominant bread winners, sexually promiscuous but emotionally repressed is just as damaging as the one that limits to domestic caring roles as wives and mothers, denies them career opportunities and judges them primarily by their sexual attractiveness.  That impact is there if you look for it, present in indicators such as the high rates of suicide among men.  But it is not widely talked about, particularly by men themselves.  Instead, perversely, a small group of men seek to cling on to those outdated and narrow roles, railing against the loss of power and privilege that inevitably comes from a rebalancing and opening up of gender roles.  As always, for a rebalancing to occur, some of those who have historically had power and privilege will lose it in favour of others, so it is in many ways unsurprising that so much anger can be directed against women and other groups seen to be benefitting.

Perry’s central premise is that rather than engaging in blaming others, men should acknowledge the problems of the past and articulate a new, more inclusive identity that embraces contemporary society and exploits the opportunities of the contemporary world.  It’s a laudable aim, but Perry himself never quite manages to lay down the essentials of what that identity might be, or how to persuade people to buy into a more positive view of masculinity.  Regardless, this is a powerful and timely book, excoriating in its criticism of aspects of contemporary masculinity and the damage that a narrow patriarchal view has on us all, men and women.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

N K Jemisin‘s Hugo winning novel The Fifth Season (the first in the Broken Earth series) is a tour de force about the marginalised, the exploited and the abused.

In Jemisin’s world, humanity lives on a continent riven by regular geological events.  An earthquake, a volcanic eruption or something similar can result in a ‘Fifth Season’, where the natural flow of the seasons is disrupted for a period of time.   Humanity survives these episodes through rigid adherence to survivalist doctrine ( “stonelore”), the protection of communities and the stockpiling of supplies.

A Fifth Season can be civilisation-ending, returning humanity back to primitive subsistence living, surrounded by the relics of predecessor civilisations.  But the Sanzed Empire has survived a number of these seasons.  It has done so through the ruthless exploitation of orogones: a group of people with the skill to control and manipulate geological events.  Because of the threat they pose, those with the talent live apart in the Fulcrum.  Treated as a near-slave class and widely despised, they live a strictly controlled existence, their talents used to maintain and preserve the Sanzed Empire.

The Fifth Season is a braided novel, following three interconnecting storylines that slowly converge.  Essun is an orogene who lives in hiding in a remote village, concealing her power.  She sees her son murdered and her daughter stolen by her husband.  In the wake of a major geological event that is bringing on a new Fifth Season she goes in search of her daughter.  Syenite is a young orogene, still in training and working for the Empire.  She is sent on a mission to clear coral from a harbour with Alabaster, an older, more powerful and much more experienced orogene.  She is expected to conceive a child with him during that mission, as part of the Fulcrum’s breeding programme.  And Damaya is a young child.  As a newly discovered feral orogene she is taken from her family to the Fulcrum to begin her training.

Told from the point of view of the orogenes, this is a story about the oppressed and what can happen when they are pushed beyond breaking point.  Normally in fantasy fiction the conflict is black and white, with a Great Evil being responsible for the world-threatening event our heroes are set to tackle.  But in Jemisin’s novel, the geological event Essun is fleeing was an act of terrorism triggered by one of their number to end the centuries of abuse the orogenes have suffered at the hands of the Sanzed Empire.  And for all that it is bringing armageddon to Sanzed we cannot but come to be sympathetic with that action.  The emotional and physical abuse that Damaya experiences as she leaves her fearful family is intensely chilling, as is the complicity of many orogenes in the self-governing structures of the Fulcrum that control and restrict orogenes.  Jemisin leaves the reader in no doubt about the risk and danger of the geological events threatening her world, but she is also clear that the threat does not justify the appalling treatment of those with the skill to neutralise it.

Jemisin builds a rich world and uses it to tell a genre-busting story that gives us a glimpse of how the world could be different if only we had the courage to stand against prejudice and value the talents and contribution of us all.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Fair Rebel – Steph Swainston

I’ve been a huge fan of Steph Swainston ever since her first Castle novel.  She’s one of the freshest and most interesting voices in contemporary fantasy fiction.  So I was hugely excited to receive a review copy of her newest novel, Fair Rebel from Gollancz.  And it exceeded all of my expectations, speaking to me in the way only a small and rare number of books do.  .

Fair Rebel is the fifth Castle novel, building on the stories told in the previous novels.  For all that it stands alone as a self-contained piece, I wouldn’t recommend reading it without having read the others.  For those of you not familiar with Swainston’s Castle novels, she’s created a multi-racial place called the Fourlands, peopled by diverse races.  The world faces a significant threat, from invading giant Insects.  For millenia they have been mindlessly eating and destroying, slowly expanding their territory.  But the Insects are just the backdrop  Swainston uses to explore what are normally much smaller stories , focused around a group of immortals: the Eszai.  Chosen by the Emperor San, they are each the best in their fifty fields, brought together to lead the battle against the Insects that has become the driving force and agenda for the Fourlands ever since the Insects first arrived.  An individual Eszai can be replaced if killed, or if beaten in a fair Challenge by another individual.  Swainston’s first person protagonist is Jant, who holds the title of Comet, the Emperor’s messenger.  He is not your traditional fantasy hero: he is a drug addict and an outsider.  The child of rape, his father was one of the privileged, winged (but flightless) Awians, his mother was one of the Rhydanne, a mountain people designed to live at high altitude.  That makes Jant the only person who can fly.

In Fair Rebel, terrorism comes to the Fourlands.  Swainston’s portrayal draws on a very British experience of terrorism (the terrorists use a cell structure and tactics familiar to anyone who has lived through the UK’s experience of Northern Ireland-related terrorism).  But the terrorism in this book is also startlingly contemporary, playing on the narrative of privilege, prejudice and inequality that Swainston has built into the Fourlands.  The bombers are drawn from a disenfranchised group who have suffered from social exclusion and poverty.  Fourlands society relies on the systematic exploitation of their labour, and there is significant prejudice against them.

Swainston’s depiction of terrorism feels real and authentic.  The violence is terrifying, horrific and arbitrary.  It is aimed at toppling the Castle and the structures that support it.  But it is a self-destructive backlash.  In its anger at the exploitative structures in society it risks destroying the only mechanisms in place to keep at bay the existential threat of the Insects, with their society-destroying potential.  In doing so, Fair Rebel asks whether those doing the right thing can ever do so with legitimacy if it is done without listening to or engaging with the concerns of the disenfranchised at the margins of society.

But Fair Rebel also asks us to reflect on the role of art and culture in society.  They can be used to inspire the best and the worst in people, showing the impact of the rejection of talented musician Swallow’s repeated requests to join the Eszai.  If we set aside the very things we are fighting to protect, is our struggle worthwhile at all?

Goodreads rating: 5*

 

Nevernight – Jay Kristoff

Grimdark Harry Potter.  It’s hard not to compare Jay Kristoff‘s Nevernight (review copy from Harper Voyager) to that iconic series of books about a boy at wizard school.  Except that Mia Corvere’s time at the Red Church training to be an assassin is tougher, bloodier, swearier and sexier.  And utterly glorious.

As a child, Mia was forced to watch her high-ranking father executed for treason and her mother and brother imprisoned.  She narrowly escapes being murdered by her father’s enemies, and hides on the streets before being taken in by an antiquarian and assassin.  Mia wants revenge, and chooses to train as an assassin herself.  Without that training she won’t have the skills to get close to the three men responsible for her father’s downfall.

Mia’s time at assassin school is no cakewalk.  Getting there requires a trip across a monster-infested desert rather than a sweet-fuelled train ride.  Lessons have a high mortality rate, with teachers actively trying to kill their students.  Instead of Potions, it’s Poisons, and students are taught the finer arts of charm and seduction as well as how to kill.  With only a tiny number of students from each cohort passing the course to become fully-fledged assassins, competition between students is fierce and often fatal.

Mia herself is a delightfully refreshing break from traditional female leads.  She is small, dark, angry and not particularly pretty.  She swears like a trooper, smokes and has a healthy sexual appetite.  She is also a darkin: with the ability to call and shape shadows, and a familiar in the shape of a shadow cat called Mr Kindly.  But her talent for shadow is not much use in a planet with three suns that only experiences true night every few years.  But her underpinning morality and sense of fairness, combined with her primary motivation of revenge may not make her the best candidate to be an assassin.  The training she is undergoing is designed to create those ruthless enough to carry out a contract, regardless of how unethical or immoral it may be.

Nevernight is glossy, high-concept fantasy, with a compelling plot of conspiracy and corruption.  It’s the perfect antidote to all those hooded rogues, Buffy clones and farmboys with secret destinies.  I look forward to its sequels.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Fellside – M R Carey

What is justice, and who among us are truly innocent?  Those are the questions posed by M R Carey in his sublime and redemptive novel Fellside (Orbit, review copy from NetGalley).

Jess Moulson wakes up in hospital with horrific burns and no memory of the fire that caused them.  But she finds herself on trial for the murder of a small boy, accused of setting the fire that led to his death from smoke inhalation.  Convicted, she is sent to the notorious high security wing of Fellside women’s prison.  Filled with self-loathing for the crime she believes she committed, Jess goes on hunger strike, but is saved by the ghost of the boy she befriended and who died in the fire.  With the ghost boy’s help she seeks to unravel what really happened on the night of the fire.

Fellside would be a rough place, even if Jess wasn’t known as a child-killer.  The high-security wing is controlled by the ruthless and violent Harriet Grace.  Along with the corrupt Head of Security, Devlin, Grace runs a drugs empire throughout the prison.  When she tries to recruit Jess as a drugs mule during the appeal of her conviction they are thrown into a conflict that threatens to bring down the whole of Fellside.

Fellside deals with some profound themes about the nature of justice.  The justice system itself only deals with those cases that are brought before it, and while it is capable of establishing the facts of a case, it does so on the basis of only the evidence put before it.  In the case of the amnesiac Jess, it will only ever be able to reach a partial view.  And it fails Jess as an addict and the victim of domestic violence, until she is reconciled enough with herself to seek to re-open the case.  But the system fails to address the greater crimes of Grace and Devlin, whose positions of relative power give them a measure of control over it.

We are asked to consider who is guilty and who is innocent.  Dr Salazar, the essentially good-hearted prison doctor has been so ground down by the environment that he works in that he colludes with, and facilitates the crimes of others, and never feels he has the ability to challenge what is going on within the prison.  One of his nurses causes harm by acting with a real lack of compassion, based on her own prejudices.  And Jess is not the only offender who is also a victim – Grace brutally exploits the vulnerability of other prisoners, including her own heavies.

But for all its bleakness, Fellside is an uplifting story of justice and redemption.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay

I view things through a narrative lens.  I construct my life as story, with myself as chief protagonist.  I make my way through life looking for narrative threads, foreshadowing, inciting incidents and dramatic denouement that I can edit into a compelling narrative.  Those stories of my life are a mash-up of genres: screwball comedy, action-adventure, kitchen sink drama, or tense political thriller.  They are stories of love, friendship and achievement, often in challenging circumstances.

In times of crisis I reach for story as a way of processing my thoughts and feelings about something.  Story written by others (whether on the page or on screen) is both my chief comfort and my main source of inspiration.  Four years ago I binged on books and drama as a way of finding my way out of a difficult time.

So, last night, in the midst of an emotional storm about the outcome of the UK’s referendum on the EU, I found myself reaching for Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan: a fictionalised retelling of the last days of Moorish Spain.  It’s one of my favourite books, and each time I read it I find new layers of meaning and relevance.

Kay’s Al-Rassan is a place of beauty, art and culture.  It is not a paradise.  It suffers from political instability and is ruled by a powerful elite who are quick to resort to violence and persecution.  But in comparison to its neighbours it is a place of religious tolerance that has permitted a diverse culture and civilisation to blossom.  It is bordered to the north by three states where the prevailing religion is an increasingly fundamentalist strain of the Jaddite faith.  To the south and across the sea are Al-Rassan’s Asharite co-religionists, whose harsh life in the desert breeds an extremist interpretation of faith.

Al-Rassan exists in a fragile bubble between these two cultures.  The temperate climate of the peninsula makes life for the Asharites easier, and a civilisation flourishes.  That civilisation is enriched by the diverse flows of people through the region, through interchange with the Jaddite kingdoms of the former Esperana to the north, and through its (albeit limited) tolerance for those of the often-persecuted Kindath faith.  The tension between the desert to the south and the Jaddites to the north has enabled that place of palaces, poetry and fountains to thrive, but Kay’s Al-Rassan is also a place on the brink of decline and collapse.  After the assassination of the last khalif, Al-Rassan has become a place of warring minor kings, increasingly beholden to desert tribes wanting to advance a more extremist agenda.  There are threats from the north too: the Jaddite kings of Esperana are pressured to put aside their differences and unite in conquest and crusade.  The tragedy of the novel comes from the inevitability of the collapse of the fragile, but beautiful, Al-Rassan as a result of these competing pressures.

The Lions of Al-Rassan examines the geo-politics of the Iberian peninsula at that moment through the lens of a love triangle between Jehane bet Ishak, a Kindath physician and two men: Rodrigo Belmonte, a fictionalised El Cid, and Ammar ibn Khairan, a courtier, soldier, poet, assassin and spy.  Both represent the pinnacle of their respective cultures and civilisations.  Although both are ultimately thrown into conflict against one another as the peninsula descends into war, for a brief, shining moment they find themselves on the same side.  Both are sent into exile by the rulers they serve, and find themselves working as mercenaries for King Badir of Ragosa, where Jehane has also found shelter.  Belmonte and ibn Khairan form a friendship and partnership of great creativity and ingenuity, which makes their ultimate opposition all the more painful.

One of the strengths of the novel is the way it depicts the choices and actions that ultimately lead to war, conflict and the collapse of Al-Rassan.  Good people are forced into making decisions in difficult circumstances.  Those choices are often pragmatic, political ones, where the hands of the powerful are tied or forced.  In many cases those choices are underpinned by some toxic religious and nationalist ideologies that the powerful ironically find themselves unable to challenge.

Kay explores the fate of nations through a single set of relationships, but manages to also represent that story in microcosm during one single night.  Ragosa’s Carnival is a night of wine and revelry, but it is also a night of masks that both conceal and reveal, as people use them to make statements about themselves.  This Carnival is particularly febrile as Al-Rassan moves on its trajectory towards war.  Jehane wanders through the city, considering and discarding options about how to spend her evening.  Finally, she is approached by a man in the mask of a lion (Ammar ibn Khairan).

“It is late now, Jehane,” said this man who seemed to have found her in the night after all.  “It may even be too late, but shall we walk together a while, you and I?”

That single piece of dialogue encapsulates the whole novel for me, freighted as it is with layers of meaning and significance.  It is indeed late in Carnival night when this exchange takes place.  But Ammar’s hesitancy also comes from the depth of personal history between him and Jehane.  His actions have contributed to the personal tragedy of her family, including the maiming of her beloved father.  That may be too much for her to get past, despite their attraction to one another.  But Ammar ibn Khairan is also the man who killed the last khalif of Al-Rassan, and in no small part has contributed to the chain of events that is sending the peninsula towards war.  With conflict on the horizon there may be no space for love at all.

The choices Jehane makes in The Lions of Al-Rassan are ultimately ones of pragmatic self-interest.  As a relatively powerless member of a persecuted minority she chooses the way that offers the potential for greatest safety for herself and her family within some terrifying circumstances.  There are no perfect options.  Jehane’s choices are made in the full knowledge of the flaws and challenges of the options before her.

Right now, we must all be like Jehane.

Goodreads rating: 5*

 

The Sudden Appearance of Hope – Claire North

A new book from Claire North is always an exciting thing to see and read, and the lovely people at Orbit gave me a review copy through NetGalley.  And this is North’s best book yet.  In The Sudden Appearance of Hope, North introduces Hope Arden, a woman who no-one can remember.  Mere seconds after she passes from sight, every memory of seeing or interacting with Hope disappears, even though physical and digital evidence such as photographs and emails remains.

Hope makes her life as a thief.  Her forgettability enables her to case targets without arousing suspicion and to get away after a robbery by simply hiding for a while.  The novel opens with Hope planning to steal a famous necklace from around the neck of a Middle Eastern princess, in the middle of a reception to launch a new app called Perfection, which promises rewards for self-improvement.  Following the theft Hope finds herself in the middle of a feud between the makers of Perfection and a woman known as Byron who wants to bring down the company.  Hope is hired to steal the source code for Perfection, in exchange for research and treatment that might finally make her memorable.

The examination of identity is a recurring theme in North’s work.  In The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, the title character gets to live his life over and over again, retaining the knowledge and skills of each lifetime.  In Touch, the being known as Kepler jumps from body to body, borrowing lives and leaving them changed.  But in The Sudden Appearance of Hope, North examines how we are defined by our relationships with others.

Hope’s life is an extremely lonely one.  Rejected by a family who don’t recognise her, she is forced to make her own way in life.  She has no friendships, living instead a series of first impressions from others.  She can get to know others, but she will always be a stranger to them.  Even the time Hope spends with Byron is dependent on Byron keeping thorough and detailed notes and recordings of all their conversations.  But even then, Byron’s interactions with Hope are necessarily informed by her own second-hand impressions.  But how truly can we know a person anyway?  North is externalising the fallibility of our own memories, which always give a partial (in both senses of the word) perspective on a person or events, filtered through a person’s own preconceptions.  And with Hope a person from an ethnic minority, there is a subtext here about the relative invisibility of some groups in society.

Perfection as an app also provides a biting commentary on contemporary celebrity culture and how much of our personal information we share with others and with corporations.  The app encourages people to aspire to and work towards an ideal.  The version of Perfection presented is based on a celebrity culture of carefully posed and filtered Instagram pictures and feel-good aphorisms that are ultimately pretty shallow.  Compliance with Perfection’s recommendations enables a person to earn points.  Points unlock rewards, from selected partners, and those who progress to the highest levels become an elite of beautiful and successful people living a Made In Chelsea-like existence of glamorous parties and holidays that is at its heart ultimately pretty unsubstantial.

But as a wise friend said once, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.”  Perfection speaks to our world of big data, where corporations harvest information about us and our online habits, building profiles to sell us services and tailor the news that we see.  All in the name of profit, and with minimal regulation.  We consent to share our personal data for the quick thrill of an online personality quiz.  Perfection can’t be that far away.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope pulls off the perfect trick of being a taut, pacey thriller that critiques the contemporary world and explores the nature of identity.

Goodreads rating: 5*