The text that follows contains some intemperate language.
Sarah Silverwood is perhaps better known as Sarah Pinborough, whose horror writing has been recognised by the Shirley Jackson Award. (Pinborough has also written two novels for the Torchwood franchise: there’s your random fact of the day.) The Nowhere Chronicles is a trilogy aimed at young adults, comprising The Double-Edged Sword (2010), Traitor’s Gate (2011), and The London Stone (2012). As novels, they’re a cross between urban fantasy and portal fantasy: the worldbuilding is imaginative, but the narrative logic is full of holes.
If you’ve been paying much attention to the SFF corner of the interwebs, you may or may not have noticed the series of shitstorms to do with SFWA, a professional organisation for SFF writers, several months ago. Two editors were offended that people criticised their use of language as sexist and called for reform. Hardly had the conversation surrounding the SFWA Bulletin begun to die down than a fresh SFWA conversation arose. In the wake of N.K. Jemisin’s eloquent, important GOH speech at Continuum, a misogynist white supremacist former candidate for President of SFWA promoted a vilely racist rebuttal through an official SFWA Twitter account. Some other people feel that an appropriate level of anger at this is rabidly uncivil.
You may wonder, dear reader, what that all has to do with Sarah Silverwood and her YA books. Or perhaps you’ve already guessed.
Prejudice can be loud or obvious, and it can be quiet, unmarked, part of the sea in which we swim. Silverwood’s Nowhere Chronicles uphold a biased view of the world, which is to say: they’re bloody sexist.
That really gets my goat, in a way that makes it impossible for me to treat the trilogy with any pretence of objectivity, or to assess Silverwood’s success on its own terms. For it strikes me as ridiculous that, in the year of the common era 2010 (and subsequently!) it is possible to publish a book, an entire trilogy, in which with the exception of one Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, one suicidal and literally voiceless magic woman, and one magic queenly woman (who only appears in the final volume, and whose contribution involves resolving the magic mcguffin), all the female characters exist to be wives, helpmeets, or victims. That even these aforementioned characters are characterised primarily in terms of their relationships to the men around them. That, in the first decade of the 21st century, it’s possible to have an organisation of magic-using “Knights of the Nowhere” recruited from and based out of a London closely analogous to (and indeed we are intended to accept it as) the real London, all of whom are men, whose only female connection appears to be the tealady, and have this as unmarked as anomalous in any way by the narrative.
For the sake of many expletives and blasphemies, honourable gentlebeings. That right there? Is my suspension of disbelief broken entirely before we hardly even get started. Because while intense homosociality still exists, in a London where you run a decent chance of bumping into a female squaddie, where you stand a good chance of getting arrested (should you piss one off) by a WPC, it can hardly be said to exist—outside of the changing rooms of sports clubs—as the unmarked default. An organisation recruiting from today’s London needs to have explained why it has the make-up of a gerrymandered gentleman’s club.* And to demonstrate a knowledge of why that marks it out.** Or, in a story that focuses on the trials and adventures of three sixteen-year-old boys—Finmere Tingewick Smith, mysterious orphan; Christopher the public-school-boy, son of an MP; and Joe, black footie player from a bad estate—I’m really going to wonder what century the text thinks we should be living in.
* “Women are Bad At Fighting,” is not ever an adequate explanation, or let me introduce you to this sensei I know…
** It marks it out as problematic.
While I’ve got my rant on: let’s talk about race. Let’s talk about the fact that we have here a solid case of BLACK GUYS DIE, in fiction. The Prince Regent, only character apart from Joe whose race is marked out for notice? Dead. Random criminals, black? Dead. Let’s talk about the fact that Joe ends up manipulated into betraying his friends by a white and upper class villain, and spends the last book of the trilogy helpless and in pain while the villain siphons off magic from him. Let’s talk about the fact that Joe’s moment of redemption comes when he, saved by his mates, sacrifices himself to save the universe. So our protagonist and his special upper-class white friend get to live, and the poor black lad gets to die. This seems to me to perpetuate a rather problematic trope.
Did I mention, by the way, that our villain becomes physically deformed—hunchbacked and twisted—as a result of his meddling with dark magic? That when he’s cut off from the magic he’s been using, he reverts to his previous physical health? So BAD JUJU and DEFORMITY go together, right? That really doesn’t sit right with me. It’s an ancient idea: that our acts etch themselves upon our bodies, that good or ill show themselves upon our physical forms, was very much Accepted Truth even in classical antiquity, but it’s a vile piece of philosophy, ethically and intellectually bankrupt.
See? I told you I couldn’t be objective. But if objective means going easy on things which strike me as incredibly dubious, I’d rather be pissed-off. (Hopefully entertainingly so.)
Right, so. Clearly I’m not impressed with the execution of The Nowhere Chronicles. Does it do anything right for me? Anything at all?
Well, to be honest, I find Orphan Discovering His Specialness to be a rather boring narrative opener. But Silverwood gets some props for her interesting alternate London (“the Nowhere,” as opposed to our London, “the Somewhere”). But the issue of time, which figures so prominently in The Double-Edged Sword’s opening chapters, fails to recur until the very end of the trilogy. The worldbuilding is inventive, but the logic of character actions and motivations is not well thought through: it is the kind of absence of logic (why do the villains want power? What do they plan to do with it?) in actions which drive the plot that gives YA a bad name.
These are slight books. Books which read as though the author took a bucket of cool ideas and tossed them into a food blender, slopping the result onto a crudely-sketched, old-fashioned board. Books which may satisfy the twelve-year-old boy stuck in the girls are icky mindset, but will offer little in terms of narrative fulfilment, over the course of the trilogy, to most of the rest of us.
Dear readers, I didn’t like them. I cannot in good conscience recommend these books, and it stretches my charitable muscles to give this trilogy even small praise. But perhaps Silverwood is writing for the audience which complains so frequently and at such length about the absence of boy books in YA. In which case, maybe she is to be commended: apart from a smidgeon of romance, there is nothing here to challenge the preconceptions of even the most girl-shy manchild.
As long as he’s a white one, anyway.