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Thursday, September 15, 2016 - 16:55

I had a topic I was thinking of doing today, but insufficient brain to manage it. I have one more chapter to revise of Mother of Souls--and then at least a couple more passes to make sure I haven't screwed up anything else in the process--and it's eaten up everything I have left over from work. Work, now there's something I could talk about. Not a lot, of course, because the details are often sensitive. But just in general terms of "what is Heather doing these days in her day job?"

As you know (Bob), I work for a major international pharmaceutical company. My department does the purification of biologic molecules used to treat a certain hereditary disease. Periodically we improve either the manufacturing process or the molecule itself so that it works better, is safer, is more effective, or some other improvement. For non-biologic chemicals, there are a lot of changes where approval just requires demonstrating equivalence. For the sort of thing we make, pretty much any change worth making gets treated as an entirely new drug. So you start out with a relatively limited developmental manufacturing process for your clinical studies that demonstrate safety and effectiveness. My department isn't involved with that. And then you design your commercial-scale manufacturing process, construct any new equipment or facilities required, validate your equipment and processes, train everyone on how to use them, and then you produce a certain amount of drug to demonstrate that you are making material equivalent to what was used for the clinical studies and that you can manufacture it consistently and reliably, meeting established standards for all your quality specifications. Oh, and we do this using a living organsim as part of our "factory" with all the complexity inherent in that.

That process is what we're just finishing up with at the moment. It's pretty intensive because all the data from this initial full-scale production will be worked over with a fine toothed comb by the regulatory agencies who decide whether they're going to approve your license to manufacture and sell the stuff. It's also intensive because there are a lot of timelines that are ticking forward to the point when you've gathered all the data from this phase and submitted it and gone through the audits and inspections until the day comes when the new drug is approved. Nobody goes into this sort of process unless they're absolutely certain it will be approved, but that doesn't mean stuff can't happen.

We went through this process recently with one new version of the drug. There's a poster in one of our buildings with a picture of the first does being hand-delivered to its user. It's a big deal. The process is long enough that you've usually working on the next improvement before the last one is in patients' hands.

Big Pharma comes in for a lot of criticism, and I'm not going to defend everything that goes on. Not by a long shot. But I get to see the inside of the process that takes an idea from "this might work to help someone" to "here's your next dose of the stuff that keeps you alive."  Some of the stuff we do is f'ing miraculous. And I get to be a part of that.

And that's what I do when I'm not writing books.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016 - 10:00

The second part of chapter 15 might be thought of as the whiplash point. Lavinia, the head Mean Girl, has told tales on Ermengarde and sent Miss Minchin in an unprecedented second trip up to the attic to catch the girls in the midst of their pretend princess banquet. The extremity of MIss Minchin's anger can only really be understood as sparked by the disruption Sara brings to the proper order of things. Viewed from a distance, why should it matter that Ermengarde chose to share her food "care package" with Sara and Becky? Why should it matter that she shares her books? Why should it matter that Sara rearranges bits of rubbish that have been left in her room into a make-believe feast hall?

To be sure, there are Rules about students not leaving their bedrooms at night, no doubt. But that alone can't explain the magnitude of Miss Minchin's response, or why it is directed primarily at Sara and Becky. The only thing that explains it is the fracturing of class boundaries implicit in the fraternization (sororization?) and the evidence of Sara's continued defiance of her "proper place"--a place that doesn't include having dreams and fantasies. Peak outrage is generated by Sara's insistence on the equivalence of her position and Ermengarde's. When Miss Minchin scolds Ermengarde, "What would your papa  say if he knew where you are tonight?" (i.e., in the attic with servant girls), Sara, in one of her quiet reproachful comebacks, asks Miss Minchin what her papa would say if he knew where she is tonight.

All are punished: Ermengarde confined to bed the next day and reported to her father, Sara sentenced to another day with no food, and Becky told (although falsely, as it turns out) that she will be thrown out in the street the next day. And Sara is left to contemplate the broken fragments of her "pretend" before falling into an exhausted (and still hungry) sleep, repeating (and foreshadowing) her fantasy about the attic containing a warm fire and comfortable bed and a hot, filling supper.

This is where the previous chapter comes into play, in which Ram Dass and the secretary discussed their plans. Because we can jump past the mechanics of how the attic is transformed and have Sara wake to the results of that transformation. It takes some time for Sara to assure herself of the reality of the gift, if only because it matches her fantasies so closely and so elaborately that it seems unbelievable that it could exist anywhere but in her own head.

I would quibble about the plot convenience of Mr. Carrisford identifying his gift anonymously as "from a friend" except that this is perhaps the most believable aspect of the whole non-communication of identities foundation of the plot. Carrisford wants to be the magical anonymous benefactor. It's more fun that way.

And--true to Sara's nature--once she has convinced herself of the concrete reality of the gift, her immediate response is to wake Becky and share it with her. And, as we shall see from the next visit of The Magic, Mr. Carrisford is belatedly shamed (though perhaps that's too strong a word) into explicitly including Becky in the bounty by providing her with her own dishes and transfering Sara's now unneeded bedding to Becky's room to supplement Becky's own. But this only emphasizes that The Magic isn't about simple charity, it's specifically about rewarding Sara for being a person worthy of charity. But we have gotten ahead of ourselves into the next chapter.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - 08:00

People often tell you that the best books are written when the author is writing the book they most want to read. The flip side of that, is that not all of your potential readership is going to love the same things you do. But some will. And as long as the hidden "Easter eggs" can be read as background color, I see nothing wrong with tossing in a bit of geekery that only a subset of readers will fully appreciate. I suspect I hold this attitude in large part because I'm accustomed to SFF readers who are usually quite cheerful about swallowing worldbuilding on topics they aren't expected to be experts in.

I have regular scenes where my characters debate the logical and philosophical underpinnings of thamaturgical theory. Of course I don't expect the reader to understand it in detail, nor do I intend to have the characters sit down and explain it to them. The scenes serve the purpose of saying, "These are experts, interacting with each other at a no-holds-barred level, and your take-away is to appreciate the fact of their expertise, not to become an expert yourself." In a hard SF novel when the characters have an as-you-know-Bob discussion of how the warp drive functions, the point is that you're supposed to believe that those characters could build a warp drive, not that you should come out of it being able to build one yourself.

So, no, I don't actually expect any but a very few of my readers to be familiar with 15th centry Latin memorial inscription formulas or the ambiguities of how they might be expanded. But some day, when I write Tanfrit's story, I hope some of those few will think back to the following scene and say, "Ha! I wondered about that!"

* * *

Chapter 10 - Margerit

There was a gate hanging crazily off its hinges that let them into the little yard. The door to the cottage itself was long since gone and the opening let in barely enough light to see the noisome remains of straw bedding. Margerit ducked back out quickly and examined the yard from within. The wall had been built from odds and ends of stone: smooth boulders tumbled by the river, small worked squares that must have been repurposed from some other source, a tall broad slab that stood the full height of the barrier and might well have determined its course. On second examination, the shape of that stone became familiar and she went to crouch before it and touch the traces of carving that still showed through the moss.

A sharp stick uncovered the edges of lettering and the shape of an escutcheon above, though the device on it was only recognizable as bearing birds of some sort. Barbara joined her, scraping gently at the moss to reveal the beginning of the inscription. HIC IACET…

“No surprise,” Margerit said. “I wonder what churchyard they pillaged for this?”

“The stone is set rather deeply. If I didn’t know better, I’d think it marked the original grave. Let’s see whose memory we’re meant to call to mind.”

They worked more carefully now, picking the dirt and vegetation out of the lettering. The end of the line held only a single name. Margerit’s heart began hammering as it came clear: TANNFRIDA.

Barbara laid a hand on her shoulder. “She wasn’t the only woman by that name. Don’t assume—”

But Margerit had attacked the obscuring moss more frantically. Why else had the mystery led her here if not for this? The drizzle started again, but she took no notice of anything except what the stone revealed. The Latin was clumsy and ambiguous, abbreviated to fit the stone and not the standard formulas of a churchyard monument.





“Doctora Universitatis Rotanaci,” Margerit breathed. “It must be. But…?” So many questions. Why here? Why did the dozzures at the university deny she had ever taught there? Tanfrit’s scholarship was legendary, even in the few scraps that survived. Why was she buried here in obscurity, commemorated only by Susanna, her most beloved sister?

“Why here?” she asked aloud.

Barbara offered a hand to help her rise. “You know what the legends say, that she was a suicide. They couldn’t have buried her in a churchyard.”

It wasn’t the question she’d meant to ask and the answer made no sense. “But those legends say she threw herself in the Rotein from a broken heart and was lost,” Margerit countered. “This isn’t lost.”

“It could be a cenotaph,” Barbara cautioned. “But no, not if it says iacet. And yet—”

They stared at each other in wonder, forgetting all the rest of the world around them. “This is it,” Margerit said abruptly.

Mother of Souls
Monday, September 12, 2016 - 08:00

I confess that one of the reasons I chose the current collection to cover this month is because, having skimmed the relevant contents, I knew I could slack off a little in terms of detailed summaries. And since I'm in the middle of an intensive novel revision process and have a major crunch on the day job, I desperately needed some slack in other parts of my life!

Full citation: 

Amer, Sahar. “Cross-Dressing and Female Same-Sex Marriage in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures” in Babayan, Kathryn and Afsaneh Najmabadi (eds.). 2008. Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-03204-0

Publication summary: 


This collection of papers came out of a workshop that brought together a cross-section of scholars from various disciplines to explore aspects of same-sex practice and desire in the Islamicate world. “Islamicate” is a relatively new term coined (in parallel with “Italianate”) to describe people, cultures, and practices in regions dominated or strongly infuenced by Islam, without the implication that specific individuals are necessarily Muslim or that the cultures and practices are being considered in a religious context or that they represent “Islamic culture” in a definitional sense. The papers in this collection primarily focus on literary representation. There is no implication intended that any one study represents the Islamicate world as a whole, and the variety of representations and practices is emphasized. As is usual with a collection of this type, I have covered only those papers pertaining to women.

Amer, Sahar 2008 “Cross-Dressing and Female Same-Sex Marriage in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures”

This article was published in the same year as Amer’s book Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures and in terms of content is an excerpt from that longer work. For that reason, I’ve given only a brief summary of the main themes and have pointed the reader to my more extensive discussion of the book.

This article is a condensed version of Amer’s book-length study Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures, identifying likely Arabic sources for several medieval French romances that involve same-sex relationships (of various sorts) between women, including a cross-dressing-driven marriage between women. Although her book covers several French works, the present article focuses specifically on the several variants of the story of Yde and Olive (woman disgused as male knight marries the emperor’s daughter), comparing it with the tale of Qamar al-Zaman and Boudour (or Budur) in which a woman disguises herself as her own missing husband to go in search of him and ends up married to a princess.

Themes that are covered include the characters’ attitudes towards these marriages, how the potential (and actuality) for erotic activity between women is handled in the text, and how the disruptive relationship between the two women is resolved according to the different requirements and allowances of the two cultural/literary traditions.

Time period: 
Friday, September 9, 2016 - 12:33

Shaw is known for witty, talky satires of what was perceived as the results of rapid social change (though what era has not perceived itself as assaulted by rapid social change?) and in particular, shifts in the expectations and perceptions of women's role in society. Although I've often seen Shaw's take spun as progressive and feminist, I've always felt that his female characters who stood up for the ideals of independence and self-determination seem to come in for the sharpest lampooning, and often seem to be the targets of ridicule for those ideals. Not a broad, openly misogynistic ridicule, but more of a smirking "I know what women really want" sort of ridicule.

"You Never Can Tell" features two of these targets: Mrs. Clandon, a feminist writer and single mother who has supported her family with lectures and high-minded educational tracts about how to live a progressive "20th century" life, and her eldest daughter, Gloria, who has grown up believing in those ideals and now finds them challenged by the romantic advances of a suave dentist. The action takes place in a seaside resort (translated, in the Cal Shakes production, to the Santa Cruz boardwalk) with an unexpected encounter with Mrs. Clandon's estranged husband, and the slapstick class-comedy interactions of an overly humble waiter and his upwardly-moble son, a judge.

Shaw has an undeniable way with snappy dialogue and social comedy. The puckish hijinks of Clandon's two young children throw all the other characters off balance to enable the drama. The boundary-transgressive character of the waiter is a showcase for the talents of Cal Shakes' perennial Fool, Danny Scheie (although the more often I see him in this sort of role, the more he always seems to be playing the same character over and over again). But in this day and age, it's very hard to view the dentist's courtship of Gloria as romantic comedy rather than as manipulative gaslighting with no respect for her as a human being of equal significance.

An enjoyable performance from a talented cast and crew, but not a play that strikes me as being of continuing impact and significance (especially in contrast to the previous performance, "Fences"), rather a period piece that must be appreciated "in the context of its time".

Thursday, September 8, 2016 - 13:45

...but a good novel is more like a symphony. Or an opera.

Musical metaphors for story structure have been somewhat on my mind while writing Mother of Souls. One reason, of course, is the centrality of music as a transformative force within the plot. But more than that, I've been thinking about all the different types of emotional structure that can work effectively in a large-scale composition. One of the reasons it's been on my mind has been the suggestion that Mother of Souls needs to come out of the gate with more drama, more peril, more tension.

Starting a symphony off with a bang can work really well. Think about those famous first four notes of Beethoven's 5th symphony. Grabs you, engages you. The piece backs off later only to return for a ringing finale. Another favorite example of mine of starting with a bang is Dvorak's "Carnival Overture". Grabs you and keeps going. I listened to the Carnival Overture a lot while writing the final chapter of Mother of Souls. I wanted the climax of the book to make a reader feel the way I always feel as that piece finishes up.

But not every great piece of music starts with a bang. One beta-reader mentioned that the "Prelude" chapter of Mother of Souls reminded her a bit of the opening of Smetana's "Vltava", which has a similar theme of the sources of a river high in the mountains. There was another example I wanted to include here but although I can hum the piece from memory, I can't for the life of me recall the composer or name! Driving me crazy. Starts really slow, Subtle modulations in the bass. Builds so graduallly you barely notice until it's a pounding crescendo. Argh. If I ID it, I'll link. [ETA: see below]

Anyway. Sometimes you don't start out with cymbals and kettledrums. Sometimes it's cellos and a lonely oboe. You tease a little. Hint. Foreshadow. The kettledrums come out sometime in the second movement just briefly, then go back to counting measures of rest for a while. There's no one true shape for the music. Who wants every symphony to sound the same? Mother of Souls is not Beethoven's Fifth. I thought and thought and it just wouldn't work. But sit back and listen and I promise you, there will by cymbals.

ETA: Found it! I was thinking of the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 7th symphony.

Mother of Souls
Wednesday, September 7, 2016 - 08:00

In chapter 15, Sara (and the reader) enters an emotional roller-coaster of an evening. Fresh from the episode of the fourpence, the hot buns, and the beggar girl, she arrives back at the school only to become the target of secondhand rage. The cook has been berated by Miss Minchin--as we later learn, deservedly so for feeding Miss Minchin’s special dinner to her gentleman friend and then blaming the disappearance on Becky. Shit, as they say, rolls downhill.

We regularly see the question of whether one returns evil for evil or good for evil. When Cook gets crap, she’s the sort to turn around and dump it on someone else: Becky, Sara, anyone who can’t fight back. But that doesn’t mean that every time Sara returns good (or at least good behavior) for evil, that it’s out of pure virtue. Sara can be somewhat agressive in her obedience and passivity. Her internal monologue about how she only puts up with crap "because she’s a princess and that’s what princesses do and wouldn't they all be terrified if they realized she was really a princess and could have them all beheaded" can’t exactly be characterized as meek obedience.

But tonight we see a different view. Having been scolded and refused dinner out of pique, her impulse on finding that Ermengarde has visited her in the attic is to do her utmost to protect her friend from any knowledge of the bad parts of her life. And that, in the face of Ermengarde’s offhand disinterest in things Sara is starving for--both the intellectual nourishment of the gift of books that Ermengarde considers a burden, and the physical nourishment of the “care package” of food that Ermengarde had completely forgotten about.

It isn’t until the two girls eavesdrop on Becky being scolded and slapped up the stairs (due to Cook’s accusation), and Sara explodes in indignation about how hungry Becky always is and yet she’d never steal food, that it finally occurs to Ermengarde that Sara’s thinness is due to actual starvation. Unlike Sara, whose first tangible gifts to Becky are food, Ermengarde hasn’t the imagination to realize Sara might be actually hungry--nor even the reflexive impulse to share her box of food with her best friend, hungry or no.

But Sara, on being offered a share, immediately reqeusts that the invitation be extended to include Becky and then gives back in equal measure by turning what could have been a furtive snack into a dramatic historical pageant.  Both imagination and a few props made from rubbish turn the attic into a castle banquet hall. [*] It occurs to me that one of the reasons for framing the feast as "banquet for a visiting princess" is to remove it from the realm of pure charity. Pretending a castle banquet hall moves the act of nourishment into the realm of make-believe. It allows Sara to give back in equal measure for what she receives. That act simultaneously allows Sara to reject the role of starving beggar (a role we've seen her reject previously in turning the Carmichael boy's sixpence into an amulet rather than spending it on food) and to remove some of Ermengarde's awkwardness in her belated understanding of Sara's situation.

The roller-coaster, having dipped low, now rides high. But the deepest plunge is just about to come...

[*] Periodically, I take note of what might seem trivial implausibilities, such as the question of exactly where Captain Crewe’s fortune came from. One such implausibility is the brief fire that Sara lights in the attic grate to provide the illusion of heat and light. If--as we are told--there has been no fire in that grate for a very long time, the likelihood is low that lighting some trash in it would result in a cheery blaze rather than billowing smoke. Even assuming that the text simply omits the step where Sara opens the damper on the flue (because if there isn’t one, then the attic would be utterly freezing in cold weather), unused chimneys of that era were notorious for collecting birds’ nests and other blockages. You just don’t light a big heap of paper and rubbish in a long disused fireplace and expect success.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016 - 07:00

I’m solidly in the middle of editorial revisions for Mother of Souls. There was a request to up the stakes a bit, so I’m layering in an additional set of magical perils across the board. It’s a bit harder to see if I can find a way to hit the reader with angst and peril at the very start of the novel as requested--it doesn’t really fit the shape I enisioned, which was more of a gradually growing realization that something has gone very wrong with the Alpennian Mysteries. In the end I’ll be true to the story, but I’d like to make my editor happy as well, if I can.

For much of the book, Luzie’s chapters are more contemplative, more about everyday relationships than about The Fate of Alpennia. I set myself several challenges with Luzie but perhaps the most difficult was depicting a woman who had experienced a happy, though tragically brief, heterosexual marriage but now finds herself unexpectedly receptive to a woman’s overtures. This plot thread--just like the peril--builds up slowly over the course of the story. At its heart is a deep loneliness of both body and spirit that we see a glimpse of in this chapter.

(You may notice that last week’s chapter and this week’s are both numbered nine. One of the editorial requests was to not number the “prelude” and “coda” framing chapters, so this is the revised numbering system.)

Chapter 9 - Luzie

Luzie hadn’t expected to return to solitude, but Issibet was still at the opera house sewing room, with the opening coming so soon. Elinur had taken to her bed with a wet cough—she would need to make sure that Silli made up some broth for her. The cough often ran through the city at mid-winter but rarely this badly. The apothecary’s physic was having some effect but perhaps she should send Charluz for a thaumaturgist. No, Charluz was out for the whole day. And there was never any telling when Serafina would come or go. A cough could turn bad so easily. It could… A dull ache began to grow beneath her heart.

The house was still except for the faint pattering of the rain on the windows again and the distant footfalls and clinks of Mefro Alteburk and the maids at their work. Luzie brushed her fingers across the keys of the fortepiano, but she’d lost all chance of denying the date. The tenth of January. Ten years to the day since Henirik’s death on yet another cold, dreary winter day.

Luzie crossed to the secretary desk and fumbled in the back of a drawer until her fingers closed on a small round object. She took it out and sat in a corner of the sofa by the front window, opening the chased cover of the pocket watch and gently touching the dark curl of hair tucked into the case. The timepiece itself had stopped ten years past and she had never re-wound it. Some day she would pass it on to Iohen.

She shut the cover again and closed her fingers around it. No portrait to gaze on. They’d always meant to have their likenesses taken, but time had slipped away. She could still see his hands—the way they drew the watch from his waistcoat pocket and clicked it open, all in a single movement—but his face had faded.

A tear slid down her cheek, then another. She no longer mourned the loss of the man she’d thought to share her life with. Now she mourned the loss of the memory of him. Life had always been as it was now. Alone. Even her sons had been given up to the dreams Henirik had traced for them. Every summer they were more and more strangers. It had seemed so important to hold on to Henirik’s home here—equally important to send the boys to the school he’d chosen. Perhaps it would have been better to remove to Iuten with her parents where she could be near them all. It would have meant giving up teaching music, but she wouldn’t have needed the income.

Luzie wasn’t sure how many hours had passed in reverie when she heard the front door open. Gerta had come in to poke up the fire but had carefully left without speaking. Luzie recognized the soft tap of Serafina’s boots, met by the quicker staccato of Gerta’s steps as she hurried to take her wet coat and parasol. A few indistinct words passed in the entry hall, then Serafina’s face appeared in the doorway. Luzie expected her to withdraw silently. She was grateful when Serafina instead crossed the parlor to sit beside her and take her hand without a word.

Mother of Souls
Monday, September 5, 2016 - 18:20

Having come to the end of a couple months worth of entries that I lined up in anticipation of the August crunch, I wandered into my library and sorted through my more recent acquisitions for something that wouldn't cut too deeply into my novel revision time in the next couple weeks. I confess I picked this volume up in part because one of the papers to be covered is a recapitulation of Sahar Amer's comparison of Arabic and French same-sex marriage motifs in medieval literature. I figured that would be a "quick win" in terms of coverage. But first we have a much more theoretical discussion of the context, history, and complexities of studying the collection's topic in the first place.

Full citation: 

Traub, Valerie. “The Past is a Foreign Country? The Times and Spaces of Islamicate Sexuality Studies” in Babayan, Kathryn and Afsaneh Najmabadi (eds.). 2008. Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-03204-0

Publication summary: 


This collection of papers came out of a workshop that brought together a cross-section of scholars from various disciplines to explore aspects of same-sex practice and desire in the Islamicate world. “Islamicate” is a relatively new term coined (in parallel with “Italianate”) to describe people, cultures, and practices in regions dominated or strongly infuenced by Islam, without the implication that specific individuals are necessarily Muslim or that the cultures and practices are being considered in a religious context or that they represent “Islamic culture” in a definitional sense. The papers in this collection primarily focus on literary representation. There is no implication intended that any one study represents the Islamicate world as a whole, and the variety of representations and practices is emphasized. As is usual with a collection of this type, I have covered only those papers pertaining to women.

Traub, Valerie. 2008. “The Past is a Foreign Country? The Times and Spaces of Islamicate Sexuality Studies”

Traub provides the theoretical groundwork for this collection, reviewing this historic problem of Orientalism and discussing some of the cultural and theoretical baggage brought to the topic by Western scholars. She also identifies the difficulties of studying same-sex practices from an internal point of view within Islamicate cultures, given the (inaccurate) modern perception that same-sex practices represent an intrusion of Western culture.

The collection is positioned as an attempt to create a new field of Islamicate sexuality studies, developed out of dialogues and collaborations that arise from studying social and historic particularities..

The political climate of this field is acknowledged in a discussion of how Western assumptions about the universality of sexual identities and categories, and therefore Western positions regarding the rights that should accrue to those categories, can become a colonialist position that demands alignment with a specifically Western framing of sexual identities. Though at the same time Traub critiques particular expressions of this position as misrepresenting some of the dynamics they critique. In particular, she notes that much recent Western sexuality scholarship emphasizes the cultural construction of identities and the polymorphous nature of desire--elements that align with the anti-colonial study of Islamicate sexuality.

Nonetheless, there is a stongly valid critique that Western sexuality studies assume a teleological and evolutionary progress that culminates in the “enlightened” modern concept of sexual identity (and that distinguishes concepts of sexual desire and gender identity). This assumption necessarily positions non-Western conceptions of sexuality as pre-modern and unenlighted.

Traub discusses in detail previous studies and collections on the topic, as well as the parallel concerns of historiographic colonialism in other fields and around other topics. There is a discussion and review of the texts that fall within the scope of this volume’s research. And as is usual in this sort of introductory chapter, Traub provides a brief summary and context for the papers to come. The discussions are fascinating but hard to summarize here.


Friday, September 2, 2016 - 08:00

The Emperor's Agent was part of the Historic Fantasy StoryBundle book promotion I recently participated in. It is both an alternate history Napoleonic spy adventure and part of a larger millennium-spanning series about a group of Companions who are reborn together again and again to re-live their fellowship at key points in history. At least, that's the understanding I was able to pick up from this book and a blurb-level familiarity with the rest of the series.

Elza, the protagonist, is a courtesan, working her way through several personal alliances among the movers and shakers of revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and cast into considerable personal peril by the shifting politics of the time. Employed as an agent by one party, she betrays her employer at great risk for the sake of personal loyalty to the Empress Josephine and so comes to the attention of Napoleon who takes her on as his own agent. Among preparations for an invasion of England, she hunts for a spy who is leaking secrets to the English as well as getting drawn into an entirely different international struggle involving ceremonial magic.

The writing is enjoyable and smooth, and--to someone like me who is generally familiar with the era but not with the details--has a solid air of historicity. Despite the fantastic elements, this story will appeal most to those who love the minutiae of armies and battles and the comradeship of soldiers. The central plot seems to me to be the military drama and the question of whether the spy will be uncovered in time--as well as whether the identity of that spy will be unwelcome evidence of personal betrayal. If you thrill to the thought of a chapter describing Napoleon's elite staff playing table-top battle simulations complete with mini-figs and dice rolling, this is your book. Around that, we get the domestic drama of Elza's past affairs (both in this life and previous lives) with some of her military comrades, spiced up with several explicit erotic enounters.

This last element positions the book for a fairly specific target audience. To me, the erotic scenes felt forced and intrusive, but I'm not really in that specific target audience. Another way in which the story missed for me (and this is very much a matter of individual personal taste) was that, despite the focus on a female protagonist, it was very much a male-centered story. I'm not even sure it managed to pass the Bechdel-Wallace test: the only two scenes in which Elza is interacting with other significant female characters are entirely about romatic connections to male characters and the complications thereof. For the most part, other female characters are positioned as rivals or obstacles, not as friends or allies. Overwhelmingly, the social dynamics of the book are about Elza's comradeship with the male characters, whether as a lover, or as a comrade-in-arms, or taking up a male disguise to be a man among men. (This is echoed in some of the hints of past lives when she had been born into a male body.) Having the authorial word that Elza is bisexual, I'd gone into the story expecting a bit more female presence. (I don't mean by this to erase her bisexuality. Only to note that one passing, vaguely-salacious comment to a woman didn't fulfill my own emotional needs as a reader.) Though I suppose, when you think of it, that there's a certain bisexual element in that Elza has erotic encounters with men both as a woman and when in disguise as a man.

I don't mean to dwell too heavily on the sexual content of the book, but as a reader's advisory if falls in the category of, "If you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of think you may like."


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