I’m all about the books. This week, I have even more books to tell you about. (Let me know if you ever get bored with hearing about the books.)
Let me tell you about Molly Tanzer’s riff on Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, in her extraordinary, peculiar, odd and compelling Creatures of Will and Temper; and about some stories by M.C.A. Hogarth set in her strange and inventive “Pelted” universe science fiction—a series of stories starring a woman called Alysha Forrest.
Creatures of Will and Temper starts slow and measured. It’s the end of the 19th century. Sisters Evadne and Dorina Gray—Evadne awkward, worried about social conventions, only passionate about fencing; ten years older than Dorina, young, unconventional, interested in everything to do with art and beauty and seducing other women—visit their uncle Basil in London. Basil’s a famous painter, and Dorina wants to be an art critic. Basil’s unconventional aristocrat friend Lady Henry, who wears men’s suits, smokes in public, and has a small circle of dedicated aesthete intimates who “appreciate beauty” in a regular club, takes Dorina under her wing. Meanwhile, Evadne becomes more and more frustrated with Dorina’s self-preoccupation and lack of concern for social conventions, and joins a fencing club to work out her frustrations.
This doesn’t start out like the kind of book that will eventually take a sideways turn towards the dark, with child sacrifice on rooftops, desperate skirmishes, multiple betrayals, demons—who aren’t nearly as frightening as some of the humans—and a last-ditch effort to save one’s sister… but it does take that turn, in a fashion that feels perfectly inevitable, leading us into a tragedy that’s only barely averted. The characters are strong and compelling. The atmosphere breathes life. It has a generosity of spirit, beneath the dark bits. And the presence of queer women is delightful.
I recommend it.
Some of M.C.A. Hogarth’s work is weaker than others. A foreword to the linked collection of stories—or interludes in a longer narrative arc—that forms Alysha’s Fall notes that this is are among Hogarth’s early work. It shows. It contains several of the themes that show up in the Princes’ Game series, notably voluntarily—for certain values of voluntarily—choosing fairly extreme personal suffering in order to achieve a goal and help other people; the value of found or chosen family, and the nature of autonomy and choice. These aren’t developed as deeply as in later works—and the space opera element is yet lacking here—but Alysha’s Fall is nonetheless interestingly compelling.
Traditional space opera elements come more to the fore in the other stories that feature Alysha: Second, Who Is Willing, and Either Side of the Strand. It must be acknowledged that Hogarth is much more interested in negotiating questions of forming connection across differences than in military- or technologically-oriented Space Fighty Bits. This interrogation of connections, of finding similarities beneath—or around—differences, of understanding people who might have been your adversaries and instead forming friendly ties with them, or respecting their need to be left alone, is where Hogarth’s work really succeeds. These are, at base, fundamentally kind narratives, ones that prioritise the importance of meaningful understanding and meaningful consent in relationships—of whatever sort—between individuals. Sometimes dark, but always kind underneath.
They’re also deeply, entertainingly weird in parts. And queer.
What are you guys reading lately?
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign. She’s also lately come to the conclusion that sleep hygiene is for other people, so she wrote this post between 0200 and 0400 in the morning.