Now it's Rhysling Award nomination season, and the officers rejected a poem for not being speculative enough. Said poem was originally published in a speculative magazine, Strange Horizons -- which means the author, the editors, and the nominator all thought it was a speculative poem. But their opinions are irrelevant; the poem is excluded from consideration because someone else doesn't think it's speculative enough, people in a position of power that allows them to dictate other people's actions.
Predictably, this happened. Here is the poem, "I Will Be Your Grave."
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Yes, we know, we’ve all read Jon Negroni’s Pixar Theory, which draws connections between the 14 Pixar films that came after Toy Story in a tangled web that incorporates magic, sentient animals, and artificial intelligence. But Disney’s new video “Pixar Easter Eggs,” posted almost four years after Negroni’s deep dive, attacks the same question from a different angle.
That is, by going super granular—freeze-framing and then panning over to a background character (or image) that you may not have noticed on first viewing, then jumping over to the movie it references. From Inside Out‘s Riley peering into the aquarium in Finding Dory to the shadow of Up‘s Dug chasing Remy in Ratatouille two years before the former came out… or even Skinner’s bright red moped showing up in the scrap pile in WALL-E… this is an Easter egg video to the nth degree.
Seriously, I feel like Kujan at the end of The Usual Suspects.
Stephanie Garber’s debut novel, Caraval, is available January 31st from Flatiron Books—and we want to send you a pack of Caraval goodies! Three winners will each receive a galley of Caraval, a print map of Caraval, a set of branded colored pencils, and a Caraval backpack!
Welcome, welcome to Caraval—Stephanie Garber’s sweeping tale of two sisters who escape their ruthless father when they enter the dangerous intrigue of a legendary game.
Scarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval, the far-away, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show, are over.
But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.
Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever.
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My novel, The Fortress at the End of Time, is about a betrayal. It is not a secret or a twist or a surprise. In fact, it is revealed within the first few paragraphs. I am in the habit of writing betrayals or twists in this fashion because I feel that, too often, books are not an ideal form for a sudden or unexpected twist. The format does not, to me, create an ideal space for a sudden reversal similar to what we see on screen. Even on screen, twists are generally more about the big reveal, itself, than whatever that thing revealed may or may not symbolize or indicate to the larger purpose of the narrative. The momentum of the story, and the meaning of the story, is moving in a direction, after all. A sudden shift in the flow is jarring, and breaks the wall of narrative expectations. Attention span is so fragile, and books are so easy to put down. They require a level of concentration that no other artistic medium I know demands.
The jarring aspect is why, I feel, video games are a better place for this technique (when used sparingly!). Some of my favorite dusty, musty old video games contain a sudden twist that breaks the narrative flow just so. The hypnosis of gaming, the repetitive acts and actions, leads gamers into a sort of haze of muscle memory. When betrayal comes, a twist of the plot—again, only if well done—breaks the momentum of the narrative and forces the player to think about events in the game, and the actions they’ve been virtually doing. It works because the player is part of the narrative, not distant from it.
Some of my favorite moments in games—old, old games that you youngsters might not even recognize—involve a sudden twist or reversal, and some of the worst moments in video game storytelling also involve these. Here are five examples of the sudden betrayal, good, bad, and really well done.
(Beware: here there be spoilers, but all the games are ancient!)
In Baldur’s Gate 2: The Shadows of Amn, arguably the War and Peace of the Infiniti Engine RPGs, there is (finally) an Asian-themed character. He is a plucky, nimble, daring thief and bounty hunter that the player encounters early in the game, while escaping Irenicus’ dungeon. He is friendly, helpful, and a valuable asset to the party for much of the early game. Then, despite your friendship, he reveals his treachery in Act 3. All along, he had been a plant for Irenicus, sworn to serve the evil wizard through a magical geas of compulsion. All that epic equipment and skill the player had invested in him turns against the player. Ultimately, the player must kill a friend, who had no choice but to fight to the death. Evil wizards are the worst.
Rhianna Pratchett was the game writer on this amusing little interpretation of Pikmen that went on to become a series. It was well-written, full of tongue-in-cheek fantasy tropes, and warped humor with the aggressive and loyal little goblins that minion with gusto for their Overlord. Over the course of the game, the player is encouraged by the narrator and mentor figure to do nefarious acts of evil, and to encourage the minions to do the same. The player can choose to be a “good” overlord of the land, and use their power to help. The big reveal ties into this mechanic, and the larger narrative, when, in the end, the player discovers that he was once actually a hero going after an evil sorcerer who got a bonk on the head. The minions, in their craving for evil leadership, placed the amnesiac hero in charge, in part, by the urging of the nearly-dead sorcerer. The player had been working for the sorcerer all along! It works well because it connects the layer of the larger narrative of the game to the moment-to-moment gameplay experience over the whole course of the game. Everything comes together into a fulfilling narrative conclusion. Okay, you can see it coming a mile away, but that’s still a good thing. It’s better to not try too hard to make a big twist, and to telegraph it ahead of time, so it is just the right amount of jarring to the narrative.
Creators of Final Fantasy talked about wanting to create a more naturalistic sense of death and loss in a game experience. They created this character, and early in the game, she is taken. It is a sudden and jarring moment. I hate it. It feels cheap. The polished video and cut-scenery is a mockery of the stage directions. The player is standing right there, with a hugongousmongous sword, and doesn’t even have the opportunity to move a little while Sephiroth descends. Player control is taken away. The death has no real artistic connection to the larger narrative, except for the stretch of the concept of a dying world. This is how to do twists poorly in games. Narratively, I did like that in a game about violence and war, at least one of the “heroes” died—but the body count should have been much higher. The end should have been Red XIII and Cloud and Yuffie sitting alone in a filthy slum, drinking and smoking and trying not to cry while they talk about all their fallen friends.
Darth Traya’s Master Plan
Knights of the Old Republic 2 is an amazing game. It could have been so much more. It was released before it was ready, and the ending didn’t quite work or make sense. But, leading up to that ending, some of the best narrative in video game happened, and high on the list was the handling of Kreia, aka Darth Traya. The one-handed former Jedi hides her true nature for her own ends. Revan’s former Master, however, is insidious and corrupts all that she touches, even as she proves herself a valuable ally. The excellent writing and voice acting only enhances the experience of befriending a woman we know we cannot trust. And, she is a friend and ally. She saves you, gives good advice, and generally proves her worth on the team. When she reveals herself to be the final member of a Sith Triumvirate, with her own fortress full of dark acolytes, twisting the whole series of events to her own ends, the Jedi Master must storm the ruined world, and face her. It’s an excellent moment ruined by an incomplete game.
Your First Night in Minecraft
Not, strictly speaking, a story game, Minecraft still manages to make my list of excellent betrayals. By now, everyone knows the skeletons and spiders and zombies and creepers are coming. But, when the game is first played, by players who are not deeply immersed in geek culture, the world is bright and beautiful, full of vistas and creatures and trees and rocks. There is no menace, no terror. The sun passes over the sky in peace and abundance. Then, night falls. The world of beauty and peace turns against you, never to be the same. The tone of the game shifts forever.
Top image: Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (2005)
Joe M. McDermott is best known for the novels Last Dragon, Never Knew Another, and Maze. His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. His latest novel, The Fortress at the End of Time, is available from Tor.com Publishing. He holds an MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program. He lives in Texas.
We’re excited to share the cover for Elizabeth Bear’s The Stone in the Skull—the first book in a new trilogy set in the world of the Eternal Sky. The series makes a great entry point for new readers and fans alike who wish to explore Bear’s exotic and intriguing fantasy world, as The Stone in the Skull takes readers over the dangerous mountain passes of the Steles of the Sky and south into the Lotus Kingdoms.
Check out the full cover by artist Richard Anderson below!
Book one in the Lotus Kingdoms trilogy, The Stone in the Skull publishes October 10th with Tor Books. From the catalog copy:
The Gage is a brass automaton created by a wizard of Messaline around the core of a human being. His wizard is long dead, and he works as a mercenary. He is carrying a message from a the most powerful sorcerer of Messaline to the Rajni of the Lotus Kingdom. With him is The Dead Man, a bitter survivor of the body guard of the deposed Uthman Caliphate, protecting the message and the Gage. They are friends, of a peculiar sort.
They are walking into a dynastic war between the rulers of the shattered bits of a once great Empire.
Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at Fritz Leiber’s “The Terror From the Depths,” first published in Edward P. Berglund’s Disciples of Cthulhu anthology in 1976. Written 1937-1975 according to some sources, and entirely in 1975 according to others—can anyone solve the mystery? Spoilers ahead.
“The sea fog still wraps the sprawling suburbs below, its last vestiges are sliding out of high, dry Laurel Canyon, but far off to the south I can begin to discern the black congeries of scaffold oil wells near Culver City, like stiff-legged robots massing for the attack.”
Unnamed frame narrator introduces the following manuscript, found in a copper and silver casket of modern origin and curious workmanship along with two slim books of poetry: Azathoth and Other Horrors by Edward Pickman Derby and The Tunneler Below by Georg Reuter Fischer. Police retrieved the box from the earthquake (?) wreckage of Fischer’s Hollywood Hills home. Georg himself they discovered dead and strangely mutilated.
Georg Fischer’s narrative: He writes this before taking a drastic and “initially destructive” step. Albert Wilmarth has fled Fischer’s Hollywood Hills house following shocking discoveries with a magneto-optical scanner developed at Miskatonic University. The “hideously luring voices” of “infernal bees and glorious wasps… impinge upon an inner ear which [he] now can never and would never close.” He will resist them and write on though most future readers will deem him mad or a charlatan. A true scientific effort would reveal the truth about the forces that will soon claim Fischer, and maybe welcome him.
Fischer’s Swiss-born father Anton was a mason and stonecutter of natural artistry. He also had an uncanny ability to detect water, oil and minerals by dowsing. From Kentucky, Anton was drawn to the “outwardly wholesome and bright, inwardly sinister and eaten-away landscape” of Southern California, where he built the Hollywood Hills house. The natural stone floor of the basement he carved into a fantastic seascape dominated by giant squid eyes peering from a coral-encrusted castle, all labeled “The Gate of Dreams.”
Though born with a twisted foot, Georg roamed the snake-infested hills by day and sleepwalked by night. He slept twelve hours a day but remembered only a few dreams. In them he floated through tunnels seeming gnawed from solid rock, which he sensed were not only far underground but far under the nearby Pacific Ocean. Strange purplish-green and orange-blue light illuminated the tunnels and revealed carvings like “mathematical diagrams of…whole universes of alien life.” He also saw living creatures: man-length worms with translucent wings as numerous as a centipede’s legs and eyeless heads with shark-toothed mouths. Georg eventually realized that in dream HE himself inhabited a worm-body.
The dreams ended after he saw worms attacking a boy he recognized as himself. Or did they end? Georg had the impression his “unconscious night-wandering” continued, only stealthily, noticed not even by his conscious mind.
In 1925, on a ramble with Georg, Anton fell down a suddenly yawning hole in the path and died wedged beyond recovery. Would-be rescuers filled in the pitfall, which became Anton’s grave. Georg and his mother remained in the Hollywood Hills house. Though seemingly incapable of sustained attention and effort, Georg made a creditable showing in school and, as Anton had hoped, was accepted into Miskatonic University. He stayed only one term due to nervousness and homesickness; like Anton, he was drawn back to the brittle California hills. A stint at UCLA earned him a BA in English literature, but he pursued no steady work. Instead, perhaps inspired by Derby’s Azathoth, he self-published The Tunneler Below. Another inspiration was doubtless his renewed exploration of childhood paths, under which he was convinced there wound tunnels like those of his dreams.
Georg’s mother dies of a rattlesnake bite inflicted while she pursues her son with a letter—Georg’s sent the Miskatonic library copies of Tunneler, and folklore expert Albert Wilmarth is writing to praise it. Wilmarth also notes the odd similarity of Georg’s “Cutlu” with “Cthulhu,” “Rulay” with “R’lyeh,” “Nath” with “Pnath,” all references MU was investigating in a multidisciplinary study of “the vocabulary of the collective unconscious,” of strange links between dreams and folklore and poetry.
Wilmarth and Georg begin corresponding. Wilmarth mentions Lovecraft’s work, often based on Miskatonic’s eldritch discoveries, though, of course, highly spiced with Howard’s imaginative additions. Georg seeks out Lovecraft’s stories and is struck by echoes of his own dreams and experiences and thoughts. Could there be more reality in the fantasy than Wilmarth will acknowledge?
At last Wilmarth visits California, magnetic-electric “geoscanner” in tow. He’s been using it to map underground systems all over the country and is eager to try it on Georg’s hills. First, though, he checks out the “Gate of Dreams” floor. The scanner registers “ghost vacuities”—it must be acting up. It works better out on the trails the next day, showing that they’re indeed undermined by tunnels. Wilmarth theorizes that if Cthulhu and other extraterrestrials exist, they could go anywhere, perhaps seeping through the ground or under the sea in a dreaming half-state of being. Or maybe it’s their dreams that gnaw the tunnels…
Homeward bound, Georg and Wilmarth see what looks at first like a big rattler. It is, instead, one of Georg’s dream-worms! It runs for cover, they for the house. Later, Georg receives in the mail a copper-silver box containing a message from his father. Anton claims he had a special ability to “swim” under the earth in some extracorporeal form, hence his dowsing skill. Georg, too, is special and will be able to become “Nature’s acolyte,” as soon as he “bursts the gate of dreams.”
Meanwhile Wilmarth’s tried the geoscanner in the basement again. Something’s tunneled up from below, to within five centimeters of the stone! They must flee, but word of Lovecraft’s death convinces them to first take a daring risk: an experimental drug that should produce striking dreams in this haunted place. It does, at least for Wilmarth, who wakes in terror and rushes off in his car.
Georg remains to write his missive and put it in the copper-silver box for posterity. He’s determined to obey his father by sledgehammering the basement floor, the Gate of Dreams.
Perhaps he does. What we know is that an earth-shock strikes the hill-crest neighborhood, leaving the Fischer house a collapsed wreck. Searchers find Georg’s body at the edge of the rubble, along with his missive-containing box. His twisted foot is what identifies the corpse, for something has eaten away his face and forebrain.
What’s Cyclopean: The language jumps around a little as Leiber code-switches between his own style and Lovecraftian adjectival mania. That second style gives us: “hideously luring voices,” “crepuscular forces” (best writer’s block excuse ever), “decadent cosmic order,” and “horrendous revelations of the mind-shattering, planet-wide researches… in witch-haunted, shadow-beset Arkham.”
The Degenerate Dutch: Oswald Spengler, the narrator, and Cthulhu’s worm things believe that civilization rises and falls in cycles and that the Western world will become engulfed by barbarism.
Mythos Making: The hideous voices mutter of proto-shoggoths, the legend of Yig, Canis Tindalos, essential salts—a full catalogue of Mythosian references and stories.
Libronomicon: Edward Pickman Derby’s Azathoth and Other Horrors is notable for leading to at least two deaths: it attracts Waite’s attention to the author himself, leading to his deadly marriage, and inspires the poems that bring Georg the equally deadly attention of Miskatonic’s interdisciplinary folklore researchers.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Georg assumes readers will diagnose psychosis from his final manuscript.
“Terror from the Depths” is a strange story: Leiber felt hypocritical critiquing others’ pastiche without having tried his own hand at it. As pastiche, it’s absurdly over-the-top. It invokes every one of Lovecraft’s late Mythos stories, several earlier ones of varying obscurity, and includes the existence of Lovecraft himself in the same world as Miskatonic and Cthulhu. (How the heck can you pronounce ‘Cthulhu’ monosyllabically?) To judge from other online discussions, it wins some sort of award for impossibility of synopsis; we’ll see if we can do better.
Catching all the Mythos references makes for amusing sport but lackluster art. However, “Terror” manages to avoid complete dependence on shoggoth rants, and Leiber’s original contributions to the mélange earn a legitimate shiver or three. The winged, eyeless worms, all mouth—that may simply be the dreams of a dark god given form and teeth—are pretty darn creepy.
Even more creepy, though, are the things he manages to keep under the surface. So to speak. Georg never does find out what work satisfies him so thoroughly during his half-day sleep. We never do learn whether his energies and motivation are drained by that work directly, or by some greater power that makes use of them, battery-like. But the idea that one’s potential might be sapped so permanently, for unknown purpose, without even knowing what you served or whether you did so willingly, is more terrifying than any number of worm-chewed faces.
In the end, Georg seems to serve willingly—or at least fatalistically. He expects new life as a winged worm. Both he and Wilmarth hint at comparisons to Innsmouthian apotheosis, the glories of Y’ha-nthlei. Endless tunneling as a Cthulhu dream-worm sounds a lot duller to me than immortality under the ocean, but what do I know? Maybe the worms have a rich life of the mind.
But there is a similarity to “Shadow Over Innsmouth” in that Georg’s ultimate and ultimately strange fate is an inheritance. His father learned, or had the innate ability triggered, to travel (Mentally? Physically?) beneath the earth, translating the beauty and awe found there into surface art. His carvings are reminiscent of the bas reliefs permeating Lovecraft’s ancient cities and documenting their histories. Like elder things and crocodile people, the winged worms also produce such carvings. Theirs, though, are abstractions: “mathematical diagrams of oceans and their denizens and of whole universes of alien life.” That I want to see!
The inclusion of Lovecraft himself, on top of the Lovecraftian references, seems at first one weight too much on a story already bent under a chorus of “It’s a Small Mythos After All.” However, setting the story at the time of Lovecraft’s death redeems this aspect. Something—a particular sort of knowledge, a way of shaping the fear it invokes—is passing away. It makes the story, like the strange white stone above Fischer Senior’s resting place, a memorial both unorthodox and worthy.
If I had to nominate one piece as the most exhaustive compilation of Lovecraftiana in the Mythos, it might be “Terror from the Depths.” Leiber began the story in 1937, a year after beginning a short-lived but intense correspondence with Lovecraft. He didn’t finish it, however, until 1975, shortly before its appearance in the anthology Disciples of Cthulhu. Interesting, since “Terror” marks Leiber, methinks, as a true Disciple of Howard.
You’d certainly end up with alcohol poisoning if you used “Terror” as a drinking game: Knock back a shot every time one of Lovecraft’s creations is mentioned. It would be easier to list the canon characters. locations, and stage properties Leiber doesn’t mention, but what the hell, here are some of the names he drops: Albert Wilmarth, Edward Derby, Atwood and Pabodie, Miskatonic University, Arkham, the Necronomicon, Henry Armitage and colleagues Rice and Morgan, Professor George Gammell Angell, Professor Wingate Peaslee, Henry Akeley, the MU Antarctic expedition, Robert Blake, Danforth, Nathaniel Peaslee of Yith brain-transfer fame, Harley Warren, Randolph Carter, Innsmouth, Y’ha-nthlei, the Shining Trapezohedron, Walter Gilman, Wilbur Whateley, Yuggothians, Nahum Gardner and his visitor the Color, Cthulhu, the underworlds of K’n-yan and Yoth and N’kai, Tsathoggua, Johansen the Cthulhu-Burster, whippoorwills as psychopomps, shoggoths, doomed Lake and Gedney, and Asenath (as liquescent corpse).
And that’s not even to mention the references dropped by the alluring insectile voices that continually harass Georg’s inner ear. So let’s mention just a few: protoshoggoths, Yig, violet wisps, Canis Tindalos, Doels, essential salts, Dagon, gray brittle monstrosities, flute-tormented pandemonium, Nyarlathotep, Lomar, Crom Ya, the Yellow Sign, Azathoth, wrong geometries. [RE: you can sing these sections to the tune of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” if you try hard enough and are generous with the scansion.]
I’m out of breath.
Some definitions of pastiche differentiate it from parody thus: parody pokes fun, good-natured or the opposite, whereas pastiche expresses appreciation, is a homage. “Terror” is homage, all right. No coincidence, I think, that Leiber started the year of Lovecraft’s death. I don’t know why he didn’t finish it until decades later. A grief too new? At any rate, Lovecraft appears here twice.
He is first the actual writer, founder of a subgenre and frequent contributor to Weird Tales. I smiled to see that Leiber imagines Howard here as I do in my Redemption’s Heir series, as one of the Miskatonic-centered sages-in-the-know – in the know about the reality of the Mythos, that is. Also as in my treatment, the Miskatonic crowd lets hyperimaginative Howard publish his little pulp stories, because after all, who would believe them? And at best (or worst), they might prepare the general public for THE TRUTH, just in case they ever need to know. Like, say, if Cthulhu starts ravening in the squishy flesh. Wilmarth’s fond of Howard, a good fellow for all his literary excesses. He’s upset that, when he arrives at Georg’s, Lovecraft’s in hospital. Then the telegram comes from Arkham. Bad news, Lovecraft’s dead. Good news, the psychopomp whippoorwills didn’t get his soul, for their expectant cries trailed off into disappointed silence.
That puts Lovecraft on the same wizardly level as Old Man Whateley, which is quite the tribute. It strikes me, after finishing the story, that the epigraph from Hamlet must refer to the recently deceased Lovecraft, too: “Remember thee! Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat in this distracted globe.”
Leiber also seems to conflate Lovecraft with his version of Albert Wilmarth. The two are pointedly similar in appearance, tall and thin, pale and long-jawed, with shoulders at once broad and frail-looking and eyes dark-circled and haunted. Both this Wilmarth and the real Lovecraft are prone to nervousness and ill-health, sensitive to cold, amateur astronomers and inveterate writers of letters. They both love cats and have one with an unfortunate name – Wilmarth’s is “Blackfellow.” Oh yes, and they both have brief but intense correspondence-bromances with a younger man, Lovecraft with Leiber and Wilmarth with Georg. Georg himself, under the influence of the dream-inducing drug, sleepily notes that Wilmarth and Lovecraft strike him as the same person.
Or he almost notes it, because Wilmarth (Lovecraft?) cuts him short in alarm. Passing strange little conceit here!
Georg himself is an intriguing character. Though he’s always spent half his time in sleep, he supposes he doesn’t dream. Unless he does, but he (or something else) hides it from his conscious mind. His situation resembles Peaslee’s – he may be largely amnesic to his persona-transfer to an alien body, here nightly repeated through his entire life rather than during one five-year “sabbatical.” In the end, Georg hopes to earn a welcome from the tunneling worm things, say, a permanent body-transfer. Huh. Could be Leiber conflates the Yith with the Yuggothians, since Georg undergoes a radical front-brainectomy, maybe with the transfer of his cerebral matter to the devouring worms rather than to a storage canister.
One last observation: Leiber succeeds at elevating the arid, spongy landscape around Los Angeles to a Lovecraft’s New England pitch of inextricably intertwined beauty and menace. It’s true, I guess, that Cthulhu and Company can seep their way across the continent, no problem!
Next week, Antarctic adventure and ancient aliens in Holly Phillips’ “Cold Water Survival,” which you can find in Paula Guran’s New Cthulhu anthology.
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint on April 4, 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.
Everyday life is political. Art is political. The relevancy of these two statements will hit home to a lot of people. At the same time, I love stories for their capability of producing compelling characters and asking nuanced questions that don’t fit neatly into any political category. And that’s why I adore Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough, her debut novel about tumultuous times and complicated people who are far from perfect but feel nonetheless real.
But beyond that, Amberlough is stylish, evocative and provocative. And yes, you might feel a bit naughty reading it. The book follows master spy Cyril DePaul, who is forced to be a double-agent serving a fascist movement on the rise while trying to save his lover Aristide Makricosta. In the process, the street-wise dancer / drug runner Cordelia Lahane gets caught in mix. Though labeled as fantasy, Amberlough’s pitch-perfect aesthetics feels like the book takes place in an alternate pre-WWII Europe.
Tor.com will be posting new preview chapters every Wednesday before the book goes on-sale on February 7th, and you can get started right away with Chapters 1 and 2! After giving them a read, may you too be seduced by the allure of Amberlough…
Covert agent Cyril DePaul thinks he’s good at keeping secrets, especially from Aristide Makricosta. They suit each other: Aristide turns a blind eye to Cyril’s clandestine affairs, and Cyril keeps his lover’s moonlighting job as a smuggler under wraps.
Cyril participates on a mission that leads to disastrous results, leaving smoke from various political fires smoldering throughout the city. Shielding Aristide from the expected fallout isn’t easy, though, for he refuses to let anything—not the crooked city police or the mounting rage from radical conservatives—dictate his life.
Enter streetwise Cordelia Lehane, a top dancer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret and Aristide’s runner, who could be the key to Cyril’s plans—if she can be trusted. As the twinkling lights of nightclub marquees yield to the rising flames of a fascist revolution, these three will struggle to survive using whatever means—and people—necessary. Including each other.
Debut author Lara Elena Donnelly’s spy thriller Amberlough is available February 7th from Tor Books. Come back every Wednesday from now until the release date for additional chapters!
At the beginning of the workweek, most of Amberlough’s salary-folk crawled reluctantly from their bed—or someone else’s—and let the trolleys tow them, hung over and half asleep, to the office. Amberlough City, eponymous capital of the larger state, was not home to many early risers.
In a second-story flat on the fashionable part of Baldwin Street—close enough to the river that the scent of money still perfumed the air, and close enough to the wharves for good street food and radical conversation—Cyril DePaul pulled himself from beneath a heavy duvet of moiré silk. The smell of coffee was strong outside his nest of blankets. An early spring storm freckled the bedroom windows with rain.
Though this was not his flat, Cyril slipped from bed and went directly to the washroom without hesitation. He ran a wet comb through his hair, brushed his teeth with cloying, violet-flavored toothpaste, and borrowed the dressing gown hanging on the bathrail. Despite Aristide’s penchant for over-warming his rooms, the last of winter lingered in the tiled floor. Cyril left the cold mosaic of the washroom behind and gratefully took to the plush carpet running the length of the hallway. Its tasseled end debouched onto the parlor, where he met the maid balancing an empty tray.
“He’s at the little table, Mr. DePaul,” she said, without so much as a blush.
“Thank you, Ilse.” She had charming dimples when she smiled.
At the far end of the parlor, where it joined with the dining room, the corridor belled outward into a breakfast nook bracketed by windows. An elegant, ochre-skinned man sat at his ease in one of the gilded chairs. Reading spectacles rested halfway down his dramatic nose—narrow at the top, wide at the base, deeply curved: as if a sculptor had put her thumb between his eyes and pulled firmly down. His thin lips were arranged in a pout practiced so often in the mirror it had become habitual.
He held the society pages of the Amberlough Clarion against one knee. The rest of the paper—all the crosswords done, and still damp from the storm—was scattered among a silver coffee service set out for two, and dainty plates of almond pastry. As Cyril sat down at the unattended coffee cup, Aristide snapped his paper and said, without looking up, “Finally. I was beginning to wonder if you’d d-d-died in your sleep.”
“And miss the pleasure of your company at breakfast? Never.” Cyril poured for himself, luxuriating in Aristide’s affected stutter, and the soundless slip of coffee against the shining glaze of his cup. “Are you finished with the front page?”
Cyril reached for the paper and grimaced when the wet ink left streaks on his palm. “Been up long?” He asked the question casually, but over splotchy headlines he catalogued Aristide’s appearance with strict attention: satin pyjamas under a quilted dressing gown, the same set he’d—almost—worn to bed. His tumble of dark curls had been swept casually over one shoulder, but they still showed traces of damp. A flush lingered across his cheeks. He’d left the flat already this morning, but changed back out of his clothes. Something illicit, then, and Cyril was not supposed to notice. Obediently, he ignored it, just as Aristide ignored his scrutiny, and his question.
“Eat.” Aristide pushed one of the pastries across the table. “Or you’ll be late to work. I shiver to imagine C-C-Culpepper in a fury. She’s frightful enough as it is.”
“I know, I know. I’m not supposed to know.” He reached two bony fingers into the breast pocket of his dressing gown and removed a slip of paper, folded in half. “And neither should she, right?” Without looking at Cyril, he handed over the cheque. “Discretion, as they say, is p-p-priceless.”
Cyril made the payoff disappear up his sleeve. “You don’t have to remind me.” The money was a symbolic gesture, allowing for plausible deniability. “But I’m glad when you do.” Ignoring the pastry, he drained his coffee cup and stood. “Clothes?”
“Ilse p-p-pressed them. They’re hanging in the wardrobe.”
Cyril dipped down to kiss Aristide on the top of his head. His hair smelled of rain, salt, and smoke. Somewhere on the wharves, then. Probably the southern end, near the Spits. Bad part of town—smugglers docked there, in the wee hours.
Aristide grabbed a fistful of Cyril’s fox fur lapel and pulled, forcing him to bend deeper, until they were face-to-face. “Cyril,” he purred, and there was menace behind it. “You haven’t got the t-t-time.”
“Ah,” said Cyril, “but don’t you wish I did?” He kissed Aristide again, on his pursed, displeased mouth. After half a moment’s resistance, Ari gave in and smiled.
The rain was done by the time the Baldwin Street trolley stopped at Talbert Row. Cyril disembarked and joined a bedraggled wave of late commuters all headed for the same transfer.
Wedged at the front end of the trolley car, between the driver’s partition and a dozing woman in a loud plaid suit, Cyril took the Clarion out from under his arm—he’d bought his own copy at the Heynsgate trolley stop—and propped it against his leg. The headliner was a story about a train station bombing in Totrajov, a disputed settlement on the border of Tatié.
Of the four nation-states in Gedda’s loose federation, Tatié was the most fractious. The only state to maintain a standing army, it had been locked in a bitter territorial conflict with the neighboring republic of Tzieta for generations. Lucky for the rest of the country, federal funds and energy only went to mutually beneficial projects—infrastructure and foreign policy and, particularly relevant to Cyril, national security—so the decades-long skirmishing hadn’t drained the national treasury, just nearly bankrupted an economically precarious Tatié.
By and large, Amberlinians ignored their eastern sibling except as the subject of satire, and an occasional creeping nervousness vis-à-vis Tatien firepower. Though it wasn’t strictly good form, Amberlough’s covert operatives kept a close eye on Tatié. The best of navies was no good against a landlocked, militarized state, and they weren’t the most cordial of neighbors.
Tucked neatly under the gruesome account of the bombing was a smaller headline on the upcoming western election. Parliamentary elections were all offset by two years, and this year it was Nuesklend’s turn. In the accompanying picture, outgoing primary representative Annike Staetler stood next to a young woman with marcelled hair and deep-set eyes. The caption read Staetler endorses Secondary Kit Riedlions, South Gestraacht. Below that, another picture, of a pale, flat-faced man in rimless spectacles, looking down from a podium swagged with bunting. Caleb Acherby stands for the One State Party in Nuesklend.
Poor Staetler. She’d been good to her constituents, and they would have had her for another eight years if she’d let the state assembly dissolve Nuesklend’s term limits. Cyril hadn’t been at the luncheon where Director Culpepper and Amberlough’s primary parliamentary representative, Josiah Hebrides, went to work on her, but Culpepper had come back in a foul humor, filled with apocalyptic premonitions. Staetler was a staunch ally against encroaching Ospie influence in parliament. As long as regionalist Amberlough and Nuesklend stood against unionist Farbourgh and Tatié, things stayed at a deadlock. If Acherby took the primary’s seat… well, he’d always been the brains behind the Ospie cause. He’d had to wait through two election cycles, unable to run for office outside his birth state. Now it was his turn, and he’d have a long to-do list.
He’d probably calm things down in the east, and feed the starving orphans in Farbourgh, but at a crippling cost to Gedda as a whole. Acherby’s aim was unification: the loose federation into one tightly controlled entity. The manifold diversity of Gedda’s people into one homogenous culture.
Sighing, Cyril opened the paper to the center and folded it back on itself, hiding Acherby’s severe expression under layers of cheap newsprint.
He was deep in a conservative opinion piece in favor of further increasing domestic border tariffs—the same tariffs Aristide had been neatly avoiding in the small hours of the morning—when the trolley cables caught and the gripman bawled out “Station Way!”
Cyril disembarked to walk what was left of his commute. The gutters ran fast; bicyclists and motorcars splashed oily water across the footpath as they passed. Behind the marble edifice of the capitol, masts and smokestacks striped the sky above the harbor. Seabirds wheeled and shrieked, peppering the green copper dome of government with their droppings.
Amberlough’s branch of the Federal Office of Central Intelligence Services hid on the top three floors of an unassuming office building, just across Station Way from the capitol’s sloping gardens. Like everything in the FOCIS, the office had its own facetious nickname: the Foxhole.
“Morning, Mr. DePaul,” said Foyles, from behind his racing form. Foyles had presided over the lobby as long as Cyril had been working in the Foxhole, and prob ably twice again as long as that. Deep wrinkles creased his face, and the tight spirals of his hair stood out in striking white against his slate-dark skin.
Cyril half-waved at him and stepped into the lift, standing back while the attendant shut the grate. He didn’t need to tell her his floor.
The lift paused once, at three, where the clerks and auditors held court amidst the clamor of ringing lacquer telephones, heads bent over pencils and adding machines. Floors four and five were sleight of hand—espionage to ensure the security of the Federated States ofGedda—but three was where the true sorcery happened. The bursar’s team made eye-popping embezzlements into minor calculating errors. Bribes and payoffs dis appeared into endless columns of numbers and names. Agents were paid in secretive exchanges, the intricacies of which could escape even authorizing division heads. The accountants were, to a person, discreet, clean-cut, and scrupulously polite. They terrified the rest of Central.
The attendant scissored the lift grate open and stepped back for a new passenger. A young man in a shabby suit got on, ducking his head of bright copper hair. He smiled at Cyril without making eye contact. Against his chest, he held a sheaf of papers under a fat leather datebook, arms crossed tightly over it all like a shield. Cyril ticked through his mental files, checking names against faces, stories against facts.
Low-level auditor. Been in the office two years. Uncommonly straight, for an Amberlinian: He’d never tried his hand at extortion. Painfully fair, with a winning tendency to blush when embarrassed. Embarrassed very easily. What was his name, again? Lourdes. Th at was it. Finn Lourdes.
They’d only spoken once or twice—Finn had visited Cyril, just out of hospital, to express Central’s sympathies, and deliver by hand a comfortable bonus and promise of promotion: Culpepper’s blood money.
They ran into each other sometimes in the halls, now that Cyril was settled behind a desk. And anyway, Cyril wouldn’t be working on the fifth floor if he didn’t have a mind for details.
Across town, near the train yards, a few thin rays of morning sun burned through the clouds and fell through an open window, warming the freckled arms of Cordelia Lehane.
She pushed her hands through Malcolm’s hair. He normally kept it slicked back in a ducktail, but now it stuck up at all angles. Last night’s pomade greased her already-sticky fingers. He turned his face, swarthy against her winter-pale skin, and his stubble rubbed her belly. Sunlight struck threads of gray at his temple. Cordelia traced one strand, her finger sliding through the sweat gathered at his hairline.
“You’re the best thing that’s happened to me in an age,” he said.
She half-smiled and shoved his face away. “Go on,” she said. “I ain’t.”
He pressed his face into the softness of her, between hip bone and navel. The pressure made her bladder ache, but she didn’t tell him to stop. The pain mingled with the tingling comedown of sex.
“I’ll prove it,” he said, and pushed her thighs apart.
He didn’t lift his head. She grabbed his hair and pulled his face up. “I’m dying for the toilet,” she said. “Give me half a minute.”
He laughed and let her go, rolling over onto his back to fill the space she’d left. “You’re a treasure,” he said.
“Even treasures gotta piss sometimes.”
When she went to flush, the pipes groaned and shuddered.“Queen’s sake. Ring round a plumber once in a while, why don’t you?” She rinsed her hands in water that came out reddish brown with rust.
“Can’t afford to. The washrooms at the theatre’ve got to be done over this month.”
“Maybe you ought to move in there.” She came back to bed and flung herself across the sheets. A breeze, fresh with high tide brine, rolled through the room. Cordelia shivered and moved into the warm curve of Malcolm’s body.
“You don’t take care of yourself,” she said, but she didn’t put much into it. Half a shake of the head, a rueful smile. “You’d sell your own ma if it’d bring in a bigger crowd.”
Malcolm cuffed her gently on the side of the head. “My old man, maybe. But never Ma. She was—”
“The jewel of the peninsula, I know.” She rested her face on the hard curve of his bicep, staring up at his seamed, stubbled face. “The finest dancer in Hyrosia.”
“She would’ve loved to see you,” he said, drawing a calloused hand through her hair. It caught, but she didn’t complain. Malcolm’s eyes changed when he talked about his mother: The flint went out of them. “My mother would’ve loved you,” was as close as he ever got to “I love you.”
But everybody knew—especially Cordelia—that Malcolm only loved the Bee.
His mother had given up her stage career to come north and marry. And it had gotten her nothing but accounting books and two sons dead at sea, killed by Lisoan pirates somewhere south of her home country. Her youngest, Malcolm, she’d kept at home despite her husband’s squalling. Malcolm heard all her stories, saw all her tintypes and mementos. Promised her she’d have a stage to walk again.
When she died of fever, he took what she’d left him and abandoned his father’s shipping company for the boards. All his love for Inita Sailer went into making a go of the Bumble Bee Cabaret and Night Club.
“How’s the new routine?” he asked. “Speaking of dancing.”
She shook her head. “I got it all down, but the orchestra’s having trouble.”
Malcolm sat up and threw his legs over the edge of the bed. “I’ll ask Liesl about it.” He picked his watch up from the bedside and flipped it open. “Better be getting over there. Got a delivery coming in for the bar.”
“Ytzak can take care of it,” said Cordelia, wrapping her arms around Malcolm and tangling her fingers in the dark hair across his chest. She tried to pull him back into bed, but he resisted.
“No, he has the morning off—said his ma’s sick, but you know he’s courting that razor who plays bass in Canty’s band, and he was a little too eager to run out last night.”
“So drag him in,” said Cordelia, hooking one leg over Malcolm’s thigh.
He laughed and pinched her, but stood nonetheless. She let him go and collapsed against the bedspread, giving him her best pout.
“You learned that one from Makricosta,” he said. “You know it won’t work on me.” Pulling a threadbare cotton undershirt over his head, he added, “You’re welcome to hang around here, if you like. But I won’t be back before curtain, almost sure.”
Cordelia sighed. “You gonna ask me to run to the cleaners for your swags again?”
“Be a swan?” He swooped in and kissed her cheek. “Tell Kieranto put it on the account.”
“You owe him half a fortune this month already.”
“He knows I’m good for it. Especially once this new show’s up and running.” Malcolm slipped his braces over one shoulder then the other, and hooked his jacket and hat down from the back of the bedroom door. “Later, spicecake.”
“Remember to talk to Liesl!” she shouted after him. The downstairs door slammed, rattling the bottles of hair tonic and cheap cologne on Malcolm’s nightstand.
Cordelia fluffed a ratty pillow and leaned back, staring at the cracked plaster ceiling. The Bee did a swift trade. Malcolm only lived in such a shambles because whatever he made running the theatre went right back into it.
Not that she was complaining. Every stage-strutter in Amberlough wanted a spot on the Bee’s pine boards. Malcolm paid his performers better than any place in the city—still a pittance compared to salary folk, but Cordelia padded her pockets out with dealing a little bit of tar on the side. It wasn’t pretty work, but it was steady and it turned a profit.
Speaking of, she was due to make a pickup from her man on the docks this afternoon. Malcolm didn’t clock she had a sideline, and wouldn’t approve. But he wouldn’t have to know, as long as she got him his swags on time, in fine condition.
Malcolm’s evening clothes hung from the luggage rail, swaying with the motion of the trolley. Rain struck the windows. Everything smelled woolly and damp. Cordelia was running late, but the commute was so cozy, she didn’t mind. It had been a good afternoon—the pickup went smooth, and after, she’d swung by Tory’s.
He was tucked against her side now, warm and noisy, chatting on about… oh, who knew what. He talked all the rotten time. Half of it she didn’t clock, but the sound was pretty. He tried to keep his Currin burr tamped down, but it always came out when he got pinned about something or—and she’d been pleased to find this out—when he was in bed.
Tory tugged her coat sleeve. “Our stop.” Passengers were standing in the aisle, taking down packages and purses, tying their scarves tighter and flipping their collars up against the rain. “Come on,” he said, jumping down from his seat. His head was on a level with the other passengers’ bellies, but the way they made space for him, you’d never know.
They both stepped in the gutter, and Cordelia shrieked at the cold water soaking through her shoes. Tory waved her over the curb, toward a pair of wet metal chairs under the awning of a cafe. On the corner, a Hearther evangelist had set up a soapbox for his street sermon. He’d been a regular feature of Temple Street for going on two years now, trying to convert fallen stagefolk and the punters who came to cheer for them. Lately he’d taken to wearing a gray-and-white Ospie sash. Most of the Hearther congregations in town were backing the Ospies. Cordelia was fine with that. Keep the prissy people together and let them entertain themselves, however they proposed to. Folk in the theatre district had better things to do.
Across the street from the preacher, the Bee stood tall between a wine bar and a casino, brighter than any other theatre on Baldwin Street. Brilliant swirls of white bulbs, lit against the gray afternoon,made the golden moulding of the marquee shine twice as bright. Richly illustrated posters glowed in their illuminated frames across the front of the building—Cordelia spied herself just to the left of the entrance, all red ringlets and black roses, her lips stung puff y by the swarm of gilt bees that spiraled around the poster border.
“Check me,” said Cordelia, hauling down the collar of her dress. “No marks?”
Tory looked over each shoulder, conspiratorial, and then buried his face in her chest. “No marks.” His voice was muffled.
The preacher saw them, lifted an accusing finger, and started hammering hard on modesty and decency and good, upstanding citizens.
Cordelia made a rude gesture at him, then grabbed Tory’s ears and hauled him out of her tits. “Stop it! Be serious.”
“No marks,” he said again, brushing his thumb down her breastbone. “I know Malcolm does his damnedest to keep from splotching this bonny fair skin—”
“Sometimes even his damnedest ain’t damned enough.”
“—and I wouldn’t want to spoil it either. Besides, he might recognize the teeth marks.” Tory grinned like a nutcracker. “And jealous old Sailer wouldn’t stand for that.”
Cordelia smoothed the damp garment bag over Malcolm’s tailcoat. “Let’s go in. Before we’re any later.”
Tory stood on his tiptoes to kiss her, quickly, and then set off across the street with the preacher howling behind him. He caught her eye from beneath the marquee. Standing just under the illustrated Cordelia in her ring of black roses, he reached up and mimed pinching her nipples, where they would be beneath the garland of flowers. She made the same rude gesture at him she’d thrown at the Hearther. He laughed, then hauled open the heavy black-and-gold doors and disappeared, stumbling over the threshold.
They weren’t supposed to go in through the front, but Malcolm held Tory pretty dear and let all sorts of his mischief slide. Cordelia didn’t feature him giving a pass for ducking under her skirt, but what he didn’t clock wouldn’t bruise him.
She waited a moment longer, picking absently at the soggy edge of the garment bag. The rain slacked off, but a sudden wind off the harbor shook droplets from the budding plum trees, spattering the restaurant awning. Gathering up her purse and Malcolm’s swags,she waited for the street to clear, then dashed across between the puddles and slipped down the alley that ran along one side of the Bee.
The stage door was propped open with a chair to let a breeze into the stuffy backstage corridors. Stella, one half of the twin acrobat and contortion act, sat in the chair smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. Cordelia caught a sweet whiff of hash. Stella got bad butterflies—her sister Garlande was the showy one.
“Sorry,” mumbled the acrobat, and stood aside to let Cordelia through. The corridor was mostly bare beams, a bit of plaster here and there, stairs leading up to the costume loft. A stagehand sat on the edge of the staircase, retaping Garlande’s trapeze and flirting with a seamstress making last-minute repairs. Someone was listening to a record; the shoddy walls muffled and distorted the strains of a smooth-voiced crooner. Sawdust and greasepaint musk hung in the air.
She had to pass Malcolm’s office to get to her dressing room, and as she neared the open door, she braced herself for a hiding. But he was already shouting at somebody, and it wasn’t her. The new tit singer, Thea Marlow, stood in front of Malcolm’s great scarred slab of a desk, hunched up like a naughty schoolchild waiting for the switch. So, Malcolm must have talked to Liesl, and the conductor had put the blame for the shoddy number on Thea. All things fair, she did have awful trouble with the key changes. Tit singer was a hard sort of job if you had half an interest in naked girls, and judging from Thea’s saucer-eyes whenever Cordelia went up onstage, she wasn’t cut out for the task.
Cordelia hooked Malcolm’s swags onto the doorknob and tried to slip away, but he caught her. Instead of scolding her, he just said, “Delia, Antinou’s tonight? Tory’s treat—he owes me.”
She didn’t want to think of all the dirty jokes the dwarf comedian would make of that. Instead she nodded, and blew Mal a kiss.
As Cyril was getting ready to leave for the day, his telephone brayed, startling him from his latest report out of the train yards.
It was one of the switchboard kids, a girl with a little bit of a lisp. “Mr. DePaul? The skull wants to see you.”
“Thanks, Switcher.” By tradition, all the kids crammed in the exchange room were called Switcher. Cyril tipped the pages of the report into his briefcase and locked it up, then put his coat overhis arm and went down the hall.
Culpepper’s personal secretary, Vasily Memmediv, was in his late forties or early fifties, but his thick, dark hair was only barely touched with gray. The lines that marked his hawkish face cut hard and full of character at the edge of his nose and beneath his deeply set eyes. Cyril had briefly nursed a terrible passion for Memmediv, but rumors put him firmly loyal to Culpepper, in more ways than one.
Cyril rested an elbow on the edge of Memmediv’s desk. “Switcher said the Skull wants to see me.”
“Director Culpepper,” he said, “asked to see you, yes, before you left.” His Tatien accent had faded with time in the south, but still colored his speech with overemphasized vowels and swallowed, liquid consonants.
As if speaking her name had summoned her, Culpepper’s voice rang out from the half-open door to her office. “Is that DePaul?”
Before Memmediv could answer, Cyril cut in with, “Last timeI checked.” He skirted the scowling secretary and crossed into Culpepper’s lair.
She didn’t look up when he entered. “Don’t be flippant, DePaul. It’s unbecoming.”
“Really?” He flung himself into the chair opposite hers. The vast, cluttered expanse of her desk stretched between them. “Usually people are charmed. Maybe you should get your head checked.”
The Foxhole folk called her “the Skull” because she kept her hair shaved close. Bones and muscles showed sharply under the dark skin of her scalp. When she ground her teeth, as she was doing now, the grim movement of her jaw rippled beneath the faint shadow of razored curls. That was what they called her type, in the city: razors. Women in well-cut suits with their hair shorn close, posing and snarling at one another like big cats, their sparks tucked snug under their arms. He didn’t envy Vasily—razors tended to be as sharp in temperament as their namesake was in function.
“You’ll need your head checked if you don’t shut up and pay attention,” said Culpepper. “I’ll put the dents in it personally.”
Case in point. “Oh, Ada. I love it when you’re cruel.”
She crossed her arms. “Less carrot, more stick? Is that the secret I’ve been missing all these years?”
“I’m ruined for a soft hand, since early days. My first was whipper-in with the Carmody hunt.”
“Spare me,” she said, falling against the high back of her chair. The leather upholstery creaked. “You’re saying if I slapped you around a little, your rag taggers would finally get it together to burn Makricosta’s network?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. With the border tariffs so high, people like him are the only thing keeping us out of a civil war.” Besides, Aristide’s smuggling crews had taken on a little extra work ferrying refugees into the city. Ospie supporters—blackboots—roamed the streets in Farbourgh and Tatié, making life hard for immigrants, writers, radicals, wind worshippers, cultists of the Wandering Queen… The blackboots had their own little streets in Amberlough, too, but the ACPD didn’t like them, and they knew it.
“I want to think,” said Culpepper, fingers at her temples, “that the stability of Gedda hinges on more than illegal commerce.”
“Ada, if the northeast couldn’t sell through smugglers, they’d—”
“Throw their lot in with the Ospies? Perhaps you haven’t noticed, DePaul, with your face between Makricosta’s thighs, but we’re past that point. Pinegrove and Moritz were both elected by overwhelming majorities, and the Ospies have been taking secondary seats left and right.”
He let the sexual snipe slide by unaddressed. “I was going to say they might secede. Or worse, collude to overthrow the parliament.”
“Secede? They need our docks. Until Moritz reaches some kind of agreement with the Tzietans, the harbor at Dastya is a war zone. Forget exporting overland. You saw today’s headlines: Westbound trains are targets for Tzietan terrorism. And Farbourgh is just a tragic novel in three volumes. Mountains, rocks, and blighted sheep. What would they do without federal aid? No, secession isn’t in the cards.”
“So that leaves a coup.” He wanted her to laugh. She didn’t.
“You’re right, you know.” She sighed. “I’d love to tear you up and down over Makricosta—don’t give me that look. How much does he pay you to keep his business out of your reports? Or is it just the sex? Or—mother and sons, don’t tell me you’re in love.”
Cyril snorted. “Ada.”
“He’s bent stronger rods, don’t doubt it.”
“You should really think about things like that before you say them.”
“You weren’t even supposed to have contact with him—Cyril, I’m serious, stop laughing. Division heads run agents, they don’t pretend to be them.”
“I was! I—I am. Ada, nobody knew how deep he had his hooks into the market, and we wouldn’t have found out if… His name kept coming up in dispatches, all right? And none of my foxes could get close to him. Or he made it worth their while not to.”
“But you’ve gotten very close indeed. Good job.”
“What happened to tearing me up and down?”
“Oh, I’m pinned about it; don’t think I’m not. But it proves you still know your way around fieldwork.”
Cyril’s hand jumped. He covered by reaching for his cigarette case. Culpepper pretended not to notice, but she couldn’t fool him. They knew each other too well. Before she was the Skull, implacable Queen of the Foxhole, Culpepper had been Cyril’s case officer. Good work saw her promoted to assistant director, and then director, of the Amberlough chapter of the FOCIS while he was still out running under a work name.
“Look, Cyril.” Culpepper sighed and put her hand over her eyes. “With the job you’ve been doing lately—or haven’t been doing, more like—we both know you’re not cut out to play division head; you don’t have the right temperament. I want to send you back into the field.”
He was going to be sick. He could feel the bile creeping up the back of his throat.
“You’re what, thirty-five?” Culpepper, who was herself perhaps twenty years older, looked him up and down. “You’re too young to be behind a desk. You should be out earning your position, not rotting in it. You know Yeffa, over in personnel? We ran her until she was in her sixties.”
Cyril put a straight to his lips but didn’t light it, not trusting his traitorous hands. His current title—Master of the Hounds, Central slang for the division head who played police puppeteer—was guilt-reeking restitution, a courtesy Culpepper had paid him when his last action went sour.
“Besides,” she said, still talking, in that too-casual way that flagged all her serious conversations, “you’re probably bored to tears.”
Bored. Once, it would have been true. Boredom was Cyril’s chief failing. He’d been bored as a child, and it had made him mischievous. He’d been bored at university, and it had nearly gotten him expelled; only the timely intervention of one of Culpepper’s talent spotters had saved him from being sent down in ignominy. And he had been bored behind the desk, a disinterested operator directing the moves and countermoves of domestic espionage. Smugglers and tax dodges, money laundering and corruption. Old hat to any Amberlinian. Bored, but afraid, wretched with cowardly self-loathing and the pain of convalescence. Bored, until Ari had made things interesting.
His attention whipped back to Culpepper, who hadn’t stopped talking. “Sorry. What?”
She locked eyes with him. “Tatié was your purview once. How do you think?
She shook her head: half rue, half negation. “Just… gone. Tatié’s Foxhole is getting smart. They know we aren’t keen on the whole Dastya for Tatié gambit; think how much tax revenue Amberlough would lose if Tatié didn’t rely on shipping down the Heyn.”
“Shake with the right, shoot with the left?”
“And use a good suppressor, exactly. They learned from… last time. No trace. No messy politicking. But they know we know. And that we’ll feel the squeeze.”
Mother’s tits, he would defect to Liso if she tried to send him back. Taking over for Bascombe, he’d be running a network, rather than doing the work direct. But barely safer, for that. It was unofficial cover, spying on the other states within Gedda; if they caught you, you were on your own.
His throat already felt thick with the dust of no-man’s-land:those blasted, burnt steppes between the orchards and the sea. Hewas back amongst the tattered khaki ranks of Tatié’s armed forces, in the stuffy chambers of cigarillo-smoking officers. Dry earth and endless sky, the smell of blood and cordite…
“But you’re not headed east,” said Culpepper, snapping the thread of his memories. From the ill-concealed pity on her face, she knew what he’d been thinking. “We’re promoting one of our Hellican operatives—”
“Be honest, Cyril. You would take Tatié over the Hellican Islands. Even now.”
He wouldn’t. He had learned: Better bored than dead.
“Anyway. He’d been building an action for us, but the whole thing’s easily moved to a new agent.”
“So you’re handing it to me.”
A shallow nod. “The work name is Sebastian Landseer. A wool merchant. Bit of a playboy—never at home. Skiing in Ibet, snow-birding in the Porachin Gulf. Polo, yachting. You know.”
“I begin to see your logic.”
“In choosing you? Yes. It’s hard to teach someone that kind of privilege. I know what your parents settled on you in their will; very generous, given Lillian was the heir outright. You won’t have to pretend on this action. Not much, anyway.”
“All right, all right.” She was going to make him ask. “Tell me, then. What’s going on?”
Cyril reached for the table lighter, finally remembering his cigarette. “Acherby won’t win.”
“He will if he throws it.”
“He won’t. Ada, he’s got a pry bar for a spine. He doesn’t bend for anything. Just bulls at it straight and hard until it breaks.”
“He’ll bend for this. Three primary reps, and a majority in the lower assembly? Do you know what he could do with that?”
“I have some idea.”
“Be serious, DePaul. The Ospies want Amberlough knocked down—they think we’re impeding trade, sacrificing Gedda for the sake of state interest. Pinegrove and Moritz have already endorsed Acherby, and intelligence out of both capitals says they won’t stop there. They want to impeach Josiah.”
Cyril froze with the lighter wick halfway to his mouth. The flame wavered in his caught breath. “Ada. There hasn’t been a primary impeached in forty years.”
“You don’t need to give me a history lesson. I’m out of the schoolroom.”
“Sorry.” He lit his cigarette and exhaled a thin, artful column of white. Josiah Hebrides had been Amberlough’s primary representative for six years, two-thirds of his allotted term, and the mayor of Amberlough City for eight years before that. He was crooked as a kinked zipper, but charming, and his equally unscrupulous constituents adored him. If he wanted an unprecedented second term as primary, he had only to reach out his hand and take it; none of Staetler’s nobility for him. “Stones, Ada. This is what you throw at me, first thing back?”
“You’re a sharp fox, or you were. I’m confident. So don’t let me down.”
“Thank you. That helps me relax.” Tension between his shoulder blades crept up the back of his neck, coiling into a headache.
“I don’t want you to relax.” She tapped a column of ash into her empty coffee cup. “Do you know Konrad Van der Joost?”
“Acherby’s assistant campaign manager.”
“Courtesy title. He runs their intelligence operation.”
Cyril rested his chin on the back of his hand. A small kiss of heat bloomed on his cheek near the tip of his cigarette. “Engage with him?”
“You’ll have to.” She flipped her watch open and blanched.“Sacred arches, is it really? Look, I’ve got to dash.”
“We haven’t finished.” But Cyril’s protest was halfhearted. The longer he put off his full briefing, the longer he could maintain his denial.
“Come back tomorrow morning. Say half eight? I’ll have Hebrides in and all three of us can go over it. In the meantime, the Landseer letters.” She took a thick dossier from her desk drawer and flung it down. It hit the red leather with a smack and slid within Cyril’s reach. “Take a good look, when you get home. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Cross is back from Liso and I want to sit in on her debriefing.”
“Get a few scraps of news from the old country?” It was a joke, in poor taste. Culpepper had never been to her ancestral homeland. Her parents were political dissidents who had fled from Liso long before the Spice War wrenched the north out of the king’s strangling grasp. Her surname had always been Culpepper, never Kuleppah—changed to avoid retribution, even so far from home. Cyril had seen the file.
“I’ll scrap you,” she said. “Get out of here and do your job.”
He should have gone back to his flat and cracked the Landseer dossier, but thinking of it made him faintly ill. Instead, he stopped at a basement wine bar in Harbor Terrace and got pleasantly drunk on overpriced sherry, until the dinner rush pushed him up the narrow stairwell and into the wet dusk.
He really ought to go home and see to his post. Might even be able to trick himself into reading the Landseer letters, if he stuck them at the bottom of the pile. Swinging onto the next trolley headed up the Harbor line, he hung onto the railing until he could transfer north at Armament.
Near the edge of Loendler Park, a shudder of awareness ran along the rows. Heads turned; people murmured. The woman in front of Cyril cranked her window open, and he heard chanting. Whistles. Hundreds of human voices raised, dissonant. The trolley rounded a shallow bend in the road and shuddered to a halt.
The streetcars of Amberlough did not stop in the middle of their routes. Cyril was not alone when he got up from his seat to peer down the aisle.
He couldn’t see much, not around his fellow passengers, and so he sat back down and turned the hand crank to open his own window. The sound of voices was much louder now, and when he removed his trilby and put his head outside, he saw dozens of people standing in the street, bent close to one another, turned black and yellow by the streetlights. Farther up, the crowd thickened, packing Armament Avenue from footpath to footpath, pressed against shopfronts and night-locked market gateways. Residents crowded the balconies above, and hung over their windowsills. Lit cigarettes spangled the dusk.
The trolley driver stood and addressed his passengers. “Can’t go further, I’m afraid. You can either get off and walk, or ride back to Station Way.”
“What’s happening?” asked a woman near the front of the car. She held her straw hat to her chest, glass cherries bright against her white shirtfront.
The driver shrugged. “Prob ably just some of those artists causing mischief in the park again.”
A group of students had staged a rather tasteless piece of performance art in the bandstand last month, but the crowd hadn’t been nearly so big.
“What’ll it be?” the driver asked. “Walk or ride?”
Most of the passengers remained sitting, content to catch the Station Way transfer, but Cyril’s flat was only a few blocks away. He settled his hat back on his head, gathered his overcoat and briefcase, and pushed to the rear doors.
After the close, damp warmth of the streetcar, his first breath of outside air was refreshing. Then he shivered and paused to replace his overcoat and pull on his gloves, slotting his fingers together to push the leather into place. By the time he finished, the trolley was disappearing around the curve of the road.
He slipped into the gossiping crowd and tapped a young razor on the shoulder. She turned, spat a mouthful of tobacco, and cased him with an appraising eye. “Yeah?”
“What’s all this?” He waved vaguely at the people around them.
She shrugged. “Heard there was a march in the park. Some kind of political thing.”
“In aid of what?”
“How am I supposed to know?” she snapped. “Just trying to get to my old auntie’s flat, aren’t I? And now I’m stuck in this mess.”
Cyril tipped his hat and gave her his apologies, then pushed on, doling out “pardon me”s and dodging dirty looks as he maneuvered up the block toward Blossom Street.
“Can’t get through up there!” someone called after him. He ignored them and shouldered on until he found himself at the edge of the park, and face-to-chest with an imposing police officer—one in a long, unbroken line across the pavement.
“Sorry sir,” said the officer, through an impressive array of bristling facial hair. “Can’t let anyone past.”
“Been an accident.” He had to raise his voice over a sudden swell of chanting from the park.
“Accident? Someone told me there was a demonstration.”
The officer’s neck went stiff. “Suppose you could call it that.”
“Listen,” said Cyril, “I live just up the street. You can see my building from here.” He pointed over the officer’s epaulet.
“I’m afraid I’m under orders, sir.”
Though he was Master of the Hounds, Cyril couldn’t pull rank on an officer; the federal position wasn’t technically a part of the force. Shifting his briefcase from one hand to the next, he reached for his billfold. “And how much are those orders worth? Let’s say, thirty-five?” The officer turned red, but said nothing. “Fifty?”
“Please, sir. I really can’t.”
“Well,” said Cyril, irked to have found the one honest hound in all of Amberlough, “perhaps your friend here can.” He turned to the next officer in line. “This is ridiculous. I live right there. What’s going on that’s so damned important?” He slipped the woman a folded bill.
This officer, younger and slighter than her stubborn colleague, was also more susceptible to bribery. She made the money dis appear.
“OSP demonstration,” she said. “Got a bit nasty. Some hecklers broke in and beat one of the unionists bad. Turned into a brawl, and now we’ve got orders to keep everyone out who’s not a party member.”
“For fifty, will you pretend I’m an Ospie?” Cyril gave the woman a smile that should’ve been charming, but prob ably came off more like a teeth-baring grimace. His face felt stiff with frustration.
The younger officer looked sideways at her neighbor, who was silently projecting a air of deep disapproval.
“I really can’t, sir,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m sorry.”
Cyril let his shoulders slump forward. “Fine. Good luck with this wreck.” He turned away and moved back through the crowd.
Halfway down the block, he body-checked a man in a heavy overcoat who was paying more attention to the police blockade ahead than he was to the two feet in front of him. Cyril staggered back, and the man caught him and set him straight.
“So sorry,” he said. “Careless of me. Are you all right?”
“Fine, fine.” Cyril smoothed the front of his coat. “You’re in an awful hurry for nothing, I’m afraid. They’re not letting anyone through.”
“See that?” Cyril pointed. “I live just there.”
“Awful. And they wouldn’t budge for anything?”
“Not for fifty crisp slices.”
The stranger sighed. “Well, I suppose it’s all to the good. I’d rather an upstanding hound any day of the week.”
Cyril laughed. “You can’t be serious.”
“Deadly so. You’d prefer the agents of justice roll over for a little bit of pin money?”
“If it would get me home with my feet up.” Cyril squinted at the man in front of him. “Where did you say you were headed, exactly?”
“The rally, of course.” He flipped open his coat to show a gray-and-white cockade pinned in his buttonhole. “Election’s coming up. We’ve got to support our people in Nuesklend. Acherby’s fighting for all of us, not just the western constituency. For honest, upright folk who are sick of the way things are. Sick of the graft and embezzlement and the coastal blockade. People ought to know we’ve got a vocal presence, even in Amberlough.”
“Vocal, certainly. Caterwauling, even.” Cyril snapped up the collar of his coat and turned away. “Excuse me.”
“That’s right, walk away.” The man’s shout followed him down the street. “Afraid of a little civil discourse? Afraid we might be right?”
He knew he shouldn’t, but he turned and shouted back. “If you want to scare me, do a little better in the polls.”
The man turned red, and blustered, and Cyril left him there before he could come up with a response. Bitterly, he reflected that the polls didn’t matter anyway, if what Culpepper had told him was true. It gave him a modicum of pleasure to realize he had misled the man; the hounds had said they would let Ospies through, but this fellow would prob ably turn around and go home.
Unfortunately, Cyril didn’t have that option. Without the prospect of a change of clothes and a tumbler of rye with his landlord’s excellent supper, exhaustion and disgust threatened to break over him like a gray wave. Nothing for it but to keep moving. His post would have to wait. He made his slow way back to the edge of the crowd and followed the streetcar tracks to Buttermarket.
The sky lowered, threatening more rain. He sat on a bench under the meager shelter of a budding pear tree, briefcase on his knees, waiting for the southbound trolley that would take him to the Harbor line, to Temple Street, and the Bumble Bee Cabaret.
Excerpted from Amberlough © Lara Elena Donnelly, 2017
“Hate” is probably not the best word for what I feel toward the DC Extended Universe, but it’s close. I’d say I’m really somewhere between searing disdain, deep frustration, and weary resignation, none of which are emotions any studio would want associated with their tentpole brand.
The problems with the DCEU are bigger than just three crappy movies. What failed in Man of Steel was repeated in Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad and will likely continue to fail in Wonder Woman and beyond. Warner Bros. knows they need to retool their format, but whether they can, and what shape it will take if they do, depends entirely on how much course-correcting new DC division co-runners Geoff Johns and Jon Berg can do between now and Diana’s solo film. They have an uphill battle, that’s for sure.
So let’s dig in to see where the DCEU went wrong and what, if anything, can be done to salvage it. Obviously, spoilers ahoy.
Batman v Superman: So many problems
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the DCEU. After Man of Steel, I avoided BvS like the plague. I refused to see it in theatres and instead reveled in the delicious schadenfreude of the blistering reviews. I finally caved with the release of the ultimate edition when many fans claimed the additional footage improved it. I can’t agree: the movie was wildly unfocused and both over- and undercooked. Until the infamous “Martha” scene, Lois was stuck in a government conspiracy thriller, Batman in a crime procedural, Superman in an alien invasion story, and Bruce and Diana in a romantic spy caper, while Lex was busy playing the villain in a 1960s James Bond movie.
Not a single second of the movie makes any damn sense. Why was Batman wearing a trench coat over his Batsuit in the desert? How is Clark a successful journalist at one of the nation’s largest newspapers yet doesn’t know who celebrity billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne is? Why did Lex design logos for the soon-to-be-Justice League? Lois knows Superman can hear her halfway around the world so why would she think he couldn’t hear her shouting to him from ten feet away? Why is she even dating him, anyway? He’s a terrible boyfriend who would rather sulk on a mountaintop than have an honest conversation. Why hasn’t Perry fired Clark for disappearing all the time? Which is worse: Batman adding nipples to the Batsuit or molding a furrowed brow onto his mask? Why did the mental hospital shave Lex’s head? Is he actually crazy now or just a melodramatic douchecanoe? How come the Batsuit is bulletproof and fireproof but not knife-proof? Why did Lex bother to manipulate Batman and Superman into battle when he was building Doomsday anyway? Why were there so many goddamn dream sequences? No, you know what? I don’t care enough to want answers.
BvS is a bleak slog through poor plotting, CGI theatrics, and inexplicable acting choices riddled with sexism, racism, and ableism. It wastes every intriguing premise it brings up and blunders through coherency as if it were an undesirable attribute. It’s a terrible franchise builder that fails to establish an adequate foundation or build upon it in any practical fashion. BvS was created by someone who despises Batman and Superman and everything they stand for, by a studio that seems to demand adoration from the audience without offering anything worth adoring, and by actors convinced they were in a far better film. It offends me as a reviewer, a movie-goer, a comic book fan, a woman, and a person of color. Its very existence hurts my soul. Never in my life have I shouted at a screen as much as I did during BvS, and I used to watch soap operas. My contempt for BvS is so deep that my hopes for a decent Wonder Woman movie are now dead and buried.
Sound and fury, signifying nothing
All of Zack Snyder’s movies suffer from the same glitch: he doesn’t so much make a film as shoot a bunch of music videos and splice them together. In other words, he’s great at visuals and crap at telling a coherent story—I’d tell you to see Sucker Punch to prove my point, but I don’t hate you. David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (produced by Snyder) was not as dour as Snyder’s films but still used the same template, complete with the requisite cheesy music cues and casual sexism/racism.
There were 8,927 competing yet incomplete stories in Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad. The frenetic pace leads to chaos as character development is reduced to abrupt shifts in personality, leaving CGI-laden set pieces to carry the plot. In order to get Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman and the Suicide Squad to their respective Final Boss fights they must unite as teammates, but the intermediate steps are missing; the script jumps from internecine squabbles to BFF territory with little explanation. Unification should mark a powerful moment that leads to a visually thrilling battle, but the emotional underpinnings and bonding necessary to make the whole thing work are frustratingly and consistently absent. Compelling character development is crushed under the weight of an overly complicated and disjointed plot, with CGI doing frantic jazz hands to distract the audience from the glaring problems.
*mutters under breath* Not that you could see anything anyway, the movies are so frakking dark and muddy.
Snyder’s DCEU movies tend toward empty bombast, hollow self-importance, and meaningless philosophizing. The most glaring example of this was the piled-on religious subtext in BvS. Over and over again Snyder posits Superman as a modern-day Jesus. He’s alternately a god, a false god, and a savior. Snyder repeatedly frames him in messianic poses and with religious imagery. Yet Clark seems perpetually annoyed that he has to save anyone at all—he acts like helping people is a chore rather than an honor, something he has to do not something he wants to do. Ultimately, none of the symbolism even matters. Superman makes Batman feel weak so Bats brutalizes Gotham’s underclass to make himself feel powerful again. Lex Luthor sees Superman as a threat to his power so Luthor Frankensteins a monster to reassert his supremacy. Superman goes out of his way to shame, taunt, and punish anyone who challenges his authority. Dawn of Justice is a three-hour-long pissing contest between a trio of arrogant assholes with bruised egos.
David Ayer also leans into unnecessary subtext in Suicide Squad. There’s a lot of talk about who the bad guys really are, vicious scenes of prison brutality (with an implication that the guards were raping Harley), and political corruption, all of which amounts to…jack squat. There are no repercussions for those abusing the prisoners and the gang hardly complains about going back to the abusive status quo. Criminal justice corruption isn’t portrayed as a systemic failure but as the result of a couple of bad apples. Just like Snyder, Ayer undermines his own point.
A franchise works best when the primary motivation is to stand on its own, with supporting, expanding, and improving the larger arc existing as secondary concerns. MCU fans had five solo movies before the heroes united in The Avengers, so we knew how they’d work together and where they’d conflict. And when the team fell apart in Captain America: Civil War, we understood them thoroughly enough as individual characters to buy the divorce. The DCEU jumped right into dawning the hell out of the Justice League without establishing what kind of people Batman, Wonder Woman, and Lex are on an individual basis, making their clashes with each other and with Superman moot.
Ultimately, the problem stems from Man of Steel’s failure. Because Warner Bros. chose to skip the step of building a foundation with a stable of solo films, Batman v Superman had the herculean task of not only making a decent, profitable film but also establishing and re-establishing a vast cast of characters, emptying a dump truck full of world building all at once, AND setting up every movie for the next decade. No movie could manage that—especially not one with Zack Snyder left to run amok with his obnoxious teenage boy fantasies. Because of that failure, all of our expectations were shifted onto Suicide Squad with predictably the same results. And rinse and repeat with Wonder Woman.
Why did the Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman turn up in BvS? To set up the Justice League movie. Wonder Woman had slightly more to do but could’ve easily been excised with little detriment to the main arc. So why was she there? To set up her movie. Frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t shove the Joker in there to promote Suicide Squad. Warner Bros. set an overly ambitious film schedule then reverse-engineered movies to fit it, without allowing enough room to tinker with the formula or adjust for unexpected speedbumps.
Look, I can’t fault the DCEU for opting for violent darkness as a counterbalance to the popcorn goofiness of the MCU, but if they were aiming for Christopher Nolan then they wildly missed the mark. A relentlessly grimdark tone, unpleasant characters, and gloomy plots in one film is a fixable error. Spreading them across every film in the franchise indicates issues at the studio level.
It’s not that the DCEU is trash and the MCU golden perfection. Both studios have a nasty habit of claiming diversity when they’re really just tokenizing and relying on overly-familiar tropes and stereotypes. The MCU has cranked out its share of jumbled rubbish, often balks at boundary-pushing directors, and has a harrowing studio process that’s unwelcoming to innovation. But I’ll give the MCU this: they know how to make an entertaining and enjoyable movie. Of course, both Marvel and Warner Bros. demand script changes against their director’s wishes and schedule reshoots based on focus group nattering…but Marvel certainly does not hire a company that makes trailers to edit their movie to undercut the director’s version, nor do they give their screenwriters only six weeks to write an $800 million blockbuster, both of which Warner Bros. did to Ayer’s Suicide Squad.
Solving a problem like the DCEU requires a multipronged approach. Simply removing Zack Snyder from the equation won’t solve the problem any more than somehow getting Warner Bros. to chill will—they still need a Kevin Feige, a person at the helm with the vision and perspective to keep things moving. Pairing up a couple of higher-ups from the two divisions—DC’s Geoff Johns and Warner Bros. exec Jon Berg—might work as a stopgap for some of the ongoing problems, but won’t necessarily foster an overarching creative vision.
Three mediocre- to-bad films is a hard precedent to break. The next movie released on their watch must undo Snyder’s damage while simultaneously crafting a creative shock-and-awe spectacle that passes the billion dollar profit mark. Wonder Woman could win an Oscar for Best Picture and rake in $4 billion and it still wouldn’t solve anything. Individual exceptionalism doesn’t cure a diseased system. From Wonder Woman on, every movie DC makes has to be great. In order to keep the waning fans they have and bring back the consumers they’ve lost, they need to prove they’ve righted the ship. Given that Snyder is a producer on Wonder Woman, The Flash, and Aquaman, as well as directing Justice League, I just can’t see that happening anytime soon.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.
Welcome back to the Malazan Reread of the Fallen! Every post will start off with a summary of events, followed by reaction and commentary by your hosts Bill and Amanda, and finally comments from Tor.com readers. Today we’re continuing Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Assail, covering part two of chapter fourteen.
A fair warning before we get started: We’ll be discussing both novel and whole-series themes, narrative arcs that run across the entire series, and foreshadowing, but the summary of events will be free of major spoilers and we’re going to try keeping the reader comments the same. A spoiler thread has been set up for outright Malazan spoiler discussion.
Note: Amanda will be adding comments in a bit later.
Assail, Chapter Fourteen (Part Two)
Marshall teal is up in the Salt range planning his next move and confident all that’s left is the mopping up. The ground shifts and he hears panic outside. Asking about it he’s told many of the soldiers haven’t experienced an earthquake before, and he sends out a guard to calm everyone down. Looking up, he sees the entire slope moving toward them, “roiling and churning as it came…entire swathes of tall spruce and fir fell before its advance.” He waves off his soldiers, telling them to simply try and save themselves. He himself merely awaits the inevitable, “And he did… He glimpsed, above the mounded-up tons of loose soil and talus, something glowing with an inner cobalt-blue light… his breath left in him awe. How beautiful, and how terrible.”
In Mantle. Lady Orosenn tells the others they need to flee. The new king, Voti, refuses, saying it’s their home. Orosenn begs them to reconsider. She shows Tyvar the people below the fortress, roughly six thousand, and tells him if they don’t move south they’ll be dead in two days, adding she believes Togg’s last geas to Tyvar, to save innocent lives, did not mean battle. She highlights that his group is called the Blue Shields and asks him to escort the six thousand south. When he notes his soldiers are down to only a hundred, she suggests he work with the Shieldmaiden who led the opposition. Tyvar agrees, thanking her for reminding him of their purpose. He leaves to arrange things. Orosenn tells Jute to head south, to see the evacuees safely out of danger. He leaves, but doesn’t feel right abandoning her or Cartheron. He goes to find him and tells him about Orosenn’s plans. Cartheron says it’s a good plan, but says he’ll be staying as the Ragstopper can’t sail anymore. Before leaving, Jute asks what the old emperor was like, and Cartheron replies “I could never make up my mind if he was the biggest fool I’d ever met, or the most cunning bastard.”
The next day Jute arranged for the ships to take on the young and wounded (Enguf, the Genabackan pirate, took the “highest bidders”). Ieleen guesses that Jute wants to stay, and he admits he does want to see it through the end, mostly out of curiosity, though he tries to appease her by saying worst comes to worst they can flee in the Ragstopper despite its condition. She tells him to be careful, and he leaves to return to the now-empty shore, since Tyvar has managed to chivy the mob on a march south. He joins Cartheron and Orosenn. Cartheron shares his ideas for the defense, noting that the castle is the highest piece of land and is set on bedrock, “atop a wedge that slopes down away before us and to either side.” Orosenn skeptically says he’d need “an immense push to get the motion going,” but Cartheron says he has “a big motivator,” and then orders the Ragstopper brought to shore. When his first mate arrives, Cartheron tells him he wants “all the consignment.” When his first mate objects that was “our nest egg. Our retirement fund!” Cartheron says the king has offered them as spot there and that he’ll be taking over as “foreign advisor” (after Malle leaves). Malle too asks if he needs to use it all, and Cartheron tells her “It’s it or us.”
They set up the siege weapons and Lt. Jalaz tells Jute the munitions came form the imperial depot, the ones thought lost when the Guard attacked the capitol. Jute wonders what they’re doing there—he from Falar, her for Genabackis—both of them conquered by Malazans. She tells him when she was little, you didn’t leave your tiny village/valley because you’d be killed or enslaved:
as a stranger—an interloper. But then the Empire came and my world broadened beyond measure. I could travel from Cat…to Pale…even to Darujhistan if I wished, all under the aegis of the imperial scepter. I was treated as an equal… I could hold what was mine under the law and the law held. That was what the Malazan brought. Granted, there were abuses, corruption, just as there had been under the old provincial rulers—human nature doesn’t change. But the opportunity was there. Hope was there. At least a chance.
She notes that the new Emperor is from Falar, but Jute tells her they don’t speak of him:
We of the sea trade in Falar know of the old blood-cult, the Jhistal. It followers terrorized our island for generation… We in Falar had squirmed in the grip of those priests for generations… The Malazans broke that grip… But the new emperor, he tries to rewrite the history of it, but there are those who still dare to whisper that he… was once a priest of the Jhistal.
Cartheron tells Jalaz it’s time. Malle volunteers her guards to go with Jalaz and Cartheron agrees. Jalaz and the guards head out the gates, carrying four munitions chests. Cartheron explains to Jute it’s a gamble, that Jalaz is going to plant some munitions out there “for a little extra oomph.” When Jute says there’s no time, and asks Cartheron about those nine lives, Cartheron tells him, “Don’t lecture me, son. They’re good people doing what they do best.” Jute goes to follow Cartheron when he moves away, but Malle stops him, saying Jute shouldn’t add to the commander’s pain.
By evening the earth’s vibration was nearly intolerable, and Jute watches “entire swathes of forest disappearing as if swept down by an invisible hand.” Then he spots Jalaz and five others running before “a churned froth of mud, silts, soil, and sand, all being scooped downslope towards them in in front of a solid wall of one of the ice tongues.” Four of them, including Jalaz, make it in. The trees and wash pass to either side of the rise the castle sits on, sweeping the town of Mantle away as Orothos uses the siege engines to blast the logjams even as the “roiling mass of coming earth just kept mounting higher and higher.” Orosenn explain to him they’re pushing the wash along so it doesn’t pile up and firing into the mud, assuming the leading edge of the ice will be there first. The walls shake and Jute looks north to see that
“what he’d taken earlier for a thick wall of frozen snow revealed itself to be a steep upward-sweeping wing-like slope that went on and on, perhaps for leagues, up the entire lowest shoulder of the mountains: an ungraspable immensity of ice and weight and might all bearing down on them like a war dromond striking a water beetle.”
Orosenn gives a signal and all four siege engines begin firing cussers, “pouring half the imperial arsenal of Moranth munitions into this unstoppable mountain of ice in a colossal contest of will that would grind all else into dust. Chunks of ice begin falling into the keep and Jute takes cover. He hears a great cracking and imagines the ice river splitting and looking out, sees that it has passed to the right and left while the keep “sat atop a scoured-clean island of naked rock.” He finds Cartheron collapsed, clutching his chest. Jute runs for Orosenn, but she says she can do no more for Cartheron, saying “it’s a miracle he’s still alive.” When she says the Omtose invocation will fade in a “mere hundred years,” he’s relieved it’s over, but she tells him, “This was only the opening salvo. The true confrontation is taking place high above” and wishes she were there to add her voice “Against the rekindling of an ancient war. And I do not mean the animosity of the T’lan Imass for the Jaghut. There have been far older wars, Jute of Delanss. And there are some who never forget, nor forgive.” They go to Cartheron.
I think anyone knowing this series was pretty sure upon reading Teal’s litany of all the great things Lether was going to do one by one that he was about to get slapped by the universe.
I have to say, this is the beginning of one of my favorite scenes in this series (so you’ll forgive me for quoting at length a few times), starting with this image, unclear at first maybe of just what is happening:
the swirling clouds parted then, as if thrust aside by some broad front of wind. Through the dimness of the overcast night he saw that the slope above was much steeper and closer than he remembered. And it was moving—roiling and churning as it came. Even as he watched, entire swathes of tall spruce and fir fell before its advance, only to be sucked beneath the leading edge of tumbling rock and soil.
That’s just a wonderfully epic, grand-scale image. As is the end image: “Above the mounded-up tons of loose soil and talus, something glowing with an inner cobalt-blue light. A broad and low wall descending out of the heights, pulverizing rock, and growling an immensely deep basso rumble that was shaking the ground.”
What makes this stunning imagery have even greater impact is Esslemont’s wise choice to filter it through the human element. So rather than an objective, distance effect, we get to experience it more emotionally. First with Teal’s decision not to run: “He chose not to. There was something inexorable, almost magisterial, in what he was witnessing. Running might gain one a few more minutes of life, but why fall in an undignified mad scramble? He preferred to meet what was coming. And he did—just before the end… his breath left him in awe. How beautiful, and how terrible.” And even with our issues with Teal, it’s hard not to feel respect for him here, his standing there before that. And that wonderful last line works on so many levels,–the description of the Omtose landslide of course, but also of Teal, who himself is a bit “beautiful (in this moment) and terrible. And is thus a fine representation of humanity—also beautiful and terrible.
I like how Tyvar’s task morphs into an escort/rescue mission, one so appropriate for a sect called the Blue Shields, as is pointed out to him.
And I love Cartheron—Mr. Old Guard—refusing to leave out of “curiosity,” because it will be, he thinks, “quite a sight.” Again, that audaciousness of those people that built the Empire, including its Emperor, who was either—and how could you not laugh at this—“the biggest fool [Cartheron] ever met, or the most cunning bastard.”
There’s a bit of a sense of things getting tied up here, loose ends being clipped—there goes Reuth, there goes the heir Dorrin, there go the Blue Shields, there goes Lyan the Shieldmaiden. Nicely, economically done.
And then Jute’s decision. I’ve said all along he and Ieleen are two of my favorite characters in the novel, and their relationship one of my favorites in the series, as it’s a different sort than we usually get. You see that special nature here, that love and intimacy and knowledge of one another. And respect. She knows him well enough to know he’s staying, and why. And respects him enough to accept it. He doesn’t try and come up with some half-ass excuse. Nor is it played sentimentally or melodramatically—it’s understated, but still warm and intimately moving.
And then again, the Malazan audacity. Omtose, glacier, avalanche? Fine, whadda we got? And to bolster that, Malle comes up and asks, “What’s the plan?” Because they’re Malazan. Of course there’s a plan. Might not work, might not have a chance in hell, but there’s gonna be a plan.
And we’ve talked before about the good that the Malazan Empire has wrought and questioned the cost (as have characters in the series), and I liked Jalaz’s clear, heartfelt summation of it here. How it boils down to “Hope was there. At least a chance.” And also how it’s clear-eyed, noting that of course there were abuses of power and corruption. It’s made of people, after all.
I will say, one of the few missteps in this chapter for me (other can and probably do differ on this) was Jute yelling at Cartheron. It just seemed a little manufactured and a bit out of character.
But then we get the great descriptive scene of the race with the avalanche and then its arrival. I just love this scene. Talk about audacity—in this case not just the Malazans, “pouring half the imperial arsenal of Moranth munitions into this unstoppable mountain of ice in a colossal contest of wills that would grind all else into dust,” but also the audacity of the author for having this “battle” scene in the first place. My eighth-grade English teacher would have loved this as a Man vs. Nature conflict! (sure, sure, it’s magic so not really “nature” but still… ) And tell me you don’t want to see this scene done cinematically! I just love these few pages.
And then we get victory, but are cruelly—and effectively—left wondering at its cost, with Cartheron “collapsed against the wall… pale, squeezing his chest, his face clenched against pain… a tremor in the Malazan’s hands that he didn’t seem to notice.” Way to leave us hanging…
Bill Capossere writes short stories, essays and plays; does reviews for the LA Review of Books and Fantasy Literature, as well as for Tor.com; and works as an adjunct English instructor. In his non-writing and reading time, he plays ultimate Frisbee (though less often and more slowly than he used to) and disc golf.
We’re pleased to share the cover for Spencer Ellsworth’s action-packed A Red Peace, forthcoming in August from Tor.com Publishing. A Red Peace is the first installment of the Starfire trilogy, a space opera with plenty of adventuring, alien arachnids, and cyborg-controlled planets—with a great cover by Sparth to match!
Starfire: A Red Peace is available August 22nd from Tor.com Publishing. From the catalog copy:
First in Spencer Ellsworth’s Starfire trilogy, A Red Peace is set in a universe where the oppressed half-Jorian crosses have risen up to supplant humanity and dominate the galaxy.
Half-breed human star navigator Jaqi, working the edges of human-settled space on contract to whoever will hire her, stumbles into possession of an artifact that the leader of the Rebellion wants desperately enough to send his personal guard after. An interstellar empire and the fate of the remnant of humanity hang in the balance.
Spencer Ellsworth has written a classic space opera, with space battles between giant bugs, sun-sized spiders, planets of cyborgs, and a heroine with enough grit to bring down the galaxy’s newest warlord.
Pre-order Starfire: A Red Peace now at the links below, or from your favorite ebook retailer:
Hello and welcome back to the second half our our reread of Shadow and Bone, the first book of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy. Today we’re going to pick up where I left off last week with Chapter 14 and go right on to the epilogue.
Looking back on last week’s reread, I was thinking about the characters that didn’t get much or any of my attention; characters like Zoya and David and Ivan, who are important to the book, but moreso to the series in general than in Book 1. All three of those characters come up in this week’s reread, but they still don’t seem as important to the themes of the book and Alina’s journey as they could be. Or maybe I’m just too busy fawning over the parallels between Alina and Genya’s circumstances and trying to decide how much sincerity lurks beneath the Darkling’s lies and sultry ways.
Chapter 14: Summary
In Chapter 14 the people of the Grand and Little Palaces are gearing up for the the winter fete, the greatest party of the year which includes feasting and dancing, guests and performers from all over Ravka, and a special demonstration of Grisha talent. Alina is working hard at her training, but she is distracted by the preparations for the festivities, by her feelings for the Darkling, and by her growing realization of the limits of her own power. When training with Baghra she finds herself fretting over her inability to be strong enough to destroy the Fold, both for the sake of the people Ravka and for the sake of pleasing the Darkling.
When Genya comes to Alina’s rooms to help get her ready for the fete, they talk about the court, the Grisha, David (the talented Fabrikator that Genya has a crush on) and the Darkling. When Alina’s special party kefta is delivered to her room, she is shocked to find that it is black, and is even adorned with a gold charm at the neck that bears the Darkling’s symbol. She’s a bit annoyed at being singled out, having successfully negotiated for summoner’s blue up until now, but once she’s dressed she can’t deny how amazing she looks, or how she feels a thrill at such attentions from the Darkling. But Genya, who has picked up on Alina’s feelings, cautions her about being attracted to a man who is so powerful; it’s understandable, but Alina shouldn’t let her heart get involved.
At the fete, Alina observes the exotic food and entertainment, and is required to mingle with the guests, including Duke Keramsov, whose estate she grew up on, though he fails to recognize her. When it is time for the Grisha’s demonstration, Alina gets to see the Darkling for the first time since he kissed her, and she enjoys using her power in conjunction with his during the demonstration, reveling in the Darkling’s showmanship and the combination of their abilities. But Alina’s enjoyment is nothing compared to the reaction of the guests, who cheer and rejoice to see that the rumors of the Sun Summoner are true, and that the suffering of the divided country is coming to an end. Some cry, and everyone wants to shake Alina’s hand, touch her, talk to her, or even ask her to bless them. She doesn’t really know how to handle it, and feels that they are giving the people false hope, since she and the Darkling both know that she isn’t powerful enough to destroy the Fold. But the Darkling assures her that she is still his answer, that he isn’t done with her yet, and uses his power to shroud them both and sneak away.
In an empty room, the Darkling pushes Alina up against the wall and kisses her. Alina struggles with conflicting feelings, her attraction to him and the pleasure of his touch and his power, the fact that she doesn’t even know him very well, despite her attraction to him, and the fact that she can sense anger, or something like it, behind his ardor. When she asks him about it, the Darkling admits that he shouldn’t be here with her; his men have located Morozova’s herd and he should be in the war room, preparing to go after them. A group of noisy party goers in the hall disturbs them, and the Darkling asks if he can come to Alina’s room later, but she is confused and doesn’t answer before he leaves.
Alina returns to the party for a little while, but when she’s on her way back to her rooms in the Little Palace, she runs into a group of soldiers leaving the Darkling’s chambers, and is surprised to see Mal among them. Alina is overjoyed to see him and delighted by the knowledge that, of course, Mal is the tracker who was able to find the herd. But despite her elation, Mal doesn’t seem pleased to see her, and when pressed, he begins to question Alina about whether she is happy at the palace with the Grisha and the Darkling, and calls her out for wearing his color and symbols, saying that the Darkling owns her. When Alina replies that he owns everyone, Mal insists that the Darkling doesn’t own him and leaves in a huff.
One of the interesting things about Alina’s power is that its importance is based upon its uniqueness. Last week I skipped over the rivalry with Zoya, the powerful squaller whose jealousy over Alina’s special position actually led to her using her power on Alina during Botkin’s training, hurting her badly enough that she needed a healer and a night in the infirmary. But I think it’s very interesting to touch on the fact that Alina is talented, but her power isn’t necessarily stronger than that of other Grisha. It puts her in the position of being considered so valuable and important, and often being lauded by those around her, without really giving her a huge confidence boost. Alina wants to belong, to impress the Darkling, and genuinely to be able to help stop suffering she has seen around her all her life. Her discovery of her power has led to her being more whole in herself, but she struggles with the same feelings of uselessness she always has had.
And then there’s the black kefta. Alina is uncomfortable because it singles her out when she wants to belong, but she doesn’t consider the idea of belonging to the Darkling to be a bad thing. However, the way that people talk about the kefta and the symbol makes my skin crawl; summoner’s blue belongs to the summoner who wears it, but the color black does not belong to Alina. It is the Darkling’s, and his alone, and everyone who talks about what Alina wears says the same thing. His color. His symbol. His favor. Alina isn’t being singled out for who she is, but who she belongs to.
And once again, her questioning of the Darkling plans leads to kissing (and then some). I think it’s possible that some of the Darkling’s surprise at his attraction towards Alina might be genuine, but I also think it’s super convenient that he is confessing to being confused by his feelings and torn by his own needs and what he perceives as his duty right at the same moment that Alina is struggling with those ideas. It makes him sympathetic in her eyes, enhances the illusion that she might have some power in the relationship, and suggests just how much they have in common. Both the Darkling and Alina have thought about their commonalities before, the only summoners of their kind, both lonely and separated from others.
Mal, of course, is the most obvious in calling out the symbolism of the Darkling’s possessiveness of Alina, although he does it in a cruel and ugly way because of his jealousy. It’s clear already that Mal hadn’t really considered how he felt about Alina before she went away, and I really feel like she was right to tell him off the way she did. Of course, Mal might have been more fair about the whole thing if he’d received any of Alina’s letters—spending long months being terrified for someone isn’t exactly conducive to viewing things objectively—but I think also the idea of belonging is something that Alina has always had to deal with in some way, something she has always been striving for, and Mal has never thought about it until now. He’s been taken by surprise by his own jealousy.
And, also of course, Alina is exactly right that the Darkling owns them all, in some way, and the theme of that debate leads perfectly into the next chapter in which a whole other level of ownership and belonging is brought into play.
Chapter 15–20: Summary
Brokenhearted from Mal’s words, Alina retreats to her room to cry, but she doesn’t have any time to deal with her feelings about Mal or her encounter with the Darkling before Baghra shows up, basically in a panic, and drags Alina away and down to a small secret room. There she tells Alina the truth about the Darkling: he is much older than he admits, and is actually the same Darkling who created the Fold in the first place, and he intends to use Alina’s power not to destroy the Fold but to enhance it, intending to wield it as a weapon against the other nations and gain control Ravka for himself. She tells Alina that the Darkling will kill the stag and therefore have control over the amplifier, making Alina, once she is wearing it, his slave.
Alina is reluctant to believe Baghra, but the old woman’s obvious emotion gives her pause, especially when Baghra explains that she knows all these things because she is the Darkling’s mother. Baghra shows Alina that she, too, can summon darkness, and admits that she feels responsible for the monster he has become. The more Alina considers the Darkling’s behavior and the ways in which he avoids her questions and keeps her waiting, reliant on him, the more she begins to believe Baghra, and finally she decides that she must do as Baghra says and flee.
Alina hides in the cart of some departing performers and escapes the palace, planning to travel to the Fold and then across to West Ravka. She avoids crowds and main thoroughfares as much as possible, terrified that she’ll be recognized, but she finds as she travels that none of the King’s soldiers seem to be looking for her. It isn’t until she gets accosted by a drunken man in the city of Ryevost and gives herself away to one of the Darkling’s guards that she is recognized. Alina flees into the woods, and although her escape seems impossible, at the last moment Mal appears and leads her to safety.
Together Mal and Alina discuss the situation; he admits that the Darkling’s servants haven’t found Morotzova’s stag yet and that they probably won’t be able to find it without Mal’s help, and once Alina convinces him that she didn’t just run away from the Darkling because of “some kind of lovers’ quarrel” and isn’t going back to him, Mal agrees to help her.
Alina tells Mal everything about the Darkling’s plans, and the two of them go after the stag together. Despite the physical difficulty of the journey, Alina finds some peace in the experience being with Mal. Together they hunt the stag, fight off a couple of robbers, and even reminisce about their childhood and laugh together. Alina wishes she could stay with Mal, just like this, forever, but she knows that she can’t have that life, and makes Mal promise to kill her rather than let the Darkling enslave her. He reluctantly agrees.
It’s early spring when Mal starts to believe that they are getting very close to the herd, and he even takes Alina to wait and watch a specific plateau where Mal feels certain the stag will appear. As they sit together in the cold, Mal begins to open up to Alina, and the next day he admits to his jealousy over the Darkling, to how much he missed Alina, and how deeply he feels that they belong together. He apologizes for taking so long to see it, and the two share a kiss. At the same moment, Morotzova’s stag appears.
Mal prepares to shoot the stag and then let Alina finish it off, but she stops him, and finds herself unable to take its life. She tells Mal that they will find another way, but just then the Darkling and a group of Grisha burst out of the trees around them, and Alina and Mal are unable to fight them off. The Darkling kills the stag and has his men take the antlers, and it is David, Genya’s Fabrikator crush, who fastens the antlers into a necklace around Alina’s neck, leaving no fastening or seam with which it could be taken off. When the Darkling commands her to use her power, Alina finds that it responds to his will and not her own; she is a helpless conduit. The Darkling throws Mal in chains and declares that the party will head to the Fold.
The Darkling and his Grisha keep Mal and Alina separated on the journey to the Fold, and the Darkling holds Mal’s safety over Alina to keep her in line. As they travel, Alina learns that no one has been informed of her disappearance, and as they return to Kribirsk, the port city where Alina and Mal had waited to cross the Fold with their regiment in the beginning of the book, people cheer for the arrival of the Sun Summoner and Alina’s friends from the Little Palace are happy to see her, although surprised that she seems so tired and unwell. Alina can’t tell them the truth, for fear that the Darkling will hurt Mal, but when Genya brings her lunch, Alina comes to understand that Genya, at least, is somewhat aware of the Darkling’s plans. She tells Alina that the King is unwell and that the Apparat is ruling Ravka in his place, and Alina infers that Genya might have had something to do with the King’s illness. Genya is now wearing Corporalki red, and she tries to subtly impress upon Alina that their loyalty should be with the Darkling, although she also admits that David feels horribly guilty for his part of what happened.
There’s still a lot Alina, and therefore we as readers, don’t understand about amplifiers at this point. We know that the Grisha Morozova wrote about the special amplifiers and was obsessed with them; the way the stag is talked about it’s almost like Morozova created the stag, rather than just identified its potential as an amplifier. Of course there’s a lot to come in the next two books, but I’ll try not to jump too far ahead and just touch on the Darkling’s statement from earlier that Alina keeps remembering; “Sometimes I wonder how much we understand our own abilities.” The Darkling’s reckless seeking of power seems to fit as well with this theme as anything else in the book; he is relying on stories and myths to find the power he needs, and although he likes to act as though he has all the answers, it is clear that he doesn’t understand a lot of things. Like Alina and Mal, he is scrambling in the wilderness, struggling with the fact that the very Fold he created is something he cannot control, because of the unexpected existence of the volcra, and looking for solutions that until Alina seemed they would never present themselves.
One can’t help but draw a parallel between Alina’s intentions to kill the stag and inability to ultimately do so, and Mal’s inability to carry out his reluctant promise to kill Alina if the Darkling captured them. Alina’s mercy seems to turn to disaster, just as Mal’s love stops him from sparing her from enslavement. At this point, the Darkling’s attitude of “do what must be done” seems the far more effective one, especially with people like David and Genya following him.
While they’re traveling, Alina has a conversation with Ivan, the Corporanik right-hand of the Darkling, with whom she has always had an antagonistic relationship. Ivan’s story of the loss of his family to the war also paints the Darkling’s actions in a seemingly more reasonable light, and shows why so many Grisha see what he is doing as just. Alina is no stranger to the loss and pain brought by war, and even though she can see how the Darkling’s seizure of power will ultimately be bad and lead to just as much suffering, she understands how Ivan and the others feel. Especially Genya.
Oh, Genya. Genya my love, in your new red kefta, how my heart aches for you. I think Genya is the perfect example of the Darkling’s manipulation of people; just as he used Alina and still expects to be lauded and loved, he used Genya, putting her in a position to be a servant, abused and taken advantage of, separated from the very people to whom she belonged. Alina recognizes it instantly; “The Darkling had put her in that position for his own gain, and now he had raised her out of it.” But Genya’s hatred of the King and Queen for what they put her through doesn’t extend to the Darkling, or if it does, she keeps that resentment hidden. And what choice does she have? Like Alina, she wants to belong, to be her whole self and have autonomy, but unlike Alina, she has no Mal to run away with, no other life to show her a different way to be happy. And yet she cares so much for Alina, and I think Alina’s forgiveness comes as much from the friendship they shared as it does from understanding why Genya is making the choice that she is.
Chapter 21–Epilogue: Summary
The day before they are to enter the Fold, the Darkling summons Alina to him and forces her into a conversation. He expresses his frustration that she would abandon Ravka, and abandon him, after all he has done for her, and all the power he has offered. Alina is almost swayed by the reasonable arguments that he makes, insisting that he is doing what needs to be done for the sake of Ravka. But ultimately she knows better, and instead tries to use her compliance to bargain for Mal’s life. The Darkling behaves as though he is considering the offer, considering mercy, and then tells Alina that she has one night to say goodbye to Mal before the Darkling feeds him to the volcra on the Fold. Mal and Alina spend the night in the dungeons together, apologizing for the mistakes they’ve each made, reminiscing about their past, and affirming their love for each other.
The next day Alina and the Darkling lead a party of Grisha, Ravkan soldiers, and emissaries from all the nations, including a special envoy from the King, out into the Fold, and Grisha inferni light up the sky to call the volcra to them, so that the Darkling can show off Alina’s power. At his command, Alina summons light, not just enough to drive the Volcra away but enough to make an illuminated path all the way across the Fold to West Ravka on the other side, allowing the assembled delegates to see the docks and the city of Novokribirsk in the distance. But when the Darkling summons more of the Fold to stretch into Novokribirsk, covering it in darkness and letting the volcra in to feast upon the unsuspecting citizens, the truth of his intentions becomes clear to everyone. Despite protests from the King’s envoy, the Darkling declares that there will be peace, on his terms, and if anyone, even the King, were to protest, he will bring the Shadow Fold to their doorsteps.
As the Grisha rejoice at the end to war and suffering and others mourn or cower in fear, the Darkling orders that Mal be brought and thrown over the side of the skiff. Alina can only watch, helpless, as she is ordered to pull her light in, leaving Mal in darkness and allowing the volcra to come for him. And then, just when she is utterly helpless and believes all hope is lost, she sees the image of the stag in her mind’s eye, the same image that she has been seeing every night in her dreams. Alina realizes that it is not guilt that has been making her dream of the stag but a message; she suddenly understands that while the Darkling may have claimed the stag’s power by taking its life, she had gained power in sparing it. And the power of that mercy is something that the Darkling does not understand.
Alina feels as she had in Baghra’s hut, the power that had been taken from her suddenly coming back in full force, and with the added strength from the collar she easily drives the volcra back and prevents the Darkling from using his power against her or Mal. Alina begs the other Grisha to realize the truth about what the Darkling is doing, to help her stop him. They do not take her side, nor can they risk killing her and losing their protection against the volcra—she uses this to her advantage and escapes, vaulting over the side of the skiff and retreating to Mal. The Darkling asks if she will actually murder people, if she will show none of the mercy she had begged him for earlier, and although Alina knows that taking such action will bring her closer to being like the Darkling, she withdraws her power and uses the Cut to destroy the skiff. She and Mal flee, safe from the volcra in the light of Alina’s power, and make it to West Ravka.
The two fugitives burn Alina’s black kefta, both agreeing than Alina should never wear black again. Mal adds that they will find a way to get rid of the collar too, but Alina reminds him that it is still the only hope of destroying the Fold someday. But she knows, also, that the power of the collar belongs to her now, and she isn’t sure she wants to give it up.
In the epilogue, we see the boy and the girl traveling together on a ship across the true sea, together in the face of loneliness and fear, two lost orphans with no one but each other and the hope of some life together on the other side of the sea.
I have to admit, I missed the theme of mercy the first time I read the book. I even went so far as to view Alina’s reclaiming of the collar as a cheap trick on Bardugo’s part, a sort of “power of love” moment. But on the second read I found the whole thing actually much more complex, and I also realized how much of what happens is not only a result of Alina’s strength, but also of the Darkling’s hubris.
While talking in his tent and trying to bargain for Mal’s life, Alina tells the Darkling that if he will just spare Mal’s life, she will stop fighting him and serve him willingly. The Darkling feigns an interest in the idea of being merciful, not really for Mal or Alina’s sake so much as for his own, almost like it is a hat he wants to try on, or a distant memory of something he used to do. Reading it, I’m reminded of Baghra in Chapter 16, explaining to Alina that she still has hope that her son might be redeemed, and that she wants to put the power of the Fold out of his reach to keep him from moving beyond the point of possible redemption. What would it cost the Darkling, I wonder, to offer mercy to Alina? Would it have put a chink in his armor, so to speak? How long has it been since he considered the idea of mercy, of doing something for someone else and not only by justification of his quest for power?
Ultimately he sneers at the idea of providing mercy for a traitor, but of course, he isn’t really angry about Mal’s betrayal. He is angry at Alina’s, that she would reject the great Darkling and all his power and the life he offers her for someone he views as insignificant, a simple tracker, one of “the abandoned” as the Grisha call those without their abilities. And his very inability to grant Alina the mercy that she asks for is what destroys his hold on her.
Alina granted mercy to the stag, and in the moment of truth, she is able to extend that mercy to Mal. It’s not the power of love so much as the choice of love over power, of mercy over strength. Alina knew what she would lose if she chose not to claim the amplifier, so I think it’s important to view her decision not to kill the stag in that light. When she and Mal are fleeing, the Darkling shouts to her that destroying the skiff and leaving everyone to die makes her more like him, and I think he’s not wrong. But the power of Alina’s mercy will also sustain her through this hard choice, and many others to come.
The epilogue is sweet, and the idea that Mal and Alina are in some ways back to where they started is a poignant one, since their childhood together is the only thing that ever truly made them happy. The mention that there are rumors of the Sun Summoner’s death and of Civil War in Ravka are relevant to the next book, where we will begin to see a culmination of the little bits here and there in Shadow and Bone about how Alina is being worshiped by people as a saint. We will also see more of some of the side characters from Shadow and Bone, and the reappearance of the Apparat, who never becomes more than a creepy figure and a symbol of warning to the reader in this book, will show that Alina isn’t the only person who the Darkling has misjudged.
But all that is til next week! In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this week’s themes of love and mercy, duty, and sacrifice. Also, which order do you think you’d belong to, if you were a Grisha? Let me know in the comments.
Kelsey Jefferson Barrett agrees that kindness and mercy are a great strength, and would like to know just how cumbersome a collar made of whole antlers would be. Probably pretty cumbersome.
To say The Quantum Thief made waves would be to gravely underplay the arrival of one of the most promising new authors speculative fiction has seen this century. Born in Finland but based in bonnie Scotland, Hannu Rajaniemi has been hailed as a herald of all that the genre has to offer. His books have been brilliantly original and quite marvellously imaginative, albeit so cerebral that they’ve been a struggle for some. Me, even. But like a lot of things, reading, I’ve realised, doesn’t need to be easy. In fact, some of the best experiences I’ve ever had, in literature and in life, have been the hardest.
In any event, as I concluded in my review of The Casual Angel, which fulfilling (if fearsome) finale closed out The Quantum Thief series, “Rajaniemi is without question one of the smartest and most exciting writers working in science fiction as we speak, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.” Well, it took nearly three years, but now we know what he has up his sleeves: a standalone called Summerland, in which the self-professed “purveyor of tomorrows” sets his startling sights on yesterday instead.
Truth be told, we’ve known Summerland was coming since the summer of 2013, when it was announced as the first of three new books Gollancz had signed for a six-figure sum. But despite delays in its delivery and its deployment—presumably due in part to the departure of Simon Spanton, Rajaniemi’s champion at Gollancz—Summerland finally has a UK publication date: August 31.
It also has a winningly conspicuous cover by the illustrious Jeffrey Alan Love, which showcases Summerland itself, as well as the text’s central characters in silhouette:
Last but not least, behold the blurb:
In 1938, death is no longer feared but exploited. Since the discovery of the afterlife, the British Empire has extended its reach into Summerland, a metropolis for the recently deceased.
Yet Britain isn’t the only contender for power in this life and the next. The Soviets have spies in Summerland, and the technology to build their own god.
When SIS agent Rachel White gets a lead on one of the Soviet moles, blowing the whistle puts her hard-earned career at risk. The spy has friends in high places, and she will have to go rogue to bring him in.
But how do you catch a man who’s already dead?
At this stage, Summerland doesn’t have a US deal to speak of, but Rajaniemi’s Twitter timeline indicates that “there is hope!”
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.