Mar 2, 2015

Reading Notes: Tomboy, Tales of Innocence and Experience, Greenglass House

Reading Notes: Tomboy, Tales of Innocence and Experience, Greenglass House

Some quick thoughts on three books I really liked:

Tomboy by Liz Prince

Tomboy by Liz Prince
Liz Prince’s Tomboy is a graphic memoir of growing up as a gender non-conforming girl in the 1980s and 90s. Prince knew from an early age that she wasn’t comfortable with dresses, dolls, and the general role and social expectations associated with femininity, but (understandably) it takes her a long time to figure out what this means, or what it says about who she is.

Prince is not a trans boy, though this is something she wonders about from time to time. Tomboy is a personal story, which means it doesn’t attempt to make any wider points or generalisations about the causes or meaning of gender non-conformity. It’s an exploration of one particular person’s gender confusion, and this is exactly what I valued about it. There are as many ways to fall outside the gender binary or to fail to conform to stereotypical gender roles as there are individuals who experience these things, and needless to say they are all equally valid; Prince’s story is only one of them, and it doesn’t claim to be anything more. The label she eventually picks for herself works for her, but the same wouldn’t necessarily be true of another person with similar childhood experiences.

I liked Tomboy for more or less the same reasons why I liked This One Summer: both do a wonderful job of capturing the mindset of young girl who defaults to questionable assumptions about the other girls around her, and both manage to distance the narrative as a whole from the central character’s point of you with subtlety and grace. For most of Tomboy, Prince thinks like a textbook except-girl: she sees girls as inherently less interesting than boys, and she conceives of traditional femininity in a way that fails to make a distinction between “not for me” and “inferior”. When a friend of her parents’ asks her “Do you hate girls or do you hate the expectations put on girls by society?”, she genuinely wonders whether there is a difference.

There is, of course, and a crucial one at that. But a younger me didn’t know that, and it was fascinating to watch Prince arrive at an answer. With the help of wise friends, feminist zines and punk rock, Prince comes to realise that she’d “subscribed to the idea that there was only one form of femininity and that it was inferior to being a man”. “I don’t want to be a girl on society’s terms”, she says, “I want to be a girl on my own terms”. She still is and will always be a tomboy, but she comes to realize there’s no wrong way of being a girl. Tomboy is a funny and moving personal journey, and I’m grateful I got to follow along.


Tales of Innocence and Experience by Eva Figes

Tales of Innocence and Experience by Eva Figes

I decided to pick up Tales of Innocence and Experience after seeing it mentioned in Marina Warner’s excellent Once Upon a Time. She called it a wonderful exploration of how fairy tales can help us navigate the world; when I spotted it at my library soon after that I knew I couldn’t resist.

In this book, Eva Figes writes a series of interconnected personal essays about her relationship with her granddaughter and about the act of reading fairy tales together when she’s still quite young. As Tales of Innocence and Experience progresses, it becomes evident that it’s about more than that: it’s also about how the darkness of the metaphorical fairy tale forest parallels the darkness of life; about the roles of older women in traditional stories; and especially about using fairy tales as a tool to tell a child that the world isn’t always safe. The question at the heart of the book is this:
How old is old enough for a child to know the world for what it is? In order to survive even the most mundane existence, by the standards of what we call the civilized world, a child must at some stage be taught not to touch dog shit, never to run into the road, not to go off with strangers. This last one is particularly difficult to explain, since we do not want our offspring to think badly of the human race. In stories evil and wickedness is easily recognised, personified in a witch, a monster, someone with features of outstanding ugliness. What if you cannot tell? What if anybody could be bad, underneath? What if that nice man who looks like an uncle, who smiles and maybe even brings a sweet out of his pocket, is not what he seems? When and how do we explain, try to explain, about the existence of paedophiles, child killers, Dachau, men who wear brown shirts and armbands and high shiny boots, in short, everything that might or might not go on beyond the garden gate?
Figes is a Holocaust survivor: when she was six years old, she was evacuated to England with her family to escape Nazi Germany; her grandparents, who stayed behind, did not survive. Now a grandmother herself, she uses her own experiences to attempt to understand the family she lost, and she tries to balance the desire to protect her granddaughter from a painful and unjust world for as long as possible with the need to equip her to survive in this world. The result is moving and beautifully written: I loved it.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Greenglass House by Kate Milford
Greenglass House is a wonderful blend of manor house mystery and fantasy, and an absolutely perfect winter book to boot. It takes place in the days just before Christmas, in the house that gives the novel its title. Greenglass House is a smugglers’ inn “on the side of a hill overlooking an inlet of harbours”, and it’s run by our protagonist Milo Pine’s parents. The inn’s remote location, plus the seasonal nature of its clientele’s occupation, means it’s usually empty during the winter holidays, and when the novel opens Milo is about to settle down for a nice and quiet couple of weeks. But then the guest bell rings — not once, not twice, but three times in a short period of time.

As more and more unexpected guests arrive at Greenglass House, it becomes apparent that they’ve all come for a reason. They all seem to have secrets to hide, and these turn out to be connected to the history of Greenglass House. As the snow traps the guests at Greenglass House, they gather around the fire and tell intriguing stories that shed some light on their purpose. Milo and his friend Meddy decide to make a game of uncovering their secrets, and soon they come to realise that the mystery in their hands is more intricate than they could have imagined.

I had so much fun with this novel. There’s something about its mood and playfulness that put me in mind of The Westing Game, only I enjoyed Greenglasss House even more. First of all, Milford’s worldbuilding is nothing short of amazing. The story is set in a world with its own rich history, mythology and folklore — a world of peddlers, skilled thieves, smugglers, sinister customs agents, and complex power plays that makes you root for those operating outside the system. Also, the worldbuilding is embedded in the story in just the right way: information is revealed when it’s pertinent to the plot, and there are lots of little details that hint at a vast world you’ll desperately want to explore beyond this story. I understand this is the same world where the rest of Kate Milford’s novels are set — I can’t wait to discover them.

In addition to a satisfying mystery and a twist that actually took me by surprise, Greenglass House has a wonderful cast of characters with emotionally rich, complex relationships. I don’t want to give too much away, but the scene where accomplished thieves Georgie and Clem hug was such a great subversion of the idea that women are always in competition with each other. And of course I have to mention Milo and his parents too: he’s a boy of Chinese descent who was adopted by white parents, and a lot of what Greenglass House focuses on is his negotiation of his love for his family and his curiosity about his own history. Milo is starting to accept this curiosity as natural, and to learn it’s not disloyal to his family to wish he knew more about his birth parents. It was lovely to follow him on his journey, and to see such a warm and loving portrait of a family with an adopted child.

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Feb 26, 2015

Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit

Hope in the Dark by Rebecca SolnitHope in the Dark: The Untold History of People Power by Rebecca Solnit

Again and again, far stranger things happen than the end of the world.
Hope in the Dark: The Untold History of People Power is a collection of essay that examine our understanding of success and defeat in the context of activism and social change. Solnit’s key argument is that there’s more than one way to look at success, and that our understanding of lasting change as the end-result of heightened periods of crisis doesn’t always serve us well. As she puts it, “revolution doesn’t necessarily look like revolution”; change can be “gradual and subtle” as well as “dramatic and conflict-ridden”. However, we only tend to count the latter, which can make it hard not to lose motivation or feel like you haven’t really accomplished anything.

As the title indicates, Hope in the Dark is also a book about hope. It’s about how to keep despair at bay when the world seems to be changing at a much slower pace than we’d like; about the vulnerability inherent to hope and to opening ourselves up to the possibility of failure; about how not to lose heart when the things you pour your time and energy into don’t seem to amount to anything much. In short, it’s about questions close to my heart, which made it a necessary book for me at this point in time. It gave me hope in the way only books that are frank about how dire things can be ever really manage, because it feels like that hope is coming from an honest place.

I found the way Hope in the Dark reframes success particularly useful: Solnit argues that a lot of the time, victory simply consists of stopping the world from getting worse. This means that your end result is that things stay more or less the same, which a lot of the time renders your work invisible. Yet stopping bad things from happening, or preventing hard-won rights from being taken away, is actually a remarkable accomplishment. It’s the kind of work we tend to take for granted, but whose absence would soon be noticed.

Solnit’s arguments for hope are deeply political: she suggests that despair is all too often exploited to instil a sense of powerlessness and apathy that favours the status quo, and that only by believing that efforts to change the world are not doomed to failure will we ever be in a position to make it happen. It’s hard to write about this without sounding like you’re blaming people who are understandingly dispirited and exhausted for slipping into despair, but the tone of Hope in the Dark is always compassionate and never slips into finger-wagging. Additionally, it recognizes the difficulties in continuing to fight for what you believe in when there’s no “happily ever after”, necessarily — just small victories that need constant protecting and people who are exhausted by then — even as it encourages us to think of political engagement as a constant part of life and not just as something for moments of crisis.

Rebecca Solnit’s experience is largely in environmentalism, which is different from other forms of activism. By “different” I don’t mean “less urgent”, of course — only that context matters and that the specificities of Soltnit’s inevitably shape her perception. She says the following in relation to reframing success:
Most environmental victories look like nothing happened; the land wasn’t annexed by the army, the mine didn’t open, the road didn’t cut through, the factory didn’t spew effluents that didn’t give asthma to the children who didn’t wheeze and panic and stay indoors on beautiful days. They are triumphs invisible except through storytelling.
In sum, deliberate efforts to reclaim the narrative of what happened (or what would have happened) are crucial ways to combat that invisibility and to hold on to hope.

As I noted above, I found Hope in the Dark more than useful: it was honestly kind of essential for where I am right now. However, it’s important for me to acknowledge that hope, power and social change are difficult subjects to approach with a broad brush, because the specificities of each kind of activism really do matter. Some groups and individuals are in a far better position than others to be able to afford to wait or to take the long view. And as much as hopelessness can be politically co-opted, it feels worse than trite to urge people not to despair when their lives are at stake, or when they have to live with the consequences of the lack of swift palpable change day after day in ways that go beyond anything I can imagine.

I’m thinking, for example, about Ferguson and all the activism around police brutality and racial profiling the United States saw in the past few months. Hope in the Dark was published nearly a decade ago and it doesn’t claim to be universal, but it’s still clear to me that the ways in which it helped me are linked to my privilege. I desperately wish the world were different, and as an immigrant woman I struggle with things that are very much rooted in systemic inequality. However, I’m also white, middle class, etc, and my day to day life is far from unbearable. When urged to “recognize that victories may come as subtle, complex, slow changes instead, and count them anyway”, I find it a comforting thought. The ideas expressed in Hope in the Dark are important to me, but so is recognizing that this might not be possible for everyone.

One more bit I liked:
Cause and effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes a person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.
The despair that keeps coming up is a loss of believe that the struggle is worthwhile. That loss comes from many quarters: from exhaustion, from a sadness born out of empathy, but also from expectations and analyses that are themselves problems.
(Have you written about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

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Feb 22, 2015

A Collection of Most Excellent Links

…if I may say so myself. There has been lots of amazing content out there lately and I want to draw everyone’s attention to it.
  • The Cooperate Children’s Book Centre has released its Multicultural Children’s Literature statistics for 2014. I was especially interested in the graphic that shows that while there has been an increase in the number of books about characters of colour being published in the past few years, the same is not true of books by people of colour. This is something I’ve been thinking about these last few weeks, especially since the Carnegie longlist for this year was announced (it contains diverse characters but no POC authors).

    Conversations about this often end up becoming about how white authors write characters of colours because they care about diversity and don’t want to contribute to an all-white media landscape. I understand where these concerns come from, but more and more I want to make sure this is not the only discussion I pay attention to. I have no solution but to stick to my resolve to read POC, to review and discuss their books, and to embed them in every aspect of my library work. This is something that’s within my control, and it’s where I plan to focus my energies first and foremost.

  • On a related note, Malinda Lo’s Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews is invaluable reading.

  • ...as is The Show Me Librarian’s Selection is Privilege:
    If you select materials for your readers, you are privileged to get to influence not only what children read, but what they have access to in the first place. And when I read arguments against including diverse titles, or questions about why we have to talk about this topic, it puts into sharp focus for me the fact that we have to recognize our privilege as selectors, and, more than likely, as white selectors for diverse readers. If you find yourself thinking “I don’t need this title because we don’t really have many X readers here,” your privilege is showing. You have probably never had to open more than one or two books in a row in order to find a character who looks/speaks/lives like you do. That is privilege. And whether we intend it to or not, our privilege influences our thinking and our decisions. This is a problem because our decisions affect the capabilities of young readers to find books in which they can find themselves and in which they can meet new people.
  • This Day of Diversity Recap and Reflections (with links to others at the end) was a useful glimpse of ALA Midwinter (via Aarti).

  • Rewriting the Future: Using Science Fiction to Re-Envision Justice is also excellent and a good reminder that I need to read more Octavia Butler.

  • I always look forward to seeing a new post pop up at The Other Sociologist; their latest, Dehumanisation, Superhumanisation and Racism, was as interesting and useful as always. To tie this with what seems to be the theme of this collection of links, the concept of superhumanisation strikes me as particularly useful for those of us reviewing and discussing diverse books. This also puts me in mind of what Cass was saying recently about idealised representations of queer relationships and how they’re dehumanising:
    [W]e must resist both demonization and idealization because neither allow for the full humanity of queer people and our experiences. Whether you refuse to acknowledge that we live in a homophobic world or if you refuse to acknowledge partner abuse within LGBQ relationships, you are still refusing to recognize our human complexity.
  • S.L. Huang’s Why I want more unlikeable female characters touches on something close to my heart, as you may know by now. All the stories about ladies, please.

  • This list of Graphic Novels That Make Black History Month Come Alive did a lot of damage to my wishlist.

  • Lastly, I’m sure a lot of you will have already seen Nature’s Sex Redefined, but it’s fantastic and I couldn’t leave it out:
    So if the law requires that a person is male or female, should that sex be assigned by anatomy, hormones, cells or chromosomes, and what should be done if they clash? “My feeling is that since there is not one biological parameter that takes over every other parameter, at the end of the day, gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter,” says Vilain. In other words, if you want to know whether someone is male or female, it may be best just to ask.

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Feb 19, 2015

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly BlackThe Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

Fairfold is a strange place. It’s a town where humans and the Fair Folk live side by side; a town where a beautiful horned faerie prince has slept in a glass coffin for years and years, and where successive generations of local teenagers have held parties around him. In Fairfold, people accept the dangerous magic of the faeries by convincing themselves that if only they follow the rules, they and their loved ones won’t be at risk of disappearing when out one night — or worse. But there’s a monster in the dark heart of the forest that surrounds Fairfold, and nobody really knows for how long it can be kept at bay.

Ben and Hazel are siblings, and they’ve lived in Fairfold for most of their lives. When they were younger, the two tried to cope with their parents’ neglect by playing at being a bard and a knight who hunted monsters in the forest. But in a place like Fairfold, a game like that isn’t only a game. When one day the glass coffin is broken and the faerie prince disappear, Ben and Hazel have to revisit their past and work out how it shapes their present. What’s behind Hazel’s dreams of being a knight who rides with the faeries? Why doesn’t Ben play music anymore? And what happens when you fall in love with one of the Fair Folk?

I worry I’ll be misunderstood if I say that while I really enjoyed The Darkest Part of the Forest, it’s not my favourite of the Holly Black novels I’ve read so far. This isn’t to say there isn’t plenty to love here; it’s just that Doll Bones and The Coldest Girl in Coldtown set the bar extremely high. Also, while this is of course personal and your mileage may vary, to me the plot of The Darkest Part of the Forest felt messier and less fine-turned. However, it makes up for any plotting hiccups with its thematic richness, with its wonderful characters, and with some excellent worldbuilding. I loved how ordinary life and old folklore were intertwined in Fairfold, and I loved that it was both a place that was part of the contemporary world and not.

The Darkest Part of the Forest is not the story you think you know: it subverts fairy tale tropes while paying loving homage to the folklore it draws from, which is something I always appreciate seeing. One of the strategies through which it achieves this is by gender-flipping and diversifying the characters you traditionally find in folk and fairy tales: here we have a male sleeping prince becoming the object of the two central siblings’ very different fantasies; a daring girl knight ready to come to the rescue; a boy with nurturing qualities that are usually coded as feminine; and a lovely happy romance between two boys at the centre of it all. I loved how Ben’s sexual orientation was portrayed as one of the many things that make him who he is, rather than as a plot point or a source of tension. To be clear, it’s unfortunately true that being gay is sometimes still a source of tension in the lives of contemporary teenagers, and we do need stories that acknowledge and reflect that. But we also need them not to be the only stories we tell about the lives of gay teens: as I always seem to end up saying, the problem is in the pattern, and the only way to break it is by expanding the range of stories we write, read, share and celebrate.

So I liked Ben a lot, and I loved where his story took him. However, Hazel was the one who really stole my heart. I’ve come to realise I love the kinds of girls Holly Black writes, and Hazel is no exception. First of all, I love that she’s a knight and that her skills when it comes to physical fighting are normalised throughout the story. Secondly, there’s the fact that she’s allowed sexual experimentation with no slut-shaming or narrative punishment. As we learn early on in the story, Hazel has kissed a lot of boys over the year, boys she has no particular emotional investment in, and she’s not once made to suffer, atone or apologise for this.

Additionally, Hazel reminded me a bit of Tana in Coldtown, in the sense that she’s someone who keeps her guard up and for whom intimacy doesn’t come easily. Again, I love that Holly Black writes girls like this, girls who are reminders that we are many things. Girls and women are as likely as men to struggle with or simply reject closeness, for any variety of reasons. Yet this is at odds with the gendered expectations that are thrust upon them, and so they’re treated with entitlement or villanised. I’m glad Hazel was given the space to be who she was: her story was a reminder that doubts are okay, that taking time to let someone in is okay, and that girls get to be the subjects and not just the objects in this kind of negotiation of intimacy.

If anything, I kind of wish Hazel’s behaviour had been a little less firmly linked to the emotional scars from a childhood of neglect — but this is, once again, a problem with the pattern rather than with this individual story. I want stories where girls kiss however many boys they want without this signalling some hidden inner hurt, but I also want the particular story The Darkest Part of the Forest tells. Plus I found the way Black wrote about Hazel and Ben’s childhood experiences moving. The two grew up without someone in their lives who was consistently able to be an adult and make sure they were clothed, fed, and safe. In the eyes of their friends there’s an aura of glamour surrounding their childhood in a bohemian household with parents who didn’t believe in rules, but as the story progresses we get to dig deeper and see that this had a cost. At the same time, Ben and Hazel’s parents are written generously and humanely: they’re complicated, fallible people who made mistakes with consequences that can’t be erased, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love their children and are not, now, trying to do their best.

The last thing I want to talk about is Fairfold itself: The Darkest Part of the Forest is about a town and its people turning on easy scapegoats when they’re threatened, because that’s easier than acknowledging their own powerlessness. It’s easier than admitting you’re trapped in an unfair system that could turn on you at any moment, and that there’s nothing you can do to stop it but overthrow it entirely. As we’re told in one of the early chapters,
Tourists, the locals would say, a sneer in their voices. And they still did. Because everyone believed — everyone had to believe — tourists did stupid things that got them killed. And if someone from Fairfold very occasionally went missing, too, well, they must have been acting like a tourist. The people of Fairfold came to think of the Folk as inevitable, a natural hazard, like hailstorms or getting swept out to sea by a riptide.
And later on:
After all, in Fairfold, the Folk hurt only tourists, so if you got hurt, you must be acting like a tourist, right? You must have done something wrong. Someone must have done something wrong. So long as there was someone else to blame, no one ever had to admit how powerless they were.
This is a familiar scenario, and it’s easy to establish a dozen different parallels with the cultural myths surrounding misfortune, violence or systemic injustice in our world, and with how easily we blame the victims. In Fairfold, people eventually realise that the difficult and scary thing, the thing that requires you to acknowledge your vulnerability and then press for change regardless, is the only effective thing in the long run. I hope we’ll one day all to the same.

They read it too: The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia, The Book Smugglers, you?

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Feb 16, 2015

The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City by Jo WaltonJo Walton’s The Just City is about a group of time travellers from several periods of history setting up Plato’s Republic on a Mediterranean island with the help of the goddess Athene, and with her brother Apollo hiding in mortal form among the city’s children so he can learn about “volition and equal significance”. Even if this wasn’t by Jo Walton, one of my favourite authors, there was no way I wasn’t going to be all over a novel with a premise like this.

The Just City is narrated by three characters: Maia, a Victorian who struggled with the constrains society put on women like her, becomes one of the Masters of the Just City after praying to Pallas Athene in Rome in a moment of despair; Simmea is one of the thousands of ten-year-olds who are bought as slaves to be raised in the city as its first generation, and it’s mostly through her eyes that we see what it’s like to be raised according to Plato’s system. Lastly, there’s Pytheas, the god Apollo in mortal form. After struggling to understand why the nymph Daphne would rather turn into a tree than be raped by him, he realises he has to engage with the idea that women are individuals whose will matters as much as his own. Among the City’s inhabitants are also renowned men like Cicero or Marsilio Ficino — and, a few years into the experiment, Sokrates himself appears. His willingness to question the premise of every argument slowly begins to expose the assumptions behind the Just City, and the results aren’t exactly what the Masters had imagined.

The Just City is by far my favourite read of the year so far. It’s a novel of ideas where the characters feel like real people, and it’s one that’s very much concerned with the gap between idealism and the practical implications of living on a day to day basis with what seem to some like just principles in the abstract. However, it’s neither a cynical work nor one that’s defeatist or dismissive of the impulse to build a fairer society. The Just City turns out to be a horrifying place on many levels, but the novel addresses this with a willingness to ask honest and tough questions about what people who for the most part genuinely want to create a better world can get wrong, rather than by scoffing at the impulse altogether.

Of course, the Masters are individuals, which means their motivations, cultural baggage and ideological outlooks are far from uniform. The Just City is doomed not because there’s something inherently foolish about radically changing how society is organised, but largely because the Republic relies on a power differential than can’t be wished away. It puts a group of people in charge of pulling all the strings and keeps another in the dark, allegedly “for their own good”. What follows is what you’d expect: The Just City deals with freedom and consent, social engineering and political systems, and how a utopia can turn into a dystopia. The problems that plague the Just City become more and more marked as the experiment runs its course, and include slavery and sexual violence, eugenics, heteronormativity, lack of reproductive rights, and censorship, just to name a few. If by now you’re thinking “eek”, I would say “indeed”.

Gender inequality is one of the novel’s strongest thematic strands, and it is present in all three point of view characters’ storylines. Maia, born Ethel, was denied a higher education because of her gender, and struggled a lot with her lack of options. As she puts it,
I was a woman, a young lady, and this constrained me in everything. My choices were so unbearably narrow. If I wanted a life of the mind, I could work at nothing but as a governess, or as a teacher in a girl’s school, teaching not the classics but the proper accomplishments of a young lady — sketching, watercolours, French and Italian, playing the piano.
At first, The Just City seems to be everything Maia hoped for and more — a place where gender will never hold her back — but little by little she notices that not everyone is committed to gender equality. And largely because this is not something that’s ever explicitly discussed, the Just City still defaults to patriarchal power dynamics. For examples, Maia realises the following:
Most of the older people and all of the famous ones were men, but most of the people who understood technology in any way were young women. Though we had nominal equality, there were always those like Tullius who would not accept us as equal. In addition I saw in other women and detected in myself a tendency to defer to older men—as I had always deferred to my father.
And also this:
The committee on technology was almost entirely composed of young women, with only one man, the Dominican, whose name was now Ikaros. Somehow, imperceptibly, because of this, technology came to be seen among the masters as feminine and unimportant.
Unfortunately that’s not all — Maia is raped one evening by Ikaros, a man she trusted up until then, and when she discusses what happened with her friend Klio it becomes obvious that victim blaming is just as prevalent in the Just City as it is in our world. The certainty of being dismissed encourages the women to develop a system of whispered warnings: not all citizens are equal after all, and they know no justice is available to them. So the only recourse they have is to discreetly warn one another about the men who have a history of disregarding consent.

Simmea, in her turn, struggles with the Just City’s system of forced reproduction: young men and women are paired off every few months in a system that’s supposed to be random but relies on dubious principles that are clearly inspired by eugenics, and the women don’t get to say no until they’ve had two children. Simmea struggles horribly with post-partum depression after the birth of her first child, and she knows that’s not something she’s willing to go through again. But the Just City makes no allowances for individual circumstances, and it’s this that finally encourages Simmea, one of its staunchest defenders, to break the rules by seeking out contraceptive herbs.

And then there’s Apollo, who is reborn as a mortal so he can attempt to undo the effects of several millennia spent believing that women are not quite as real or as human as he is. This is, of course, every bit as difficult as it sounds. His storyline is an effective examination of male privilege and of the tough questions men who are truly committed to supporting gender equality must be willing to ask, not only of themselves but of the men around them.

The novel addresses the pernicious idea that if only we’d focus on a single aspect of justice or equality and put ‘in-fighting’ aside, everything else would eventually fall into place and a fair world would emerge. Identity politics, the argument goes, are merely a distraction from the ‘real’ issues everyone should be devoting their energy to. The trouble is that whatever aspect of justice you choose to privilege will inevitably serve some people better than others. As The Just City shows, if the specific power structures that make life unfair for different groups of people (be they based on gender, race, sexuality, etc) aren’t overtly addressed, it’s all too easy for the same old inequalities to reassert themselves.

The Just City deals with the notions of freedom and informed consent not only in relation to gender and sexual agency, but also in a wider political sense. For example, Simmea and her peers are brought into the city as slaves. In fact, we’re told that the Masters’ habit of buying slave children around the age of ten has created the kind of demand that encouraged more slave raids. The Masters are willing to overlook this — after all, they were only buying the slave children to free them and give them an idyllic upbringing. But not everyone who was torn from his or her family shares this outlook. The young citizens of the Republic were taken there against their will and routinely have decisions made on their behalf — how could this ever be the basis for a just society?

Lastly, there’s a subplot involving Sokrates and artificial intelligence which is just as interesting, and which raises many of these same questions. The goddess Athene, who has access to the past, present and future, brought robots into the Just City to do the hard work of building and maintaining it. These robots are known as Labourers, and until Sokrates’ arrival no one thinks of them as more than tools. But when he attempts to engage them in dialogue, it surfaces that at least some of the Labourers have developed sentience, which means that the Just City relies on slave labour. The fact that this might have gone uncovered if not for Sokrates’ willingness to question the premises of everything highlights the risks we run if we’re not suspicious of our own biases and blind spots.

You may have heard by now that The Just City is part of a planned trilogy, and that this first volume ends on what could be described as an abrupt note. I’m glad Fence warned me beforehand, because I can imagine being taken aback by the ending if I was expecting a full resolution. But then again, reading My Real Children last year showed me that Walton is very good at writing ambiguous endings that ask questions which are far more interesting than any attempts at clear, definitive answers could ever be. The final words of The Just City moved me:
On my temple in Delphi there are two words written: Know Thyself. It’s good advice. Know yourself. You are worth knowing. Examine your life. The unexamined life is not worth living. Be aware that other people have equal significance. Give them the space to make their own choices, and let their choices count as you want them to let your choices count. Remember that excellent has no stopping point and keep on pursuing it. Make art that can last and that says something nobody else can say. Life the best life you can, and become the best self you can. You cannot know which of your actions is the lever that will move worlds. Not even Necessity knows all ends. Know yourself.
I’m very much looking forward to The Philosopher Kings, which comes out in June and picks up the story thirteen years later. I can’t wait to engage further with all the ideas in this series.

They read it too: In the Forest of Stories, Shelf Love, Necromancy Never Pays, Mysterious Bibliophile, Susan Hated Literature, The Emerald City Book Review, you?

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