City of … Clocks?

by Dan H

Dan crawls back to Cassie
~
Reading Cassandra Clare is, for me, like visiting an old friend. An old friend who is kind of a dick. An old friend who is kind of a dick, but who you are comfortable enough around that you accept their being a dick as part of the charm of their personality, and then after you get home ask yourself why the hell you were ever friends with that dick.

So yes. Cassandra Clare.

The Infernal Devices trilogy is a prequel to the Mortal Instruments trilogy, set in the same world, but in Victorian Times. Being Victorian Times means it is set in London, which is where the Victorian Times happened, and there are clockwork automatons, which is what the economy of the Victorian Times was based on.

The heroine of the prequel trilogy is an American Girl named Tessa Gray who has had to come to England to live with her brother. The hero of the prequel trilogy is Fanon Draco, as always. This version of Fanon Draco is called William Herondale. He is a sarcastic, emotionally withdrawn young man who has difficulty trusting people. He is not to be confused with Jace from The Mortal Instruments who was a sarcastic, emotionally withdrawn young man with different coloured hair.

I'm going to start by saying how much I love the name “William Herondale”. It just sounds so perfectly like what it is – a name invented by an American girl to sound really English to other American girls who have never been to England. The whole book is kind of like this – it feels a great deal like the cast of the original trilogy decided to cosplay as Victorians (and the cover of the UK edition looks rather like that as well – I've never seen somebody look less comfortable in a top hat).

The book opens with a nine page prologue, but the action of the prologue takes place directly before the action of the first chapter, so I really don't understand what makes it a “prologue” and not “chapter one”. Anyway the prologue delighted me by including the two things I've come to demand from the works of Cassie Clare, the first being incredibly ill-constructed similes:


Through the gap, Will could see the dark outlines of docked ships, a forest of masts like a leafless orchard.


It's not quite “the colour of black ink” but there's a certain peculiar genius to it. You can almost imagine her sitting at her keyboard and thinking “hmm, there's this forest of masts, but I need a striking visual metaphor to describe it, what would it be like … I know, a forest of masts would look like an orchard.”

And the second, of course, being an infeasibly hot badboy love interest:


Will smiled the way Lucifer might have smiled, moments before he fell from heaven.


As I so often say in these situations, part of me appreciates the sheer brass (and presumably in this case steam-powered) bollocks of it. Remember that this line appears on page twelve of the UK edition, and the prologue only starts on page seven. I'd say that she might as well have just written “and by the way, Will was really, really, really hot” but she actually does that as well a mere thirty pages later:


He had the most beautiful face she had ever seen. Tangled black hair and eyes like blue glass. Elegant cheekbones, a full mouth, and long, thick lashes. Even the curve of his throat was perfect.


I mean, it's nice that she puts her cards on the table, but seriously, we are on page forty-two here. I don't think I'd mind so much if it weren't for the fact that they don't even get together in this book – they kiss like, twice, and he makes inappropriate suggestions (because he is tormented) and that's it. I know it's the nineteenth century, but nobody in the entire book offers more than a passing nod to a period-appropriate worldview – at least TMI had the whole incest arc keeping the leads from hopping into bed with each other, all that stops the protagonists of this book from jumping in the sack is recycled Draco-angst and the fact that Tessa very, very occasionally remembers it's supposed to be 1878.

Anyway, the story of Clockwork Angel (spoilers follow) is that Tessa Gray is summoned to England, where it turns out she has shapeshifting powers, which she is abused into revealing by two scary old ladies called the Dark Sisters (I shit you not) who want to force her to marry somebody called “the Magister” (I still shit you not). She is rescued by Draco Jace William Herondale and the other Shadowhunters, who are investigating the Dark Sisters and the mysterious “Pandemonium Club” that they work for and the sinister “Magister” who runs it. Investigation ensues, and it turns out that the Pandemonium Club are building a clockwork army to wipe out the Shadowhunters. The Shadowhunters try to take down the Magister, but it turns out they have been tricked by the real Magister into taking down the wrong villain. The identity of the true Magister is kind of obvious (clue, all Cassie Clare's villains have surnames beginning with “M”) but the reveal is reasonably well handled and while you can see the twist coming a mile off, the clues are mostly metatextual so the protagonists don't look too stupid.

Because it's the first book in a trilogy, of course, the book ends with a completely inconclusive confrontation, and a metric assload of foreshadowing during which nothing whatsoever is revealed about anything at all.

I'm sort of torn about the plot. I found the opening dull, was quite excited at the bit in the middle where they killed a bunch of vampires, was pleased with the revelation of the real Magister but then realised that (a) nothing was going to get explained at all and (b) there were still two chapters to go, which presumably would consist of nothing but setup and foreshadowing. I did provisionally like the Magister arc, which begins with the Shadowhunters being all dismissive and superior about mortals who dabble in the occult, and ends with the revelation that the Magister actually is an ordinary mortal who – it seems – has managed to achieve power in the world of the supernatural by being legitimately smarter than everybody else (which admittedly isn't particularly hard, Clare's secondary creation isn't exactly overflowing with competence).

Of course this touches on one of my perennial beefs with Urban Fantasy, which is its complete lack of interest in anybody who isn't touched by the Special Magic Fairy Dust. Long-time fans of my struggles with the good Ms Clare might remember that I felt that City of Glass was in part an attempt to “do right” some of the unfollowed plot threads in the later Potter books (specifically, any and all threads that related to Wizarding society being hella fucked up), in City of Glass the Clave really does have to make concessions to the Downworlders in order to defeat Valentine, and they (to some extent) have to confront some nasty truths about their society. Clockwork Angel seems (although I am more than ready to be disappointed on this count) to be making a similar attempt to address the Wizarding World's treatment of Muggles (and more generally, the treatment of mundane humans in urban fantasy as a genre). It's relatively clear throughout the book that the Shadowhunters have a really screwed-up attitude to mundanes, and part of the reason the twist works so well (despite being relatively obvious) is that you can absolutely see why they fall for it – it's clearly impossible for any of them to believe that they could be so utterly played by an ordinary human.

This does have a downside, however, which is that it leaves some parts of the audience (at least, those parts of the audience which are me) kind of rooting for the villain. Perhaps I'm just an asshole, but Clare does such a good job of making the Shadowhunters look like patronising douchebags that I could see a lot of sense in Operation Robot Army. Certainly I'd rather put my faith in a bunch of killer machines than in a group of invisible ninja wizards who think they're better than me. Of course the problem with this is that the guy is inevitably going to lose, which means that whatever Clare's intentions, it seems likely that the overall message of the series is going to wind up being “and remember, don't try to move outside of the sphere you were born into.” Like always.

As always when reviewing long running series by the same author, I find myself running out of steam around this point because, well, there isn't a lot I can say here that will be a surprise to anybody. I can I think say that Cassie Claire is getting less bad, although as always it might just be that I'm growing accustomed to her idiosyncrasies. For example, I didn't find the chapter titles quite as infuriating this time around – none of them were in Latin, most of them were short and descriptive, and only three or four of them contain the words “Heaven”, “Angel” or “Darkness”. Chapter two does reach a new low by being called “Hell is Cold” - a title which is justified solely by the fact that Tessa randomly tells Will (in the middle of an escape scene, no less) that “Hell is Cold” because the lowest levels of hell are full of ice in The Inferno. Which she has read. And which Cassie Clare has also read.

Oh yes, about that. While Ms Clare has very slightly restrained her urge to pack literary references into her chapter titles, she has more than compensated in two ways. Firstly, she continues her tradition of having her protagonists quote stuff all the damned time (this gets circular fast – frequently chapter titles are references to the fact that characters in the book quote a particular line in the chapter – as with “Hell is Cold” in chapter two). Secondly she opens each chapter with a quote from a poem. Poems which she helpfully informs us (in an author's note after the text – much like you might get in an H/D songfic) were all poems that Tessa would have known about, except for the bits that aren't – there's Wilde and Kipling in there despite the book being set in 1878. I wouldn't have minded this so much, but the Author's Note makes quite a big deal about how the rest of the poems are texts Tessa would have been familiar with, and I kind of think that if you're going to do a thing, you should do it properly, otherwise it looks a lot like you've just taken a bunch of random poems from some time vaguely in the past.

The book opens, incidentally with a full length poem called “Thames River Song” which was actually written especially for the book by a third party (one Elka Cloke, you can apparently find a full version of the poem at www.elkacloke.com). This poem is clearly supposed to be about the Thames as it was in the Age of Steam, and – I don't know – I think if you want a poem about the Thames in the nineteenth century you should go with a nineteenth-century poet. I can't help but suspect that the reason she didn't pick, say, Lines Written Near Richmond, Upon the Thames, at Evening or Steam-Launches on the Thames is because they didn't contain enough references to cogs, steam, machinery and all the other things that people who have never been to London associate with it.

I vaguely promised myself that this wouldn't turn into a rant about Steampunk, I've mellowed a lot on the (sub)genre over the years, and I'm happy to accept that good books can be and have been written in a steampunk mode. That said, a lot of things still hack me off about the subculture, one of which is its peculiar insistence that the Industrial Revolution was all about individual craftsmen building wonderful machines when in fact it was about masses of people in factories producing stuff in bulk. To put it another way, real Victorian poets didn't write about their world like this:


Each tiny golden cog has teeth,
each great wheel moves
a pair of hands which take
the water from the river,
devour it, convert it into steam,
coerce the great machine to run
on the force of its dissolution.


This is because people in the nineteenth century didn't give a crap about cogs and brass and steam any more than, well, twenty-first century people do (after all the vast majority of electricity is still generated in thermal power stations, which still use steam-driven turbines and which still contain cogs and gears and all of those other oldey-timey sounding things which are part of pretty much any mechanical device you might care to name). Real historical poets who lived in the real London wrote about real people who lived in a real city. William Blake's London for example, begins:


I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.


Wordsworth, in London, 1802 writes:


Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;


Sorry, I've spent a really insanely long time banging on about this, but you might notice that neither of those poems contain any reference to brass, steam, lenses, goggles or any of the other steampunk nonsense that Clare felt was such a necessary part of her evocation of my goddamned home city.

Again, I should add that I have actually mellowed a lot on Steampunk over the years, but what bothered me about the steampunky elements in Clockwork Angel was that it isn't a steampunk setting. Steampunk posits an alternate reality in which the progress of technology is fundamentally different, but this clearly isn't true in the Cassandraverse – we know that, supernatural elements aside, the New York of the Mortal Instruments trilogy looks exactly like the real New York. Yet somehow the villain of The Infernal Devices is able to build humanoid robots which follow verbal commands, believably pass as human, and move sufficiently well to stand up to trained Shadowhunters in a one-on-one fight, and he is able to do this without using magic. Clare just seems to assume that because it is The Victorian Times people have access to steampunk technology that somehow ceases to exist somewhere between 1878 and 2010.

It's not the steampunkyness that I object to per se, rather it's the thoughtless assumption that (a) England (b) the late nineteenth century and (c) steampunk are basically the same thing. It's like Clare was unable to imagine a novel set in England that was not set in the Victorian era, unable to imagine a novel set in the Victorian era that was not set in England, and unable to imagine a novel set in either England or the Victorian era that did not include steam-and-clockwork-powered mechanical marvels.

It makes it quite hard to work out where to place the books. They're so tied to the original trilogy that they don't really make sense except as a prequel series, but they make enough changes to the way the world works (seriously guys, clockwork robots are a game-changer) that they don't feel quite like they're set in the same universe. It's a lot like the Star Wars prequels in that respect, you have to really squint to imagine that the events established in the original canon logically follow from the world established in the prequels.

The weirdness is compounded by the fact that half the characters in the book have the same surnames as characters from the previous book. I get that this provides a sense of continuity, but rather than making the story feel like part of a consistent world, it makes it feel like it's just set in a weird AU where everybody is a Victorian (like that Marvel comic where it's the X-Men except that they're in 1602). The strange fake feeling isn't helped by the fact that people not only fail to act in any way like actual Victorians but also draw attention to the fact that they aren't in any way acting like actual Victorians. So Tessa tries for about two chapters to refer to Will as “Mr Herondale” but then just forgets, she points out how peculiar it is that she Shadowhunters all refer to each other by their first names, but they still do it. Yes you can claim that it's all “Shadowhunter tradition” but it seems a giant fucking coincidence that the eternal and unchanging traditions of the Shadowhunters align so perfectly with twenty-first-century social conventions despite their having been instituted n-thousand years ago. It's like that bit in City of Ashes where they explain that “adult” in Shadowhunter tradition means “eighteen year old” because “teenagers are a modern concept”.

The awkward sense of history is at its most jarring when it comes to gender politics. Tess pays lip-service to having internalised sexism, but after expressing mild surprise that in Shadowhunter society Women Are Allowed To Have Power And Fight Like Men she just goes with it. Except later it seems that Shadowhunter society is kind of sexist after all (Charlotte, the Shadowhunter who runs the institute, can do so only because she does it jointly with her affable buffoon of a husband, and her gender apparently causes her political difficulties) which for me shoves the whole thing down the uncanny valley. If it's a gender-equal society, why does Charlotte get a hard time for being a woman? If it isn't, why don't they keep their women at home making Shadowhunter babies? Again it all feels oddly specific, like the Shadowhunters are eternally stuck in a kind of late-twentieth-early-twenty-first-century mindset with very, very vague nods to whatever time period they happen to be cosplaying as.

The gender politics get particularly confusing when we get to the character of Jess. Jess is the Isabel of this book (although she's fair-haired this time, meaning her hair is presumably the colour of blonde ink) only instead of being a badass dominatrix, she's a (relatively) proper Victorian lady who isn't interested in fighting demons at all, and who wants to move out of the Institute and find herself a husband. Jess is very nearly an interesting character, but I could never quite work out whether I was supposed to find her situation complex and ambiguous or whether I was just supposed to think she was shallow and stupid. Read charitably, Jess asks us to question the morality of Shadowhunter society (which is trying to force her into a life she doesn't want, just as Victorian society forces many mundanes into lives they don't want) and to recognise that some women really will choose marriage and domesticity over excitement and adventure, and that there is nothing wrong with this. Read uncharitably she's there exclusively to make the heroine look good.

I'm going to close this review by mentioning the two Author's Notes at the end (this really, really feels like a fandom thing to me – I half expect the next book to open with bold text saying: Disclaimer: I don't own any of … oh wait). I've already mentioned the one about the poetry, but there's also a lovely note about “Tessa's London” which begins thus:


The London of Clockwork Angel is, as much as I could make it, an admixture of the real and the unreal, the famous and the forgotten.


Good old Cassie and her thesaurus. But I do wonder what she means by “as much as I could make it,” surely as long as the book contains at least one real thing (like say, the name of the city) and at least one unreal thing (like say, the character of Will Herondale) then she has succeeded in her goal.

Either way, thus ends the review. A review that is, as much as I could make it, an admixture of the fair and the unfair, of sincerity and sarcasm.
~

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~
Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 01:20 on 2012-02-06
It's like Clare was unable to imagine a novel set in England that was not set in the Victorian era, unable to imagine a novel set in the Victorian era that was not set in England, and unable to imagine a novel set in either England or the Victorian era that did not include steam-and-clockwork-powered mechanical marvels.

To be fair, maybe she could imagine such a novel, but she (or her publishers) couldn't imagine it selling better.

I mean, if you're a hack novelist who's perfectly content to write the literary equivalent of popcorn - lacking in distinctiveness, flavour, nutritional value or surprises, but comfortingly disposable and familiar - and if you're facing a situation where the urban fantasy market is oversaturated, moving on to steampunk seems like the logical choice because there's a built-in subculture attached to it of folk who'll happily give your novel a chance provided there is a reasonable chance there'll be cogs and corsets in there.
http://alankria.livejournal.com/ at 10:20 on 2012-02-06
This is because people in the nineteenth century didn't give a crap about cogs and brass and steam ... Real historical poets who lived in the real London wrote about real people who lived in a real city.

I love you so much for saying this and for quoting poetry and for putting into words something that has bothered me about Steampunk Londonland for a while. Thank you.

I personally think steampunk has huge potential as a lens (a fun lens, even!) for looking at a very interesting and highly problematic era, with industrialism, imperialism, the beginning of the suffragette movement and many other issues and events - yet it mostly seems to be about gears and cogs and corsets and steam, rather than poking and prodding what it was that made the 19thC (in England and elsewhere) such a volatile time.
Sister Magpie at 19:09 on 2012-02-07
I'm going to start by saying how much I love the name “William Herondale”. It just sounds so perfectly like what it is – a name invented by an American girl to sound really English to other American girls who have never been to England.


As someone who once was an American girl who had never been to England, I sort of want to hug it just for that too because it is so naked in its appeal.

So Tessa tries for about two chapters to refer to Will as “Mr Herondale” but then just forgets, she points out how peculiar it is that she Shadowhunters all refer to each other by their first names, but they still do it.
Yes you can claim that it's all “Shadowhunter tradition” but it seems a giant fucking coincidence that the eternal and unchanging traditions of the
Shadowhunters align so perfectly with twenty-first-century social conventions despite their having been instituted n-thousand years ago.


This kind of fascinates me because when you read a lot of 19th century lit, well, as you said, the difference is just there. In the book I'm reading now I just read a passage where a woman refers to someone by just their last name in a letter, with a line about how the recipient might be shocked to hear her taking such liberties and she'll now explain that they have become much more intimate since she last mentioned him. There's also a scene earlier where the two dim-witted lovers have a breathless exchange about how they are totally going to call each other by their first names.

It makes me wonder about the decision to do that, I mean, to take a basic difference in the two societies and then toss it when it immediately makes everything seem that much more modern.

I actually just read another YA book that takes place in the 19th century in England where there wasn't many places to deal with this sort of formal convention but I was really distracted by how completely modern the personalities were. Like, not only did all the girls openly chafe against all the Victorian expectations (or lack of expectations) for girls, but they had personalities that were almost frightenly abrasive and aggressive for the time period compared to any other books I've read. Judged in the way the women in the actual 19th century book I'm reading, every one of them would be the villain.
Yeah, steampunk in general bothers me for a lot of similar reasons. Obviously fantasy is fantasy, but people native to the 'steampunk world' simply wouldn't be so self-consciously obsessed with the purely cosmetic trappings of steampunk (cogs, steam power, goggles, etc.) that for the bulk of the poulation would be everyday mundanities. It'd be like a character in a typical fantasy setting going apeshit over common swords and shields and campfires. The setting isn't so fresh these days that mere mention of its tropes excites interest. James Blaylock wrote better steampunk novels in the 80s.
http://angmar-bucket.livejournal.com/ at 23:21 on 2012-02-07
I must be one of the few people who just doesn't get the appeal of the Victorian era. It's in the past, but in the relatively recent past by historical standards. I'd love to read a supernatural thriller set in ancient Egypt, or Mongolia, or Mesopotamia, or something like that. And what about Japan? If Ms. Clare doesn't want to use people's surnames, she should set a book in feudal Japan, where once upon a time only the nobility had surnames and everyone else had to make due without them (of course, there are a lot of other Cultural Restrictions in that setting, so perhaps nevermind to that idea). I suppose medieval Japan wouldn't be "classy" and "posh" enough.
valse de la lune at 07:13 on 2012-02-08
Ugh fuck no, there are enough crappy, orientalist, exotifying novels written by westerners about Japan as it is. Let hacks continue to wank over Victoriana and leave everything else alone, it's much less insulting than rampant cultural appropriation.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 11:36 on 2012-02-08
Of course, the thing about the industrial revolution is that not only were people not that interested in the cosmetic trappings, many of them were actively opposed and hated by many people as the industrial revolution brought with it not just miracles of engineering, but also the negative effects, a burgeoning uncontrollable urban growth and poverty, problems with sanitation and health and the pollution caused by the many factories situated quite near city centers. Trains were feared or treated with suspicion and in general, there were many who regarded the progress as a negative thing destroying a world that they had grown used to. But enough about that. I was both fascinated and confused by this line:

Will smiled the way Lucifer might have smiled, moments before he fell from heaven.


I am having a hard time imagining the exact nature of this smile. So, moments before he was cast outside the light of god into perpetual metaphysical darkness, Lucifer was smiling? Was this smile masochistic, defiant, inappropriate, insane or lackadaisical? That's one tough angel. One could imagine that this is the exact sort of positive attitude that makes one able to turn abyss into the fastest growing afterlife enterprise in the christian universe, but on the other hand it might be that he thought he was actually winning and was smiling about it not noticing that archangel Mikael had tricked him to step above a hole in the clouds and he was only moments away from realizing, like Wile E. Coyote above a ravine, that there's a long drop to abyss opening under him. But what exactly was Will doing, that made him pucker out a smile resembling such a specific expression from a future archfiend? Did the author elaborate on this? Even with the above speculation, I can't imagine what sort of a smile it would actually be...
Shimmin at 12:23 on 2012-02-08
I would love to read something fantastical about Victorian Japan written by someone competent. Sadly given how likely genre fiction is to get translated, that's probably contingent on me learning Japanese. Really must find more non-Western fantasy to read.

Frankly I'd also like to read some steampunk that wasn't about London; did nobody notice the whole "industrial north" business? The whole "Sheffield: steel capital of the world" business takes on a whole new meaning.
Well, there are the Kai Lung stories Ernest Bramah wrote, though those come off to me more as a satire of the West's distorted idea of China than anything else. A less charitable person could consider them really insulting cultural appropriation I guess, but this is just so exaggerated that I can't believe he was taking it seriously or intending it to reflect on China as it actually was:

"O illustrious person," said Kai Lung very earnestly, "this is evidently an unfortunate mistake. Doubtless you were expecting some exalted Mandarin to come and render you homage, and were preparing to overwhelm him with gratified confusion by escorting him yourself to your well-appointed abode. Indeed, I passed such a one on the road, very richly apparelled, who inquired of me the way to the mansion of the dignified and upright Lin Yi. By this time he is perhaps two or three li towards the east."

"However distinguished a Mandarin he may be, it is fitting that I should first attend to one whose manners and accomplishments betray him to be of the Royal House," replied Lin Yi, with extreme affability. "Precede me, therefore, to my mean and uninviting hovel, while I gain more honour than I can reasonably bear by following closely in your elegant footsteps, and guarding your Imperial person with this inadequate but heavily-loaded weapon."
valse de la lune at 15:30 on 2012-02-08
I'm not entirely comfortable with a person who's not Chinese doing that, to be honest.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 15:52 on 2012-02-08
What of Robert Van Gulik's Judge Dee stories? I don't know any better, but I did get the impression, that he tried to interpret traditional Chinese detective stories to a western audience and he did seem to do a lot of research on it.
valse de la lune at 16:02 on 2012-02-08
I'm not familiar with them, but there was a film about the same character--that is, based on the same historical figure--made by actual Chinese people, so I'm predisposed to be more interested in that than in something by whoever Gulik was.
Here is an interesting article about cultural appropriation in speculative fiction. It touches on ways an author might deal with elements of a foreign culture tactfully. While a member of the culture in question could obviously be counted on to deal with it from a place of knowledge and sensitivity, there's nothing preventing people who aren't from doing so as well.

It's just that the 'invaders' (to use Shawl's terminology) tend to be more common. Dealing appropriately with complicated and sensitive subjects like foreign culture is difficult. Making matters worse, the English-speaking speculative fiction readership is largely comprised of white western people, who aren't exactly likely to notice and be vocally critical of cultural appropriation.
valse de la lune at 17:13 on 2012-02-08
Oh, I've written reams on that subject on particular books, particular occasions.

Truth be told though? Westerners get my culture(s) so wrong most of the time that I'm inclined to run the fuck away when I see one of them try. I no longer read anything about my country that's by a white person. Why should I, when there're plenty of my countrypeople writing?
Fair enough, seems like you've thought quite a bit more about this than I have, what with it directly concerning you and your culture (surprise: I'm a white guy).

Still, I think you go a bit far. An outsider's perspective is often useful, and can be educational; should white people only read white people's opinions on what white people are like? Surely not. The difference I guess is in the claim of 'authenticity'. Like in that book by Paolo Whatshisname you wrote about; it's set in Thailand and told from the perspective of Thai characters, and so really needs to display a deep understanding of the culture, but he proceeds to prove his ignorance about it.

But say some other foreigner lived in Thailand for a period and wrote a book that drew from their genuine experiences with Thai people and their culture, from that foreign perspective? That would bring something much different to the story than what you'd get from a Thai author writing about their own culture and countrymen. I'm assuming, of course, that it doesn't just turn into more "white guy out-natives the natives" type of Dances with Wolves/Avatar/The Last Samurai crap.
http://scipiosmith.livejournal.com/ at 18:37 on 2012-02-08

It's like Clare was unable to imagine a novel set in England that was not set in the Victorian era, unable to imagine a novel set in the Victorian era that was not set in England, and unable to imagine a novel set in either England or the Victorian era that did not include steam-and-clockwork-powered mechanical marvels.


It's occurred to me that, as you've described it, the Victorian English setting works as quite a nice paralell for the goings on around the villain. You have a society in which an established elite, perpetuating by blood, who come under assault by the little-thought-of underclass, and are completely blindsided by it due to their own complacency in their continuing place at the head of affairs. Meanwhile the revolutionary villain harnesses the desire of the working class to improve their station and uses it to sweep himself into power. This isn't just a YA urban fantasy, it's a metaphor for the rise of the Labour Movement and/or Irish Nationalism.

Pity it wasn't set in 1868, the Hyde Park riot could have been used as a backdrop.

Since I haven't actually read the book, does that make any sense at all?
valse de la lune at 20:20 on 2012-02-08
But say some other foreigner lived in Thailand for a period and wrote a book that drew from their genuine experiences with Thai people and their culture, from that foreign perspective? That would bring something much different to the story than what you'd get from a Thai author writing about their own culture and countrymen. I'm assuming, of course, that it doesn't just turn into more "white guy out-natives the natives" type of Dances with Wolves/Avatar/The Last Samurai crap.


Oh piss right the fuck off. Hahaha "genuine." God, white people like you are the very fucking worst. Jesus buggering cocks. I've read that shit and it's full of condescending assumptions, judgmental assholery, and general idiocy of every single flavor imaginable. It's the white expats living in Thailand that are the worst of all species of scum: racist, entitled, sexist, whiny. I have no idea why we give then long-term visas and if a political party promised to deport the whole fucking lot I'll vote for them with all my might, even if that same party also promises to club baby seals.

The idea that you believe POC need an outsider's perspective to educate us about our own culture/country is patronizing beyond belief. And very, very white. You didn't even have to tell me you were white.
Jesus Christ, I'm sorry I offended you but that's not what I meant at all. I didn't mean white people could teach you about your own culture, I meant an outsider's perspective can teach you about how you come off *to other people*. The impression you make and all that. If you've read a lot of stuff written by expats and it's been largely crappy then fine, you've read more of that than I have and know better than I do about its failings. But I don't think it's a bad idea in principle, assuming it's approached with maturity and sensitivity (which according to you it isn't the bulk of the time). And what's up with your attack on 'genuine'? All I meant was, people who have real, actual, *genuine* interactions with people of different cultures might have something interesting to say about those interactions. They might also have soapboxes they want to get on to preach some "racist, entitled, sexist, whiny" message, but that's true of anything.

But seriously, you want to *punch me in the face* over this? If that would make you feel better, be my guest, but it's not going to change anything.
OK, well you edited out the part where you want to punch me in the face. Is my face now safe? Look, I'm not *trying* to be patronizing, but I'll admit that if my comments were interpreted as you did that they would come across as very patronizing. I didn't mean them that way, and I could've worded myself better, given that it's obviously a sensitive subject for you. It's a complex issue and I'm certainly not an expert on it (duh!). I do think outsider perspectives can have value if they're handled well, but maybe when it comes to culture that's an unattainable ideal.
valse de la lune at 20:46 on 2012-02-08
"Genuine" is a favorite buzzword used by a certain type of bleeding-heart liberal slacktivists who go around backpacking through Asia (usually on their gap year, because white people love this sort of thing), write travelogues, and congratulate themselves over how amazingly genuine and insightful they are. In fact, the bulk of travel literature is nothing but exotifying claptrap writing by smug self-satisfied privileged white people who know nobody'll question their shit and buy into how "genuine" their dreck is.

I didn't mean white people could teach you about your own culture, I meant an outsider's perspective can teach you about how you come off *to other people*. The impression you make and all that.


Like the west in general and tourists particular don't tell us how they perceive us 24/7? I mean do you think... this... is... something... new? That there's a gaping void that begs to be filled? Westerners love nothing more than to lecture everyone else on what to do and how to do it in a way that'll appeal to them, westerners, better. At a global level my country is defined solely through the perspective of tourist guidebooks and exploitative expat scum. Everything has already been said, you people can't stop blathering on, you people can't just shut the fuck up and listen. Whites have an opinion on every fucking thing and love nothing more than to shout those opinions (even if their opinions are insulting/based on generalizations/on three days' vacation), and best of all while drowning out the opinions that actually matter. Like, you know, the opinions of insiders. Who know what they're talking about.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 20:55 on 2012-02-08
Do you happen to remember the english name if any of that film? It would be nice to see it.

I wasn't meaning to puff Van Gulik, it was just something that popped into my head. They're pretty good detective strories, but I don't really know what there is to get terribly excited about in them, if one can read the originals. Van Gulik was a Netherlandish diplomat who worked in China during the Second World War. I remember reading that he translated some of the original stories into english. Whether they(his stories) are in anyways accurate about Qing dynasty China or its justice system or what in general is to be made of them, I don't know. Hmm, according to wikipedia, one of them was translated to chinese. Doesn't mention how it was received, though.
valse de la lune at 20:59 on 2012-02-08
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. It's an interesting reimagining of China with a queen as the sole ruling monarch. There's at least one wuxia show IIRC that features the same historical personage as well. He's a popular one.
Like the west in general and tourists particular don't tell us how they perceive
us 24/7? I mean do you think... this... is... something... new? That there's a
gaping void that begs to be filled?

Well according to your own post, doing it well *would* be something new! Granted, I would like to see more attention paid to insider perspectives in speculative fiction too. I'm really tired of medieval Europe (or America in Space) being the default setting and cliched western views of other cultures are worse. Are there any good Thai spec fic authors you might recommend? In translation, of course.
valse de la lune at 21:07 on 2012-02-08
Hahaha the thought of Thai genre writers being translated. Heh heh heh. Nope. The Anglophonic publishing industry isn't generally super-interested in things that aren't English-language. Even works from parts of Western Europe that don't speak English don't cross over very often (hey Gollancz, what's holding up that translation of Time of Contempt?). There aren't even good translations of some well-known Chinese epics.

Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap is fairly okay, and it's by an actual Thai person too! Not SF/F, but what the hell.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 21:29 on 2012-02-08
On that subject, there is a rare Finnish specfic book which is(I think) actually good, by Johanna Sinisalo, which has been translated into english, called Not before sundown. It's about a gay photographer who rescues a young troll. It is really a shame that lack of translations. There's been lot's of people I know learning chinese here so I should probably try it out as well.
Michal at 02:10 on 2012-02-09
Even works from parts of Western Europe that don't speak English don't cross over very often (hey Gollancz, what's holding up that translation of Time of Contempt?).

Poland is considered part of Western Europe now? I guess I should be proud.

But yes, the imbalance is hugely frustrating; last time I was in a Polish bookshop half the stuff there was Polish translations of English works and actual Polish books were squeezed into their own little corner. Meanwhile, barely any fantastika from the whole of Russia, Poland, Ukraine et al has recently been available in the English-speaking world. Even honest-to-God classic works in French haven't been completely translated yet (You'd think you could find a complete English-language edition of Louis Sebastien Mercier's Tableau de Paris, but nooooo); let alone works from, uh, most of Asia and Africa.

As for the topic of writing outside of the usual Victorian London/western medieval setting, here's thing: I would love to see a steampunk novel set in St. Petersburg, say. I just wouldn't want Cassandra Clare to write it. Because, you know, Daniel can snigger at Claire's not-really-London, but I think she'd step into unbelievable levels of failure if she tried to take on a culture or place "outside the norm". If anglophone authors can't even seem to get Russia right 80% of the time, how well do we expect them to do with non-white cultures?
valse de la lune at 06:02 on 2012-02-09
Herp, I should've said Europe period.
Shimmin at 13:41 on 2012-02-09
Okay, Sightseeing and Not Before Sundown added to reading list. Other suggestions welcome! Currently working my way through Alexey Pehov and Fflur Dafydd.
Michal at 16:23 on 2012-02-09
If you want to add some early Polish horror to the list, Shimmin, a little bit of Stefan Grabinski has made it into English (and unlike most cases, the translation is actually quite good). He's a personal favourite of mine.
Shimmin at 19:53 on 2012-02-09
Thanks Michal, I've made a note of it.
http://angmar-bucket.livejournal.com/ at 22:30 on 2012-02-09
All this being said, I'd still like to see more fantasy books set in other places and in other time periods. They're hard to find, and the ones I actually like are even harder. (To be fair, any time after the 1300s I generally find boring, and in my opinion the world really lost its shine after Trilobite and the early Tetrapods went extinct, but there you go...)
Dan H at 23:46 on 2012-02-09
Wow that's a lot of comments...

From the top

@Arthur:
To be fair, maybe she could imagine such a novel, but she (or her publishers) couldn't imagine it selling better.


I don't think that's the case though - it's not a steampunk text, it's a YA urban fantasy with vampires and wizards, its chief selling point isn't the fact that it's got quasi-steampunky elements, it's that it's got hot boys.

@alankria:
I love you so much for saying this and for quoting poetry and for putting into words something that has bothered me about Steampunk Londonland for a while. Thank you.


Thanks. Like I say in the article I've actually mellowed a lot on Steampunk (I basically think of it as fantasy with more modern technology these days). I think the reason the poetry bugged me so much was that she'd put so much effort into picking "authentic" period poems for her quotes, and then had something made up for the big introductory piece. It's like writing a book about the life of Jesus, peppering the text with lines from the gospels, and opening with a long pseudo-biblical passage you got a mate to write.

@Sister Magpie:
As someone who once was an American girl who had never been to England, I sort of want to hug it just for that too because it is so naked in its appeal.


I know! It's kind of adorable.

@angmar-bucket:
I must be one of the few people who just doesn't get the appeal of the Victorian era. It's in the past, but in the relatively recent past by historical standards.


I think it's the recentness that makes it so interesting in some ways. It's a world that's recognisably *not* the world we live in now, but is also recognisably very *similar* to it. I had no problem with the book being set in Victorian England (although I kind of think Victorian New York would have been cooler and less done to death) - just with its being filtered through the cogs-and-steam lens.

@scipiosmith:
It's occurred to me that, as you've described it, the Victorian English setting works as quite a nice paralell for the goings on around the villain.


Interesting, I'd been thinking something similar (although to be honest I know crap all about the history), but it strikes me that the problem as always has to do with the fact that the guy is, well, the villain. Because trying to take power away from people who inherited it through no virtue of their own is bad.

Sorry for the bulk post, I feel like I've just written one of those circular Christmas emails.
Cammalot at 02:59 on 2012-02-10
I like the bustles. They validate my African-esque physique. (What?)

As far as actual (UK) plots and dramas go, I kind of prefer the Edwardians to the Victorians. Massive societal change, changes in self-perception and whatnot...filling the gaps in my knowledge of WW1, which is technically after, but *right* after, and always seems to get included...
I want to point out that it's frightening how easily writing reasonably well-received fanfiction inflates the ego. I wrote a drabble a few years ago and got some praise for it from people I didn't know, and I walked around for the next month thinking I was Hemingway.

I didn't try to write a novel, or anything, but I can see where this poor Clare woman is coming from. And of course she's a bestseller now, so she doesn't have to care what anyone thinks. I doubt I would either.

By the way, I hope it's okay for me to comment on an older article this way. I also wanted to let you all know that your podcasts have at least one other American listener.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 18:53 on 2012-03-10
Valse de la Lune, I'd like to point out something about Ernest Bramah, whom my mom and my sister have enjoyed enormously. He's not really writing about China at all. He's poking fun at his own culture. One of the wittiest stories in the collection deals with the rise of insurers and insurance agencies, and I don't believe for a moment that's something the West got from China, though we certainly appropriated many other things.

No offense, I hope.

BTW, I can't help thinking that there is also a difference between a genuine Victorian or Edwardian being unconsciously racist, and a modern person being so. Surely one ought to be far more offended by the modern author? Or am I wrong about that?
Dan H at 23:37 on 2012-03-10
I didn't try to write a novel, or anything, but I can see where this poor Clare woman is coming from. And of course she's a bestseller now, so she doesn't have to care what anyone thinks. I doubt I would either.


To give Ms Clare her due, I *do* think she's got better. As I've mentioned several times before, even writing a *bad* book is much harder than people think.

By the way, I hope it's okay for me to comment on an older article this way.


That's absolutely fine, we get comments on articles *years* after they go up, it's nice in a way because it lets us know the old content isn't dead.
To give Ms Clare her due, I *do* think she's got better.


From what I could tell, never having read any of her books and knowing only that she plagiarized a lot of people in her fanfiction, she had nowhere to go but up. I was always puzzled by the fanon Draco thing, and with the idea of "fanon" characters in general; I would have thought if you were going to change the guy's entire personality, you might as well give him a new name and write your own book about him. I now realize that was bad advice in Clare's case.
Furare at 09:30 on 2012-03-11
By the end of HP, if you wanted to write a fanfic about any three-dimensional, moderately well-realised character, you'd end up not being true to the character as presented in the text. Just saying.

Mind you, I never understood the "fanon Draco" phenomenon either. It's much more satisfying to try to make the bugger vaguely sympathetic while preserving the notion that he's actually kind of a bastard.
Michal at 16:51 on 2012-08-19
Cassandra Clare made it on the NPR "100 Best-ever Teen Novels" list. Twice.

Meanwhile, I don't think Jane Yolen was even on the long list.
People in the nineteenth century didn't give a crap about steam and cogs? One poet at least was an exception:

http://www.kipling.org.uk/poems_mcandrew.htm
Dan H at 13:04 on 2013-09-03
Umm, pretty sure that poem isn't about steam and cogs at all - it's about being a Scots Calvinist boiler worker. It's no more about steam than From a Railway Carriage is about electricity or Radio Ga-Ga is about electromagnetic radiation.

Also, that's one poem by one poet in which the word "steam" features, that's hardly a national preoccupation.
Fishing in the Mud at 21:32 on 2013-09-04
I can understand wanting to use a motif for the time period, but it's weird to focus on one specific thing that you don't have any actual experience with. It's like if people wanted to evoke the information age in 150 years and wrote poems all about USB ports and cat-5 cables.
Dan H at 19:20 on 2013-09-05
It's like if people wanted to evoke the information age in 150 years and wrote poems all about USB ports and cat-5 cables.


I really, really hope this happens.

How doth the little USB
improve each shining hour,
And transfer data all the day,
'twixt laptop, phone and tower.
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