I’ve finished two books in March so far and am on track to finish a third, all by women. This is a little unusual for me, I wasn’t reading much last year or the beginning of this year with everything that happened. It helped that both the finished novels, Hild by Nicola Griffiths and Kindred by Octavia Butler, are excellent and engaging. Both are very much about looking at the past. The novel I’m still finishing up, Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi, is amazing, it’s gotta be close to my favourite novel I’ve read in a long time and easily the most sophisticated. It’s crowding my thoughts of the other two out somewhat.
Kindred is quite a sharp to-the-point book about Dana, a young black woman being dragged back into the past of pre-civil war Maryland as a sort of guardian angel for her white slave-owner past. Butler has a clear no-nonsense voice, even for complicated subjects. I love how she can manage to allow the reader the option to hide from her meaning by obfuscating. If something is horrific she shows exactly, unflinchingly how horrific.The book is a lesson in the effects of cruelty, both as outright violence and the damage in hiding the past. The settings and time-travel tropes are as far from romanticised as possible, which was a relief.
The thing is though, I read it for a genre book club I go to. It’s a (mostly) male, (nearly all) white group and I think most are significantly older than me. It didn’t help that an aspect of the book that I really admired was the writing’s comparisons of Dana’s husband Kevin to the slave-owners Rufus and Weylin. There are uncomfortable parallels that I think others in the group found too easy to dismiss in favour of a ‘the husband wasn’t a bad bloke’ line of thought. Frustrating.
Hild is a very different sort of book to love. It’s not biting criticism, but it is critical in its look at history. The book is super slow paced, it’s not really one to eat up in a sitting but one to read a chapter or so a night (for me anyway). I loved the attention to detail given to all aspects, especially the value and emphasis on the importance of cloth and yarn to trade and power. It’s about how women made and found themselves places of power and were active in creating events that changed history. Hild takes its subject – St Hilda’s early life, where she grew up in her uncle’s court – and documents her early life and her transformation into a seer, portraying this as the result of the competence and brilliance of herself and the women around her. I completely absorbed it.
io9 did a pretty decent review calling it “skeptical fantasy” and “also a brilliantly-researched work of historical fiction”. It’s both, but I’d probably go further, the skepticism extends throughout the historical content of the book, constantly challenging more traditional historical narratives.Or at least, it does to me, but I am not a historian.
I think I’m growing to like historical narratives and fiction more and more, with or without speculative aspects. These books, alongside Sarah Waters’ fiction earlier in the year, watching The Borgias, Agent Carter and The Musketeers. Up to a week ago I was obsessively working through the Assassin’s Creed games and associated media (now edged out for Guild Wars 2). The end of last year had me increasingly bitter at the science fiction community, earlier in the year bored and frustrated by the comics community so it’s nice to find work slightly to the side of my usual interests that I still find engaging.