Masked and Changed

A review of Richard Wagamese’s Him Standing (Raven Books, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of Him Standing courtesy of Orcabook.com

Cover photo of Him Standing courtesy of Orcabook.com

Lucas Smoke learned the art of carving from his grandfather and finds that his hands seem to move of their own volition to carve figures that he sees in everyday life…. but when he learned the art of carving, his grandfather didn’t teach him the deeper meanings behind his craft, the knowledge that would keep him safe from exploitation.

When Lucas’ grandfather dies, his family wars over the man’s possessions leaving Lucas feeling uncomfortable since all he wanted was his grandfather, not his possessions. Lucas leaves the reserve and decides to busk in the city, using his gifts at carving to make some money by carving images of tourists on the boardwalk. When he is approached by a man who offers him a substantial amount of money to carve masks as his grandfather does, Lucas can’t pass up the opportunity to get himself out of a situation of poverty and agrees. He quickly learns that he is being exploited and that his mask carving, meant to “bring a legend to life” is bringing something into the world that he would rather not invite.

Wagamese explores the experience of urban aboriginal youth feeling conflicted about their relationship to history and home. Lucas is tempted by the views into his people’s past that making his mask and entering into the dreaming place provides. There is something alluring for him about seeing his community before European settlement and he feels as though he has connected with some lost part of himself. Lucas feels fragmented, like parts of his own puzzle have been missing. Even his art, although providing a link to his grandfather, feels incomplete, as though some of the most important teachings are missing – as though he has learned the physical acts of carving but not the deeper spiritual meanings or teachings that should have accompanied it. This sense of incompleteness has left him vulnerable to manipulation by white men who want power and are willing to use him to fulfill their own selfish ends. The loss of teachings and ways of understanding create vulnerabilities for others to exploit – skill without cultural understanding is incomplete.

Lucas is asked to venture into dreams to carve what he sees and unintentionally connects with an ancient evil that seeks to use him to return to the physical world. Like an addict, he becomes obsessed with dreams, losing track of time, not eating, not sleeping, and being consumed from within. His feeling of incompleteness means that he seeks to fill himself with things that are external to him, trying to attain some sense of selfhood while actually leaving him open to be possessed by an ancient evil.

Wagamese looks at the interconnection between story-telling and carving, the ability to make tales into physical things, revealing truths within objects. He examines the power of art and stories to re-shape the world, to bring legends into the living world and change our understanding of the places we dwell in.

To read more about Him Standing visit the Orca Book Publishers’ webpage at http://www.orcabook.com/productdetails.cfm?PC=1865

Mojo Disabled

A review of Nalo Hopkinson’s Sister Mine (Grand Central Publishing, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille06a88f39f94401a3f86871d46c3bf5f5

There is a beauty in complexity, an ethereal quality to the display of Otherness and the richness of diversity. Sister Mine evokes the complexity of reality, the beatuty and power evoked by the richness of the human experience. Nalo Hopkinson’s characters are diverse in cultural background, ability, and engagement with the body, as well as multifaceted in their engagement with the magical, the mythical, and the otherworldly.

Sister Mine is rich with characters who often are cast to the fringes, to the Other Worlds within our world, and it is appropriate that she sees these characters as full of potential, as full of the Otherworld, the complexly spiritual. Conjoined twins, people with mobility disabilities, characters of diverse ages, sexualities, psychologies, economic backgrounds, and ethnicities are pulled into the novel in unique ways as she gives voice to those who are often rendered voiceless in a society that is focused on normativity and de-voicing those who don’t fit into its narrow definition of normalcy. Hopkinson evokes the complex engagement between identity and the body, diverse ways of knowing ourselves and how we relate to our physicality – our world and the physical parameters of our bodies.

Makeda, born a conjoined twin with her sister Abby, the “crippled deity half breed” of a human and a celestial deity that is evocative of the vodoun Loa, has always craved the mojo that her sister possesses. Undergoing surgery to separate their bodies, Abby ended up with something that Makeda felt she lacked, a certain spiritual power and ability to render her power into the world in the form of her singing voice. Makeda is called the “donkey” of the relationship by her celestial family, seemingly without any power that would render her other than human. She feels herself incomplete, less than her sister and merely a vessel that carried her sister who others seem to view as superior to herself. Physically separated, she feels tied to her sister intimately, unable to find herself and her identity as something different from her family (a place that she feels has been made clear to her by her family’s rejection of her). She leaves her sister’s house in an attempt to make her way in the human “claypicken” world, as one of them since she feels that she has more in common with a humanity without mojo than with celestials whose mojo can at times make her feel disoriented and woozy.

Yet, even among a humanity that she feels she can relate to bodily, there is still distance. She is still the child of a father who is a deity (though transformed by his fellow deities into a human being that now is experiencing Alzheimer’s) and a mother who was transformed into a sea monster and has been distanced from her from birth… and she still receives regular visits from an uncle who is death personified and a family of deities that feel that they can interfere with her life because she is family and less than them because she doesn’t have any of the mojo of a celestial. Out of place everywhere she goes, Makeda is able to see more than others, notice things that others would disengage with in their attempt to render things ‘normal’ according to their own status quo and predictable patterns of behaviour. She is a body seeking identity and discovering that nothing about identity is certain or fixed, but rather exists in a flux and flow of changeability that doesn’t entirely relate to her bodily ontology. She is caught in a system where others feel that they can change things for the good of those whom they believe are less than themselves, and sees that intentions based in superiority are often built on shaky ground.

To discover more about the work of Nalo Hopkinson, visit her website at http://nalohopkinson.com/ .

Body of War

A review of Suzanne Church’s “Coolies” in Elements: A Collection of Speculative Fiction (Edge, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

War evokes complicated loyalties and dangerous moral questions. War involves the engagement of elaborate systems of propaganda that make moral choices seem easy, breaking down their complexity into black and white, good and evil, win and lose.

Cover photo of Suzanne Church's "Elements" courtesy of http://edgewebsite.com/

Cover photo of Suzanne Church’s “Elements” courtesy of http://edgewebsite.com/

In Suzanne Church’s “Coolies”, the United States is at war with Canada, bombing Canadian stem cell research facilities out of their belief in the moral wrongness of the facilities. Marvin, convinced that he needs to protect Canada’s facilities, abandons his loyalty to family and duties as a father in order to continue his investment in his loyalty to the state, a loyalty he has been inculcating in young soldiers to continue the war effort. When his daughter, protected from the knowledge of who her father is, joins the military, he is put into the position of questioning his oaths or having to collect her body parts from the battlefield to graft onto other soldiers.

Church plays with militaristic ideas of loyalty (and complicates the notion that loyalty is an easy duty), “saving lives” (and explores the question of whether soldiers or doctors are best suited for the task of saving lives), and literally has Marvin see the world through new eyes provided by organ transplant.

Like the bodies on the battlefield, Suzanne Church rips apart conventional propaganda myths, revealing the corpus of stories that shore up the singular morality of war.

To fin out more about Elements and other Edge books, visit their website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/ .

To discover more about Suzanne Church, visit her website at http://suzannechurch.com/wordpress/ .

Haunted by Secrecy

A review of Robin Riopelle’s Deadroads: A Novel of Supernatural Suspense (Night Shade Books, 2014).

Cover photo for Deadroads courtesy of http://robinriopelle.com/

Cover photo for Deadroads courtesy of http://robinriopelle.com/

The Acadian Grand Derangement or Great Expulsion was a time of loss and displacement when people were uprooted and disconnected from their origins. Robin Riopelle brings these themes forward into the present in her novel Deadroads: A Novel of Supernatural Suspense, exploring an Acadian-Cajun family struggling with this continual state of disconnectedness, loss, and identity crisis. Like the ghosts they hunt, the Sarazzins are defined by their displacement, by their uprootedness and the confusion resulting from it. They are cut off from their past, isolated by secrecy about their own history.

When their mother left with their sister, Lutie, Baz and Sol had to be raised by their father, a man who wanted to erase the memory of their mother to ease his own pain and to feel stable. Sol had followed his father’s erasure of the past despite his constant defiance of the man, but Baz seeks to bind his family back together, to recover his own roots by finding the rest of his family. After their father dies, Baz seeks out Lutie, who has been living with a foster family since their mother died. Lutie has lost knowledge of her family’s ability to lay ghosts, to send them onto the deadroads to the afterlife. Her foster family saw her affinity with ghosts as a sign of mental illness, medicating her to suppress her ability, but Lutie has maintained a belief that she could control the ghosts, that she could turn them into her pets… the same issue that caused their mother to leave in the first place when she decided to keep a ghost despite their father’s insistence that ghosts should be sent on to their place of rest.

Suppressed by medication and a culture of disbelief, Lutie’s family knowledge was rendered mythic and lost. But when Baz makes a deal with a demon to find his lost sister, these siblings are reunited and a process of recovery can begin. Baz and Sol, both wanderers, perpetually drawn to the road by the desire to escape from overwhelming responsibility, are brought back to their sister, reunited as a family seeking to discover secrets about a past that was obscured by time and by a history of hiding information “for their own good.”

Deadroads is a novel about the interconnection between family responsibility and secrets, and the ability for secrets to pull a family apart and continue to haunt the lives of all of them with the absence of memory. Ghost hunting pulled the Sarazzins apart, but also brought their family back together, allowing them to begin the process of recovery through a shared notion of protection and discovery.

Angels and demons, the dead and the living, everything is a potential threat in this novel, inscribed with danger and needing to both be kept secret and to keep secrets from. Deadroads is a novel marked by uncertainty and characters coping with a deficit of knowledge and the danger that knowledge can bring to them.

To find out more about Robin Riopelle, visit her website at http://robinriopelle.com/

TRANSformations

A review of Anna Frost’s The Fox’s Mask (Musa Publishing, 2012)

By Derek Newman-Stille

Photo courtesy of Musa Publishing

Photo courtesy of Musa Publishing

It is refreshing to see a fantasy book that is set in Imperial Japan. So often, fantasy series are based on a Western Medieval archetype, inferring that this is the only forum for sword and sorcery. Anna Frost, although not Japanese herself, explores the imagery and richness of Japanese culture as a framework for her novel The Fox’s Mask. Populating her novel with Kitsune (fox spirits), healing spirits from springs, demons possessing humans, and dragons, it is clear why she chose an ancient Japanese setting for her fantasy series because it is so rich with mythical material for her to incorporate into this narrative. The framework of Shintoism works so well for explorations of the fantastic, having a general comfort with the notion that the natural world is populated not just with recognised animals, but also with a range of spiritual beings and manifestations.

Frost’s novel explores the relationship between duty and love (whether that be of a job or of a person), the social obligations that try to push people to accept familial responsibility over their own needs. Akakiba is a kitsune, able to transform from human form to fox form. He is a samurai, interested in protecting humanity from demons who would do them harm. He loves his job, and tolerates the humanity that he serves to protect… yet, his world is shaken when he is forced to take on a human apprentice, Yuki. Despite sharing years with his apprentice, he keeps secrets from him about his past, his family, and his kitsune nature. Despite his family wanting him to hold his first duty to them, he sees his primary duty as the protection of humanity, honouring his relationship to Yuki, and living the samurai lifestyle.

Yet, his choices have consequences. By not choosing to settle down and have a family of his own, he risks his clan, a people that are facing extinction as their numbers dwindle. Not only the foxes, but all spirits and otherworldly beings are beginning to dwindle, gradually disappearing from the world. The world is changing and Akakiba is faced with the notion that he may be contributing to that change by not taking a mate.

The Fox’s Mask is further enthralling because of its willingness to feature LGBT or queer characters. Characters are accepted in a large number of different relationships and love is not limited to heterosexual relationships. Because the foxes are able to change shape between human and fox and change sex between male and female, they are comfortable with ambiguities of gender and sex. They aren’t stuck in the human notion that one’s born gender defines them, or that one must chose to only enter into a sexual relationship with the opposite sex… the only challenge is that they try to encourage their members to enter into relationships with the opposite sex to ensure that there are children born and that the dwindling population continues. Anna Frost’s engagement with queer subject material is complex, not allowing easy relationships, but instead inviting the reader to engage in the complexity of issues that arise from a past society that is different from our own (both because of the past setting and the fact that they are foxes).

To find out more about The Fox’s Mask, visit Musa’s website at http://musapublishing.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=400

Titanic and Terrible

A review of Saving the Dead, or The Diary of an Undertaker’s Apprentice by Jennifer Greylyn (in Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales, Edge, 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille

This year marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and Jennifer Greylyn explores the Titanic from a supernatural perspective in her Saving the Dead, or The Diary of an Undertaker’s Apprentice. The dead of the Titanic call out to the teenaged undertaker Jamie. He feels a compulsion to help, and the call of the dead is more prevalent than his duty to his family. Jamie is torn between obligations, trying to find himself in the space between familial duty and his duty to the dead, which is also a form of familial duty born out of his ancient banshee bloodline.

Greylyn drops her audience in the horror of dying in the freezing waters of the ocean, and the further horror of floating in death, unburied, and unattached to anything, waiting for burial. She complicates the issues involved in the preferential treatment of the wealthy dead and the danger that occurs when capitalism overrides duty.