BOOK REVIEW: THE STARS UNDYING by EMERY ROBIN


“In the first year of the Thirty-Third Dynasty, when He came to the planet where I was born and made of it a wasteland for glory’s sake, my ten-times-great-grandfather’s king and lover, Alekso Undying, built on the ruins of the gods who had lived before Him Alectelo, the City of Endless Pearl, the Bride of Szayet, the Star of the Swordbelt Arm, the Ever-Living God’s Empty Grave.

He caught fever and filled that grave, ten months later. You can’t believe in names.

The Stars Undying is, among other things, about a pearl, or, I should say, the Pearl, a computer that contains the immortal soul of Alekso Undying, and that makes its wearer his prophet and the Oracle of Szayet. I start with this because as a novel, The Stars Undying feels to me much like the pearl around which so much of its story revolves. For one, this novel is a thing of beauty: it is the product of brilliant work, and I know this because it is apparent on every page. The writing is polished, poised, elegant; it has a kind of classic quality to it that makes it feel at once historical and timeless. More to the point, it’s genuinely some of the most impressive writing I’ve encountered in an SFF novel in recent memory.

Polished and elegant it may be, but The Stars Undying is, also like its Pearl, far from simple or straightforward. It gives with one hand and withholds with the other; gives under the guise of withholding, or else withholds under the guise of giving. It’s a novel that doesn’t tip its hand–not for the sake of some kind of contrived suspense, but because of the very nature of its world, and of the kind of story that’s being told in that world. That is, if the novel doesn’t tip its hand, it’s because its characters don’t. What they say and do is subject to the ever-present power dynamics of their world, to the way power–of the person, of the ideology, of the empire–warps everything around it so that what might have been direct becomes circuitous, so that characters have to tread carefully, and so that we have to read their silences as carefully as their utterances. And this power operates within as much as it does without: caught in these webs of power, the characters are not any less complex to themselves as they are to us.

“It has been a long time since that night, when I lay in the dark between Matheus Ceirran and the image of my god. I have thought of it often since, trying to make sense of it, of how vividly it stands out in my recollection. As I am telling these memories to you, I am turning them over in my hands, I am holding them up to the light. It is in memory that I am trying to find some kind of truth, if truth is anywhere to be found.”

All of this is to say, The Stars Undying is a book that, like its Pearl, is comprised of many accounts: Gracia’s, Ceirran’s, Anita’s–its three principal characters–but also Szayet’s and Ciao’s accounts, the accounts of empire and all the history and storytelling that is attendant to it. It’s an incredibly multilayered and rich novel, and the way it slowly and intentionally develops those layers is just exquisite (in the moment, but also, and perhaps especially, in retrospect). The word I keep reaching for here is simmering: there is so much bubbling beneath the surface of this story, some of which breaks its surface by the end, and some of which remains buried, subtext left to carefully put together based on what we know of these characters and their dynamics.

What I love most about this novel is, simply, how much it trusts its reader. There were so many points while reading it that I wanted something–a feeling, a suspicion, a thought–to be made explicit, to be specifically explained and justified–but that’s not what I got, and I loved it. I loved that this book didn’t give me what I wanted, but made me work for it. The Stars Undying is a novel that develops its characters–and, by extension, lets you work to decode them–by way of conversations. And there are some truly stunning scenes here: complex and thorny and compelling moments between these characters, all of whom are already fleshed out and alive in their own right. (Ceirran and Gracia? Endlessly fascinating. Gracia and Anita? ELECTRIC. Ceirran and Anita? So surprising.) You know these characters, but you do not quite grasp them; they are many things, but they are not reducible to any one thing. And that is such a feat on Emery Robin’s part: to craft characters who both reward and repel your efforts to know them, who are always both familiar and strange. Needless to say, I was utterly drawn in.

All this, and I haven’t even touched on the worldbuilding yet, which is remarkable and everything you could ever want in an SFF novel, really. What stands out in particular is the sheer level of detail that animates this world. Szayet and Ceiao are suffused with so much life: they come with their own–sometimes distinct, sometimes overlapping–histories, cultures, ideologies, religions (or lack thereof), architecture, geographies, resources, languages. And it’s not just that you know them, it’s that you understand why they are the way that they are: the histories that animate their ideologies, the geographies that shape their economies, the sociopolitics that govern, and justify, the power they wield and the power they seek.

(And I haven’t even mentioned the whole Cleopatra-and-Julius-Caesar retelling aspect of this because I only know the barest of barebones about that history and so can’t really speak to how it was incorporated into the novel. But if this book is incredible without me knowing anything about what it’s retelling then I can only imagine how good it is when you’re actually familiar with its historical basis–which I am definitely planning on brushing up on when I reread this.)

I honestly don’t know what else I can say about this book: The Stars Undying is a singular novel, and I absolutely adored it. I was already 100% going to read its sequel, but god, after that brilliant ending, nothing can come between me and that second book.

Thank you so much to Orbit for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!


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BOOK REVIEW: TRESPASSES by LOUISE KENNEDY

Trespasses is a book that, quite simply, does not fuck around. It’s such a taut novel, vibrating with tension, and yet so controlled and precise in the way that it manages that tension. Its strength lies as much in what it says as what it doesn’t; Kennedy knows when to give and when to withhold, and this makes for such striking, resonant narrative moments. (There’s this small moment in the last chapter of the book that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about; not gonna lie I get emotional every time I think about it.) A character will say or do something that seems significant–a line, a reaction, a gesture–and then the chapter will just end, or the scene will just move on. It’s tantalizing, yes, but not needlessly so; that it withholds is as much a narrative choice as it is a product of the sociopolitical conditions of the setting that grounds that narrative. It’s a novel that leaves spaces for the unsaid, and that is in fact what it is all about: tensions–sectarian, familial, romantic–that the characters have to navigate largely by way of the unsaid: through subtext, through intimation, through looks or gestures that speak for them when they can’t speak for themselves, or else can’t say what they want to.

“It’s a piece of sculpture, made of resin, fabric, glass fibre. A white figure on a plinth, chalky, sarcophagal, a shrouded look about the face, features indistinct. The body is oddly sexless, though it is male; there is breadth in the torso bulk at the chest. From the waist up he looks peaceful, sleeping head resting near the bend of an arm. There is something not right about the pose, though; his limbs are splayed awkwardly, have not been arranged. [. . .]

The detail is intimate, accurate, even, almost as if the cast had been moulded over his body. The neat ball of fat in his middle. The slight raise of his right shoulder. A doughiness about the jaw. She looks at his face, afraid she will see fear or pain, but he looks just as he did when he was sleeping.”

Trespasses is set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and it does not budge an inch when it comes to its depiction of life during that time. There is the fear, the violence, the animosity, but there is also the way in which those things have become not ordinary, exactly, but subsumed into the everyday. Some chapters will begin by just reeling off a staccato, almost casual list of recent atrocities–shootings, bombs, deaths. We also see this in other chapters where Cushla, a teacher, reflects on the way her seven-year-old students have accepted these atrocities as part of the way things are.

“Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelginite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a seven-year-old child now.”

But Trespasses is also about a romance, an affair between Cushla and Michael, a married man and a lawyer. Novels about star-crossed affairs are a dime a dozen, but the way Kennedy evokes the relationship between these two here is distinct and memorable, all the more so because it is so carefully rendered. Theirs is a complicated relationship, to say the least: there’s a lot that they don’t know about each other, and their differences–religious, class, age–are significant and consequential. Romance it is, but romanticized it most certainly is not. And yet despite all of this, I was deeply invested in Cushla and Michael’s relationship; it felt believable, not uncomplicated but still evidently and poignantly founded on something real and meaningful to these characters. We get to see their dynamic develop through key scenes–an encounter at a bar, a dinner party, a trip–snapshots that are not long or especially detailed, but that manage to be incredibly evocative of the kind of people these characters are, and of the way that they relate to each other. (I especially loved Cushla: her self-awareness, her emotional sensitivity, her dry sense of humour. She could’ve so easily been a standard Disaster Woman Protagonist, but she thankfully wasn’t.) And again, that give and take that Kennedy is so good at: you get to know these characters, but you also come to understand that you don’t have full access to them (nor will you ever). You don’t get comprehensive backstories or uninhibited self-disclosures, you just get bits and pieces here and there. It’s a real testament to Kennedy’s skill as a writer, then, that those “bits and pieces” feel and are substantial; rather than make her characters distant or inscrutable, they make them interesting. All of this is to say, this is not a sentimental novel, and it is precisely this fact that makes it so compelling. Rather than colour in all the details, it gives you the kind of sharp, precise images that, in the end, create an impression that is all the stronger for its restraint.

Trespasses begins and ends with a chapter set in 2015, and it is these two chapters that, I think, best sum up the character of this novel–most of all, the way it is both about the tender intimacy and the blunt violence, those two things skillfully and movingly woven into each other in Kennedy’s hands.


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BOOK REVIEW: IF AN EGYPTIAN CANNOT SPEAK ENGLISH by NOOR NAGA


If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English | Graywolf Press

“There’s a danger between us, but I’m not always sure who it belongs to. Which of us needs protection and which of us should be afraid?”

If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English is a novel about an abusive relationship, and a novel about power. Its story is unrelenting in its depiction of the push and pull of power, the ways in which its characters are alternately powerful and powerless, at times wielding power and at others being subjected to it. At its heart it’s a deeply ambivalent novel, not in the sense that it tries to make gray what is black and white, but rather that it is interested in interrogating the dynamics of those gray areas: how things can seem black one way and then white the next, how you can have power in one moment then be robbed of it in the next.

And this grayness of power is explored in so many ways, all intertwined and complex and hard to disentangle from each other. There is the power of nationality, of class, of gender, of culture. The protagonist comes from an Egyptian background, but she is American: as a foreigner in Egypt, she wields power and status, but because she is a foreigner, lacking the know-how to navigate Egypt, she is very much vulnerable–doubly so because she is a woman.

“I tried to tell a taxi driver I wanted to get off on the west side of Zamalek, and it was like he’d never heard of west. No one uses the cardinal points for directions. The Dokki side? he asked and I wasn’t sure, couldn’t say. The maps are all wrong. Where the roads are numbered (rarely), they are not ordered consecutively, and when they are named, no one uses those names. The landmarks are arbitrary—a discontinued post office, a banana-seller. The bridges are referred to by dates. I’ll take the 26th of July to Zamalek and then you point where you want to get off, the driver says politely. It’s as though the city were deliberately designed to resist comprehension and to discipline those who left for daring to return. You have either lived here and you know, or you never have and never will.”

Enter the man the protagonist becomes involved with: an Egyptian, born in a village called Shobrakheit, and now living in Cairo. Unlike the protagonist, he is poor–homeless at one point in the novel–and struggling with a drug addiction. But he also has a kind of power that the protagonist lacks: he is a man, and he knows Cairo well, knows its geography and history and culture in a way that she cannot–and, in many ways, can never–access.

When these two characters come together, these power dynamics come to the fore, and it is just so damn interesting. Just as the American protagonist others the Egyptian man, he also others her in turn. Their relationship is always precarious, balanced on a knife’s edge. And the novel is not so much interested in shrugging off responsibility by depicting both parties as equally guilty, but rather in interrogating the very specific ways in which harm is inflicted, and the particular ways in which it manifests.

That being said, I don’t want to give the impression that these characters are depicted flatly or stereotypically: the protagonist is more than just The Ignorant Westerner, and the man she is involved with is not just The Poor Egyptian. Those ideas are very much interrogated in the novel, and each character grapples with how they may or may not be seen in that way by the other.

“I swear this isn’t who I am. I’m not a violent person, but there is a violence that moves through you like a live current when you hate what someone has made you become. I feel estranged from myself the longer I am with her, made criminal solely because she is afraid, made pathetic because she pities me—a poor boy though I never was.”

And whether about the relationship or not, there are so many insightful and incisive moments in this novel. I highlighted a lot, and found a lot that was both familiar and new to me. Here’s an especially memorable passage,

“I resent [my father] because I recognize him. This desperation to refashion ourselves into the most pleasing form makes fools of us both. We’re pliable and capricious, shed our skin at the slightest threat, and ultimately stick out everywhere we go. We were both more convincing Egyptians in New York than we’d ever be on this side of the Atlantic. There I had enough Arabic to flirt with the Halal Guys and the Yemenis at my deli. At school, identity was simple: my name etched in hieroglyphics on a silver cartouche at my throat. I could say, Back home, we do it like this, pat our bread flat and round, never having patted bread flat or otherwise. But here I keep saying I’m Egyptian and no one believes me. I’m the other kind of other, someone come from abroad who could just as easily return there.”

I don’t want to give too much away, but this is the kind of novel that works only if you read it from start to finish. What it sets out to do in its beginning it clinches by its end, and honestly, I was really impressed. I was ready to give this novel a 3 stars and move on, under the impression that I understood what kind of novel it was and knew exactly what I didn’t like about it–and then it did something I wasn’t expecting: it surprised me. And it surprised me in a way that made me reevaluate everything I’d just read.

If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English was a novel that I didn’t think I loved, but then it surprised me, challenged me, demanded that I actively be a part of its narrative. And in doing all of that, impressed me. It’s one of those rare novels that’s interesting in the true sense of the word: filled with the kinds of details and complexities that always draw your interest, even (and especially) if they are not immediately or entirely transparent to you.

Thank you so much to Graywolf Press for sending me a review copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review!


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