Recent reads: Swamplandia!, All You Need is Kill, Alcestis

Swamplandia! makes me want to tag on two extra rows of !!!! for its trouble. It’s got what I like to call gravitational prose, which I’m all for, and the fictional book The Spiritualist’s Telegraph within the book is… okay, the fictional book-within-the-book is more interesting than the actual events of Swamplandia!

Ossie said a spirit’s voice was as fine as a needle, tattooing her insides with luminous words. I’d seen a picture of this in The Spiritist’s Telegraph. A young Spiritist levitated a full foot above her bedsprings. A ghost was curled like a blue snail inside her chest, and it was so tiny! It burned through the lace of her old-fashioned dress like a second heart. A musical staff wound in a thorny crown around the Spiritist’s forehead, so that notes ran down her cheeks in a loose mask of song. Her eyelids were blacked out—and I saw this again and again in nightmares about my sister. Her eyelids had the high polish of acorns. But her ears: that was the truly scary part. Great fantails of indigo and violet lights spiraled into her earlobes in an ethereal funnel—what the book called the Inverted Borealis. The caption read: “A ghost sings its way deeply inside the Spiritist.”


Meantime the actual narrative reality of the novel plays with being maybe-maybe-not magic realist, though it’s fairly obvious from the start that there’s nothing supernatural at play, not really – although what was up with the ridiculous series of coincidences around Kiwi? I kept expecting it to be some sort of setup, but there’s no payoff; he’s a recipient of incredible fortune, fame, and swoops in at the end to rescue his sisters… and that is it. The rape doesn’t bother me, in and of itself, but the huge gulf between Kiwi’s and Ava’s arcs highlight that a girl alone will always be at the mercy of sexual threat but a boy never. There’s something flattening about much of it and, despite the book’s sheer page count, I don’t think Ava ever comes into her own – even Ossie feels more substantial, somehow.

Also Disney World is evil incarnate, apparently.

A brilliant sun traced crisp shadows on the ground. The air was so clean you could have gotten a clear sniper shot from kilometers away. Above the field, the 17th Company’s flag snapped in a moist southerly breeze blowing off the Pacific.

The sea air held a scent that snaked its way down your nose and tickled your tongue on its way to your throat. Rita knitted her brow. It wasn’t the stench of a Mimic. More like the slightly fishy fragrance you got from those bowls of nuoc mam sauce.

All You Need is Kill is a light read, but absolutely fun. Some translations from Japanese prose to English fare very badly, but this isn’t one of them. It moves along competently and speedily – it’s a slight book, but books really don’t have to be the size of The Goldfinch. Smooth military SF that’s both restrained and over-the-top at once, with just the slightest touch of geopolitical slyness. Think of it as a counterpoint to Pacific Rim.

(I haven’t watched the movie.)

The head maid led us bleary eyed to the hearth, stepping over slaves sleeping in the halls. We stumbled down the stairs and past our father’s empty throne. In the kitchens the head maid boiled water so Hippothoe could breathe the steam and rubbed cut garlic under her nose as she gasped and coughed. The air grew thick and my shift clung to my body, clammy with steam and fear. The head maid and I prayed to Apollo, running through the chant we said so often that I worried the god would tire of our entreaties. I believed then that he listened to me when I prayed. I imagined him stealing silently among us, reaching out to touch Hippothoe’s chest with one golden-glowing hand, calming her, fixing her. I held my breath when Hippothoe choked and let it out only when her wheezing smoothed and slowed.

Alcestis is fabulous. It reminds me a lot of Nicola Griffith’s Hild in that it dedicates a lot of its attention to the domestic, to women’s work, and secondly it treats bisexuality as the norm in mythical Greek. More overtly fantastic than Hild (this takes place in a retelling where the underworld is real and so are Olympians), Alcestis is afforded less ability to affect her own fate than Hild, but there’s a similarity in tone and content that makes me suspect readers who liked one will probably like the other. The pacing gets somewhat unsteady toward the end, but taken as a whole this is a pretty fantastic book. Recommended, easily.