Tropes abound as the second trio from season four of my writing group’s monthly book corner takes in feminist speculative fiction, a classic of SF satire and a contemporary fairy tale:
What is the book corner?
Each month, our writing group takes a break from critiquing WIPs to examine a complete, published novel. Everyone picks a book, based on a loose theme connected to making us better writers. If nothing else, it’s a great way to broaden my reading beyond the SF I’d probably choose.
In season three, we looked at award-winning genre fiction to find out what literary awards can teach writers. For the book corner season 4, we took a more relaxed approach.
I didn’t finish The Shore in time for our group discussion, but I was sufficiently intrigued by the discussion to keep going.
The poverty porn in Shit Creek USA forms opening chapters that felt like a grab bag of modern lit-fic tropes. It’s true that racism, misogyny, domestic violence, drug addiction and systemic poverty in isolated rural communities are what makes America great today [irony warning]. Still, it’s a well-trodden road and I need more to lift a novel out of the broken kitchen sink.
Eventually, the time-jumping story reveals magical realism and an SF flavour that’s seen it likened to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The disjointed narrative is both a help and a hindrance, jumping through time and around the islands of the Shore. You get a different flavour of grimness but it takes time for the threads to pick up pace. Persistence is rewarded as the connections emerge, which is where the magic of this story lies.
The time jumps also presented problems for the group as a whole. Several readers questioned the longevity of objects and locations which return to enable later storylines. As a Kindle reader, I couldn’t make much use of the family tree at the opening of the novel because it’s too small to read.
Taylor’s dystopian future is closer Atwood’s dark realism than Mitchell’s soaring imagination, and occasionally too accurate. After all, a future without Roe vs Wade is something Americans no longer have to fear; it’s here today.
An imaginative final third elevates The Shore. The sexually transmitted plague and its apocalyptic social consequences are startling, original and betray a dark wit that I would have welcomed earlier, but maybe her target audience wouldn’t have followed that journey.
Cat’s Cradle escaped my youthful Vonnegut phase, so I was delighted to find this on the list. It’s a typically concise, dark, absurd and witty example, playfully skewering political and social themes of his time.
In this apocalypse, a banana republic in the Caribbean gains control of ice-nine, a chemical which makes water freeze at room temperature. It’s a ‘good’ banana republic, though, with an anti-communist dictator friendly to the US and an absurd religion. Bokonism was created specifically to offer purpose and community in the face of the island’s insoluble poverty and squalor. Vonnegut leaves no doubt that Cat’s Cradle is a satire of the scientific and military cultures behind the nuclear arms race: the story opens with his narrator collecting stories of what people were doing when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
It’s also very enjoyable: the story moves fast and each of the 127 chapters is a joke with a punchline. Meanwhile, the narrator is led to his fate by an inevitable comedic clockwork, despite his attempts to escape or control it. Tropes are harder to judge when you’re reading a 50-year-old novel. Even when characters seem like dated stereotypes, it’s easy to assume that Vonnegut was satirising something that’s been lost to time and a Transatlantic perspective.
I read a lot of fantasy in my teens but this is very different to those D&D-style stories. Presenting as a fantasy romance based on Polish fairy tales, Uprooted makes clever use of its influences and genre tropes to craft an original, surprising and emotionally satisfying story.
On the surface, it’s the story of a young woman who unexpectedly becomes the servant and then apprentice to a powerful wizard who’s much older than he seems. They form an unlikely bond as they’re pitched against an insidious, inhuman evil and court politics. It would be easy to mistake Uprooted for a coming-of-age magician’s tale with a strong romance subplot and file it under YA fantasy romance.
It’s definitely not YA, though. Novik plays with expectations along the magic and romance axes as the heroine’s adventures expand our knowledge of this world. A final act twist overturns the assumptions you’ve been fed, in a way that’s both narratively and thematically satisfying.
The court scenes are sometimes run with the tropes rather than against them, but they’re more than made up for by the emotional intimacy of Novik’s magic system, observations on class and gender politics, effective action pacing and vivid world building.
Buy the books
More reviews coming soon
Coming up in the final part of season four, my opinions on:
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams,
- Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake,
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
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