Myth Happens - And in the tray of colors, a whirlwind appeared

Sovay
Date: 2014-07-08 19:22
Subject: And in the tray of colors, a whirlwind appeared
Security: Public
Music:Mission of Burma, "Einstein's Day"
An assortment of fragments lying around my desktop. I imagine I intended most of them for roundup posts or further elaboration, but they got stranded. The longest one is from notes for a review of Byzantium (2012). I'm talking about Eddie Marsan in the first one:

I discovered him in 2008 when I watched an accidental double feature of Pierrepoint (2005) and Vera Drake (2004). Don't ever do this to yourself, by the way. I rented the one because it was the rare film starring Timothy Spall and the other because of Imelda Staunton and Mike Leigh. Then I was extremely depressed.

I scrolled too quickly down a page on Tumblr with a calendar of saints halfway through and read "Saint Deucalion." (Some saints hold wheels or scales, martyrs' palms, their own severed heads or breasts; he carries his mother's bones in his hands.)

I just received two pieces of spam from Hugo Jackarson and Alex Jackarson, respectively entitled "morning" and "staff." I'm just guessing at what they're the twin gods of, here.

The method of vampirism in this universe is single-source: an island somewhere off the Irish coast, a black rock spire cut by waterfalls and tides. Its slopes barely hold turf, only the endless cascading white water, but near its peak is the half-dome of a chamber cairn, built of the same black rock. Neolithic, not that the characters know by its shape. Birds spiral in and out of the entrance and the smoke-hole of the roof, like breathing. Inside is something referred to only as "the nameless saint." It manifests to each person as an apparition of themselves, which will answer truthfully any question they ask before it opens their throats with its pointed nail. To some it is violent, to others matter-of-fact, to yet others we do not see how it behaves. At the moment of transformation, birds explode in a cawing cloud, carrion-black, the white water over the black rocks thunders blood-red. The person who emerges from the dolmen hut is a vampire in most particulars of the legend: immortal so long as they sustain themselves by the blood of others and avoid critical trauma like decapitation, dismemberment, or destruction by fire; not unable to bear sunlight, but not especially fond of it, either; stronger than mortal humans, swifter, capable of perceiving more in the world; and possibly soulless, although we hear this only from one source, who may or may not have it right. It has never been relevant to one of our protagonists and the other ceased to care long before she was technically dead. It is unclear whether terminal illness is a prerequisite of the change. It plays a part in all four cases we witness (there is an aborted fifth), but it may just be the case that people are desperate enough to make the decision only in those straits. There are no fangs, pallor, other traditional tells beyond unchanging age. Under the right circumstances, the impetus of hunger or defense, the nearness of spilled blood or suitable prey, the thumbnail of each finger lengthens—like a cat's protractile claw—into a hard white razor point, ideal for puncturing a jugular or a vein in the wrist. After that, they drink as neatly or as messily as any human from a spurting liquid source.

While deleting a quantity of e-mail from my inbox, I finally remembered what Elizabeth Hand's "Near Zennor" reminded me of: William Sleator's Into the Dream (1979).

I need to remember that kippers are a delicious and inexpensive source of fish. I used to eat them more frequently as a child; they were one of my grandmother's standard breakfast foods.

Mary Gentle's First History does not count—her Carthaginians are Visigothic colonizers. (She really liked the Visigoths.) I love Ash: A Secret History (2000), but I am coming to realize more and more that her alternate histories entail some really weird forms of erasure.

Dancers.

Poetry is the wrong question.
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nineweaving
User: nineweaving
Date: 2014-07-09 00:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I watched an accidental double feature of Pierrepoint (2005) and Vera Drake (2004)..."

Sweet suffering babycakes! Don't do that to yourself!

Your desktop is like one of those amazing antique shops you get only in good dreams, the ones where an entire ship of fools in ivory is ticketed ten cents...

Nine
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Sovay: Claude Rains
User: sovay
Date: 2014-07-09 02:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
iconClaude Rains
Sweet suffering babycakes! Don't do that to yourself!

It was a terrific inoculation against the even the slightest danger of me going all Miniver Cheevy over 1950's England . . .

Your desktop is like one of those amazing antique shops you get only in good dreams, the ones where an entire ship of fools in ivory is ticketed ten cents...

Hah. Thank you. It also contains an entire scan of Flora of New Bedford and the Shores of Buzzards Bay with a Procession of the Flowers (1911) and the results of a Facebook quiz I took about Game of Thrones.
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ashlyme
User: ashlyme
Date: 2014-07-09 12:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks for sharing the fragments. At first I thought the "nameless saint" was a dream-note, then I re-read the entry. I'd watch the film for that scene alone.

I haven't read any Gentle since "1610". I'm still fond of the Valentine books, though. My knowledge of history's not good enough to get the erasure.
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Sovay: I Claudius
User: sovay
Date: 2014-07-09 21:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
iconI Claudius
At first I thought the "nameless saint" was a dream-note, then I re-read the entry. I'd watch the film for that scene alone.

I'm afraid it was Neil Jordan's dream, but it's a really good one. I loved Byzantium; I have reservations only about one element of the denoument and even they aren't story-breaking. You especially might like it a lot.

I haven't read any Gentle since "1610". I'm still fond of the Valentine books, though. My knowledge of history's not good enough to get the erasure.

Rats and Gargoyles (1990) is still very possibly my favorite Gentle. Ash: A Secret History (2000) after that. Floria(n) is one of my favorite female characters full stop and it is rare for me to like protagonists as well as supporting cast, so I really enjoy the fact that I like Ash. The worldbuilding is detailed, the writing often very fine, and the mindsets mostly not too modern; I understand the reasons Gentle wrote the dialogue colloquially, but sometimes I feel like it bleeds back into the fifteenth-century characters' attitudes as well. I love the mythos of the Green Christ and the Lion and the Sun; the Wild Machines and the quotidian miraculous reality of Burgundy are wonderful. It just took me fourteen years to notice that there are literally no characters in it who aren't Northern European despite the main antagonists being Carthaginian: they are Visigothic Carthaginian, pale-skinned, fair-haired, worshipping the Arian Green Christ. It is a jolt for Pierce to see Ash at the end in "our" history because she has "black hair, and brown eyes, and dark skin . . . Arab in appearance"; he has to remember that "Ash was never European by race." And then I noticed that the same anti-Arabic epithets are still applied to the Carthaginians when the Lion Azure are fighting them and they're not even Muslim in this history, so what the hell.

I have a lot of problems with Ilario: The Lion's Eye (2006), which is set in the same history as Ash about a generation prior. On the bright side: gender-variant (intersex) protagonist, gender-variant (eunuch) romantic lead, absolutely awesome father-figure who doesn't end up dead (he's a career soldier with a political price on his head; it's a legitimate danger). Lots of travelogue of Gentle's alternate history, which she has evidently put a lot of time into. On the less bright side: a lot of problems with the basic idea of being female to the point where the non-binary protagonist decides to live as legally male (or at least legally not female) because it is so impossible to be a woman and a person—rather than a piece of fuckable furniture—in European society, as exemplified by Ilario's mother. Rosamunda is one of the few cis women in the novel and she is a terrible, damaged, abusive person to whom the novel extends a weird combination of analysis and contempt; Ilario understands why she turned out the way she did in the royal court of Taraco, but condemns her on the same page for not running away to some other city-state like Alexandria where women have equal rights with men, as though it would have been that easy. And we are expected to agree with Ilario: that Rosamunda was a weak person, too fettered by her beauty (she is very beautiful; it is her only resource, with all her considerable intelligence counting for nothing unless her husband puts his consent behind it) and too lured by her safe privileged life to save what really mattered about herself; she is complicit, we do not care about her. It is one thing for Gentle's book to make an argument that being a woman in its alternate early fifteenth century is awful. It is another for it to expect us then to shrug and assume there's nothing to do but default to male. Especially with a protagonist whose self-definition is "hermaphrodite."

(Please continue to the next comment; I ran out of room here.)
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Sovay: I Claudius
User: sovay
Date: 2014-07-09 21:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
iconI Claudius
I haven't read any Gentle since "1610". I'm still fond of the Valentine books, though. My knowledge of history's not good enough to get the erasure.

(Continued from previous comment, because character limit.)

Also, there is an entire detour of the plot where Ilario falls in love with an Etruscan woman in Rome, courts her, marries her, and then it all falls apart because Ilario can tolerate her being socially outcast, physically disabled (though beautiful; she has a clubfoot), and slightly magical (the clubfoot is seen in its true aspect as a goat's hoof within her family's sacred grove), but Sulva's reaction to Ilario's hermaphrodite nature is to throw a fit and then throw Ilario out of the house, nastily and with modern transphobic langugage, ordering Ilario to stay away for the seven years it will take the city to declare them legally dead and then she can marry someone "normal." Because it turns out that's all she wants. Someone to normalize her. Not to treasure her for being Etruscan, or strangely beautiful, or partly descended from fauns, but someone to hide her from all these things and assimilate her into mainstream society, which a half-woman husband will never be able to. At which I point I almost threw the book across the room. Not only does this conclusion turn the episode into a digression—it is the entire upshot of the interlude in Rome; nothing has changed about Ilario's life, except for an inconvenient marriage license which now needs time-in-exile to expire—it leaves the reinforcement that men come in all flavors, but women are emotionally volatile, basically hypocritical, and self-limiting. Sulva does not come away with Ilario when given the opportunity, despite the lacerating fight they have just had. She stays in her cage.

For the record, Ty-amenhotep of Alexandria is cis and she's awesome: she is physically tiny, fiercely intelligent, a canny ruler and mother of three children. But she is, explicitly, not very feminine by the standards of even her egalitarian culture or our own. In the end the book left me feeling that it couldn't be queer-positive without being misogynist and I really, really didn't like that.

Also, Rekhmire' was the obvious romantic match with Ilario from his first appearance and I think it would have been a hell of a lot more interesting if the match with Sulva had worked out and everybody had had to factor that into their feelings.

I talked a little about Ilario and the erasure of Jews here: basically, all the anti-Semitic slurs and the problems of assimilation, prejudice, and/or passing with which a Jewish family in our early fourteenth-century Rome would have been expected to contend are transposed onto the Etruscan family of Sulva Paziathe; Jews might as well not exist in Ilario despite their known presence in Ash only a generation later. It is weird and struck me as weird on first reading and is weirder every time I try picking up the novel again. The Etruscans are awesome and I want more representation of them. Mary Gentle seems only to be able to conceive of one underrepresented axis at a time. Genderqueer characters, women under the bus. Persecuted Etruscans in the world of the Green Christ, goodbye Jews.

[edit] OH RIGHT INCREDIBLY PROBLEMATIC REPRESENTATION OF TRANS FEMALE CHARACTER HOW COULD I FORGET. I mean, I think it is trying. But I do not consider it all right for other characters to use Neferet's male birth name as a rebuke to her and for Ilario's observations to keep focusing on the male tells of her physique as contrasted to her feminine dress and movement, as though what is most important about her is that she does not pass entirely.

Edited at 2014-07-09 09:50 pm (UTC)
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ashlyme
User: ashlyme
Date: 2014-07-09 21:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks for taking the time to talk about "Ilario". I think I'd have so many of the same problems with it that I shan't bother.
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Sovay: Psholtii: in a bad mood
User: sovay
Date: 2014-07-09 22:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
iconPsholtii: in a bad mood
Thanks for taking the time to talk about "Ilario". I think I'd have so many of the same problems with it that I shan't bother.

It was an immensely frustrating book. I read it breathlessly when it came out. The political pull is very strong, even diluted by the meandering around the Mediterranean that makes up most of the book's physical action, and Ilario's attempts to assert an identity in a world that wants to categorize them as either really male or really female or really not human are legitimate and compelling, and the book builds many of its central questions around the exploration of slavery, the ownership of human beings, either explicitly (cash in hand, collars on necks) or by social and economic exploitation (laborers bound to land they do not profit from, women as the property of their husbands)—what people do when other people belong to them. The dynamics of Ilario's family, once the novel finally gets around to talking about them, are wrenching. But it never came together for me as a novel rather than an extended series of sketches on similar themes and the writing is nowhere near as tight or as eloquent as Gentle has shown herself capable of and the gender problems are huge and screaming and ended up blotting out even the love story for me. I was sad. I mean, Roz Kaveney says very nice things about it on the cover. But it didn't work for me.

[edit] Her latest novel is Black Opera (2012), which I have not read. I am feeling a little burned now and cautious. Also, it's about opera, so if she screws up technical things about classical singing, I will be really annoyed.

Edited at 2014-07-10 01:53 am (UTC)
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handful_ofdust
User: handful_ofdust
Date: 2014-07-09 20:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Beautiful description. You should maybe spin it out for another Weird review, if possible.

Man, I loved "Near Zennor." Pure numinosity. Though I don't think I've ever read that Sleator...
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Sovay: Claude Rains
User: sovay
Date: 2014-07-09 21:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
iconClaude Rains
You should maybe spin it out for another Weird review, if possible.

Hmmm.

Pure numinosity.

Yes!

Though I don't think I've ever read that Sleator...

They are not at all similar in structure and theme, but the procession of the lights across the field is vividly reminiscent of the image and atmosphere of the eponymous dream, the dread and the vagueness especially.
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asakiyume: black crow on a red ground
User: asakiyume
Date: 2014-07-09 20:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
iconblack crow on a red ground
So this vampire story--this is a movie? If so, which? If not, is it a story? A dream? The only thing I'm sure of is that it's not either of those two pieces of spam (at least, I think I'm sure.) It is marvelous and vivid in its three colors.

What sort of erasure does Mary Gentle do?
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Sovay: Claude Rains
User: sovay
Date: 2014-07-09 21:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
iconClaude Rains
So this vampire story--this is a movie? If so, which? If not, is it a story? A dream?

It is a description of Neil Jordan's Byzantium, it is a beautiful film, and I think everyone should see it. I don't own it on DVD, but want to. I saw it at the Brattle last fall with rushthatspeaks as the first half of the most thought-provoking double feature about gender and horror I've ever seen.

What sort of erasure does Mary Gentle do?

See very lengthy reply to ashlyme above. I knew I had problems with Ilario when I had started typing, but I had not fully articulated them to myself, and I got sadder the more I wrote. I like so many things about the world of Gentle's First History, including the fact that the conceit exists at all. I want more novels with non-binary protagonists and their lovers and their wholly supportive cis family members (Ilario's mother tries to kill her child for being a social embarrassment and a point of political vulnerability, but Ilario's father, the soldier Honorius, is thrilled to meet his child, complicated gender and legal status notwithstanding, and the only thing he ever gets wrong over the course of the novel is an understandable confusion of pronouns—Ilario uses both, based on however they are presenting at the time—which at least yields the glorious farcical moment in which Honorius, misapprehending Rekhmire''s relationship with Ilario and the cause of Ilario's physical condition, bellows across the lagoon of Venice: "How dare you get my son PREGNANT!"). I just want more novels with non-binary protagonists and their non-binary lovers and their wholly supportive cis family members that does not presume that being cis female is still this awful unredeemable fucked-up thing while being cis male is, you know, actually kind of okay.
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ap_aelfwine
User: ap_aelfwine
Date: 2014-07-11 00:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting movie. I don't handle horror well, but it sounds marvellously visual, or perhaps visually marvellous, and it's a treat to read your description.

I like the idea of Saint Deucalion.

I'm just guessing at what they're the twin gods of, here.

Those don't sound a pleasant pair of twin gods, but I'm sure that in their way they're useful, somehow.

Mary Gentle's First History does not count—her Carthaginians are Visigothic colonizers.

Ah. They would have colonised Roman Carthage, then?

Despite the flaws, I really am thinking I should read Ash: A Secret History.

...but I am coming to realize more and more that her alternate histories entail some really weird forms of erasure.

I started thinking yesterday about to what degree it is or isn't possible to write alternate history without erasure. When I write it myself I do try to limit the erasures to the powerful in our world,* but I'll admit that's more a matter of how things work in terms of my own loyalties than anything else and I'm sure there are things I miss.

That said, I can't seem to even write a simple genre romance without introducing alternate history, so I suppose I'll have to think about it. At least the Irish-speaking Balkan country in my current project seems to occupy a piece of land that doesn't exist in our world.**

*At least in the sense of minimising Anglophonia.
**I needed a background for my hero that I could actually write and I know full well that in our world a family of the Gaelic aristocracy having retained the native culture and not being self-consciously revivalist about it is about as likely as an Archaeopteryx hatching from a robin's egg. The setting is too close to our world for that to work, since my heroine comes from and lives in a place that's practically identical to our suburban/exurban US, so inventing the country I needed was the only choice I had.

Edited at 2014-07-11 12:40 am (UTC)
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