mythology

Readings: Visitors by Simon Sylvester

‘I am going to tell you a story,’ I said, ‘because stories explain the things we can’t control.’

I seem to be reading a lot of books about windfucked places lately. Windfucked they might be, but they are also places where one can almost feel stories wander about and get under one’s skin. Last time I went to Aran Islands, lay down on the edge of a cliff, and looked down at the foaming sea, I had this feeling. I also had that feeling when I climbed into a tiny cave in Roscommon. I am quite certain that a tiny Scottish island is one such place, which is why The Visitors by Simon Sylvester doesn’t seem fantastical to me. Of course there would be any number of strange things afoot.

NNJE3941I have an obsession with weirdness in fiction. I’m drawn to environments that seem ordinary but then turn out to be slightly askew. This doesn’t really mean urban fantasy, where the weird is actually explicit, made manifest fairly early on in the form of fairies or vampires or werewolves. No, it’s the slightly uncertain weirdness — someone may or may not be a mythical creature, and it could work either way. This is one of the reasons The Visitors worked for me, and if uncertain strangeness is your idea of a good story, it will probably work for you.

I felt as though I could thrust out my arm and break through the crust, reach a hand into another world. It felt so tangible, growing stronger by the hour, yet I somehow never touched it.

The Visitors is narrated by Flo, a teenage girl who is counting down days until her escape from the island named Bancree (‘Our traditional industries were fishing, whisky and peat. Only the whisky had survived.’). There is indeed a lot of water and a lot of peat, even where you don’t expect it: ‘his eyes were peatbog blank’. It’s atmospheric to the point that I felt cold and sort of regretted not having any decent single-malt in the immediate vicinity while I read the book.

An odd father and daughter pair moves into a house on an even tinier island next door, and Flo, not having much luck with finding friends at school, befriends the daughter. There are also a number of strange disappearances on the island, which initially trick the reader into thinking that The Visitors is going to be mystery novel. But while it might be cataloged as such in a library, the mystery is rather in the background for most of the book, whereas myth is very much front and center. Flo gets assigned an essay on Scottish myths in her history course, and with that, The Visitors is not really a whodunit anymore, if it ever was. While Sylvester uses the usual mystery novel elements, his real purpose is to demonstrate the power of myths over our minds and make them the reason people do what they do. Incidentally, I am also listening to Stacy Schiff’s Witches right now, and it creates a fascinating perspective on what one’s mind can envision. The fantastical might be real, but there is always this uncertainty because human mind is uncertain and because often people who know the secret deny it or feign ignorance.

But that’s when Fergus falls into the loch and drowns himself, and old Mary sees a seal around the same time, and all of a sudden there’s a story to tell.

There is a story in one of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s collections called For One Who has Lost Herself. It’s about a selkie looking for her sealskin that had been stolen by a human. When I first read it, it affected me so much that it’s still the only story I remember from that collection. I have a weak spot for selkie myths because they are about transformation and loss. Not just the loss of sealskin, but what it means, freedom and loss of an identity. While selkies seem to move effortlessly between two states (seal and human), they hate losing one for another. It is as if their true self lies in change itself. They will escape safety if it means having an identity to claim as their own (something that rings quite true to me as a transman).

And this is what Simon Sylvester has created, a mystery novel that is also a story about stories, about strange things lurking nearby. It’s a story of change, and loss, and place, and about how we want there to be a home and an identity we can claim as our own.

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God is dead: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

Gods, like men, can die. They just die harder, and smite the earth with their passing. 

I am a sucker for gods and religion in my SF books. Maybe it’s because these subjects remind me of reading myths. I loved the Greek mythology tome I had as a kid. The gods in it were wise, petty, mighty, vain, all of the above, occasionally at the same time. Those myths were great stories to start with, so it’s no surprise that I later transitioned to reading strange and speculative fiction.

three-parts-deadThree Parts Dead has organized religion, worship, faith, and gods in spades. At its most basic, it is a mystery novel. It begins with the death of Kos Everburning, the god who keeps the city of Alt Coulumb running. His death is discovered during the watch of a novice priest Abelard. It later appears that Kos’s death might have involved some foul play.

Enter Tara Abernathy, a necromancer recently graduated from the Hidden Schools. She arrives in the city with her boss, Elayne Kevarian, and the two attempt to solve this case with the help of chain-smoking Abelard, a vampire, a servant of Justice (see: police officer), and even some gargoyles.

Gladstone writes a great tale, bringing all these characters together and feeding the reader details and tidbits that become important later, which makes Three Parts Dead a lot of fun to read. What he also does, however, is build a fascinating world and set out some interesting rules. Rules, for example, that govern humans’ relationship with their god. In essence, gods are business people. They operate by contract. You provide worship, they provide power (as my late teacher of Irish used to say, ‘there are no nice goddesses, only successfully propitiated ones’). And so gods can die by owing more power than they could provide. Something drained Kos of power and left him a lifeless husk.

But wait, not all is lost. You can, in fact, bring the god back to life. Or some semblance of life. It probably won’t be the same god, but it will be good enough for government work, as it were (Justice, in fact, used to be Seril, a goddess that had died in God Wars). Hence the summoning of Kevarian and Tara, both necromancers.

Gladstone’s worldbuilding offers many other cool things to the reader. The idea of Craft is fascinating. It sounds like ordinary magic, but its origin is quite interesting. It’s ‘half art, half science’, and it was born from ‘the awe at how well divine hands has made a thing, and the insatiable need to improve on that design’. It almost sounds like the origin of alchemy, an attempt by humans to improve on nature. The expression of Craft itself seems almost Harry Potter-like, theatrical. It’s not always clear how the Craft works, but it seems the kind of magic you want to have (you know, the kind that comes with the ability to levitate objects).

The characters, the rules, and the world make Three Parts Dead much more than just a SFnal mystery novel (as Abelard says, ‘could we please not talk about God as if He were a corpse on the floor?’). I already have Two Serpents Rise on my nightstand, and Full Fathom Five, Gladstone’s newest book, will definitely end up in my hands as well.

Once Upon a Time VIII: snowstorm, what snowstorm?

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Rejoice, magically and fantastically-inclined folk! It has come to my attention that Once Upon a Time Challenge has begun. It is hosted by Carl over at Stainless Steel Droppings to celebrate the beginning of spring and this year it lasts from March 21st to June 21st.

This is my first time participating, and I am going to use it wisely to read some really good fantasy or mythology. Or maybe I’ll just get some beer and sit reading sagas for three months. Or maybe I will finally read Little, Big (which currently holds the Longest On TBR Pile title at my house).

There are several participation tiers to suit a variety of tastes. I am going to take a somewhat easy route and do Quest the First.

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This means I’ll be reading at least 5 books that fit somewhere within Once Upon a Time categories. Here are some contenders at the moment (subject to change by the management):

1. Fox Woman by Kij Johnson

2. Way of Kings and Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

3. Talus and the Frozen King by Graham Edwards

4. Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

5. Little, Big by John Crowley (oh, why do I even try)

Basically, I am using this challenge as an excuse to read some good fantasy. I’ve been leaning rather science-fictionally lately, but I think my brain would enjoy reading some stuff with swords and spells that makes the peoples fall down!