Growing Down With Harry: Why The Harry Potter Books Became a Moral Sinkhole

Snape’s Worst Memory, from the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix film

In Harry Potter’s third year at Hogwarts, his nasty, bullying Potions master, Severus Snape, tells him openly for the first time how much he hated Harry’s dead father, James: ‘He, too, was exceedingly arrogant… Strutting around the place with his friends and admirers… the resemblance between you is uncanny.’ This comes as no surprise to Harry, who has been told long ago that Snape has it in for him because of his dislike of James. However, even though he knows virtually nothing about his father, he’s certain that Snape is recounting his own twisted version of events: ‘My dad didn’t strut. And nor do I.’ This recurrent narrative throughout the first four Harry Potter books makes the revelation in the fifth into one of the most unforgettable chapters in the series. Through a magical device called a Pensieve, Harry witnesses an uncensored version of Snape’s ‘worst memory’ – a version that, unlike Snape’s earlier accusations, he can’t write off as hopelessly biased, because it plays like a videotape. Snape’s worst memory shows a fifteen-year-old Snape being tormented by James in an exceptionally cold and vicious manner. James taunts an unarmed Snape, hexes him, then hangs him upside down (to add insult to injury, using what we later find out is a spell Snape invented), flashing his underwear to watching crowds; finally, he threatens to strip him. James isn’t motivated by anything much in attacking Snape in this way; he does it because he’s bored, because he can, and because he wants to show off to some admiring girls, including Harry’s mother, Lily.

Harry is deeply disturbed by witnessing Snape’s worst memory. It never occurs to him to try and make excuses for his father. Indeed, his instant reaction is: ‘he knew how it felt to be humiliated in the middle of a circle of onlookers, knew exactly how Snape had felt as his father had taunted him, and that judging from what he had just seen, his father had been every bit as arrogant as Snape had always told him.’ Harry seeks an explanation for what he’s seen from his father’s two best friends, Remus and Sirius. Neither understands Harry’s shock and horror. Indeed, they are happy to explain away James’s actions by claiming that this was a relationship of equal enemies, not of bully/victim, and that James had right on his side: ‘James and Snape hated each other from the moment they set eyes on each other… Snape was just this little oddball who was up to his eyes in the Dark Arts, and James… always hated the Dark Arts.’ They suggest that James was being ‘an idiot’ because he was ‘only fifteen’ (ignoring Harry’s fair retort, ‘I’m fifteen!’). Nevertheless, Harry continues to feel uneasy; this question about his father’s character is never resolved, even though the narrative itself quickly forgets it.

Snape’s worst memory is the only significant moment in the Harry Potter series where the bully is allowed to be a character whom we know to be on the Good side, and the victim a character who (at the time) was on the Bad side, which is another reason why it is so memorable. Throughout the rest of the books, only Bad characters are called out for their bullying behaviour. If you’re Good, you can get away with anything. For brevity, I’ll focus on one extreme example; the Weasley twins, Fred and George, brothers of Harry’s best friend Ron. The Twins are portrayed through the books as Good characters, culminating in Fred’s heroic death in book seven; they are also sadistic, cruel and at time, borderline psychopathic.

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The Twins are a lot nicer in the movies than they are in the books!

The Twins do too many horrible things for me to list them all, but they are consistently depicted picking on those younger and smaller than themselves, usually, but not always, members of their own family. The most persistent victim is Ron. The Twins start with childhood ‘pranks’ (they give him an Acid Pop that burns a hole through his tongue, and try to get him to make an Unbreakable Vow that would probably have killed him) and continue into adolescence; they destroy his confidence when he becomes part of the Gryffindor Quidditch team so thoroughly that he can’t play properly until they’ve left the school. Their position as classic bullies who always ‘punch down’ is summed up by a conversation in book six, where Ron admits anxiously that ‘I’d better pass my [Apparition] test first time… Fred and George did.’ His older brother Charlie failed, but ‘Charlie’s bigger than me… so Fred and George didn’t go on about it much.’ While their younger sister Ginny learns to stand up for herself later in the series, they target her when she’s still a shy, nervous eleven-year-old: in book two, they think it’s funny that she’s scared of Slytherin’s monster stalking the castle (after the monster has already almost killed a fellow student who sits next to her in one of her classes) so they ‘[take] it in turns to cover themselves in fur or boils and jump out at her from behind statues’ and only stop when their older brother tells them to knock it off because Ginny is having nightmares.

Reflecting on Snape’s worst memory, Harry compares his father’s behaviour to that of the Twins, and thinks that he ‘could not imagine Fred and George dangling someone upside-down for the fun of it.’ This positions the Twins as harmless pranksters and James as an exceptional bully. However, even though the intention of this paragraph is clearly meant to underline how bad James’s behaviour is, Rowling can’t quite stop there; Harry goes on to think, ‘not unless [the Twins] really loathed them… perhaps Malfoy, or somebody who really deserved it…’ Here, in a nutshell, is the moral sinkhole at the heart of the Harry Potter series. We know, by book five, that the Twins do things that are this bad all the time. As it happens, they bully people that Harry knows and likes, so even this doesn’t quite work out, but Harry admits here that this behaviour would be OK as long as it’s directed towards somebody who really deserved it. Unfortunately, in the world of Harry Potter, you ‘deserve it’ if you are Bad, and you are Bad because you deserve it. The Twins are Good, so they can’t be bullies, no matter how they treat other people.

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The films somewhat inexplicably save any remembered interactions between young!Snape and young!Lily for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II.

As an aside: I’ve been thinking about why Snape’s worst memory shows James as so cruel, when it sits so uneasily with the rest of the text, and when Rowling clearly isn’t interested in exploring the long-term ramifications of Harry’s discovery. By book six, James is Good again. The answer, I think, is that Rowling is, as ever, focused on plotting. Snape’s worst memory exists in the text as a clue, as something we can go back to when we discover, in book seven, that Snape Loved Lily. It’s not really meant to upturn everything Harry knows about his father. Snape’s worst memory is Snape’s worst memory because he argued with Lily and lost her friendship, not because of James’s bullying. Of course, what we also have to take away is that, for Snape, being humiliated, hexed and stripped in front of the school wasn’t the worst of his memories, because it simply happened too often.

Better essayists than me have pointed out that the morality of Harry Potter is shot, so I won’t dwell on that issue here, but I’d like to discuss one of the reasons why. Rowling has frequently said that she wanted the series to ‘grow up with Harry’ and get darker as it went along. The series’ morality becomes much more simplistic in books six and seven, so it certainly doesn’t become more morally serious (which for me, is really the only relevant meaning of ‘growing up with the reader’). However, I’d agree that, from books three/four onwards, the series takes violence, suffering and death more seriously as Harry encounters it head-on. Unfortunately, this means that re-reading the early books can feel very tonally jarring, because the cartoon, schoolboy violence that Harry encounters in books one and two suddenly feels much more serious than it was meant to be. (The Acid Pop incident that I mentioned above, for example, is framed as a joke in book two, and in the context of that book, doesn’t feel so horrific.) The problem is compounded by the fact that characters like Fred and George – who are fun and even caring in book one – fail to ‘grow up’ with the series, and so seem increasingly sinister by the later books, because they’re doing things that might make sense in a certain kind of children’s literature, but now the stakes are raised, they look like villains. Snape’s worst memory is a pivot on which the series could have turned; instead, Rowling doubled down on her original plan for the last two books, cut off all the interesting offshoots that were sprouting from book five, and delivered a miserably bad ending.

Interview With Natasha Pulley

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed the speculative historical fiction writer Natasha Pulley for Newcastle’s Centre for the Literary Arts (NCLA). The video of this interview is now up on YouTube:

Natasha has written four novels to date – The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, The Bedlam Stacks, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, and The Kingdoms – all of which I have read and loved. (Watch out for my review of The Kingdoms coming soon – it’s out in May!)

Talking to ghosts: The Library of the Dead by TL Huchu

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TL Huchu’s debut novel, The Library of the Dead, one of my most anticipated 2021 releases, is narrated by a fourteen-year-old Scottish-Zimbabwean girl called Ropa who can talk to ghosts. Her interactions with the dead tend to be short and sweet – after all, the more messages from the afterlife she can pass onto grieving relatives, the more money she can make, and she has to support her gran and little sister. However, when a ghost appeals to her to find out what happened to her young son, who has mysteriously vanished, Ropa finds herself becoming involved in a dangerous mystery that will take her beneath the streets of Edinburgh and into the Library of the Dead.

When I heard that The Library of the Dead was not only an urban supernatural novel but a dystopian one, I wasn’t sure whether Huchu would be able to handle all of these elements in the same novel. As it turns out, the Scottish dystopia he imagines remains a backdrop to the main plot, but a backdrop that is vividly rendered, with brief descriptions that indicate a much more intricate history that I’m sure we’ll discover more about in later books in this series: ‘The concrete walls of the now-old “new Parliament” are marked with graffiti, and there’s a gaping hole through the main entrance, called “the king’s knock”. It was made by a shell from a Challenger tank when separatist MSPs holed up in the building, rejecting the crown’s authority after the restoration. Parliament looks like a wounded animal sunk on its haunches after the hunt, just before it expires. It’s forever caught in that moment. As the wind blows, you can hear its rattly gasps through the yawning cavern.’ If you know Edinburgh, these kind of passages are particularly chilling.

However, there’s a bit too much thrown into The Library of the Dead, or perhaps it’s that everything that’s here doesn’t quite work together, as great as all the components are. We have a slangy teenage narrator akin to El from Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education exploring a library that’s reminiscent of Garth Nix’s Lirael learning a magic system that reminded me a bit of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and ending up somewhere as unnerving as David Mitchell’s Slade House. The book never seems to know exactly where it sits. The tone shifts, as well. The Library of the Dead feels predominantly like YA, sometimes with a darker edge that leads towards adult crossover, and yet the resolution of the mystery of who’s been taking the children is light-hearted enough to be at home in children’s fiction. Ropa’s voice is fantastic – she seems like a genuine autodidact, with her random mix of references and slang – but because she is the kind of narrator who makes complicated jokes and doesn’t always tell us things straight, I think it would have worked better were she narrating a more straightforward plot.

Perhaps because of the amount of information that Huchu packs in, The Library of the Dead also feels weirdly slow, although plenty happens. The very short chapters and scenes chop up the reader’s attention, as Ropa moves between different plot threads, and it’s only in the final third of the novel, when she completely commits to solving the missing children mystery, that it speeds up. Huchu seems to be doing a lot of work here setting up later books in the series by showcasing his rich and original world, but for me, this first instalment struggled to stand on its own, despite all the brilliant things that were in it.

Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education: Sunshine and Shadows

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Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, her second immersive folktale retelling, was one of my top ten books of 2020. Her latest novel, A Deadly Education, is both utterly different and equally brilliant. The first in a trilogy, it’s set at the Scholomance, a magical school that takes all the nagging doubts we had about Hogwarts – ‘why are teenagers allowed to attend a school that’s so dangerous?’ – and runs with them. The Scholomance is infested with mals, dangerous magical creatures that want to kill the trainee wizards within, and so constant vigilance is required to see off attacks, whether you’re getting your lunch in the cafeteria or trying to find a book in the library. However, the curriculum itself, which is not taught by teachers but simply manifests for the students to follow, doesn’t help matters. As El, our first-person narrator, explains:

If you don’t complete a shop assignment on time, your unfinished work will animate on the due date and come after you with whatever power you’ve put into it. And if you try and get around that by not putting anything into it, or doing it wrong, the raw materials you should have used all animate separately and come at you. It’s quite a solid teaching technique.

El blithely tells us near the beginning of the novel that the reason teenage wizards fight to get into the Scholomance is that they’re even more vulnerable to mals in the outside world, which neatly dispenses with some obvious objections to this set-up. And while this isn’t a major theme of the book, I liked its unconscious riposte to Lord of the Flies-type assumptions that teenagers would descend into anarchy if left to their own devices; as we see, these adolescents are as capable of constructing a social order as adults, even if it has many of the same class issues.

El, a half-Indian, half-Welsh social outcast, is such a delightful narrator. If you don’t like tangents in your fiction, forget about reading this book now, because a massive proportion of this book is El simply telling us about how the Scholomance works, how its social hierarchies function, and the myriad ways that the students have devised to try and survive to graduation (only a certain proportion of each year group ever make it out). El even manages to shoot off on several digressions while facing a mawmouth, most terrifying of all the mals. However, I adore this kind of narration, and I can’t wait to devour two more books of it. Coincidentally enough, I happened to re-read Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, one of my favourite books of all time, just before I started A Deadly Education, and I’m convinced that Sunshine’s voice was a huge influence on El’s voice. (This theory was lent weight when I found out that Novik stuck a deliberate reference to another McKinley novel into her first folktale retelling, Uprootedclearly, she’s a fan). Sunshine, who is a coffeehouse baker in an alternative version of our world infested with vampires, shares a lot with El; both enthusiastically tell us about the intricacies of their lives even in the face of danger, and both are afraid that they might become evil. But their voices sound similar even on the sentence level, with a lot of second-person address, long sentences, and snark. Here’s El telling us why the Scholomance exists:

We’re a lot harder to get at in here than if we were living out in the wide open, in a yurt for instance. Even enclave kids were getting eaten more often than not before the school was built, and if you’re an indie kid who doesn’t get into the Scholomance, these days your odds of making it to the far side of puberty are one in twenty. One in four is plenty decent odds compared to that. 

And here’s Sunshine telling us about the ninety percent of people who have both sorcerer and demon blood who go insane:

If you were in the ninety percent, it showed up early. Usually. If you weren’t born with a precocious ability to hoist yourself out of your cost and get into really repulsive mischief, the next likeliest time for you to start running amok was in the pre-teen years, when magic-handling kids are apprenticed for their first serious magic-handling training.

This isn’t to say that A Deadly Education is in any way copying off Sunshine. Both books share a concern with being a powerful magic handler who could go bad (and both build this up brilliantly through slightly unreliable first-person narration) and both also feature enchanted objects, like wards and books, that frequently do go bad, but in most other ways their worldbuilding and storylines are very different. And to be honest, most of this probably wouldn’t even occur to you if you haven’t read Sunshine a worryingly large number of times, like me. What I am saying is, if this is a homage, it’s a fantastic one; and if you liked A Deadly Education, you need to read Sunshine IMMEDIATELY. 

A note: when A Deadly Education first came out, it was accused of being racist in this Goodreads review. As a result, one unintentionally racist, but problematic passage was excised from future editions of the book, and Novik apologised. The review makes a number of other claims about why the book is racist, but in my opinion, these additional claims just don’t stand up. A lot of them are factually wrong, while others have been challenged by other readers of colour from the relevant backgrounds (this review discusses Chinese representation, and this review covers Indian representation). I was also interested to read the comments from biracial people on all of these reviews, as one criticism of El is that she is ‘whitewashed’ and disconnected from her Indian heritage – which she absolutely is, but this seems to make sense given that she has been brought up in Wales by her white mother. Overall, the diversity of the Scholomance is pretty surface-level, and exists largely to facilitate world-building – different languages are useful for different spells, for example. This means that the book doesn’t have much to say about race, or the experience of being biracial, but I don’t think it intended to, and given its style and genre, I think Novik, as a white writer, sensibly decided not to tackle these issues. While I totally agree that it’s a problem if this is the only kind of diversity we get in fiction, this is a structural publishing problem rather than an individual book problem; while publishing remains white-dominated, it’s going to be easier to sell this kind of ‘diversity’ to publishers than books by authors of colour.

My Top Ten Books of 2020

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2019 post here, my 2018 post here, my 2017 post here, my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) For clarity, these are my ten favourite books I have read this year, regardless of when they were published.

In the order I read them…

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  1. Spinning Silver: Naomi Novik. Novik hits it out of the park with her second folktale retelling, telling three equally compelling stories about three very different women in the fictional kingdom of Lithvas, loosely inspired, according to Novik, by Lithuania, Poland and Russia. I’ve always believed folk/fairytales are fiendishly and perhaps deceptively difficult to turn into full-length novels, because they operate with a logic and a pace that breaks a lot of our conventional ‘rules’ of storytelling (I can’t recommend Kate Bernheimer’s essay ‘Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale’ enough if you’re as interested in this as I am). Novik’s approach is to tell a series of miniature stories that magically combine together. Perfection. I reviewed it here.

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2. Minor Feelings: Cathy Park Hong. This series of essays on making art while considering your own cultural and historical position now feels especially relevant given the issues that were ever more strongly highlighted by black activists during 2020, but is also vital for anyone who’s ever given a thought to how artists should and can use their own experience. I’ve yet to read something better on the idea of writing both within and outside your lane; Hong, who is Korean-American, argues that even when we are apparently writing from our own lived experience, we are always ‘speaking nearby’ ourselves, because no one person can tell everybody else’s story – or even their own. I reviewed it here.

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3. Ice Diaries: Jean McNeil. There’s a whole sub-genre of memoirs written by writers-in-residence in Antarctica, but McNeil’s is in a class of its own. She brilliantly evokes how spending four months on an Antarctic base affected her sense of her own selfhood, while also interrogating the human fascination with empty spaces on the map. If you liked Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Iceyou should read this next – however, I think this is also one of those rare Antarctic books that would appeal to readers who otherwise have no interest in the farthest south. I reviewed it briefly here.

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4. The Butchers: Ruth Gilligan. I recently named this as one of the novels I thought had been most unfairly overlooked this year, and I still don’t understand why it hasn’t received more critical attention. Set during the BSE crisis in Ireland in 1996, it moves between four narrators to tell a story of cow-smuggling and cattle-slaughtering that feels infused with folktale. Read it if you’re a fan of Fiona Mozley or Cynan Jones. I reviewed it here. (Published as The Butchers’ Blessing in the US).

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5. Broken Stars: ed. and trans. Ken Liu. This collection of short Chinese science fiction in translation, the second such collection edited by Liu, gives the Western reader an insight into a literary world that is otherwise not accessible to them. The inclusion of three essays on Chinese SF and its fandom is particularly inspired, giving ignorant readers like me some context for the development of the genre in China. And the book is stuffed full of original and exciting stories, with my favourites including Han Song’s ‘Submarines’, Baoshu’s ‘What Has Passed Shall In Kinder Light Appear’, Hao Jingfang’s ‘The New Year Train’, Ma Boyong’s ‘The First Emperor’s Games’ and Chen Qiufan’s ‘A History of Future Illnesses’. To top it all off, the UK edition has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen, though you have to see it in its real-life gold-foiled glory to fully appreciate it.

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6. The Lost Future of Pepperharrow: Natasha Pulley. I’m a massive Pulley fan, and this sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street didn’t disappoint (indeed, I thought it was better than the first, though not quite as good as The Bedlam Stacks). We now follow the clairvoyant watchmaker Keita Mori and his friend and lover, Thaniel Steepleton, to late nineteenth-century Japan, where Mori disappears on a mission of his own as electrical storms brew across the country. Before I read Pulley’s fiction, I worried her books would be a little twee, but I was totally wrong; they’re eerie and intelligent and funny, all at the same time. And having wrestled with a time travel novel for several years, I can only admire her ability to centre her plot around a character who has the gift of precognition, which makes figuring out cause and effect EVEN MORE CONFUSING. I reviewed it here.

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7. The Mirror and the Light: Hilary Mantel. I’m not sure what else I can say about this magnificent conclusion to the Cromwell trilogy, other than that it was delightful to find myself finally falling in love with a much-praised sequence of books that I’d always had ambivalent feelings about before (though, typically for me, this happened just when everybody else seemed to decide this one wasn’t as good as the others). For me, this was the best in the trilogy, and should have won everything going. I reviewed it here.

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8. My Year of Meats: Ruth Ozeki. I would never have picked this book up if I hadn’t loved A Tale For The Time Being so much; the story of a Japanese-American documentarian, Jane Takagi-Little, who exposes the illegal use of hormones in the American meat industry back in 1991 didn’t immediately appeal to me. However, although this novel goes to some bizarre places, it really works; it’s held together by Jane, who feels real in a way that few characters ever do. I reviewed it here.

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9. New Suns: ed. Nisi Shawl. It’s very unusual for me to like one multi-author SF anthology enough to put it in my top ten books of the year, let alone two! But Shawl’s edited collection of short speculative fiction by writers of colour delivered hit after hit, and gave me lots of new names to look out for. I especially loved some creepy contributions: Alex Jennings’s ‘unkind of mercy’, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s ‘Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister’ and Indrapramit Das’s ‘The Shadow We Cast Through Time’. I reviewed it here.

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10. Hild: Nicola Griffith. Having abandoned this book twice before finishing it, once in 2017 and again in 2018, it’s safe to say I never thought it would make a top ten books of the year list. However, when I finally committed to Hild, I found myself completely inhabiting her sixth-century world. It’s a book that demands a lot of time and attention, more so, I’d say, even than The Mirror and The Light; but I thought about it for such a long time after finishing it, and wished I could walk back in. (Interestingly, Griffith is now two for two in my books of the year; her SF debut Ammonite was in my top ten in 2019. I’m about to read So Lucky, so we’ll see if she can keep this up!). I wrote a little more about Hild here.

Reading Stats

I read 150 books in 2020. I’m a little surprised by this – it’s less than I read in 2018 and 2019 – as I felt I was reading much more during the pandemic. However, I have to remember that as recently as 2017, 127 books still felt like a massive number. I suspect what has happened is that I’ve read a lot of very long books because I had more time to concentrate, which have dragged down my stats (The Terror, The Mirror and The Light, Hild and The Wise Man’s Fear, I’m looking at you). In 2021, I’ll again set a target of 150.

I read 120 books by women, 28 books by men, and 2 books by an author who identifies as non-binary. This was, again, the worst year ever for men, dwindling to 18% of the books I read – and, interestingly, a few male authors appear several times (I read three books apiece by both James Smythe and James S.A. Corey) – meaning that the number of individual male authors I read was even lower.

I read 46 books by writers of colour and 104 books by white writers. To my huge surprise, the percentage of writers of colour (31%) is the best I’ve ever managed, and actually quite close to my target of 33%! I’m surprised because I felt I was really failing on this target this year, so something must have gone right. Once again, I will aim to achieve 33% books by writers of colour in 2021.

Finally, here’s what Goodreads thinks was My Year In Books: 

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2020 In Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2020 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2020, not necessarily first published in 2020.

Highly Commended

I was hugely impressed by Akala’s Natives, which interweaves his personal experience of growing up as a working-class black boy in Britain with the country’s history of racism and colonialism, and is particularly good on the way that schools oppress black children. The only thing it falls a bit short on is gender, but for that reason, it’s the perfect companion read to Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish), which was one of my top ten books of 2019.

Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel gradually crept up on me as I read it; it’s almost impossible to summarise, but essentially focuses on the fallout from a Ponzi scheme alongside the relationship between two estranged siblings. It’s very different from her hit pandemic novel Station Eleven, but is haunting in similar ways.

Souvankham Thammavongsa’s debut short story collection How To Pronounce Knife, which focuses on the lives of Lao immigrants and their children in Canada, was so clever and insightful. Unlike most short story collections, it explores a range of disparate themes, showcasing Thammavongsa’s range. I was thrilled when it won Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. I reviewed it here.

I usually struggle with historical fiction, but this year was an exception. Three standouts were, firstly, Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, which immersed me so fully in the 1918 flu pandemic that I forgot to draw comparisons to Covid-19; I reviewed it here. Secondly, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies, set in the early seventeenth century on an isolated island off the Norwegian coast, managed to completely reinvent the rather familiar plot of false witchcraft accusations; I reviewed it here. Finally, Sally Magnusson’s The Ninth Child really cleverly pulled together a number of different, disparate stories, centring on an ambitious engineering project at a Scottish loch in the 1850s; I reviewed it here.

Science fiction and speculative fiction is probably the genre I’m loving the most at the moment, so there’s lots to choose from, but I wanted to highlight three very different books. Octavia E. Butler’s time-slip story Kindred doesn’t need any further introduction from me, but I admired how she made her protagonist’s journeys feel both so real and emotionally grounded, and how she used this conceit to ask questions about inheritance and culpability. I reviewed it here. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! was a structural mess, but so utterly different and memorable; I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Bigtrees’s Floridian alligator-wrestling theme park. I reviewed it here. Finally, Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars, the first in an alternate-history trilogy about female astronauts in 1950s America, is still the novel I think everyone needs to survive the Covid-19 pandemic; I stand by my statement in my review that I’ve ‘never read a post-apocalyptic novel that is so comforting‘.

 

In crime and thriller, I was very taken with Hazel Barkworth’s Heatstroke, a novel that turns a good number of cliches about adolescence on their head while still being completely compelling; I reviewed it here. I’ve been disappointed by a string of Attica Locke’s novels, which for me haven’t lived up to their fantastic premises, but Bluebird, Bluebird, which follows a black Texas Ranger torn between duty to his community and his responsibility to his job, finally hit the sweet spot; I briefly reviewed it on Goodreads. Finally, Lottie Moggach’s Brixton Hill is a grim but gripping thriller that is centrally concerned with the way that prison wears inmates’ lives away; I reviewed it here.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations.

I was disappointed by two boarding-school novels, a sub-genre that I’m obsessed with, that didn’t work for me for very different reasons. Clare Beams’ The Illness Lesson was beautifully written, but told an overly familiar story about female hysteria in the late nineteenth century. Meanwhile, Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing was just not very good at all, totally failing to conjure atmosphere, and hampered by awkward dialogue. I reviewed both books here. (Fortunately, 2020 wasn’t a total write-off for campus novels: I loved Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House!)

I found Mary North’s debut collection of short stories, You Will Never Be Forgottenhugely frustrating, because it was full of original ideas but frequently undercut itself by spelling out the message of a story too clearly. I reviewed it here. Ivy Pochoda’s LA-set and cliched These Women was primarily disappointing because I thought her Visitation Street was so subtle and so good, but also didn’t really deliver on its promise to tell a story about a serial killer from the point of view of his victims. I reviewed it briefly on Goodreads. Finally, I’m a huge Garth Nix fan but his latest, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, was just too silly for my liking.

I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top Ten Books of 2020!

The End of the Year Book Tag, 2020

Resurrecting this from last year!

I. Is there a book that you started that you still need to finish by the end of the year?

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NO, because I just finished it: Hild by Nicola Griffith. I’ve been reading it since September and had tried and failed to read it before in 2017 and 2018. Set in Britain in the seventh century and following the early life of Hilda of Whitby, it’s a massive undertaking akin to Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy (although I found its thicket of names and references even harder to navigate). Eventually, I tackled it in the same way I tackled The Mirror and the Light: reading a set number of pages a day and not caring if it took me months to finish. In this way, I found myself completely sinking into Hild’s world, which although led by men has an emphasis on the bonds between women that reminded me of Griffith’s earlier SF novel Ammonite. So expansive and beautiful.

II. Do you have an autumnal book to transition to the end of the year?

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British nature-writing always feels autumnal to me, as it tends to run the full range of the seasons, and so I’m looking forward to Whitney Brown’s memoir of her time as a female dry stone-waller, Between Stone and Sky. Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her proof copy!

III. Is there a release you are still waiting for? 

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I’m excited to read Ernest Cline’s sequel to his SF smash hit Ready Player One – of course, it’s called Ready Player Two – which is out on the 24th November. I loved the first book but never took it seriously, so my expectations are both very high and very low. From the blurb, it sounds like Kline has essentially written Ready Player One redux, which is exactly what I want.

IV. Name three books you want to read by the end of the year.

Going back to my mid-year freakout tag, I’m still keen to read New Suns, a collection of speculative fiction by writers of colour edited by Nisi Shawl. I received Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman for my birthday, and I’m looking forward to diving into this story of an elderly British-Antiguan man who has hidden his homosexuality for his entire life. Finally, I picked up a proof of Buki Papillon’s An Ordinary Wonder, a debut that focuses on an intersex protagonist growing up in Nigeria.

V. Is there a book that can still shock you and become your favourite of the year?

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If I ever get round to reading it, I feel like I’m going to either love or hate Caite Dolan-Leach’s We Went To The Woods, which is about a young woman who gets kicked off a reality TV show and ends up on a 1960s-style commune.

VI. Have you already started making reading plans for 2021?

Yes! I have a stack of 2021 releases to read. Of those, I’m most excited about James Smythe’s The Edge, the long-awaited third installment in his Anomaly Quartet; Natasha Pulley’s new speculative historical novel The Kingdoms, which sounds like it’s about time travel; and Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, which is about three characters who get caught up in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Kolkata.

Tagging everyone who wants to join in with this tag!

‘The Sequel is So Much Darker’: Why Series Don’t Always Get Darker – and Why That’s A Good Thing

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Sequels to science fiction and fantasy books, films and TV series are often described as ‘darker’ than their immediate predecessor, a trend that I first noticed with Harry Potter. Retrospectives on the book series tend to assume that Voldemort’s return in the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, shifted the series towards a ‘darker’, ‘more mature’, tone; retrospectives on the film series point the finger at the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, where director Alfonso Cuaron deliberately created a Hogwarts with a very different feel to Chris Columbus’s version (at the time, most newspapers ran with ‘Harry Potter hits puberty‘, praising Cuaron’s revamp). Nevertheless, this trend started earlier; every Harry Potter film was described as darker than the one before it. A number of professional reviewers praised the second film, Chamber of Secrets for being ‘better and darker than its predecessor’. Entertainment Weekly wrote that the film ‘deepen[ed] the darker, more frightening atmosphere for audiences. This is as it should be: Harry’s story is supposed to get darker’, referring to J.K. Rowling’s stated intention that the series should ‘grow up with its readers’. However, even after the tonal shift when Voldemort regains a physical body in Goblet of Fire, reviewers kept praising the films for being darker than the last. ‘Harry Potter grows older and darker’ was Time‘s headline for their review of Order of the Phoenix .

Given the larger number of books and films in the Harry Potter series, this trend is most obvious for this franchise, but is not confined to it. You might not think that a series that kicks off with the state-sanctioned murder of 23 children and adolescents by their peers could get any darker, but according to reviewers, the Hunger Games franchise did. The Atlantic found Mockingjay: Part 1, the third film in the series, ‘darker, more relentless’ than the previous installments, spelling out what they meant while unintentionally proving the Sequel Is Always Darker rule: ‘The second installment was already weightier than the first, and in this outing the moral gravity has been ratcheted up once more.’ The Star Wars prequel Rogue One was obviously going to have a different tone from the earlier films, given its content, but alongside its universal reputation as ‘dark’, fans still asked ‘Should Rogue One Have Been Even Darker?‘ To look at a different kind of follow-up, remakes of classic movies are often praised as being ‘darker’ than the originals. Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake was seen as ‘the darker side of Willy Wonka‘. Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has been reviewed as both ‘darker’ than the original 1990s sitcom and comic book series and as getting darker than its original self season-by-season. Showrunners also love to tease fans with ‘darker’ sequels, as with this piece on the third season of Stranger Things,  which claims, ‘it’s definitely going to get darker still – [it will go to?] places that I think audiences are going to really love.’

But what do reviewers actually mean when they say that a book or film is ‘darker’ than its predecessor? We could spend ages arguing over what it means to be ‘dark’ (kill count? tone? grey morality?) or whether or not these sequels are actually darker, but instead, I want to suggest that when people say something is ‘darker’, they mean it is ‘better’, and this is a big problem.

Why does darker = better, especially when it comes to popular science fiction and fantasy series? My hypothesis is that it’s a signal that these books and films are worthy of adult attention, and so it’s OK if you’re an adult and you like them. Popular associations surrounding these genres still associate them with children, and one way for both artists and their fans to try and shed this ‘childish’ reputation is to talk about how dark their work is, and how much darker it’s going to be. This also explains why the first episode may be dark, but the next one is always darker: series need to ‘mature’, ‘grow up’, ‘develop’, because these are all Good Things, whereas remaining in the supposedly immature and undeveloped world of childhood is bad.

This is problematic enough in itself, because it simultaneously devalues children and adolescents, claims that young people don’t want complex stories, and assumes that being into ‘darker’ media makes you a better, more serious adult. It sets up a false binary between cheery, morally black-and-white children’s fiction and dark, morally grey fiction for adults. However, I’d also argue that playing into this narrative leads writers, filmmakers and showrunners into serious trouble. I’m going to reserve my full Harry Potter rant for another post, but suffice it to say that I think Rowling’s decision to make the series ‘grow up with Harry’ not only gives it a horribly uneven tone, but actually leads to it becoming less morally interesting. Rogue One disappointed me terribly because it served up such simplistic and boring characters compared to its companion film, A New Hope, as if being serious means that you don’t get to have a personality (you know you’ve gone wrong when the robot is the most compelling person in your film). And season three of Stranger Things misstepped by deciding that it had to fully embrace adolescence rather than exploring the ways in which our protagonists are still children – or realising that it was its celebration of childhood creativity and ingenuity that made the first two series so great.

I think it’s time to abolish the assumption that darker is better, or even that calling something ‘dark’ is a meaningful description. I love a lot of fiction that has been called ‘dark’, such as A Song of Ice and Fire and Black Mirror. But give me The Force Awakens or the book version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone any day over other films or books in those franchises that try to be ‘dark’ because they think that’s how to be ‘grown up’, and, in doing so, reinforce our limited ideas of what is worthy of our notice.

 

 

Recommended Reading for a Pandemic

If You Actually Want To Read Books About A Pandemic

I can’t face reading pandemic fiction at the moment, but judging by the sales of pandemic films and novels, lots of people don’t feel the same way, so here are some suggestions:

  • Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven was one of my top ten books of the decade. It deals with the aftermath of a grim pandemic with a much greater mortality than coronavirus that sweeps the Earth, killing the majority of its population. However, the bright side of Station Eleven is the society that it imagines on the other side of this catastrophe, following a travelling theatre company across Canada. It also brings to life the fictional comic-book world of ‘Station Eleven’, which both parallels the events of the novel and exists as a significant space of its own. Ultimately, like a lot of good fiction that takes a disaster as its starting-point, I’d argue that this novel is less about A Pandemic and more about how art relates to reality.
  • Naomi Booth’s Sealed is, again, ostensibly about a terrifying skin-sealing disease that is sweeping Australia, but actually has more to say about the relationship between humans and the environment. It’s a brilliant eco-horror that follows Alice, who is heavily pregnant with her first child, and her partner Pete, who leave Sydney for a town in the Blue Mountains because they believe they will be safer there. But the idea of escaping to a ‘cleaner’ rural location soon turns out to be a dangerous fantasy. If this sounds like your sort of thing, please consider ordering Sealed directly from the publisher, Dead Ink, a small press who are struggling right now.
  • Finally, the first (and best!) novel in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes, deals with a creepy space plague caused by a mysterious protomolecule that reassembles biological matter. Our protagonists have to stop this spreading through a space station. The Expanse’s writers have so far failed to fully deliver on the promise of this first novel, but it works as a gripping stand-alone.

If You Want To Read Books Where People Face Up To Bad Things That Are Not Pandemics

This is basically where I’m at right now – I want books where the characters face serious social and economic disasters but still manage to survive – so here are some ideas:

  • Hanna Jameson’s thoughtful and engaging The Last focuses on a group of people trapped in a remote hotel in Switzerland after the world is devastated by a series of nuclear attacks. Jon, our narrator, starts investigating a suspected murder; the body of a young girl is discovered in one of the hotel’s water tanks. While some of his fellow survivors try to persuade him of the futility of this quest, Jon seems to be driven by the conviction that life still matters even in the face of this disaster, and that society can be rebuilt. Ultimately, and despite its Lord of the Flies-esque set-up, The Last is very optimistic about human nature.
  • I’ve recently been raving about Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars and The Fated Skyand now I wish I hadn’t raced through both novels and the associated short stories so quickly! This series imagines an alternative version of post-war American history where a meteor hits the Earth, setting off a spiralling environmental disaster that leads the US to rapidly accelerate its space programme, believing that humanity’s future now lies on other planets. Our narrator, Elma, whose voice is so funny and addictive, was a pilot in WWII and is still a brilliant mathematician; she is determined to become one of the first ‘lady astronauts’. I’ve never read a post-apocalyptic novel that’s so comforting.
  • I’m hesitant to indulge any of the poor Second World War analogies that have been floating around, but Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is just such a good novel. One of my top ten books of 2015, this Blitz-set book focuses on four young people doing their best for the war effort. Mary and Tom are trying to keep London’s education system running; Alistair is fighting in Malta; Mary’s resentful friend Hilda stands on the sidelines. It sounds like it’s going to be saccharine, but it’s actually hilarious, heartbreaking and intelligent.
  • John Wyndham’s classic The Kraken Wakes sees an alien invasion from the sea threaten civilisation. Both genuinely tense and enjoyably ridiculous, this, in my opinion, is Wyndham’s best novel, spookily anticipating later climate change fiction. It’s also notable for being just as sexist as the rest of Wyndham’s science fiction, but, unlike his other books, if you read between the lines you can pretend that the male narrator is completely unreliable and his wife is actually running the show.
  • I’ve also returned to my first love in fiction, K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series. I devoured this long-running US kids’ series as a pre-teen and teenager. It focuses on five teenagers who are given the ability to morph any animal they can touch to fight an alien invasion, and ends up in some very dark places. At their core, Animorphs are anti-war novels for the post-Cold War generation, and one day I am going to write something serious about them!

If You Want Books That Aren’t About Any Really Bad Things, Including Pandemics

Personally, I’m finding these kinds of novels difficult at the moment, and can’t summon up many original ideas, but if you want something truly escapist, here are some suggestions:

  • Anything by Robin McKinley, my favourite fantasy writer; my top comforting recommendations are her two retellings of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty and Rose Daughter, and her feminist dragon-slaying epic The Hero and the Crown.
  • In a similar vein, Naomi Novik’s fairytale-inspired Uprooted and Spinning Silver are both beautifully escapist, although I thought Spinning Silver was far superior. They’re both stand-alones, so you can read them in any order.
  • If you want something that’s both contemporary and escapist, I recommend Erica Ferencik’s thriller The River at Night; four female friends, all in their forties, are left stranded on a dangerous white-water rafting trip through the Allagash Wilderness in Maine.
  • YA can also be a haven: my top YA picks right now are Becky Albertalli’s Leah on the Offbeat, which refreshingly foregrounds queer female teenagers, and Bridget Collins’s YA-esque The Bindingwhich is set in an alternative past where bookbinders bind people’s memories into individual volumes.

What comfort reads, of any kind, would you recommend? I’d especially love to hear about books that fall into the second category.

 

The king of winter

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Miryem is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, viewed with suspicion by her tiny community because of her faith and her father’s profession, even though her father is so kind-hearted he rarely collects his debts. As her mother’s health worsens, Miryem takes matters into her own hands and starts running her father’s business. Her methods are so effective that she attracts the attention of the Staryk king, who rules the fairy kingdom of winter and is determined to take her as his wife because he believes she can turn silver into gold. At the same time, Irina, a duke’s daughter who has fairy heritage, is being forced into marriage to the tsar, who is possessed by a fire demon that draws him to the mysterious cold within her. Finally, our third female protagonist and narrator, Wanda, is relieved to be employed by Miryem’s family as a means of escaping her violent father, and hopes to store up enough money to flee with her two younger brothers – but what will happen to her when she too is drawn into the frozen Staryk kingdom?

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik’s second stand-alone novel, has been billed as a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin that addresses the anti-semitic material in the original folktale, and while it certainly is that, it’s also so much more. I was hesitant, at first, to pick up this novel, despite its appealing blurb, because I had serious reservations about Novik’s first loose fairytale retelling, Uprooted, even though I hugely admired her ability to echo some of the finest modern rewriters of folktales (for me, Robin McKinley is the go-to example). Despite its feminist trappings, I felt that Uprooted ultimately fell into very old patterns in recounting the story of Agnieszka, who is taken from her village to serve a powerful wizard. Agnieszka has her own magic, but it is presented as ‘natural’ and intuitive as opposed to the intellectual, masculine magic of her captor; she’s supposed to be strongly linked to her closest female friend, Kasia, but the relationship never came alive for me; worst of all, she’s drawn into a misogynistic and problematic romantic entanglement. The blurb for Spinning Silver sounded like it might cover similar ground. However, this is actually a very different kind of novel, and all the better for it.

While Uprooted was narrated solely through the rather tiresome lens of Agnieszka, Novik deftly jumps between five voices in Spinning Silver; she does this so skilfully that there’s no need for names to mark the breaks between sections. By foregrounding three female characters, she avoids the feminine stereotypes that marred the previous novel, emphasising Miryem’s, Irina’s and Wanda’s different strengths, and it’s also refreshing to see Judaism handled so explicitly in a fantasy setting, moving away from the usual dominance of either Christianity or a kind of pseudo-paganism in these kinds of retellings. However, for me, the biggest strength of Spinning Silver is how Novik maintains the beautiful structure of folktales without compromising on the complexity of her plot. While Uprooted’s pace often felt relentless, as Novik tried to match the inevitable onward march of events in folk stories, Spinning Silver is simply gripping, as jumping from one storyline to the other gives the reader a bit of a break from the repeated sequences of three tasks and three days. This is such a clever and magical book, and I can’t wait for Novik’s next.