Have I mentioned lately that I love books? Probably, but I’ll say it again. As much as I enjoy visual media, books will always have my heart before all else. So, when I got the chance to meet science fiction/fantasy writer Nisi Shawl at WisCon, one of my personal writing icons, I jumped at it. And then I asked to interview her about her writing, her novel Everfair (if you haven’t read it yet, GO DO IT), and her work with “Writing the Other.” Even if you haven’t read any of my other Creator Corner series of interviews, you have to read this one. And then go buy Everfair. (It’s SO GOOD, you guys.)
Gretchen: You’ve been published for almost thirty years now, so tell me, what inspired you to start writing science fiction and fantasy stories? Were they genres you grew up reading?
Nisi Shawl: I absolutely grew up reading SF and fantasy. Of course fairy stories are standard for children, and I blew through as many of those as I could—I remember hunting down Andrew Lang’s collections, for instance. Mary Norton’s Borrowers series was a distinct comfort, and Tatsinda, by Elizabeth Enright, influenced me deeply. (It’s a sort of Lost Race narrative taking place at the North Pole.) There was also a great series of books about Spacecat—an astronaut brings his pet to the moon, and to Mars, and so on. I recently bought a Spacecat t-shirt, which I wear with great pride. And of course I adored Eleanor Cameron’s series about a backyard inventor, a hidden twin Earth, and adventurous boys, which begins with The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet.
In 6th grade I convinced the librarians downtown to let me read from the adult stacks, so I graduated then from the juveniles to SF and F by Clifford Simak, Poul Anderson, Ray Bradbury, and many other geniuses. Pretty much all of them were white cis het males in the early 1960s, the time I’m talking about. I didn’t let that stop me from living on them.
So when I began to write my own stories, they were speculative fiction, too. Of course. Starting with the postapocalyptic teen romance story I penned at 15. I have no idea where that ms. is, by the way, but I’m not worried by the loss. It was probably just awful. In college I wrote and actually submitted a fantasy about fornicating centaurs. That one, too, is blessedly missing.
G: You are probably best known for Writing the Other, which you co-authored with Cynthia Ward, and the workshops you and your team offer for writing diverse, inclusive fiction. How did that come about?
NS: There’s an account up at the publisher’s website that I’ll refer you to as far as the genesis of the original book and class. Later classes and essays are refinements on that work, and extensions of it, and they are based on student and reader feedback.
G: Have you faced any challenges or pushback in the process of creating the Writing the Other workshops? What have been the greatest rewards thus far?
NS: No one has doxxed me yet or issued death threats. There is a general, overall dislike and distrust in some literary circles of the use of sensitivity readers and the idea of paying attention to representation. A few proponents of the #OwnVoices philosophy have somehow concluded that we who advocate Writing the Other are a.) targeting the use of its techniques solely for white people and/or b.) opposed to the #OwnVoices movement. No one who has taken a Writing the Other class is under either of those erroneous impressions.
They say the sincerest form of flattery is imitation, and I’ve occasionally been flattered in that form. At one point, Cindy Ward (my Writing the Other co-author) copyrighted the phrase “Writing the Other” to help stem the flattering flood. But that’s somewhat counterproductive, as we’ve come to see—we *want* people to talk about this subject on panels and write articles about it and so on. Only, as I’ve told one person who was editorializing on Writing the Other, it would be nice to get credit for my two decades of work in this arena.
The most rewarding results by far are the many books and stories created by our students with the tools and techniques the class gives them.
G: Have your experiences as a black woman shaped the stories that you want to tell and your pedagogy in teaching others how best to represent marginalized communities in their own writing?
NS: Yes indeed! At least, I think so—I haven’t always been a woman (I was a girl for a few years), but I’ve always been black, so no idea what my stories and pedagogy would be like otherwise. But I draw directly on my experiences in both my writing and my teaching. “Wallamelon” (originally printed in Asimov’s SF Magazine and subsequently collected in Filter House) is set in my old neighborhood. One Writing the Other lecture cites an encounter I had while apartment hunting, and others are similarly grounded.
We writers tell ourselves “It’s all material” when undergoing a hardship or “interesting” experience. It’s all going to inform what we create. Getting my hair chemically straightened, getting beat up for “talking white,” getting cast as a black cat rather than the female lead in a youth theater production—it’s all material.
G: You also write your own fiction, primarily short stories. Are there any consistent themes or story elements that run through all of your work?
Themes are things readers find, not things authors insert. I’ve been told my work focuses on ecology, that it’s closely concerned with gender and race, and that it’s decidedly pacifist in its take on the world. Several people I respect say the element of voice is important in my fiction—that my characters’ multiplicity of dictions and rhythms and referents defines it.
What I care about is community. That is probably evident in my work as well.
G: Who have been your greatest inspirations, whether as a writer or as a teacher?
As I writer I will always point to four people who have helped me immensely. Two nongenre authors whose craft in the area of description I turn to again and again are Raymond Chandler and Colette. Both write so vividly of inanimate objects and settings that these take on all the life and unforgettableness of active characters. Two genre authors I rely on are Samuel R. Delany and Connie Willis. Delany does everything I want to do, and I’m constantly analyzing his style, his word choices, his pacing, his honesty, his granularity of vision, his prioritizing—and more. Connie Willis has taught me so much about the value of misdirection in with her writing. Her dialogue is a treat and a study.
Additionally, Eileen Gunn has learned me a few things about humor and audacity. Octavia Butler’s whole life was a lesson in graciousness.
My teaching inspiration will probably surprise you: I’m very conscious of the debt I owe performance artist Laurie Anderson. Really. Teaching is a performance. Most rock stars and actors contribute something to my practice as a teacher.
G: With Black Panther getting high praise for depicting an alternate history to colonized Africa, tell me a bit more about your own alternate history of Belgian Congo, Everfair. What was your inspiration for this story?
NS: I was inspired by my dislike of steampunk. I tell the whole story over on John Scalzi’s blog, “Whatever” (my contribution is available here). Basically, I had to appear on a World Fantasy convention steampunk panel, which led me to question my revulsion for the genre. During the panel I challenged myself to write a steampunk novel set in the midst of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Then I figured out how to do it.
As I wrote, I researched, and as I researched, I found more and more inspiration. The history of the Chinese railway workers Leopold imported gave rise to Tink and Bee-Lung, who’ll also now be viewpoint characters in Everfair’s sequel, Kinning. A photo of an outrageous Congolese hat led to the scene in which his headgear helps Matty fend off an assassination attempt. And so on.
G: The novel features several queer women as main characters, and they’re far from perfect or even entirely positive. Why, to you, is it important that characters of marginalized identities are allowed to be flawed?
NS: So if inclusiveness is going to reflect the world we live in, it needs to do that authentically. It needs to represent human stupidity, stubbornness, greed, and all our other regrettable qualities. Fully human beings have these qualities to greater and lesser degrees, and depicting marginalized characters as lacking them reduces such depictions to caricatures. We must insist on rounded and complete characters when including those identified with the margins, just as we insist on roundedness and completeness in characters identified with the dominant center.
G: I’ve been loving all the Afrofuturist stories I see coming out these days—Black Panther, Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series and Who Fears Death, Janelle Monáe, N. K. Jemisin, and Octavia Butler spring to mind. What do you see is the primary importance of Afrofuturism in science fiction?
NS: The importance of Afrofuturism is two-fold. First, it shows African and Afrodiasporic readers and writers that representation within the genre is possible and powerful, that it not only exists but that it is a force to be reckoned with. Second, it shows everyone else the same thing. I am 100% certain that I owe the willingness of Tor to contract for an Everfair sequel to Black Panther’s success.
G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us or hint to us about?
NS: So much! I just turned in revisions on a short story I’m hoping will appear in the special Disabled People Destroy SF issue of Uncanny Magazine. The story is called “The Things I Miss the Most,” and it’s about an epilepsy patient whose successful therapy has unintended consequences.
Next, I’m focusing on revisions to my Middle Grade novel Speculation, which Lee & Low are publishing next year. My great editor, Cheryl Klein, describes it as Toni Morrison’s Beloved as by Edward Eager, and I’m cool with that description. Simultaneously, I’ll be sending out edits to contributors to an anthology I’m editing for Solaris Books. That’s called New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, and it is fantastic! Seventeen stories, and an introduction by LeVar Burton. I posted the TOC some time ago, and it includes big names like Steven Barnes and Hiromi Goto, and newcomers like Alex Jennings and Darcie Little Badger.
But wait! There’s more! I’m about 65% done with a novella I’m writing for Rosarium, a sort of retelling of Jack Kerouac’s three-month affair with a black woman known in his books as Mardou Fox. And if there’s going to be a sequel to Everfair called Kinning, I better write it. I mean, I have an outline, but there’s gotta be more than that if I want my readers satisfied. My current plan is to swap viewpoints between two sets. First there’s Tink and his sister Bee-Lung sailing an aircanoe around the world, spreading the spores of anarchism. Then there’s Princess Mwadi and her brother Prince Ilunga, struggling over the succession for the rulership of Everfair.
If I have time, there are a couple of short stories I have promised to write too.
G: Anything else you want to share with us before we go?
NS: A cup of tea? I make my own blends…Okay, seriously, there are a couple of fundraisers going on currently which I’m involved with. One is in honor of Octavia E. Butler’s 71st birthday, to solicit donations for the Carl Brandon Society (CBS). Octavia was a CBS member, and we administer a scholarship in her name, and present a literary award linked to her legacy. More details are available on the CBS website. That fundraiser runs June 22 – July 22, 2018. The other is Clarion West’s annual Write-a-thon. I attended CW in 1992, and I’m participating in the Wat, which you can learn about here.
And with that, I bid you all a fond adieu. Stay strong. Stay loving. Stay true.
Nisi Shawl wrote the AfroRetroFuturist novel Everfair, a Nebula Award finalist set in an imaginary Utopia in the Congo; and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award-winning story collection Filter House. Tor.com invited her to expand her “Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction” essay into a monthly column, and she is obliging. She co-edited the anthologies Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany; and Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler. Shawl lives in Seattle, taking walks with her mother June and her cat Minnie at the pace of an entitled feline.
You can find Nisi Shawl on her website and Patreon. To find out more about her work with Writing the Other, visit: http://writingtheother.com/. Make sure you also check out her Tor.com column and Seattle review of Books column!
Images Courtesy of Aqueduct Press, Tor Books, and Caren Corley
Creator Corner: Interview with Author Mirah Bolender
A few weeks back, my city hosted a week-long book fair, complete with panels, book readings, sales, and a whole bunch of other goodies a book nerd like me can’t get enough of. Of course, I couldn’t stay away from the panel entitled, “Fearless Women in Sci-Fi and Fantasy.” That’s my peak aesthetic. While there, I got the pleasure of listening to debut author Mirah Bolender talk about her debut novel, City of Broken Magic. I also managed to snag an ARC (advanced reader copy) of her book, and she graciously consented to do an interview with me. If you like fearless female protagonists and magical bomb squads, you’re going to want to check out City of Broken Magic.
Gretchen: What got you into writing? Did you grow up knowing you wanted to be a writer or come to it more recently?
Mirah Bolender: I’ve been writing since childhood. My uncle recently unearthed an old photo album of me at 10 years old, with the note that “Mirah wants to be a children’s book writer and illustrator when she grows up.” The exact direction hasn’t always been clear, but the writing always has been.
G: What drew you to writing fantasy in particular?
MB: Almost every single piece of media I enjoy is fantasy or science fiction. It always feels fresh, inventive, or engaging, and I’m a sucker for inventive world building and fun characters. Fantasy provides a much wider playground. Also, I can’t write nonfiction to save my life.
G: I’d love to know more about the moment it clicked for you that you wanted to write this specific book. When did you realize, “I have a novel?
MB: I cannibalized a lot of old story concepts to fill in gaps. Since the original piece began as a prompt, it wasn’t very balanced and catered more toward checking off boxes, but the more I eliminated the newer, stranger bits, the more I realized that the makeshift mortar worked. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of having a five-year-old idea finally work in a plot, and I had about eight of these old threads coming together. I really wanted to see where it led, so I kept writing, and kept writing… 75,000 words later I realized this was becoming a monster itself and I loved it!
G: The setting for City of Broken Magic is early industrial/late 19th-early 20th century, was that purely an aesthetic choice or is there some other significance to it?
MB: The characters came first, so the world was shaped in response to my first image of them and the equipment they used. I wanted the setting to be modern enough to accommodate what I had, but also not too modern as to limit the fantasy aspect. A lot of times when a fantasy happens in contemporary times, it becomes limited by the real world—by locations, by politics, or otherwise. I wanted there to be no illusions that this was operating in a completely different world, and I wanted the freedom to explore from a blank slate.
G: City of Broken Magic features what amounts to a magical bomb squad, how did you come up with that idea?
MB: It actually came through multiple steps. My original concept had the monsters less substantial, nightmares to be driven off by sunlight. I changed it up for a story prompt in class—“A day on the job,” where it became a more physical monster. Then where did it come from, if not a nightmare? The more I wrote, the more the context came together to become what it is now.
G: This is a two-parter, but they go together: 1) What is your favorite thing about your primary characters? 2) Summarize each of them in a sentence of 20 words or less, if you can.
MB: I think my favorite things about my primary characters are how easy it is to write Laura, and how fantastic Clae is for grumpy exposition. Sometimes I’ll start writing another story and have to stop and say, Wait a second, I’m writing Laura all over again. She’s become my default character voice and it’s hard separating from it. If I were to summarize them, they’d be:
Laura: “Come back here and say that to my face!”
Clae: “Bite off more than you can chew and then CHEW IT!”
G: What stories/authors inspire you when you’re feeling out of steam or like the creative juices aren’t flowing?
MB: Revisiting anything I enjoy helps. Last year I was watching Return of the Jedi on TV, and I had the strongest urge to create something even half as cool… after that I wouldn’t put down my notebook to pay full attention to the movie. It doesn’t always give you a direction, but sometimes that excitement is all you need to kickstart motivation again.
G: As a debut author, what was the most useful piece of advice you were given during the writing, querying, or publication process?
MB: Ironically, the best piece of advice was that I can ask for advice. Everyone I’ve worked with so far has been phenomenal in teaching and supporting me through the publishing process, but, like in every piece of work, there’s inevitably one or two details that slip through the cracks— what seems obvious to the experienced isn’t always such to me. So long as you’ve done some research and are genuine in your questions, there’s no reason not to ask for more details. If you know more about how things work you can better do your job, which will help them do their job, and together you can succeed! Sometimes I get bogged down by the mentality of ‘I can’t bother anyone,’ so they reach out to check in on me and make sure everything’s okay.
G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us or hint to us about?
MB: City of Broken Magic is actually the first planned in a series, so I’m working on book two at the moment.
G: Oooh, that’s exciting! Anything else you want to share with us before we go?
MB: If you’re writing, try to keep track of your old ideas. It could easily be that you just haven’t found the right setting for them yet.
G: Thank you so much for the interview!
MB: You’re welcome! Thanks for having me.
About Mira Bolender
Mirah Bolender graduated from college with majors in creative writing and art in May 2014. A lifelong traveler, she has traveled and studied overseas, most notably in Japan, and these experiences are reflected in her work. City of Broken Magic is her debut fantasy novel.
City of Broken Magic will be available for purchase later this month, on November 20th, though you can read an excerpt over on Tor.com to get you hyped up. Stay tuned for a review, which will be released on publication day.
Images Courtesy of Mirah Bolender and Tor
Past Looks Back from Terrier
Terrier contains many firsts for Tamora Pierce. Published in 2006, it surprises the reader with the first person journal format. Previously Pierce used close third person, but this works’s for Beka’s story. It also gives the reader their first glimpse into Tortall’s past. Pierce sets this book in 246 HE, almost two hundred years before her other novels. This also is her first police and crime novel. While she dabbled in crime in the Alanna books, and mentioned the Lord Provost, now she tells us how the police system in Tortall works. Or, used to work, we hope.
Spoilers for all of Terrier and for all of Pierce’s other novels.
So, What Happened?
Terrier opens with a flashback to George’s youth. Eleni bailed him out of the Guard station and told him about his famous Guard, then called Dogs, ancestress. Then we jump to 244 HE in the past, where we meet Tunstall, Clary, and the Lord Provost. The Lord Provost tells how he caught a gang of Rats, because eight-year-old Beka Cooper tracked one down.
Then, we see Beka on her first day of Puppy training, where she’s assigned to work with Tunstall and Clary as her mentors. She stumbles initially, given her shyness and overconfidence. But eventually, she grows into her job. Beka also connects to a friend from her past, Tansy, who’s married to the grandson of the most corrupt landlord in Corus. A killer called the Shadow Snake killed Tansy’s son Roland. Tansy gives her a strange stone that her husband claimed would change their fortunes. Beka and her Dogs discover that it’s fire opals, mined by Crookshank, Tansy’s grandfather-in-law.
Through her magic with ghosts and dust-spinners, Beka tracks the opals and the Shadow Snake. Crookshank killed 17 people to keep his opals secret. Beka befriends Rosto, Kora, and Aniki, new members of the Rogue’s court from Scanra. She divides her time between the opals, and the Shadow Snake. Crookshank blames the Rogue for Roland’s death, and the kidnapping of his grandson.
Eventually, Beka discovers the location of Crookshank’s mine, and the Dogs move in. They rescue the current work crew, dig up the dead crews, and arrest the guards. A riot starts the next day after the news of Crookshank’s mine breaks. Rosto locates the Shadow Snake and Herum, Tansy’s husband. They rescue Herum, and discover the Shadow Snake was Yates Noll, and his mother, ‘the kindly’ baker. The book ends when Rosts becomes the new Rogue.
Past and It’s Benefits
Present and Past with Pounce and Poverty
One of Pierce’s successes is how she links the present and the past together. She does this several ways, through character links, and through class links. The most obvious character link is Pounce. Pierce draws on the emotions regarding the cat and constellation that followed Alanna from In the Hand of the Goddess on. Pounce also follows Beka, and we see how this spirit cat became who he was for Alanna. She uses him to tie us to Beka and her story. Pounce also grows in this story, being somewhat cattier than in Song of the Lioness. “Pounce trotted past the newcomers, carrying a black kitten … I cannot let you maul me about. Do it to him.” (427). In doing so, we see how his patience grows from past to present.
Pierce also uses her ties to the past significantly. She opens the book with Eleni bailing out a young George. Eleni tells him about, “Rebakah Cooper … She was a fierce and law-abiding and loyal, my son. All that I want for you. … Steal and you shame her.” (6). Afterwards, Eleni asks the Goddess to guide him on Beka’s path, instead of the theiving path he eventually takes. By utilizing irony here, as well as at the end, when Rosto plans to build the Dancing Dove, we see how the universe connects past and present.
Also in Eleni’s prologue is the revelation George started stealing because she couldn’t afford to feed them enough. This ties into the other theme that ties present and past together, that of poverty. Beka is the first POV from the lower class since Daine, and Daine talked mostly to the nobility. She counts coppers, and worries about rent. Even though the Provost fostered her, she remains part of the lower classes, which provides valuable insight.
Women’s Rights – Knights, Priestesses, and Pedestals
Lady Knight Sabine of Macayhill proves one of the most influential secondary characters in all of Terrier. She is the first lady knight that we meet that never once is treated differently because of her gender. Alanna struggles with acceptance of her gender. Kel succeeds only despite prejudice against female knights. With Sabine, we see the age that inspires them, where lady knights were never doubted, never disparaged for their skills. Sabine rescues Beka from a tavern brawl that would have killed any other Puppy. She helps Tunstall, Clary, and Beka track down Crookshank’s mine and harry Duwall, one of the Rogue’s chiefs. Her fellow knights and nobles respect her. It’s immensely refreshing.
We also see respect for women’s rights in the religious arena. Fulk often sexually harasses women. When Beka’s Dogs ask him to identify the fire opal, he harasses Beka. They stop him. Clary threatens to send him before the Goddess’s temple. Tunstall clarifies. “At the last eclipse, the Mother of Starlight temple chose Magistrates. Goodwin’s now the Goddess’s Magistrate … She signs a writ, and the warrior [ladies] with the sickles come for him.” (86). While violence against women remains a problem for Tortall, past and present, it’s a step in the right direction. It shows the slow steps of progress.
Finally, in a more meta-textual level, women now have the right to be villains. There’s equality between evil women and evil men for the first time in Pierce’s novels. Roger, Ozorne, Blayce, Rubinyan, all male. Now, the Shadow Snake is the primary antagonist, and she’s Mistress Noll. Yes, we’ve had female secondary antagonists, Imajane, and Delia come to mind. But if you put women on pedestals and don’t let them be flawed, then you’ve only entered another phase of misogyny. Pierce takes steps to correct this here.
The Past and It’s Problems
The thing that shocked me most in Terrier was the depiction of slavery. After the very successful Trickster’s Duology, to include slavery and to not even mention freeing slaves dissapointed me. In addition, this is the first we hear of any slavery being in Tortall’s past. While the importance of not whitewashing history is clear to me, Pierce simply could have not included slavery in Terrier and in Tortall’s past. Not only is it slavery, it is child slavery, and state sponsered slavery, and a complete reversal of the slave positions of Scanra and Tortall.
Child slavery proves a significant problem, when Beka investigates the Shadow Snake. She uncovers people who sold their children and claimed the Snake took them, or children genuinely taken for the slave trade. “Slave taking is disliked in Corus, but it isn’t illegal. Kidnapping children without their parents’ leave is illegal though.” (79). To clarify, parents can sell their children into slavery, but other people cannot. It is morally disgusting, and Beka prostests it only minimally.
We know the Crown sponsers slavery because not only is there a, “Ministry of Slave Sales” (384), but illegal slave markets get broken up by Beka and the Guard several times. The ‘illegal slavers’ set up a stable to “look like a proper slave market.” (384). After seeing Aly destroy the slave markets in Rajmuat, after seeing a rebellion that freed slaves, this grows intolerable. Scanra also doesn’t have many slaves since they can’t feed free citizens, let alone enslaved ones. Given that slaves work most of the farms in Scanra in the present, it feels Pierce merely flipped Scanra’s present with Tortall’s past to make the past darker. That doesn’t sit well with me. It shows insensitivity on issues she handled well previously.
Diversity and the Watsonian Lens
On a Doylist level, the amount of diversity in Terrier show’s Pierce’s advancing commitment to intersectional feminism. Take Sergeant Ahuda, the chief of the Guard Post where Beka trains, for example. “She is a stocky black woman with some freckle and hair she has straightened and cut just below her ears. Her family is in Carthak, far in the south. They say she treats trainees the way she does in vengeance for how the Carthakis treated her family as slaves.” (25). While the last sentance is dubious, she still remains a POC woman in charge of several dozen people. That’s wonderful, and Pierce develops her more than she did Sarge, in The Immortals Quartet.
In addition, Pierce shows people of color moving around Corus. “[The Rogue]’d foreigners with him, two Yamanis with their hair in topknots. With them stood the Carthaki who’d had Kayfer’s ear my first knight at the Court.” (399) Bazhir also move around the streets, though in a slightly more insular fashion. This reflects their isolation in Woman Who Rides Like A Man. This amazes from a Doylist sense, that Pierce moved so far from that contentious book.
But, in a Watsonian lens of thinking about books, it proves problematic. The diversity here only highlights the lack of diversity in her first series. Song of the Lioness doesn’t even mention non-white characters until the third book, and I find that depiction contentious. Something had to change between Tortall’s past and the present we see here that changed Tortall’s opinion of people of color. We know it results from the chronological evolution of Pierce’s feminism, but still. It also makes you wonder what happened that Lady Knights no longer were accepted. It may be this question is answered in the next too books. But still.
Police Novels and Modern Feminism
I don’t believe it especially controversial to mention that for the last decade or so, we’ve started having conversations about police brutality and corruption. It spawned movements, endless articles, and websites devoted to tracking cases of brutality and corruption. So, this makes it hard to see feminism and feminist movements in Police and Crime novels like Terrier. From our perspective now, we see a novel such as Terrier that contains moments of ‘police’ corruption and brutality, and find it difficult to endorse. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking at.
Thankfully, no police brutality against unarmed and disenfranchised victims occurs in Terrier to my judgement. I might miss something, but the closest thing to brutality I saw lies in the ‘nap tap’. “All of us love that hammer blow of baton against jaw, even if it doesn’t always knock a Rat out. Goodwin has the city’s record for the highest number of perfectly delivered nap taps that end with a Rat carried away, stone unconscious.” (192). Beka hesitates at one point about hitting a tavern brawler that is attacking her with her baton, fearful that she’ll seriously hurt him. They do use riot gear at one point, when a riot forms when the news of Crookshank’s mines gets out. But those two moments are the closest the Provost’s Dogs in Terrier come to modern worries of police brutality.
Unfortunately, corruption proves differently. Someone kills a Dog that gambled with weighted dice, and Beka sympathizes with him. “Of course there are crooked Dogs. I can name two handfuls myself. … I do not like that he was crooked. But he’d still been a Dog.” (201). The insular community of the Dogs allows some exceptions for bad behavior if the perpetrator was a Dog.
Corruption also comes in the Happy Bags. “Other Dogs collect Happy Bags from each business that wants to know otherwise ill-paid Dogs will watch over them with diligence.” (92). In addition they collect from the Rogue which buys some peace between his Court and the Dogs. “Not taking offense over a bit of briber, are you? … On the very night your Dogs are here to collect their bribes from the Rogue. … That’s different. That’s for all the work every one of us does, to keep the streets orderly.” (107). But it’s not just for keeping the streets orderly. Dogs get personal bribes as well as the institution of the Happy Bag. And their bribe from the Rogue is not only in repayment for public order, but also keeps the Dogs away from several places. Places where the Rogue hides stolen goods, and where Yates hides from the Dogs.
The Dogs get funding almost entirely from the Happy Bags. Beka does not have a single qualm about the bribes that fund her work. She simply accepts it, and in some way the reader accepts it as well. Or they would if the conversation over police didn’t become so strident in recent years.
The mostly non-existent brutality and the blatant corruption make it difficult to read feminism in this book. After all, intersectional feminist groups spent years discussing and protesting this kind of behavior.
Overall, I believe that Terrier continues Pierce’s trend of increasing feminism. The way she includes diversity, even though it creates a Watsonian problem, convinces me of that. The depiction of slavery remains problematic, but I believe that her overall attempts at feminism trump that. It’s also balanced by the central nature of slavery in the Trickster’s Duology. However, the depiction of police corruption makes this book a harder sell to the modern liberal audience than when Pierce first published it.
Hopefully, Pierce’s expanding feminism continues as we enter the books that I have not yet read or reviewed.
Image Courtesy of Random House
The Field of Cormallen
About three years and 1,123 pages later (oh my god), we’ve finally made our way through the traditional climax of The Lord of the Rings. The Ring has been destroyed, Sauron’s blown away on the wind, and we get a nicely eucatostrophic crying party on the Field of Cormallen. But we still have, in my copy, just shy of one hundred pages to go. This is good. I am prepared to start fights with anyone who disagrees.
The Field of Cormallen is concerned with aftermath: those which are to be explored and those which are not. After the brutal and grinding efforts of Frodo and Sam are complete, the destruction of Sauron and his far-flung works is startlingly easy, dispatched of in a paragraph or two (this is something both Mytly and WanderingUndine pointed out in our discussion of “Mount Doom”). But the personal and psychological ramifications of the past thousand pages are just starting to unspool and will be the focus for the rest of the work.
The Lord of the Rings isn’t allegorical. Tolkien will roll over in his grave and send you a ghost slap for thinking it. But it is concerned almost entirely with individuals over systems. It’s Tolkien’s strength and arguable weakness, and I think one of the things that most definitely sets his work apart from subsequent fantasy (particularly any fantasy that sits anywhere in the realm of the label “gritty”). With the Ring destroyed, Sauron and his works are largely obliterated off-screen. With the major threat removed, Aragorn settles relatively simply and easily into his kingship. There is very little question of logistics.
This isn’t because Tolkien didn’t think about these issues. His letters show an awareness that Aragorn’s kingship was largely grounded in personal charisma and context, and that—particularly after his death—the kingship of Gondor and the stability of Middle-earth would quickly come into question. But this simply isn’t what Tolkien cared about, and never really has been. We’ve talked before about how, on nearly every level, the struggles that Tolkien’s characters face are psychological, moral, internal things. The external threats—up to and including Sauron—are simply narrative facets of those internal dilemmas. It’s sensible, then, that denouement of The Lord of the Rings will be about the internal consequences. For all of our characters, but especially for our hobbits. And most especially, for Frodo.
The Field of Cormallen
Tolkien’s whole theory of a proper faerie story hinges on the concept of eucatastrophe, as we’ve touched on many times before. And the Field of Cormallen is the pinnacle of the concept, the whole chapter functioning as a sharp, unexpected turn from the darkness that had come before. After two chapters of torment and devastation everything is suddenly soft, quiet, and feels oversaturated with light and color. It’s the narrative equivalent of a sudden gasp: such an unexpected boon, a joy that pierces like swords.
When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled sent.
They stepped out of the beech grove in which they had lain, and passed on to a long green lawn, glowing in sunshine, bordered by stately dark-leaved trees laden with scarlet blossom. Behind them they could hear the sound of falling water, and a stream ran down before them between flowering banks, until it came to a greenwood at the lawn’s foot and passed them on under an archway of trees, through which they saw the shimmer of water far away.
Sam awakes in Ithilien to an impossibly pretty and peaceful scene (just down the road from the waterfall fort where he and Frodo experienced their last bit of real peace). Gandalf is there, laughing, his beard “gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight.” Sam jumps up and laughs, and cries, and when he asks Gandalf “is everything sad going to come untrue?” you almost believe that it will, or could.
This only continues when Sam gets his wish granted almost immediately on the Field of Cormallen and hears himself lodged forever into songs and tales; it continues when he and Frodo run up to Strider who reminds that “it is a long way, is it not, from Bree, where you did not like the look of me?” And maybe most of all when the Fellowship reunites (mostly) and stays up talking together late in the night, entirely unthreatened by Black Riders or orcs or any other immediate or obvious danger.
At last the glad day ended; and when the Sun was gone and the round Moon rode slowly above the mists of the Anduin and flickered through the fluttering leaves, Frodo and Sam sat under the whispering trees amid the fragrance of fair Ithilien; and they talked deep into the night with Merry and Pippin and Gandalf, and after a while Legolas and Gimli joined them.
It does seem like everything sad could come untrue. But that’s not the sort of book we’re dealing with.
Frodo at a Distance
The events of the last two and a half books have obviously made their marks on everyone. Aragorn and Gandalf are more elevated, distant and super-human (since, well, they both technically are). Merry and Pippin utterly baffle Sam with the three inches added to their height and their new status as knights of Rohan and Gondor. Legolas’s sea fixation has only grown:
To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying,
The wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying.
West, west away, the round sun is falling.
Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling,
The voices of my people that have gone before me?
I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me.
For our days are ending and our years failing.
I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing.
Long are the waves of the Last Shore falling,
Sweet are the voices of the Lost Isle calling,
In Eressea, in Elvenhome that no man can discover
Where the leaves fall not: land of my people forever!
Lil’ Melancholy Kid Katie had a lot of feelings about this poem. While I want to make fun of Legolas for sounding like a kid who studied abroad by the ocean for the first time and is applying to MFA programs (or like the inverse of the coastal snob who moves to the Midwest and can’t stop looking down at the Great Lakes), but my heart wouldn’t really be in it. Yearn away, buddy.
But really, I was most fascinated by Frodo in his chapter—or, more specifically, his relative absence. Although Frodo is largely at the center of all the celebrations, he is largely absent from the narrative itself. We skip Frodo’s awakening in order to focus on Sam’s. We get Sam’s reaction to the celebrations on the Field of Cormallen, his reaction to the tales and adventures of Pippin and Merry and the others.
I’d imagine this is largely because, had we gotten Frodo’s reactions to things, this would have been a very different chapter. On the slopes of Mount Doom after the destruction of the Ring, Frodo is hardly cheerful, as he gently puts down Sam’s desire to escape. It may not be Sam’s tendency to give up, he says, “but it’s like things are in the world. Hopes fail. An end comes. We have only a little time to wait, now. We are lost in ruin and downfall, and there is no escape.” For quite a while, at this point, this has been Frodo’s absolute best-case scenario. He would fulfill his Quest, and then he would die. He does not seem to be afraid of this or even particularly upset by it: instead, he faces it with a calm resignation, thinking that this is simply how things have to be.
I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to say that Frodo doesn’t want to be saved. After all, he does seem happy to see Strider again, and to talk with Merry and Pippin and Gandalf under the trees. But it’s also not clear that Sam’s sense of eucatastrophe is shared with Frodo. Even with the Ring destroyed, his emotional status remains unclear and largely blocked off to the reader. Given what he’s just experienced, and what he’s lost, it’s hard not to look at the Field of Cormallen from Frodo’s perspective and feel something sadder, as the poor guy is dressed up in orc garb, saddled with an unwished-for-sword, then forced hear someone sing his trauma at him.
Not much of this is made explicit, of course. But given what’s to come, and how Frodo ended his last chapter, it’s intriguing to me how emotionally inaccessible he is to the reader and how during one of the primary celebrations of the book’s climax he remains inscrutable and tangential. It’s good groundwork for Frodo’s journey after this, and subtly highlights that the emotional and psychological aftermath of Frodo’s experience still needs to be unpacked.
The End of Evil
This interest in the Quest’s ripple effect on individuals is interesting in light of the fact that any large-scale or systemic ripples are almost entirely absent. Sauron himself is literally blown away by the wind:
“The realm of Sauron is ended!” said Gandalf. “The Ring-bearer has fulfilled his Quest.” As the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.
And this destructive is definitive and all-encompassing, leaving little-to-no mess to clean up.
As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless; and some slew themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or fled wailing to hide in holes an dark lightless places far from hope.
Though Tolkien is doing this purposefully, I do have a lot of sympathy with those who find this unsatisfying. So much effort is put into the interiority and choice of the Fellowship that it seems… unfair, or narratively unbalanced, to have the forces of Sauron so utterly deprived of a sense of self that when the Ring is destroyed they begin to literally commit mass suicide. I don’t necessarily have a solution for this: frankly, at this point, an in-depth look at what happened to those serving under Sauron would be definitively out of place in terms of theme and tone. But I also think that criticisms on this front are warranted. And that it makes the applicability of Tolkien’s story seem limited, at least in this sphere.
- I was intrigued that Gwaihir and his brother were followed by “all their vassals from the northern mountains, speeding on a gathering wind.” I largely ignore the Eagles when talking about Tolkien because I don’t want to talk about whether they should have just flown the Ring to Mount Doom. But I am intrigued by the concept of Eagle vassals. How does air feudalism work.
- Gimli: “I love you, [Pippin], if only because of the pains you have cost me, which I shall never forget.” Harsh but fair.
- It’s very charming that on the day that he was honored as an international hero and the entire global calendar was reoriented around his actions, Sam is bummed he missed out on all those other neat adventures. Orcs, and talking trees, and leagues of grass, and galloping riders, and glittering caves, and white towers and golden halls, and battles, and tall ships sailing, all these passed before Sam’s mind until he felt bewildered. He even missed an Oliphant!
- Prose Prize: There was a lot of gentle, lovely prose this time around. Everything feels especially soft and kind after trucking across Gorgoroth for a few dozen pages. This is my favorite though: And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in through out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness. Joy like swords is about as Tolkien-y as one can get.
- Contemporary to this Chapter: Everyone’s back together, so we’re retiring this little section this week! So, for the last time: as Frodo and Sam slept for two weeks Celeborn and Galadriel (having already repelled three assaults on Lórien) jumped up to Dol Goldur, destroyed it, and restored Mirkwood. Does this mean the spiders are gone too? In any case, the forest having been cleansed out of its name, Mirkwood is Eryn Lasgalen now, the Wood of Greenleaves. Presumably everyone else sings and cries and takes lots of naps in that dappled Ithilien sunlight.
- We’ll be back on November 15th for “The Steward and the King.” Please brush the dust off of your favorite Eowyn/Faramir fanfiction from middle school (Middle-school) and review it, it will be on the test.