Books, read harder 2017

Read Harder: The politics of Urban Fantasy


I’m doing the 2017 Read Harder challenge from Book Riot. For each book I read in  the challenge, I aim to write a short blog post about it

Read: Vigil Angela Slatter

Task: Read a Fantasy Novel

Completed task 4/24

It’s a compelling idea, contemporary urban fantasy. Somewhere, out there in the very streets we walk on, is a hidden realm, a world where the magic, or the divine clash, and save the world, and it’s all out of our view. Urban fantasy sets up this hidden world, usually with some sort of “masquerade” and covenant to keep it from the eyes of us muggles.

It’s an interesting idea, and when done well it gives a new perspective on our familiar cities. Why, in our sleepy neighbourhoods, there could be magical people living among us! That weird neighbour of yours, maybe he’s actually a vampire in disguise? Or mabe (and this goes double for Adelaide given our inherent weird-shit quotient) all those weird and inexplicable crimes have another explanation, it’s totally elves! It’s fun to think about.
That’s an interesting idea, but in some ways isn’t that a kinda weird metaphor? That in our very suburbs there are threats to our very existence? It’s almost similar to some of the discourse around ethnic and cultural minorities in our own communities, and I think by placing it in a fantasy context we’re eliding some of the nastiness that comes with that, rather than tackling it.
Now, this post is spurred by Angela Slatter’s Vigil, which is set in Brisbane and deals with Sirens and other fantasy races (known here as “The Weyrd”). The weyrd live among us, hiding their non-human traits through shapeshifting or glamours, and they could very well be just down the road- that weird hipster cafe, or in a local church, or that house with the nice but secretive neighbours. Good stuff. As a concept, it’s pretty close to a number of other urban fantasy series- The Dresden Files, Sandman Slim, Vampire: the Masquerade (an RPG) and even something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or especially its spin-off, Angel. That’s not to say these are same-y, the execution is different. Nor is it to say that I don’t enjoy this stuff- I smashed through the Dresden Files a couple years ago and eagerly await the new one, I love Buffy, and I quite enjoyed Vigil. A lot of them follow the old pulp noir convention of a rogue investigator (Verity in Vigil is a general troubleshooter for the authorities of the Weyrd, Harry Dresden is essentially “Wizard, PI”) taking on a crime or a series of crimes.
In all of them, there’s usually something rotten within a particular sub-set of the magical community. In Vigil, it’s to do with Sirens (and I won’t spoil further), but in the Dresden Files it’s alternated between werewolves, rogue wizards, and the Fey. Other works have dealt with vampires near exclusively, and still others have hit all points inbetween. Often the general formula is that someone of *insert fantasy race/faction* has gone off the deep end and is doing something bad/killing something/trying to bring about a change in the order of things, and our intrepid hero must stop them. At one point they will go and speak/interrogate/beat up some member of *insert fantasy race/faction* to get information, and *member of fantasy race/faction* will either withhold information until later or have a crisis of conscience and give intrepid hero the information to help. The fantastical ne’er-do-well will be found, their plan thwarted, and the social order of the world/existence of the world will be maintained.
Isn’t this kinda the way sections of the media talk about minority communities? That these communities have customs and beliefs incompatible with the “normal,” and that these things are dangerous? And that the “members of fantasy race/faction” will withhold information that could save people? Isn’t this just the canard that “minorities will protect people from the authorities and therefore shouldn’t be trusted?” Because “fundamentally they are not like us normal, good people and they’re up to something?” We see that rhetoric all the damn time, whether it’s the latest panic about Islam, or immigrants, or any number of other minority groups.
It’s kinda troubling to see that sort of rhetoric applied to fantasy.
I may be over-reading here, and I’m absolutely sure that all of these authors aren’t explicitly trying to draw that parallel. It’s more likely they’re drawing from the word of noirish crime fiction, where this is all too common, or cop shows. How many cop shows have you seen where a particular ethnic minority protects a member of their own, and if only they’d come clean with the police sooner all this trouble would have been avoided? If they’d seen something, why didn’t they say something? This, of course, never applies to straight white people, because racism.
I just think it’s unwittingly a metaphor for right wing anxieties about minorities that have no basis in fact. Now of course, all these authors offset this- they point out that characters are making generalisations, or that they are jumping to conclusions, or that most of the magical community just wants to get on with life. All good stuff, and I trust that it is not the Author’s intent, and this is just one reading so disagree with me as you like.
As a society, we “other” people far too often, painting some folk as less than human. In Urban Fantasy, the other is literally the “Other,” and is already non-human, and that makes it palatable.
I think it’s something that needs examining.
Books, read harder 2017, Uncategorized

Read Harder: My friends, the books


I’m doing the 2017 Read Harder challenge from Book Riot. For each book I read in  the challenge, I aim to write a short blog post about it

Read: Phantoms on the Bookshelves Jacques Bonnet

Task: Read a book about books

Completed task 3/24

I’ve been surrounded by books for my whole life, in one way or another. My parents had a bookshelf when I was a child that I remember, filled (at least at my reaching level) with large format books and photo albums, with more books up higher. I remember my grandparents’ bookshelves (which still stand in much the same orientation), and looking through what was on there quite early on as well. I’ve always loved books, and I’ve always been a reader. Continue reading

Books, read harder 2017

Read Harder: Colloquial Geography

I’m doing the 2017 Read Harder challenge from Book Riot. For each book I read in  the challenge, I aim to write a short blog post about it

Read: Goodwood Holly Throsby

Task: Read a debut novel

Completed task 2/24

Theres something very true that Holly Throsby captures in her debut novel here, and its something that’s definitely a country town thing: the colloquial geography of the town.

What do I mean by that? Goodwood takes place in a little town in country New South Wales, on the shore of a lake. It’s a small, tight knit community of probably less than 1000 people, and one of the things that I noticed as someone who grew up in country towns was the way that people talk about place.

Every small town has a set of local landmarks that might be impenetrable to someone from out of town, but is known in town. In Goodwood, it’s nicknames like The Wicko, the Bowlo, the Horse, Woody’s- places the locals know and all call by those names. I think what’s unique in country towns about these things is that they’re universal nicknames- everyone knows them, and no one calls them by a different nickname.

Where I grew up, there were any number of these names. The Rollercoaster. Rawady’s deli, which remained so after the titular family sold it. The Pines. Which pub is the Serge, and which one was Puffer’s. These are all locations that any local could pinpoint exactly, but to an outsider always needs explanation. It’s not really a measure to put off outsiders (and in the case of Kapunda, I was that outsider once) but it is a hyperlocal dialect thing that takes adjustment.

I’m not saying cities can’t have local landmarks, or it’s own nicknames. Most people know about the Men in Black on Cross Road, for example, or even something as famous as the Malls Balls (actually entitled The Spheres) which everyone knows. What a city doesn’t have is a universal application of these names, nor a consistency- the pub that my friends sometimes call the Avocado is not universally referred to as such, and the lack of assumed knowledge of these nicknames means that you have to always clarify these things. Individual suburbs and schools and subcommunities in cities may very well have their own versions of these things, but that’s kinda the point- a place in a city sits at a venn diagram of multiple possible titles.

It’s a texture of place, a little detail that feels super true. Throsby apparently grew up in a suburb, but she’s done her homework.

Books, read harder 2017

Read Harder: on Superspies

I’m doing the 2017 Read Harder challenge from Book Riot. For each book I read in  the challenge, I aim to write a short blog post about it

Read: Black Widow: The Finely Woven Thread Nathan Edmonson (words), Phil Noto (art)

Task: Read a superhero comic with a female lead

Completed task 1/24

Superheroes occupy an interesting place in most tellings- they do a lot of their work in the open and outside the law. In comics, this relationship with the law is an interesting one- it goes from being actively hunted (the Punisher ) to tacit endorsement (Batman and his bat signal- in a recent storyline, Batman was even a police sanctioned superhero). This makes superheroes sit strangely with other parts of the government as well, and it’s here that super-spies like Black Widow have to sit.

It is an odd position.

‘Real’ spies, of course, aren’t like Black Widow. They aren’t James Bond,  they’re George Smiley. Maybe. We don’t know. We don’t know names, and they won’t tell us. Hell, if you work for ASIO here you can’t even tell us. That makes a spy who, in-universe, people know by name and appearance as an Avenger especially weird. Black Widow is a more or less household name in the Marvel universe, and splits her time between being… an Avenger fighting crazy aliens and monsters and robots, and also doing super spy work for hire. Can’t they call someone else? Why would you use a spy everyone knows on sight? 

Super spies in comics have a long history, and Black Widow is a surprisingly long runner- she debuted in 1964 as an Iron Man baddie, before switching sides and being redesigned into her current appearance more or less in the early 70s. That’s a very different era for a spy. Being an ex KGB agent now helping western superheroes is very different to now, where her origin is a bit murkier. There’s less clean ideological difference, no Cold War to resonate with the character. It means Black Widow as a character is unmoored from the giant conflict. In this collection, she’s working to atone for her past actions, but what they were and who they were for isn’t as clear cut.

She works for international spy agency SHIELD and as a freelancer, but even that’s an odd thing. SHIELD has always had a bit of a strange relationship with espionage and governments. Who precisely does SHIELD work for? Kinda…everyone? Who funds them? Also…uh…kinda everyone? It’s like U.N.C.L.E. I guess. It’s all very weird. Even the Marvel movies hasn’t quite articulated it right, with SHIELD working for an ill defined national council but based in Washington.

I kinda prefer the spy agencies in the DC universe, who have a clear purpose and work for a clear government. A.R.G.U.S, the agency thst crops up most often as the agency responsible for the Suicide Squad, has a pretty clear role as an American intelligence agency and a clear remit.

So super spies have no basis really in reality, but they definitely have a basis in spy cinema. Look at this page from Black Widow 

You can almost see Harry Lime in the background. It’s here perhaps, that Black Widow needs to sit as a concept. In a heightened Marvel reality, maybe the only spies that can exist are ones that we know. Ones that can tangle with Iron Man and turn up on pages with shield wielding super soldiers. Perhaps, in a universe where you can seemingly run into international terror organisations on your morning commute, the spies need to be visible as a deterrent. They need to be Bond, James Bond.
Or perhaps Widow, Black Widow