Welcome back, pop pickers! After the first episode of this little here Mirror Empire vs City of Stairs dance battle went to air the phone lines opened and would you believe it, both contestants made it through the public vote! What were the odds? So join me and Pep of Two Dudes in an Attic as Round Three beckons…
Pep: Yes. Much magic is practiced on glass, either on the surface or inside the actual pane. That probably counts as sparkles. If not, there is a be-tentacled water monster that will devour your soul. I will go ahead and call that sparkly.
Kamo: Oh. Well if we’re actually going to take this bit literally then I guess there is that whole mirror thing. The clue’s in the name, really.
Pep: I had to think of something, though I'm much more interested in talking about the water monster of vengeance.
Kamo: Colour me intrigued. Go on then, tell me about the water monster of vengeance.
Pep: Can't give away too much without spoiling, but basically there's this monster that gets loose in the city. It was created to find the unworthy and swallow their souls with the aim of somehow purifying them through torment. Did I mention it has tentacles? Kind of Hyperion's Shrike mixed with Jonah's whale and a dash of Cthulhu. Just in time for the holidays.
Kamo: Not sure I’ve got anything that can measure up to that. Did I mention the magic ninjas?
Pep: We've wandered a bit from the sparkles theme.
Round Four – Quadrille
Kamo: Ahem. Characters then, who in ME consist principally of angry wimmin and milquetoast men. Actually, no; that’s a grossly unfair misrepresentation of what’s really happening here. This is an unpleasant and angry world populated by unpleasant and angry people, and in addition to all the enraged women a good number of the men/indeterminates are also grade-A arseholes, however we’re (still) so unused to seeing women so unequivocally wearing the trousers that it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking they’re overrepresented, because ‘over’ of course suggests both an ‘under’ and a ‘norm’; the ladies here get up to nothing that you wouldn’t catch the male protagonists doing in any recent grimdark offering. In amongst some more fluid explorations of gender relationships there are a couple of thunderingly unsubtle trope inversions (an abusive wife and battered husband being the most harrowingly memorable), and it’s a damning indictment on both the genre and wider culture in general that for all the bluntness of this reversal it retains the power to shock so effectively. It’s always something of a fool’s errand to guess at authors’ motives, but it’s hard not to conclude that this is a deliberate and necessary provocation on Hurley’s part. If so then more power to her; a winning strategy is a winning strategy however gracefully or brutally it’s executed.
That being said, the characterisation itself might be generously described as ‘slow-burn’. It takes a hell of a long time before any of the principle players establish themselves as individuals worthy of consideration, and this has very definite implications for the overall reading experience. Though it should also be noted that Hurley pulls off the not inconsiderable trick of having a character perpetrate full-blooded, unapologetic genocide and still (eventually) come through as someone whose fate you care about.
Pep: Hurley appears on a recent Coode Street Podcast and explains that she does a lot of this intentionally. According to her, many feminists get angry because the women in Hurley's books are huge jerkwads who run cruel, oppressive societies. “Surely,” say these women, “a country run by us would be genteel and utoperific! (That should be a word.)” Hurley argues that any sort of gender-based separation is inherently oppressive no matter which gender is on top, so she gets to have her strong women and argue against inequality all in one go. Thus the genocide, I suppose, and her “female Conan” character in God's War.
Kamo: Nyx? Yeah, I can see that. To be honest she reminds me of the more brutal James Bond incarnations (Craig, Dalton, Fleming’s original), just without the veneer of snobbery and pretentious ‘sophistication’. I guess that hammers home the point about how this stuff is far more acceptable/accepted in male characters. You should also try to track down Mizora, which is in many ways the earliest feminist SF. It posits a world without men that is indeed a lovely place populated by lovely people doing lovely things with nary an unpleasantness in sight and it’s all so lovely and pleasant and lovely right up to the point it’s revealed they’re all racist eugenicists. ‘Of its time’, if we’re prepared to be generous about things.
Kamo: The oceans are a roiling mass of carnivorous bladderwrack. There is no swimsuit round.
Pep: The gods are dead, their magical city lies in ruins, and infidels rule the once blessed Continent and oppress the chosen people. There is no swimsuit round.
Round Six – Hoe Down
Pep: I was going to hit this in “Theme,” but we kind of went somewhere else. The plot is ostensibly a spy thriller / murder mystery, but those are mostly vehicles to explore the downtrodden Bukilov. Moving in parallel to the colonialization theme is a Calvinism vs. Humanism debate. One of the gods was a real sourpuss, an inflexible and disagreeable sort who combined the worst of every fundamentalist religion out there. Ned Flanders with brimstone, perhaps. His influence in Bukilov was particularly strong, and his followers have held onto the past more than the followers of other, more malleable gods. Saypur is, of course, thoroughly secular, both a reflection of their more scientific mindset and that disturbing fact that they were previously ignored by the gods who quite obviously existed. It's hard to be religious when the gods have blatantly said, “we don't care about you.” The head on conflicts over righteousness are the least graceful parts of the book, I thought. They are the only times when Bennett's axe is clearly visible on the grinder, though it doesn't really harm the book overall.
Kamo: When you say “Theme” you of course mean, “The Hip-Hop Round”. Or possibly “Quadrille”. I lose track. Anyway, the plot of ME is more of a fractured/messy/incomplete affair, depending on how you feel on any given day. I mean it says it’s a saga right there on the front cover, so you can’t really be expecting much in the way of resolution from the first installment. What we do get is several strands weaving in and around each other without ever really intersecting. There’s Lilia, the child of prophecy whose magician mother sacrificed herself in order to save during which incident she received a physical injury that marks her for life, was then subsequently sent away to a curious and otherworldly educational establishment to protect her from those who would wish her harm, and is tutored by an ancient and mystical figure of fluid sexual identity (“Yer a blood mage, ‘Ilia”). There’s Zezili, a mixed-race general in the Dorinah army charged with the execution of that genocide against one half of her heritage and who comes to suspect that she may be serving the wrong master/mistress (Genocide? Who knew?). There’s Ahkio, simple tutor to a village of farmers unwillingly elevated to the position of high-priest of a country of pacifist mystics through the suspicious death of his sister. There’s Roh, annoying little gobshite-cum-student-cum-dancing boy sent on a mission as a double agent with a party charged with deciphering texts which could prevent the invasion of all these characters’ world by the massed ranks of their duplicates from a parallel universe. There’s that parallel universe. You’ll have noticed that in the section we earmarked for
plot a Hoe Down I’ve principally been giving
you a list of (some) of the characters. I’m sure there is a plot in here
somewhere, but at this point I’m kind of having to take that on trust.
And on that bombshell we draw this episode to a close. Join us for what might, if we pull our collective fingers out, actually be the final installment of this little escapade at a time to be announced and at a venue to be announced (so that’s Pep’s then, sometime later this week. Maybe).