Love in the Time of Starships: The Long Look Back and the Promise of the New (Kate Elliott, E. E. Ottoman)

Note: This review is based on pre-publication review copies from the publishers via NetGalley. Publishers linked below are thanked for these free review copies.

Additional process notes
: This was my first time reviewing pre-publication copies, which was interesting in itself as a peek behind the curtain. The state of an uncorrected galley, while sufficient to give pleasure to a reader, gave my editor-brain serious respect (once more) for the effort that goes into transforming a writer’s manuscript into a paper or electronic book that gives a transparent, glitch-free experience of reading. Hats off once more to the craftspeople behind the scene whose labors make writers, cover artists, and designers look their best.

***

I always read books in pairs or larger groups, which raises interesting questions about genre, scale, and particular writers’ obsessions. Comparative reading also makes me think about my own journey as a writer (for “writer” translation for “story-lover who has enjoyed the ride and now gets into the driver’s seat”).

The writers whose new work I’m reviewing here are separated by a generation. Kate Elliott’s published work, at the scale of the novel and the novel-cycle, extends back over two decades. In genre terms, she’s working the broad territory of SF/F in all its aspects, having had ample time and space in which to range abroad. I’ve had some interesting and thought-provoking exchanges on Twitter, at least two of which have prompted blog posts as yet in draft.

E. E. Ottoman is an early-career writer working in queer romance with SF/F settings. We became acquainted on Twitter due to common interest in writing stories in which it’s not just one kind of people who get a happy ending. Ottoman’s work is on a smaller scale, from novella to short novel length, and the Mechanical Universe stories, of which the newly released ‘Winter’s Bees’ is one, works an aristocratic rococco-steampunk milieu inspired by seventeenth and eighteenth century France.

***

Kate Elliott is one of the writers who has induced me to check out epic fantasy after being turned off to it by the Tolkien clones of the 1970s and their hyperviolent ‘grimdark’ successors. (I’m sufficiently well read in history, and personally acquainted with families whose lives were disrupted by large-scale violence, to have zero interest in violence as entertainment). Thus far, I’ve read Cold Magic, the first volume of her Spiritwalker trilogy, and have purchased the next two volumes.

Other reviewers of  The Very Best of Kate Elliott have discussed the relative merits of the stories based in one of her novel-cycle universes and those which stand alone. As a reader not previously acquainted with most of those universes, the stories all invite me into their world. Both science-fiction and fantasy tales are included here, which made me think about the basic similarities in the thought-experiments made possible by science-fictional or fantastical stories:

  • Magic and technology both change the possibilities open to human beings (or other sentient creatures).
  • Kinship systems, cultural frameworks, environment and our responses to it, provide additional constraints and possibilities, whether it’s in a landscape of magical technology or a far-future with technical wizardry.
  • Wherever there’s work to be done, someone must do it. Elliott’s great strength as a storyteller is in thinking about the labor that sustains her imagined worlds, and the dangers faced by those who do it. That includes the invisible work of building community, protecting and educating children, and maintaining the physical systems that ensure health.
  • The landscape/environment is alive, and depending on circumstances it can be friend, ally, enemy, or each by turns. Elliott’s landscapes are alive; when I’m reading these stories, I’m paying as much attention to the non-human signals in the background as the dialogue and actions of the characters.

I did not see a difference in my reading experience between the stories set in universes I hadn’t read and the stand-alone stories. For the story ‘To Be a Man’ set in the Spiritwalker universe, I could feel the connections to a larger arc, and my experience of the story was the richer for it.

Even for the grimmest of the stories (‘The Gates of Joriun’) I finished the tale wanting more — more of the character’s story, more of the world — so for those who do not know Elliott’s ouevre (yet) I would say that each and every tale invites you into a larger world.

Not to mention riffs on the works of the glorious dead: ‘Sunseeker’ riffs on the Count of Monte Cristo as an engineer & grandma on the run, and I’ll say this is the one character I really want more of. There cannot be enough geek-grandma revenge tales for my taste.

As a serious student of history, the siege tale ‘The Memory of Peace’ played out in fantastical form the feel of warfare POV the civilians caught in the crossfire. Battle scenes might look interesting from the air (as in the bigger-by-two-orders-of-magnitude-each-film ‘epic struggles’ of the Lord of the Rings films) but on the ground they’re ugly, muddy, and unglamorous.

The coming-of-age tale ‘Making the World Live Again’ features a girl whose mettle as prospective priest/astronomer is judged not by the quality of her answers, but her questions. It’s set ‘long ago and far away’ but reminds us that questions, observation, and intergenerational dialogue are the true human tools. Wherever we live on earth, whoever our people(s), our ancestors were not stupid. Sensory detail serves to remind us that they lived in a real world as full of danger and promise as our own.

***

E. E. Ottoman’s Winter’s Bees is a romance in a rococco-steampunk world with a strong French flavor as well as indications of cultural exchange with civilizations to the south and east. As a writer, I share Ottoman’s dissatisfaction with romance whose leads are conventionally pretty and gender-conforming people.

Winter’s Bees could be described as a chamber piece; it takes place in a series of well-decorated interiors, with garden excursions. One thing I noticed as the story progressed was that the settings opened out from royal ballrooms and reception rooms (Gilbert, one of the romantic principals, is the youngest child of the emperor) bounded by strict rules of protocol, to a mansion in the quiet of the countryside, well-appointed in so far as it boasts library and study facilities, splendid gardens, and an apiary for Gilbert’s beloved bees.

Our author, as a self-described dandy, includes brief but luscious descriptions of court-costumes, but however much they might enjoy personal adornment, the characters’ true passions lies in the intellectual interests of the principals. Scholar-prince Gilbert is an entomologist who keeps hissing cockroaches as pets; his opposite number, Marcel, the adopted son of an aristocratic magistrate, follows his interest in mathematics rather than his mother’s interest in the law.

Ottoman plays some interesting games with our gender and cultural expectations of a pseudo-European setting. Gilbert’s siblings include an older sister who’s a general. The royal architects are identifiably South Asian by surname and description. Marcel is a dark-skinned adoptee born without a left arm. No one particularly remarks on his skin color or his disability, and he’s considered very handsome.

Ottoman has taken the seventeenth-to-eighteenth-century French setting that (via Perrault) we have come to think of as “fairy-tale” and played about with it to subversive effect. (Disney’s Cinderella, in both costume and plot particulars, derives from Perrault’s courtly version, along with the famous ‘glass slipper’ created by a translation error.)

So, to the story: Marcel is just returning from a scholarly sojourn at the center of mathematical studies, clearly sited in an alternate-universe Islamic world–not unusual at all in the scholarly world of the European middle ages, when Arabic translations and extensions of Greek mathematics and philosophy were filtering into European thought by way of centers such as Padua.

The romance plot centers around an arranged marriage between childhood friends Gilbert and Marcel. Marcel has actually carried a torch for his friend since their teens, but Gilbert doesn’t know. While Marcel was away, Gilbert had an unhappy first love affair with his sister’s handsome aide-de-camp, a social climber and philanderer. Now they’re thrown together by reasons of state, and have to figure out their actual relationship. Oh yes, and for another touch of conflict, Gilbert loves bugs and Marcel is afraid of (some of) them.

The mannered and well-decorated stage setting would lead us to expect an equally decorative romp, but Ottoman’s characters move through it with emotional realism (Gilbert describing the ceremony of the marriage contract as “romantic as a treaty signing”). Each young man worries about what the other thinks. The alternating viewpoint lays bare what each isn’t saying, and their respective memories of the same events. There are knives, too, behind the brocaded curtains; Gilbert suppresses certain details of the bad behavior of his sister’s aide-de-camp, so that she’ll merely post him to the back of beyond rather than having him killed outright.

The conflict is the common struggle toward trust, and the negotiation of the actual contract of the relationship. The arranged marriage is a business arrangement between two families to consolidate power and wealth via the kinship network. Behind the scenes, the newlyweds have to decide for themselves whether they’re friends, monogamous or polyamorous lovers, and/or scholarly companions. The delight of this story is watching the different layers unfold, and seeing each character as they see themselves and then as they are seen through the alchemy of friendship and attraction. Gilbert is a round-faced young man nicknamed ‘the frog prince’ by his brothers; Marcel, handsome and dandyfied, applies his dress sense to the coordination of his prosthetic arm, cane, and ensemble.

There’s a lovely interplay between stylized public performance and awkward private expression of real feeling, between emotional yearning and erotic fantasy (which don’t always play nice together), the link between laughter and attraction, and the lovely ease we feel in the company of the friends who know us. For a volume this slim, Winter’s Bees has a rich emotional palette and a good command of its implied ensemble (we even get a glimpse of the leading couple of A Matter of Disagreement, now happily settled into a relationship that puzzles everyone but themselves.)

***

So why am I reviewing a retrospective exhibition of epic fantasy and science fiction alongside a chamber-piece of a romance? Most simply: because I wanted to read both books; also, both Elliott and Ottoman are exploring new territory in what some would call old or even played-out forms. Epic fantasy doesn’t have to mean stories centered on male aristocrats with world-historical missions, nor does romance have to turn on pretty people having manufactured drama and sexual contact only with dubious consent. The deft use of sensory detail gives Elliott’s stories the sense of windows onto a dazzling multiplicity of real worlds, as choice of detail both creates and subverts the decorative surface in Ottoman’s courtly setting.

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2 Responses to Love in the Time of Starships: The Long Look Back and the Promise of the New (Kate Elliott, E. E. Ottoman)

  1. Pingback: The Muse of Research: Interview with Kate Elliott | E. P. Beaumont

  2. Pingback: The Big Narratives Stand Atop Those Lives (Worldbuilding Wednesday 9) | I Make Up Worlds

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