Monthly Archives: May 2016

Book Review: Alif the Unseen

I’ll admit, right off the bat, that I’m a fan of G. Willow Wilson’s work in the comic book world.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, I’m a great admirer of Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, particularly its ability to valorize an immigrant, non-white perspective within the confines of the Marvel universe while also making the protagonist appealing to girls of every culture.  Which is why I was excited to read Wilson’s non-comic novel, Alif the Unseen.  Indeed, I remember fondly Neil Gaiman’s transition from comics to prose: when Neverwhere was first released, and I was in the last year of high school, I saved up so that I could buy it in hardcover at the bookstore near my school – I was extremely excited by its very existence.

Two decades later, and lacking the same fanboy manic energy, I waited for years to read Alif the Unseen, picking it up when it appeared in my local branch of the public library.  But I was still just as excited: it was about Arab Springs, quirky characters, magical jinn!  On one level it did not disappoint: Wilson is just as deft with prose as she is with comics – the writing was beautiful and polished, the characters danced off the page – and Alif is definitely a promise of great work to come.  But on other levels I found this book quite bothersome.

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Alif the Unseen is about a fictional Arab city-state on the edge of the Empty Quarter that resembles various autocratic governments that were targeted by the movements of the squares that collectively formed the so-called Arab Spring.  And taking its cue from the Arab Spring, Wilson’s novel is about the resistance to autocratic middle eastern dictatorships and the “hacktivists” invested in this resistance.  Specifically it focuses on the titular “Alif” (an internet handle, the character’s real name is [predictably, because of the story] “Mohammed”), a hacker whose response to his love life gets out of control and ends up sparking an uprising, as well as a conjunction with the world of the jinn.  All in all this would very interesting… except that it rubbed me the wrong way.

1: proselytization

Maybe it’s because I was raised in a Christian family that was marginally invested in shitty religious literature that I’m extremely allergic to literature that is religiously didactic.  I’ve got no problem with authors who are invested in a particular faith trying to sell this faith through myth and allegory, but my hackles rise when I encounter literature that boldly and unapologetically proselytizes x religion.  Anyone who is familiar with this kind of literature (in particular the first world Christian “literary” industry [yes, I intentionally scare quoted literary] which has pumped out Left Behinds and a whole bunch of other shit) is aware that it functions with conversion in mind.  That is, the story orbits around the significance of conversion, about recognizing that the Bible contains the answers, and that any skepticism regarding the true faith will be challenged by supernatural events.  And look the Bible and some random preacher answers all your questions, an easy resolution is achieved, and yay this particular expression of faith!

Needless to say, as a consummate secularist I find this approach to reality quite dubious.  More importantly, as someone who appreciates literature I find this approach to narrative downright insulting.  Hence, I found Alif the Unseen similarly insulting because it read like the Muslim equivalent of this shitty Christian literature: at many points it read like thinly veiled religious proselytization – that is, piss-poor religious apologetics masquerading as a story.  The point of this kind of literature, regardless of its religious affiliation, is to result in a conciliation between the main character and the religion in question; on the way it presents many arguments as to why this religion is the truth, why its doctrine is sacrosanct, and why unbelievers are fucking idiots and/or hypocrites.

Over and over Wilson presents the Quran as an infallible doctrine of reality, greater than all religious doctrines.  While I’m happy to accept that Wilson is a Muslim and that her perspective about belief should be just as respected as those invested in other beliefs (and, to be fair, I’m even more happy to protect the right to be Muslim in the face of some of the most abhorrent Islamophobia), as someone who believes in the importance of secular demystification, I can’t help but cringe when Wilson waxes eloquent about the Quran’s monopolization of truth.  Isn’t this what all religions claim, with similar arguments, about their holy books?  And isn’t this the problem of religion that necessitates a secular movement?

But Wilson goes to great length to present the Muslim doctrine as the doctrine of reality, greater than secular science.  Her jinn characters claim it is truth!  Because it protects itself from translation betrayal it must be correct!  Because it possesses some esoteric truth that reveals itself at the moment of translation it knows more than science… Seriously, at one point she argues that because an English translation uses the word “atom” the Quran has predicted particle science!  Never mind the fact that the word “atom” – as well as the notion of infinitesimal building blocks of existence – preceded the Quran by millennia.  I found myself quite offended that Wilson wanted me to think that the Quran was aware of modern particle physics when, in point of fact, it was tailing ancient philosophy – as so many religious texts were.

Even worse is the claim, made by the character called “the convert”, that Islam is some “matrix of social justice.”  Okay, on some level every religion possesses a “matrix of social justice”, which is why there is such a thing as liberation theology.  To assume that Islam possesses a better corner on this social market is pretty strange when the truth is that only a secular movement can permit social justice.  Why?  Because movements based on a particular religious expression must necessarily bar people who from other religions since the point of any religion is about conversion, about the afterlife endgame.  Social explanations for social phenomena require a secular, irreligious movement to be the foundation of struggle.  And the experience of liberation theology confirms this: it is no accident that liberation theologians decided that they should be subordinate to larger, secular struggles.  Ever since the French Revolution, no religious movement by itself has produced anything resembling progressive social justice; rather, purely religious expressions of resistance have tended to generate the kind of cultural nationalism that Frantz Fanon, among others, warned about.

But since Wilson is invested in proselytizing, everything about Islam must be the best thing ever.  In this sense, the character of Dina was particularly cloying.  Aside from the fact that it was clear, from the get-go, that Dina was the formulaic authentic love interest of a protagonist who was initially unable to understand who really loved him, I was more bothered by the fact that someone who was a traditional religious conservative was overly valorized.  Although Wilson attempted to characterize Dina as someone who was not the typical conservative Islamist – she doesn’t like censorship, she has problems with the regular Islamists, she likes music – the character’s fundamentalism annoyed me. Deference to the patriarchal convention of being owned by her father, her complaint about how metaphors are lies, her ideological certainty of religion… These are virtues of a reactionary.

Sure, Dina is more like your beloved avuncular conservative – that red tory religious individual who is somewhat sympathetic to the liberal rule of law – than a fanatical reactionary, but so what? The fact that my conservative family members can complain about ISIS doesn’t mean very much when they also complain about the accessibility of abortion, the institution of gay marriage, sexual education in public schools, and a whole host of other “moral dilemmas” that place them in the same constellation as the conservative militants they fear.  Only the problematic of Islamophobia in my social context made me find Dina even half-ways interesting as a character, but in the fictional context where she exists she should be understood as politically backwards. Replace her devotion to Islam with a devotion to US Christianity and she would be a Trump supporter.

2: liberal social networking bullshit

Even worse than her proselytization of her religion is Wilson’s proselytization of abject liberalism.  Alif the Unseen takes the worst analysis of the Arab Spring: a) that it was extremely revolutionary (never mind the fact it that it was immediately contained, that no revolution actualized); b) that it was brought into being by social networking hacktivism.  Even more problematic is its assumption that the liberal values of such a “revolution” (meaning, the values of US-style “democracy”) are the apex of ethics and morality.

Alif’s moral significance is based on his pursuit of a liberal anti-censorship ideology, regardless of political substance – the value of liberalism is his moral substance.  He is a “hacktivist” who shelters anyone who is censored by his shitty autocratic state, whether they be Islamists, communists, or pornographers.  The morality that is valued in this book is a morality of allowing everyone the right of free expression and nothing beyond this, i.e. the “American Dream.”  Obviously, I could not help but find this approach to reality somewhat disturbing.  If you’re going to defend Islamists, pornographers, and communists altogether just because they’re all repressed, you’re not a hero – you’re a bloody opportunist.  Pornographers are anti-women; Islamists of the ISIS type are anti-people; communists should disdain both camps along with people, like Alif, who shelters reactionaries.  Because let’s be honest: a society based on the freedom of speech of everyone and everything, even people who are anti-people, is pure capitalism.  While it is indeed the case that the US is Islamophobic, it uses the language of free speech to defend Christian reactionaries, pornographers, and anti-capitalists all alike: this is its justification for being a state of “freedom” and we know that it is complete and utter bullshit.

There is a moment in Alif the Unseen where a movement of the squares develops and the masses emerge, but in a way that replicates the most simplistic understanding of the Arab Spring: all these people of different ideological commitments are getting along because they want bourgeois democracy!  Alif and his friends are excited to discover that Islamists and communists are marching together “IRL”, and that their hacktivism has produced this “non-sectarianism” that is a hallmark of liberalism.  Never mind the fact that any anti-capitalist movement worth its salt should not collaborate with reactionaries; never mind the fact that the history about these collaborations is very clear – the religious reactionaries have liquidated those secular communist forces that have marched with them (in Afghanistan, in Iran) because maybe they are natural enemies.

But if we begin by assuming that an American style democracy is worthwhile, then we have to accept that the core value is a capitalism defined by vague “anti-censorship”.  Worse: social movements are governed by social networking, by hacktivists like Alif, who are determining “IRL” by virtual activities.  All of which runs contrary to reality where movements are determined and destroyed by on-the-ground organizing.  Which is why, despite the vaunted power of social networking, there was eventually a military coup in Egypt because the Egyptian military was an organized on the ground force – the social networking meant shit, just as it hadn’t really meant shit in the initial uprisings.  Rather, it was a symptom of mass spontaneous rebellion, not at all a cause.  The very American ideology of maverick individuals setting themselves against government conspiracies, however, generates the “hactivism” and social networking narrative; Wilson bought into this wholesale and, in buying into it, was completely uncritical of the liberal discourse that it mobilized.

Just take this crowd-sourcing, hacktivist understanding of social transformation away from Alif‘s simplistic understanding of the Egyptian intifada and what we have is an “Anonymous” idea of the world. You know, those scary internet blokes whose symbol is a Guy Fawkes mask – because, you know, they all decided they were rebels upon seeing V for Vendetta when they were eight and that’s about as far as their social analysis goes. Those rebel leaders who are great at making ominous videos but whose rebellious activities consist mainly of shutting down websites, social networking accounts, and doxing. Their politics, based as they are on a juvenile anarchism (which is pretty much “question everything and rebel dude”), tend to endorse the ruling ideas of the ruling class. Like when they got on the #iamcharlie bandwagon, or when they endorsed Gamer Gate’s claims (but not the people running Operation Gamer Gate because they thought they were snitches), or when they decided to target Black Lives Matter. Alif the Unseen‘s protagonist might as well be part of Anonymous; he certainly acts the part.

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If it wasn’t for Alif the Unseen‘s didacticism I would have enjoyed it far more than I did; the characters were interesting, the urban fantasy was well developed, the writing was well crafted. I am not saying that I’m opposed to didactic fiction – hell, I happen to like a lot of didactic fiction – but only that if one is going to craft a didactic novel they should realize where the didacticism becomes cloying: when it enters the realm of religious proselytization, or makes political points that feel entirely juvenile. These aspects tended to undermine what would have otherwise been an enjoyable read by an author who is doing excellent work elsewhere. (Indeed, the statements made about Islam in Ms. Marvel are far more sophisticated, while still being didactic, than what Wilson writes in Alif the Unseen.) I look forward to Wilson’s future novels; it’s too bad her first attempt wasn’t as great as it could have been.

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Sofia Samatar’s Winged Histories

Months back when I posted a list of my top twenty favourite fantasy series I was unaware that Sofia Samatar was going to release a companion piece to her brilliant A Stranger in Olondria. Now that this book has been released, and I purchased and devoured it almost immediately, I would definitely edit the list to include her – not sure who I would remove, but someone would definitely need to be removed.

As I’ve mentioned before A Stranger in Olondria is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in a very long time, both in form and content, and was also one of the three favourite novels of any genre that I’ve read in the past decade (the other two being Bolaño’s 2666 and Kingsnorth’s The Wake). Her recent novel, The Winged Histories, is just as amazing as Stranger – I’m still going back and forth about which one I like more – and, just like Stranger I’m annoyed with myself for having finished so quickly.  I really tried to stretch it out, and it’s not like I don’t have excuses to stretch it out (what with all the professional development and work related reading I should have been doing), but I couldn’t last more than a month and a half, even though I rationed myself to small passages a day at one point. But since I could have finished it in a couple days, I have to congratulate myself on demonstrating some self-control.

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And Samatar herself already described the kind of feeling that comes with reading a beautiful book, when you’re reaching the end, near the end of A Stranger in Olondria when her narrator proclaims:

The silence. End of all poetry, all romances. Earlier, frightened, you began to have some intimation of it: so many pages had been turned, the book was so heavy in one hand, so light in the other, thinning toward the end. Still, you consoled yourself. You were not quite at the end of the story, at that terrible flyleaf, blank like a shuttered window: there were still a few pages under your thumb, still sought and treasured. Oh, was it possible to read more slowly? – No. The end approached, inexorable, at the same measured pace. The last page, the last of the shining word! And there – the end of the book. The hard cover which, when you turn it, gives you only this leather stamped with old roses and shields. […] Then the silence comes, like the absence of sound at the end of the world.

I’m not the first reader who has noticed this passage and compared it to their experience of reading the book in which it resides (and now will compare it the experience of reading The Winged Histories. Of course I don’t believe Samatar intended this passage to apply to herself because, based on what she has written elsewhere and the interviews she has given, she is not like some Lars Von Trier of the literary fantasy world: a pompous asshole who knows they are talented and wants everyone to know it as well. Rather, since Stranger was a book that was a love letter to reading and writing – so much of a love letter that its world building invented entire libraries, literary traditions, a phenomenology of experiencing this imaginary literary universe, literary theory, religions built on the written word, and an emergent new literate culture (I especially loved that early passage when Jevick discusses all of the Olondrian writers describing reading and writing). And the book that Jevick is haunted to eventually write leads to the above passage. Even still, it applies to Samatar along with other writers of her calibre.

Hence, like A Stranger In Olondria, the experience of The Winged Histories is the kind of experience you can only get with a book that possesses a story that grips you deeply and a formal quality that, like Angela Carter’s prose, makes every want-to-be writer who cares about form feel a deep anguish that their craft will never be as good. At the beginning it takes some difficulty to get into, because Samatar doesn’t lead you by the hand patting you on the head, but then something clicks. I found myself stuck between the impulse to speed read because I wanted to know what would happen and the desire to slow down and savour each sentence. The impulse to reach the end; the impulse for the book to be eternal.

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Moreover, these books do what very few “world-building” fantasy novels have succeeded in doing: they like high literature and yet still present a world you can tell that Samatar has crafted ahead of time, like a Tolkien or those in his tradition, with pain-staking detail. As if Proust decided, one day, to not write the quintessential modernist novel and spent years crafting an intricate fantasy world that functioned according to its own internal laws – with its own mythologies, religions, artifacts, geographies, cultures, languages, conventions – and then wrote stories about its people with his skill in prose. (What sort of quintessential modernist novel would that be?) Or if Tolkien, after making his world, spent a few years learning how to write like a Conrad but with an attention to the actual political dimensions his mythologies would necessitate.

Because, let’s be honest, you don’t usually get elaborate fantasy world building with the English prose craft of, say, the Joyce of Portrait of an Artist as Young Man or The Dubliners. (Joyce is also, obviously, a stylist par excellence with Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake [though I haven’t had the energy to labour my way through the latter], but this is a different kind of style than what I mean here.) Okay, maybe Vandermeer and Valente, but their world building still possesses a magic realist dimension that, intersecting with a Borgesian approach, tends to build worlds that are surreal and weird – that aren’t primarily concerned with expressing a concrete fantasy world with the same geeky attention to detail as Samatar’s Olondria. Or maybe China Mieville, though his prose craft has only become more ingenious after his big world building fantasies (although, according to Strange Horizons, his recent book just might be part of the Bas-Lag universe). So when you get someone who writes like a Joyce, a Conrad, a Bolaño, a Carter, etc. and does so within a context that the nerds of “epic fantasy” have claimed as their territory, you’re dealing with something possibly unique.

The thing is, this world building ethos was not as prevalent in Stranger as it is in Winged, and so part of the brilliance of the former is to prove that both books proceed organically from a previously developed and thoroughly thought out fantasy universe. In Stranger there was only a glimpse of this universe, mainly because we were gleaning everything through the perspective of an outsider obsessed with Olondrian literature: Jevick, coming from the margins of Empire, arrives in Olondria only to discover that its literary output is different from its internal state, becomes haunted by a dead woman from another marginal culture, and gets caught up in events he cannot fully understand because he lacks the compass; we receive glimpses of the depth of the world through which he is moving but, like him, they are only glimpses – aside from the literary world he understands so much cannot be known. There was a map, of course, which is a key indication that the author might be a world builder, and there was evidence of a richness lurking beneath the surface of the narrator’s perspective, but it would take another book to reveal how thoroughly and previously constructed and thought-through this fictional universe was.

In Winged, however, we are provided with the entire story of internal politics and historical conjuncture that was partially experienced by Stranger‘s Jevick. The perspectives of four women, one of whom was a tertiary but important character in Jevick’s tale, frame this book, each one revealing a unique insider understanding of the Olondrian fictional universe. Add to this the complex and worked out genealogy, historical fragments that function as non-intrusive info dumps to convey the weight of history, an attention to cultural distinction, a language glossary, concrete explanations of religious history and formation, a fabulous mythology, and everything anyone would require from world building. Unless they just want elves, dwarves, and some pseudo Middle Earth.

It is actually quite depressing, at least in my opinion, that she would invent all of this only to say that it marks the “completion of the project. Never say never, of course, but I do see this book as my farewell to epic fantasy.” That is, when you think of the background geek-like obsession that it would take to compose a fantasy world in which you could write two novels, neither of which reads and behaves like the typical world building fantasy novel (I mean this in a good way, obviously, and I also mean to say that Samatar’s world building is far more transgressive, when it comes to content and form, than any of the recent “grim dark” iterations), it’s tragic to be told that this is all we’ll get. I want to know more about some of the historical background she outlined! Like those vampire rulers who used a war between human nations to intervene and impose a dread hegemony upon the continent that would eventually become Olondria. [quote about them.] Or the story of [writer that the Stone people disliked] who was mentioned both in Stranger and Winged. Or what about the future openings, first presented in Stranger, where the centre of knowledge production shifts to the former margins due to the upheavals between religious sects?

I want to know more! (I want a serialized television series!) But sadly – and necessarily – this desire to know more, and have the story of this universe told and retold over and over and over again is precisely the reason why, unfortunately, Samatar should close this book, giving us “only this leather stamped with roses and shields” so that “the silence comes, like the absence of sound at the end of the world.” Over-serialization is indeed the death of her kind of literary world building.

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One of the difficulties of judging The Winged Histories in comparison to A Stranger in Olondria is that I have no way of knowing whether or not I would have enjoyed the former as much as I did if I hadn’t read the latter. Whereas Stranger follows a single narrative of an outsider coming to grips with the reality of a culture he idolized from afar, Winged is an encyclopedic take on Olondria from several insiders involved in the upheaval the protagonist of Stranger drifted through.

What is most remarkable about Winged, aside from its composition and literary style, is that it skirts the theatre of action. Although it opens with the character Tav and her experience as a “swordmaiden” – a rare woman warrior amongst men – and though the violence of a social upheaval and a separationist movement form the basis of the book, warfare is relegated to the margins. We are intentionally not shown, as in so many of these world-building books, scenes of violence and sword-swinging action with the set pieces of armies of facing armies. Tav’s tale breezes through her experience fighting a border war which is a political distraction, concluding with her desire to fuck up the Olondrian Empire in the favour of familial connections based in subaltern populations. She conspires with her cousin, a secondary character from Stranger to start the rebellion against the emergent theocracy that was the focus of that book, but then her narrative ends. The following parts of Winged focuses on the experiences of other women involved in this unrest, all of whom are significant to the unfolding events but who aren’t at the centre of violence, and so the violent narrative arc of this war becomes an object of reflection that is only experienced as a violent aftermath by the other protagonists. Indeed, it is concluded halfway through the second section, even though it started at the end of the first, and relayed to a woman under house arrest.

Dodging the action of epic war, while building the world in which it takes place, is one of Samatar’s strengths as fantasist. She can narrativize all of those mythic events that determine a concrete world with distinct cultures, mythologies, languages, and organic characters while avoiding the very events that this kind of world-building is meant to valorize: kick-ass battles and quests. While it is indeed the case that Tav, her first protagonist, is a character who possesses the privilege to establish her agency in the midst of war, the fact that she is unique as a woman in a patriarchal world (she had to trick her way into the army based on a forged letter and an appeal to gendered exceptions to the rule) necessarily demands that her narrative be disrupted by those women who will experience war in a different manner. And isn’t it far more interesting, Samatar invites us to consider in the face of the typical epic fantasy fare, that we investigate the ways in which these massive upheavals might be experienced by excluded women?

Following Tav’s narrative is the story of Tialon, daughter of Ivrom the militant priest of the Stone. Here is where Winged positions itself directly with the narrative of Stranger: Tialon, lover of Jevick’s teacher Lunre (once Ivrom’s disciple), who helped Jevick escape when her father, Ivrom, arrested him because of his possession. Now she becomes a primary character and narrates the story of her father and his austere religion. In Stranger this religion, which tried to place itself in the service of rationality while suppressing the irrational, ends up facing the return of the repressed so that Jevick becomes the unwitting tool of the destruction of all that he valued in Olondria (books and libraries) only to experience their regeneration in his islands.

Here, we learn how such a rational religion could become an austere theocracy: this graffitied stone pulled from the wasteland and worshipped as a message from god became the locus of Ivrom’s desire to challenge the supposed infiltration of Olondrian society of decadent intermarriage between Olondrian nobility and non-Olondrian subject populations that produced Tav, her rebel cousin, and her sister. Ivrom, patriarch that he is, is obsessed with outflanking the great aunt of Tav, her sibling, and her cousin who has spent a lifetime trying to take over Olondrian society from within. In doing so, he has turned his daughter into an appendage of a religion he himself has adopted. In the rebellion that Tav helps initiate, Ivrom is executed and Tialon is placed under house arrest, where she attempts to excavate the history of her father’s fanaticism. And as the rebellion is suppressed, and Tialon nears the end of her house arrest, the conflict she feels over her father’s project and his venal patriarchy results in an ambivalence over his execution:

I think he went easily to the noose, slipping earthward like a leaf, and gave the prince one stern, cold look before he died. I think he died so quietly that the crowd was awed for a moment and fell silent, and the prince himself quaked with fear. I think he did. No, I think my father begged for mercy. I think they dragged him from his chair and made him crawl to the foot of the tree. I think he loosed his bowels and his murderers laughed. I think he thought of me and feared for me and thanked the Nameless Gods that I was not there. I think he cursed and threatened them, he swore the gods would smite them. I think his bones were so light he took a long time to die. I think he is still hanging there. I think they cut him down. Let me go… Let me see him. Let me go.

Tialon’s story is followed by the narrative of Seren, Tav’s lover, in the time when the war is over, Seren’s people are liberated from the Olondrian yoke (but at great cost), and Tav has returned to her to abdicate the her life as a warrior. This narrative is told as a fragmented prose poem, a way of making sense of a subaltern culture devastated by war and in the midst of reconstruction. Seren is obsessed with the ways in which a patriarchy imposed by conquest has effected her people, particularly the ways it has caused her family to fall apart: her grandfather died in a previous uprising, her grandmother spent her entire life demanding revenge, and this legacy has always been one that has forced its way into the construction of masculinity at the expense of the women.

Remembrance becomes the remembrance of patriarchy, something which Seren hopes will be broken – especially since she has seen this way of life devastate her family and prevent her from having the kind of lover she desires. A remembrance that reproduces itself in the song and saga of her people:

This is why I say that music should not be for remembrance. We remember too much. We need music to forget. Songs that leave no scars. All these women with scarred faces and the men would say, “She goaded me to kill.” It was the common defense in the case of murder, so conventional, like a song, every case of murder seemed to be the same, even long blood feuds among hundreds of people, always the same, it was always the case of honor and there was always a woman who goaded the man to kill. […] I always felt that this defense was true but also false. True because of the way my grandmother tried to goad my father to make him kill. False because something else was standing behind my grandmother. A vast and terrible logic. Formulaic, like a song. The closed and shining logic of men and women. All of us, singing ourselves to death.

Finally there is the story of Tav’s sister, Siski, that takes place after the rebellion fails – when Siski and her lover/cousin, Tav’s co-conspirator – flee into obscurity. But this is a tale that also excavates the the past of Siski and Tav, the way that family trauma has affected them, and at many points is quite heart-breaking. This was the most difficult part of the book to get through, even more so than Seren’s story, put it was also the most rewarding. All of the disparate strings are tied together in a melancholy way, in the midst of a dread transformation. The world of the fathers, the world of women attempting to assert themselves within this world in a way that is not healthy. I tried so hard to savour the end of the book, to stretch it out for as long as possible.

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There were so many moments in A Winged Histories that caused me to shiver. Like when the matriarch of the family – the same woman that the priest of the Stone, Ivrom, despised and who pushed Tav, Siski, and their cousin to the forefront of Olondrian society – loses everything in the rebellion but is trying desperately to reclaim her hopes for imperial power. She is attempting to write letters to Siski that vacillate between angry directives and apologetic explanations. The letters accumulate like litter, all of them expressing her contradictory emotions, until she writes one about how she was working “on a single painting for half a century. And now imagine a child tears it with a razor.” Then she finally she cries, a single “tear on her knuckle,” and attempts three more missives: “Siski you children are all the same. Siski your duty. Siski your failure”; “Siski the lives of women”; “Dear Siski. Forgive me.”

We are left with a novel that is composed of the voices that are usually suppressed in epic fantasy, voices that simultaneously suppress the normative conventions of this same fantasy. The doors are closed on the fictional universe Samatar initiated in Stranger even though Winged reveals the historical and cultural depth that could be explored in later novels. In this way The Winged Histories is a book as it is defined by Seren:

The is the book of song, which means the book of laughter. In Kestenyi, song, yai, is related to laughter…  But in the che we have another word for book. We call it hawan, lamentation. I don’t know why. Perhaps long ago a woman saw someone weeping over a book. Or perhaps it’s because we call every long poem hawan. Our many hawayn, histories of death and mourning. We, we women, we sing them, but we don’t compose them. It is said that we don’t compose them. We are always too late for the battle, we come behind it, we compose little songs, yaili, we don’t have time. […] So: the book of song. The hawan of kyai, the lamentation of laughter. […] The mourning of laughter, the sob of mirth, the tears of joy, are you finished yet, have you got it all?