“Because We’re Heroes”: A Natasha Romanoff Manifesto

People love to tell Black Widow fans that their fave is boring.

This is, of course, not unique to Black Widow – almost inevitably, name a female character in a group of (male) comics fans and you’ll get someone saying she’s boring, or useless, or in some other way unworthy. (But wait, you’ll be quick to protest: doesn’t this happen with male characters too? Oh, absolutely – but with far less consistency and not often with the “top list” characters. Call Iron Man boring and then call Captain Marvel boring and see which gets the bigger outcry.) Fanboys will tell you, as a Black Widow fan, that it’s not just their opinion: the numbers prove it, her comics just doesn’t sell.

But all numbers aside, just down to brass tacks: Black Widow is awesome.

There are a whole lot of reasons I could give for this entirely objective statement. Her relationships with women, for instance: as mentor, friend, and protector, or her unique and nuanced morality which provides a refreshing shade of gray to the relatively morally black and white superhero universe. The aspect I want to focus on for the purpose of this blog post, however, is the issue of choice, or agency. (relationship to feminism)

Natasha’s storylines have always dealt in some way with her choices. The choice to be hero instead of villain is both the most obvious and the simplest – most simply put in her early comics in terms of defection from Communist Russia to the good ol’ United States. For those not up to date on their comics Black Widow storylines, she first popped up in Tales of Suspense #52 as an Iron Man villain – a Communist spy sent to steal Tony Stark’s technological secrets. Her mission fails, but she returns the next issue, stealing a powerful object that lets her move mountains. She is ultimately defeated, of course – only to return again a few issues later, this time teaming up with Hawkeye (Clint Barton, in his first appearance), who was mistaken for a robber in his attempt to launch a career as a costumed hero. (Whoops.)

Black Widow remained an on again, off again villain character for a very short time – but in that time, readers were given startling insight into her motivation (her parents were being held by Soviet authorities). It was in 1966 that Black Widow officially joined the good guys – though her status as a vaguely morally ambiguous figure remained. At this point, when the prohibition against heroes killing people was still very much in effect, Natasha was the wild card who could threaten murder and be believed.

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Avengers #37 (1967) by Roy Thomas

Choice continues to be a powerful theme in many of Natasha’s appearances – the repeated confirmation that she is allow to define, redefine, and create her own identity, always remaining a hero.

One way this has been written over the years is in various storylines where Natasha’s loyalties come into question. In one recent story arc, Natasha’s espionage against her allies is revealed in an attempt to isolate and destroy her. Natasha embarks on a campaign to take back her own life. On the way, she encounters Elektra, a character who has suffered theft of her agency throughout her life: replaced by Skrulls, manipulated or directly controlled by the Hand, killed by Bullseye to hurt Matt Murdock (effectively reducing her to an object).

Elektra is furious at the idea that Natasha has stolen information about her and is selling it to others. At the end of the fight, she proclaims her commitment to reclaiming her own life. “My life has been stolen from me, time and time again,” she says. “I will not let it happen once more.” Natasha answers simply: “Neither will I.”

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Furthermore, because of the ways in which choices were taken from her, Natasha battles for the right of others to self-determination. This is linked, again and again, with Natasha as an advocate and defender of other women. In Marjorie Liu’s 2010 run on Black Widow, Natasha detours from a dinner with then boyfriend Bucky Barnes to corner a man in the bathroom.

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Black Widow #1 (2010) by Marjorie Liu

In Nathan Edmondson’s run, Natasha confronts her neighbor, another man abusing his wife. In X-23 #20, also written by Marjorie Liu, she encounters X-23 (Laura Kinney) while busting a group of men trafficking women. She rescues a young woman being harrassed by truckers in the semi-canonical Black Widow: Homecoming series. Natasha, again and again, not only stands up for other women but takes on the role of mentor and guide. She provides Rikki Barnes, Bucky Barnes’ universe-displaced granddaughter from an alternate timeline, with a costume and advice, offers to take X-23 under her wing (and would have, in a pitched series that was never written), and . In one issue of Klaws of the Panther, featuring Shuri (the original Black Panther’s sister, who at that time had taken the mantle), Natasha offers guidance to the conflicted young woman.

In the Thunderbolts series, Natasha breaks her cover to save Songbird, another young woman superhero. As they make their escape, Natasha tells her that “superpowers are a crutch…in the end, all you really have are two fists and a brain.” Natasha values self-reliance above almost all else – she encourages the women she mentors to make their own choices and pushes them toward independence.

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Thunderbolts #136 (2006) by Andy Diggle

This is also a major theme of Black Widow: Itsy Bitsy Spider (Devin Grayson & Greg Rucka), in which Natasha comes face to face with her mirror image: Yelena Belova, Moscow’s new Black Widow, who has arrived to attempt to eliminate her predecessor. Natasha advises Yelena to back down, lecturing her on the costs of the life she lives even as they face off, guns pointed at each other.

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Black Widow #2 (1999) by Devin Grayson

“You learn to be lost all the time, so as to never be able to direct anyone to your employers. Or your heart. Or your vulnerabilities. And for what, rooskaya, for what? To play pawn to any one of a dozen governments that will shoot you in the back just for becoming the dispassionate creature they require?”

Later, in a spectacularly morally dubious act, Natasha swaps her and Yelena’s faces, literally putting Yelena in her shoes for a period of time and forcing her to experience the life she is trying to claim for her own. As Nick Fury puts it, explaining to Daredevil:

“Blondie down there sees things like you do…she thinks she’s a super herobut Natasha, she’s the Black Widow. She’s the real deal. She knows better. She knows espionage is nasty business.”

The central idea of all of this is the same: people have the right to self-determination and freedom. Natasha pushes Yelena away from her goal because it will make her a pawn. She offers Laura Kinney a chance to be useful, rather than used. For Natasha, her choices, good or ill, define her, and she will allow no one to take them away. Even as far back as the Bronze Age, this was true – after a run of being underwritten by (who was the daredevil writer?), Natasha broke up with Matt Murdock (Daredevil) because she felt she was losing herself.

In yet another arc, Natasha confronts an alternate universe version of herself who took a different path and is out only for herself. This version of Natasha has retained her Russian accent, and when Natasha comments on it the alternate universe Black Widow responds by accusing her of losing her edge. Natasha’s response is telling: “you remind me of someone who didn’t think for herself. A puppet. A marionette dancing at the pull of the string.” Natasha associates her past with being under others’ control, and her change in allegiance with making a choice – reclaiming her agency.

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Captain America and Black Widow #638 (2012) by Cullen Bunn

In a recent Ms. Marvel comic, Kamala Khan repeats to herself a mantra (from who?): “Good is not a thing you are, it’s a thing you do.” If there is one theme that echoes through Natasha’s arcs, again and again, it is that idea: not just of self-determination in a general sense, but in the choice to do good as an action not taken once but again and again. Natasha recognizes that “good” is not just a state of mind or being, but rather a decision that has to be constantly reaffirmed.

The power of doing good is in making that choice – deliberate, constant, and difficult. And that choice is not – has never been – inevitable. And perhaps even more so: the meaning of doing good comes from the ability to make that choice.

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Black Widow #17 by Nathan Edmondson

In Marvel Team Up #85, Natasha faces off against Viper, fighting with her to stop her plan to blow up the Capitol Building in Washington DC to take down “the warmongering leaders of this corrupt nation.”

“No,” Natasha corrects her. “Innocents will die. Millions of people who’ve done no one any harm – whose only crime is that they exist.”

You speak so casually of death, Viper. I grew up with death. I’ve walked hand in hand with it all my life! I saw children starve in the ruins of Stalingrad, and men freeze solid as ice overnight. Because I know death so well…I know how supremely precious life is.”

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Marvel Team Up #85 (1979) by Chris Claremont

If there is a brief description of Natasha Romanov’s personal manifesto, that may be it. Death may follow her, as her name suggests – for a time, Natasha angsted a great deal about her “Widow’s Curse” that killed those closest to her. But the flip side of that darkness is her awareness that life is valuable, that people are valuable, that (in the words of Sam Gamgee), “there is good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”

I love superheroes. I really, really do. And I love the classic superheroes, like Captain America, that are just good people, who are, to their core, essentially decent. But I also love a story that says that you don’t need to start out good to wind up there. I’ve talked a lot on this blog about my love for Laura Kinney and the importance of her story of self-determination – her ability to make her own identity. My love for Black Widow is related to that, and more.

It’s the idea that Natasha Romanov has suffered and been through hell. She’s done bad things and worked for bad people. She’s fought on the side of the devils and chose to change – and she has. Stories of redemption are incredibly powerful for me. Natasha is a hero – and she’s a hero because she’s chosen, again and again, that that is what she wants to be.

Hence the header for this article: “You say I pick sides. I pick good guys. I pick winners. I pick regret and kindness and mercy.”

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Avengers Assemble #14 by Al Ewing

All the filth the Black Widow has waded through, and she’s come out stronger and more determined than ever. Her life has been built on sadness, but it isn’t defined by it. She came out of a dark past, but isn’t limited by it.

That’s a model that inspires me. It’s a model I can live by.

#TeamBlackWidow forever.

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Black Widow #20 (2015) by Nathan Edmondson

Further Reading: The entirety of the blog fuckyeahblackwidow, but especially World Class Assassin?: Black Widow and Lethality, Our Princess is In Another Refrigerator, and Spy vs Superhero.

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Currently Reading: September 2017

Lately I’ve been thinking about how to format these posts, given that I feel somewhat limited when I only talk about things I liked (as opposed to the things I didn’t) and the fact that I don’t always read books I really want to recommend every month. Consequently, I’m shuffling things around and trying something new where, while I can’t (or won’t) cover every book I read in a month, I focus on a those that stood out to me for one reason or another. Hopefully this will help me be more consistent and give me a chance to talk more about the range of books I’m reading.

I don’t like falling behind on things, and I’ve definitely fallen behind on keeping up with this blog. Here’s hoping that this marks the beginning of a return to form. (We can only hope.)

The Good

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

I usually refrain from reviewing later books in a series, but this conclusion was so powerful, and the series as a whole so compelling, that I couldn’t resist.

N.K. Jemisin remains a perennial favorite – I’ll probably read anything by her that she may choose to produce – and The Broken Earth trilogy has been an experience from start to finish. The Fifth Season shook me to my core, and while I was less enthralled by The Obelisk Gate it was still a cut above a lot of what’s out there in the fantasy market. I wasn’t sure that anything could match what I felt for The Fifth Season, but this book managed it.

So much of this series, while also being about environment and magic and disaster, has been about family, and especially about motherhood and trauma. The ending of The Stone Sky is one of the most beautiful, and also the most painful, conclusions I have read in a long time.

And yet ultimately it was also about healing, and about becoming whole.

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

I don’t often listen to audiobooks, but I did listen to this one – and while it means I missed out on the pictures, I did really enjoy it. The framework of this narrative nonfiction is about the explorer Percy Fawcett, who disappeared while searching for a near-mythical great civilization in the Amazon in 1925, and the journalist David Grann’s search for answers about his fate (following the footsteps of others, many of whom have disappeared and died).

However, it also explores the history of exploration in the Amazon, dips into scientific questions about the viability of great civilizations, and explores the life of a complicated man who ultimately died pursuing what many considered a fantasy.

I can’t say more than that, except to note that the descriptions of attempting to travel in the Amazon interior are deeply terrifying to me. Too many bugs. Too many parasites. Too many flesh-eating maggots.

The Disappointing

The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

This was one of those books that came highly recommended from just about every direction – which always makes it more disappointing when they fall flat.

The Cloud Roads is about a young man named Moon who is able to shift into a dragon-like form. He has never met anyone else like him, and has no idea what he is – until he suddenly encounters another of his kind and is swept away to live with a people he barely knows, and embroiled in a war with the evil Fell.

There was just nothing particularly impressive about this book. The prose was workmanlike, the characters were not particularly complex, and the plot felt dull and rote. The worldbuilding was the most interesting part, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the shortcomings of plot and character.

I’m half tempted to read the later books in the series to see if they improve, but ultimately there are too many other books on my list to indulge that curiosity.

House of Names by Colm Toibin

Good mythological retellings – or perhaps more accurately mythological retellings that I, personally, like – are hard to come by. I pick them up relatively often, but rarely find myself satisfied with them – and yet I keep doing it. Hope springs eternal.

There are certain stories that have always seemed ripe for retelling to me, that I’ve been astonished not to see adapted in contemporary literature. The story of the House of Atreus, and more specifically of Clytemnestra, is one of them. Clytemnestra has all the makings of a character who could easily drive a compelling novel – the woman whose daughter was murdered by her husband, and who in turn murders her husband in retaliation, she is a complex character who, even in Greek literature, was a source of contention and difficulty, who challenged gender norms and generated revulsion for patriarchal Athenian writers. She is, as you might be able to tell, one of my favorites.

And yet she is largely absent from modern explorations of ancient stories.

So I was thrilled to stumble across the synopsis for Colm Toibin’s House of Names, which described itself as “a retelling of the story of Clytemnestra.”

Reader, it was not.

While the first portion of the book did explore Clytemnestra’s character between the sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis and the death of Agamemnon, the vast majority of the book was focused on Orestes, her son, and was told from his point of view. While I enjoyed the sections focusing on Clytemnestra – showing her complicated, conflicted nature – this wasn’t really her book. I’ll continue to wait for one that is.

(As far as “retellings about difficult mythological women”, I found Bright Air Black by David Vann far more satisfying.)

Why Laura Kinney Matters

I first encountered Laura Kinney (aka Wolverine or X-23) because of Black Widow. I happened to see a panel on the fuckyeahblackwidow blog with the two of them, and tracked down the issue in question because at the time I was busily reading every single appearance of Black Widow I could get my hands on. The issue was X-23 #20, written by Marjorie Liu and drawn by Phil Noto, and it follows Laura as she spends a night out with Jubilee. While at a club, she discovers – and takes down – a human trafficking ring, which is where she encounters Black Widow, who offers to train her.

Something about the issue hooked me. I went back to the beginning and read the entirety of Marjorie Liu’s run on X-23. Then I tracked down her introductory miniseries, X-23: Innocence Lost, followed by X-23: Target X. And kept digging, looking for more: I read X-Force solely for her, and picked up New X-Men and Avengers Academy for the same reasons. I fell in love.

The basic conceit of Laura’s character is fairly simple: she is a female clone of Logan Howlett (Wolverine) who was raised as an assassin until her eventual escape. A lot of the themes of her stories are similar to Wolverine’s: nature vs. nurture, beast and man, killer instinct and heroic urge. But the specific way those themes are executed, and the way they resonate, are unique. Specifically, Laura’s story, especially during her years as X-23, was one of struggling to define herself as more than what she is told she can be.

During her childhood, Laura was raised with very little connection to others – treated like a machine or an animal, actively discouraged from emotional attachment to others. Laura struggles to think of herself as human, and began self-harming at a young age. Her eventual escape came at the cost of the life of the one woman who showed her kindness, her mother, due to a trigger scent that forces Laura into a killing frenzy. One of her first acts after escaping is to seek out Wolverine and attempt to kill him, convinced that they are both monsters who deserve to die. Laura has been told, again and again, that the only thing she is good for is killing.

Throughout Marjorie Liu’s run, Laura gradually struggles to redefine herself by setting out on her own, and discovers her own heroism – and her own humanity – along the way. She befriends Gambit and Jubilee. She faces off with Daken – Wolverine’s son – and holds her own, calling Daken out on his amorality. In the final issue, entirely wordless, Laura fights her dark side and wins by reconciling with herself, becoming whole.

Stories about reclamation of agency are powerful. Everyone wants to have power over their own lives. Stories about people becoming heroes are also: it’s the reason we keep coming back to origin stories. But Laura’s story says something, specifically, to women.

Gender in general is a trap in a lot of ways. Femininity and womanhood present a number of double-binds: be sexy but not too sexy, smart but not intimidating, succeed at your job but be a nurturing mother. Women are told, over and over from childhood, that they have to fit into certain molds, and if they do not fit those molds are forced into them. Women are objectified and dehumanized daily and in hundreds of small gestures.

What Laura’s growth – Laura’s journey – offers is a story of a young woman who says no. Who against all of the odds, fights her way free of those who try to define her. The majority of Laura’s opponents are male, many representing patriarchal institutions or predators: sex traffickers, male scientists, a male demon (who impersonates Cyclops, an authority figure, and Logan, a father figure), the Collector. I doubt this is an accident. The one female opponent in her solo series is Mr. Sinister’s daughter, seeking to use Laura’s body as an escape as Mr. Sinister tries to take over hers: a dark and more literal mirror of Laura’s own struggle for autonomy.

Laura realizes, through her own agency and her own efforts, her own strength, that she is not a monster, not a killer, not an animal. Captured by enemies in Madripoor who are cutting her apart like an experiment, Laura suddenly recognizes the wrongness of what she is going through.

I have been on other tables. But this feels worse. It all…feels worse. Not because of the pain. Because I know better now. I am not an animal. I am not…a thing. Why did no one ever see that? How could they look at me and hurt me like they did? How was that possible? How? What was wrong with them? How could they? How could they?

Her sudden recognition, that she did not deserve what happened, that she was never what was wrong, is an incredible turning point from her words to Wolverine after her escape from the Facility: “We are weapons! We must be stopped! We must be destroyed!

Now, in comics, Laura is Wolverine. Not only that, she’s taken on mentorship of clones of herself – other girls raised as assassins who escaped their masters. She’s come into her own, reaching out to and giving back to her child self. It feels like a kind of forgiveness – a recognition that she was never the monster. That these girls, these clones, deserve life, and freedom. Despite everyone else telling her what she is, what she’s destined to be, Laura makes herself a superhero.

In one issue of X-23, trapped in space and facing off against the Whirldemon King on an alien world, the demon claims that she is trapped, never going home. Laura contradicts him, saying that she can still see the stars; he says it doesn’t matter because she cannot touch them.

“I do not need to touch them,” Laura says. “I am made of stars.”

Currently Reading: April 2017

So it’s been a while since one of these.

There are a lot of reasons for that – personal life getting in the way, as well as being occupied with other writing projects, as well as spending much of the last few months rereading the entirety of the Wheel of Time series (and while I could just recommend my favorite Wheel of Time books of the month, I decided to refrain).

But now that I’m back to reading fresh material, I figured I should get back in the rhythm of doing my month “best of” recaps. I’ve decided to include a few bonus books that didn’t make it into the gap of the last couple months.

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

I’m including both of these in one because they really have to go together. I recommend having them both on hand if possible, so you can read them one after the other.

I read the first book in Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy, and didn’t really take to it. It felt very trope-y in ways that didn’t appeal. But this duology of books, set in the same universe (but no background knowledge necessary) blew me away. The ensemble cast is wonderful – all of them complex, with their own motives. Kaz Brekker was an especial delight to me, but every single member of the group stands out in their own way, and Bardugo balances the ensemble perfectly – which is not an easy thing to do.

I don’t usually go for heist stories, but this was a heist story that twisted in all the right ways and kept up its breakneck pace without feeling rushed. My only criticism was that sometimes the flashbacks felt a little clumsily handled, but on the whole…gold stars all around.

I want more with these characters, I really do.

Assassin’s Fate by Robin Hobb

It feels a little like cheating to include the third book of a trilogy that is really the conclusion of a nine book arc (possibly more than that, if you include the other series in the same world). But I thought it bore mentioning anyway, if only because it was an intensely emotional reading experience and an immensely satisfying conclusion to a very long arc – one that I’ve been reading for a long, long time.

Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy (beginning with Assassin’s Apprentice) was one of my earliest introductions to the fantasy genre – up there with Wheel of Time and David Eddings’ Belgariad. The Fitz and the Fool trilogy is a gorgeous, heart-wrenching conclusion to that saga. Dragged out of his retirement by the kidnapping of his daughter, Bee, Fitz and his lifelong friend and beloved, the Fool, journey across the world to find her.

Part of what was so rewarding about this end to the series was that it circled back to so many things from before – drawing lines back to the beginning, recalling old characters, bringing things full circle.

No spoilers, but I cried at the end. I cried so much.

Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

I wrote a full review of this book a while ago – Can the Y’ha-nlein Speak? was the title, and that probably tells you a lot both a) about me and b) about this book and why I loved it.

The recent crop of novels that take H.P. Lovecraft’s work, turn it on its head, and shake it to see what comes out are wonderful, and I always want more of them. This is a particularly stellar one, taking on a voice that we’re never given in the original stories and showing the world from a different point of view. Aphra Marsh is – or was – a resident of Innsmouth before the government destroyed it and herded her and her entire family into internment camps, where everyone but she and her brother died.

There is a plot about Aphra joining a circle aiming to prevent the theft of dangerous occult knowledge by the Russians, but as I wrote in my longer review, “the real story of Winter Tide is letting the voiceless others of Lovecraft’s stories speak….it takes the grotesqueries of Lovecraftian legend and gives them a kind of beauty, inverted through other eyes.”

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

This book blew me away.

It’s been described as a combination of Cabaret and John le Carre, but honestly I have just been pitching it as Cabaret but with more gays.” Except it’s so much better than that.

Taking place in the decadent city of Amberlough with a fascist party on the rise, Amberlough follows the threads of three people: Cyril DePaul, a government agent being dragged back into the field to stop the coming coup; his lover the smuggler Aristide Makricosta, whose day job is as emcee/stripper at a nightclub, and Cordelia Lehane, a former prostitute who works at the same nightclub.

This book is about a few things. It’s not a morality tale about the threat of fascism, though that current is certainly there – and once again relevant as fascism rears its head again across the globe. It’s a story about resistance, and art as resistance, and self-interested people who aren’t actually that self-interested after all.

You know how things are going to end, but at the same time you don’t – and even knowing how they’ll end you continue to hope they can be stopped. Somehow, let it be stopped.

Amberlough burns, but it burns in every way that it needs to.

So there’s April’s set of recommended reads. I plan to do a write up for the above-mentioned Wheel of Time reread at some point in the near future, as it was a really good experience and I’d like to talk some about the things I noticed on rereading (for the first time, actually – at least for the whole series). I’m also shortly going to be embarking on the rather ambitious project of Steven Erikson’s Malazan series, which is, as far as I can tell, ten books plus three prequels. I’m also going to finally be picking up some Mercedes Lackey for the first time.

In short, I have a lot of epic fantasy in my future. But hey! That’s what I like.

Can the Y’ha-nthlein Speak?: Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

I don’t remember exactly what brought me to H.P. Lovecraft – maybe just hearing his name in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror communities I moved in, maybe something else – and I’m not entirely sure, either, what caught my attention so much. Accusations of purple prose and excess leveled against Lovecraft are not unfair, and he certainly relies on “unspeakable” and “eldritch” more than is perhaps seemly. But his use of suggestion, of things unseen or barely seen and impossible to understand, and perhaps most of all the idea of a universe that is terrifying in its indifference rather than malevolence, certainly struck me.

Even more fair than critique of Lovecraft’s prose, however, is critique of his personal politics: racism and xenophobia that are not just peripheral but integral to many of his works. Lovecraft’s descriptions of the horrifying other are not just limited to semi-metaphorical depictions of degenerate humans living underground, or miscegenating peoples who breed with apes, but often literal depictions of black savages worshiping tentacled monsters.

There are certainly those who would see Lovecraft thrown out of the canon on the basis of his views – and it is a view I can absolutely understand and sympathize with. I am never going to demand that anyone “forgive” or “look past” his abhorrent racism. However, what I do find more interesting is the recent crop of writers who have taken a new look at Lovecraft and seek to grapple with his writing.

These writers seek not to avoid the pitfalls of his writing by ignoring the problematic elements in favor of more tentacles and eldritch horrors, but incorporating them – metabolizing them, in the words of China Mieville – and grappling with what they mean for a generation that has inherited Lovecraft’s legacy. I am thinking of Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, and Kij Johnson’s The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe.

And now, adding to that list, Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide.

One of my favorite Lovecraft stories was always a lesser known one called “The Outsider.” It tells the story of an unnamed individual who leaves his long and lonely home, only to find that all other people flee from his company in horror. The story concludes with the narrator’s seeing a horrible, grotesque creature, described in classic Lovecraftian prose.

I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide. God knows it was not of this world—or no longer of this world—yet to my horror I saw in its eaten-away and bone-revealing outlines a leering, abhorrent travesty on the human shape; and in its mouldy, disintegrating apparel an unspeakable quality that chilled me even more.

Throwing up a hand to fend off this apparition, the narrator realizes, to his horror, that what he is looking at is his own reflection. The story ends with his understanding: “I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men.”

This particular short story is unusual in its compassion for the monstrous subject. Many of Lovecraft’s protagonists find themselves suffering a deterioration due to their encounters with the uncanny, but this is one of the few who learns that he has been “an outsider” from the beginning. There is sadness in his understanding and resignation that he must live in isolation, “a stranger in this century”, isolated from the company of humans.

This brief glimpse of a Lovecraft with some feeling for the plight of the outsider is, of course, brief. Ruthanna Emrys takes that glimpse and builds a novel from it.

Her protagonist is a member of the Deep Ones, the race of fish-human hybrids described in Lovecraft’s famous story “A Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Aphra Marsh first appeared in a short story called “The Litany of Earth”, which really should be required background reading for Winter Tide. In “Innsmouth”, Lovecraft describes a village of secretive and strange people, linked by interbreeding with the sinister Deep Ones who live in a just submerged reef off the coast. An offhand mention at the end of the story of a United States raid on the village, and the destruction of the reef, is Emrys’s jumping off point.

Aphra Marsh and her family were removed from Innsmouth, along with all her people, and taken to camps deep in the desert, where all but her and her brother died. Eventually joined by the Japanese during World War II, they also were freed when the internment camps were closed. The base plot of Winter Tide follows Aphra’s being recruited by the government that imprisoned her in order to prevent Russians from stealing dangerous and powerful occult knowledge.

The real story of Winter Tide is letting the voiceless others of Lovecraft’s stories speak. She weaves an intricate alternative point of view that elegantly exemplifies the ways in which ritual and culture can be distorted and misrepresented out of fear. She not only uses fictional prejudices, but intertwines them with real ones: questions about the loyalty of Innsmouth’s citizens beside questions about the loyalty of Jewish ones after the founding of Israel, for instance.

Winter Tide is less about the Cold War than it is about building family, and rebuilding self. Reclaiming legacies and finding links with strangers. A willingness to reach out beyond oneself, no matter the risks.

There is a kind of quiet loveliness to this book. It takes the grotesqueries of Lovecraftian legend and gives them a kind of beauty, inverted through other eyes.

If The Ballad of Black Tom weighed cosmic horror against the horror of everyday racism and found the latter greater, Winter Tide offers an alternative vision of Lovecraft’s uncaring universe: if the gods don’t care, then all we can do is help ourselves – and each other.

The Outsider need not be an outsider alone.

Captain America, Actual Social Justice Warrior

In a note of hideous irony, I started this article immediately before the news dropped about Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 (Steve Rogers Is HYDRA!). I rather lost heart in writing this blog post at that point.

However, in light of recent events and the fact that Marvel is still beating this terrible idea of a plot, it seemed important to come back to the point in the title of this article. It seems to be something Marvel in general has forgotten, and may need to be reminded of, particularly those who thought the choice to make Captain America a Nazi (expy) was a good and sensible idea – or even quality storytelling.1  

Though he’s an iconic and instantly recognizable character, there are a lot of people who don’t know much about Captain America. He is frequently characterized as boring or simplistic, and (more often lately) as a jingoistic fantasy, the uberpatriot aligned with conservative values and blindly loyal to the American government.

That’s not Captain America.

When Sam Wilson, formerly known as Falcon, became Captain America in 2015, outcry followed. Fox News was particularly outraged by the first story arc of Sam Wilson: Captain America, which featured the superhero battling the xenophobic, anti-immigrant Serpent Society. Part of the outcry ran that Marvel was making Captain America too political – the political in question here meaning “political in a way that does not align with my values.” This criticism conveniently forgets that Captain America has not only always been political, but has frequently been political in ways that align him with decidedly non-conservative values – neither political nor social.

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Currently Reading: January 2017

It’s only the end of January and this year has already been exhausting. At least we still have books, though my reading this month was a little slow and lackluster – I’m hoping I’ll catch up next month, as I have a number of books lined up now that I’m excited about. (I’ve just started reading Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho and am very much enjoying it.)

Looking back on the last month, four books stand out as ones I recommend – two true crime, one continuation of a beloved series and one first novel in a new one.

Without further ado.

City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett

The next in the series that began with City of Stairs and City of Swords, both of which I loved, this book isn’t technically out until May 2nd of this year, but I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy for Netgalley. I was a little apprehensive about whether this book could live up to the last two, especially since the narrating character (Sigrud) was not one of my favorites previously.

I cried, dear reader.

A lot of this book is about the broken world we leave for our children, and the way injustice gets perpetuated through the generations. Especially in these tumultuous times, it resonated. Tightly plotted as ever, woven through with the richness of its thematic material, and drawing to a deeply satisfying but heart-wrenching conclusion, City of Miracles feels a little like a finale – but I dearly hope it isn’t.

Less a standalone than either of the previous books, City of Miracles requires reading City of Stairs at least – and City of Swords is recommended reading as well. Seeing as both are excellent books, though, I wouldn’t see this as a hardship.

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry

Switching gears to something considerably less fictional: I’m a true crime buff, and have been for years, for almost all of which people have told me to read this classic in the genre. After putting it off for a long while, I finally got around to it during my hellish ordeal of a flight home from Seattle on New Year’s, and read the whole thing in about eight hours. Not only is the story of the Manson murders a horrifying and gripping story in and of itself, this book provides a compelling narrative, detailed and in-depth, with a rare personal perspective (Bugliosi was the main prosecutor on the case).

Helter Skelter digs deep into the background of the Manson family, the Tate-LaBianca murders, and the investigation and trial that followed, with a level of detail that’s unparalleled in other true crime reporting I’ve read. Fascinating, intense, and compelling, I recommend this book even for those who don’t think they’re interested in this case, or for those who are just getting started in true crime – though it might spoil you for what the genre can be.

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

A confession: I did glaze over a bit during some of the mathematical portions of this book, and it took me a fair bit to begin following the world that Yoon Ha Lee was building, but once I did I was thoroughly hooked and couldn’t put this one down. Fans of Ann Leckie will undoubtedly enjoy this book, which is not really comparable to the Ancillary series except in some of its themes and styles.

A military woman joins forces with a general known primarily for slaughtering his own troops in a massacre centuries before, in order to prevent the spread of a “calendrical heresy” that threatens to undo the structure of her world. However, all is not necessarily as it seems, and the deeper in the reader gets, the more tangled things become.

The next book in the series, Raven Stratagem, is coming out this year, and I’m very much looking forward to it.

Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt

Almost a full-180 from Helter Skelter, this second true crime book follows the case of the West Memphis Three, a trio of boys who were convicted of killing three 8-year-olds and imprisoned for 20 years, only to be released quietly in 2011. This book made me legitimately angry – Leveritt lays out in painstaking detail the shortcomings of the case against the three boys, the leads that were discarded as the investigation focused (for no good reason) on occult motivation, and the railroading of three boys – one of whom was underage, and one of whom had intellectual disabilities.

This isn’t the book to read if you’re looking for reassurance of the effectiveness of our criminal justice system, or that the bad guys always get caught. Rather, this book shows how quickly assumptions can blind whole communities to the gaping holes in a case, and the failure of logic that led to the decades long imprisonment of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr.

As I mentioned at the top of this post, I’m currently reading (and loving) Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. I’m also anticipating Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson, Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys, and Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly.

Until next month. Happy reading!

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: Now With More Silver Age Racism

After a long delay (how long has it been? nobody tell me) I’m finally getting back into the swing of writing these recaps. I’ve missed it! Though these five issues presented kind of a cornucopia of the Silver Age at some of its…not finest. On the bright hand, it also introduces some personal favorites.

Starting off with Avengers #16 – this issue is kind of a big deal. It represents the first major shift for the team line up (of many to come). I don’t count the departure of the Hulk and addition of Captain America as a true line-up change, considering the Hulk barely stuck around for the issues he was in and most of the team stayed the same. In Avengers #16, however, which promises to be “possibly the most memorable illustrated story you will read this year!”, almost all of the former Avengers leave and a new team – one frequently cited as one of the best iterations – takes their place. We’ll see what I make of them, but I’m looking forward to it.

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Reading Roundup: Best of 2016

It’s been a quiet past month – an a rather chaotic end to the good old year of 2016, which means this post is coming late. But, as I did last year, I’d like to dedicate a post (in lieu of my Currently Reading for December) to spotlighting some of the best from the last twelve months. If only so people can argue with my choices, because I have come to believe that is the sole purpose of “best of the year” lists.

That being said – going through my list, I read a lot of good books last year. The total came to 121 books read in 2016, and a fair number of those I enjoyed. I don’t know that I’d say there was a real knockout on the level of The Traitor Baru Cormorant, but that’s setting a high bar – and unkind to a number of stellar authors I really enjoyed.

Without further ado. It took a fair amount of work to whittle my original list of 18 down to 10, but what’s a best of list without challenges? (The ones I removed are still here, though, listed at the bottom as honorable mentions.)

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

I read something recently about a shift, for those fascinated with things like ghosts and cryptids, from questions of “is it real” to “why is it important to people”, and that’s what drew me to this book (as someone for whom that’s very much been true). A couple years ago I wrote a short essay examining the distribution of ghost stories in the Pacific Northwest, and discussing how they tended to be localized around either landmarks or historical sites, and the ways in which people use ghosts to connect to the past – or a past.

Colin Dickey discusses a range of hauntings across the United States in the context of what they suggest about American narratives of hauntings and history. One particularly intriguing section discussed the white-washing of a former slave market – ghost sightings were primarily of white people, with little to no mention of the atrocities that happened there. Ghost stories, he concludes, can both recapitulate or reinforce an existing narrative, or raise concerns sublimated in mainstream culture.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This book was sci-fi that extended itself to fulfill a potential that I think is often lost – delving deep into the lines along which an alternate culture – totally alien to our own – might evolve. Almost more of a treatise on hypothetical evolution – but a thrilling, cinematic one – than conventional narrative, Tchaikovsky weaves together the stories of exiles from a destroyed Earth and an unusual “people” growing to maturity, concluding on a hopeful note that offers something other than unilateral annihilation as a possibility for alien coexistence.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Sometimes a book reminds you why you learned to read. This book – the first in a series – was that for me. It was delightful without being twee, the best kind of new fairytale. Entirely original, it reminded me of books like The Phantom Tollbooth and The City of Dreaming Books that are as much commentary on literature and reading and stories as they are stories themselves.

September chooses to be spirited off to Fairyland by a Leopard, and there finds that all is not well. Bringing in sacrifice, friendship, and adventure in the spirit of the best fairy tales, reminiscent of Wizard of Oz but with a sharper edge, this was a book that made me sigh with pleasure when it was over – and start looking for the sequel immediately.

Excluded: Making Feminism and Queer Movements More Inclusive by Julia Serano

When a book makes me whisper “yes!” out loud in a coffee shop, I know I’ve found something special. Julia Serano is a nuanced theorist who writes with deep compassion and understanding about the problems with feminist and queer movements, and the ways in which all too often they simply form new binaries and hierarchies in place of the old. As someone who has been involved with both of those communities in the last few years, this book spoke to a lot of my frustration with the movements, dissecting them in clear, articulate ways and offering new ways forward.

I’m looking forward to reading Julia Serano’s other work, if Excluded is any kind of representative example.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I do not read a lot of realistic fiction, as the rest of this list makes evident (and the general condition of this blog). When a book brings me out of my comfort zone, it’s almost always something exceptional – and Homegoing was unquestionably exceptional. It took my breath away and stands out among the best novels I’ve read, possibly ever. This was Yaa Gyasi’s debut, and I really hope to see more from her.

Homegoing weaves together the stories of two families that originate from two half-sisters in West Africa. One marries a British officer, remaining in Africa; the other is sold into slavery to what becomes the United States. Moving through generation after generation, Gyasi tells beautiful, painful, and heartfelt stories of each family member, their lives both singular and unique and intimately connected – with their ancestors and with their family far away.

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

When I was deciding which books from my original 18 to keep and which to bump, one of my criteria was “uniqueness” – how much did this book push the boundaries of what I thought the genre could do? Redemption in Indigo is a standout in that category. Chaotic, oral in writing style, short and quick and clever, this folktale-inspired book was a delightful surprise. When Paama leaves her husband to return to her family, she stumbles into possession of a powerful magical artifact – whose original owner wants it back.

The playful and unique voice of the writing in this book is what stood out to me most, but the story itself was also a bright spot in a darkening world.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

I love Lovecraft. I really do. And Lovecraft is horrendously, hideously racist.

So I’m really enjoying this new trend of writers who take on Lovecraft’s legacy and face his prejudices, not ignoring them or trying to cut them out, but making them an integral part of their world-building, acknowledging them and metabolizing them into the story. Victor LaValle’s novella this year is the gold standard so far of that storytelling. After all, next to the banal horror of racism, what is there to fear from indifferent cosmic entities?

(In the honorable mention category is another book that fits very nicely with this one: The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson, which I also recommend, in addition to Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff.)

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

The language in this book, oh my god. I have not read a writer who uses language like Sofia Samatar did in A Stranger in Olondria in a long time. It’s beautiful, sensual, so incredibly lovely that I just got lost in the words themselves sometimes and lost track of the plot.

Which is fitting, for a book that is really about the power of books and texts themselves.

Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

I’d like to sneak in a recommendation for the entire Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone, because all of it is amazing and I love the world building, but this one might be my favorite so far. An attendant for a group that creates custom gods for various purposes stumbles into something larger that may threaten the entire structure of her society.

The Craft Sequence plays a lot with the relationships between gods and worshipers in a way that I find extremely compelling. Also, if this is the sort of thing that matters to you: the main character is trans. Not much is made of it in the context of the book itself, but it is definitely there, stated in text, which is neat.

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

It feels a little like cheating to list a sequel here, but City of Blades also stands just fine on its own (though it is the sequel to City of Stairs, and probably is better read in sequence).

Following General Mugharesh, pulled out of her retirement to deal with a crisis situation in the city of the (deceased) goddess of war, like the first book it deals with a lot of very heavy issues without feeling – well, heavy. The aftermath of war is even more apparent here than it was in City of Stairs, especially its psychological cost – both on the narrrator herself and the city she is tasked with investigating. Powerful, smart, and compelling, this book was another home run for Robert Jackson Bennett that sets me up to be thrilled for City of Miracles coming out this year.

Honorable Mentions: Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World by Sharon Waxman, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, The Devourers by Indra Das, The Trespasser by Tana French, The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson, The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold.

There you have it. Looking forward to 2017, there are a number of very exciting releases to anticipate – one of which I’ve already read (Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey) and others of which are waiting for me on my brand new e-reader (The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley). I’ve also set myself up for a Wheel of Time reread this year, so I’m looking forward to a lot of fun reminiscing about the series that made me a real fantasy fan (well, that and The Belgariad).

Until the end of this month, and the first Currently Reading of 2017. Happy New Year!

Currently Reading: November 2016

Looking back at this month, I did not feel like I had read that much. So imagine my surprise when I actually checked and discovered that I had, in fact, read a great deal. Of course, some of that has to do with the luxury of Thanksgiving weekend giving plenty of quality reading time, but it probably also has to do with the fact that a lot of the books I picked up were good.

Without further ado, this month’s recommendations.

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I’m so glad that someone threw this recommendation at me, because this is the kind of sci-fi that I love.

Sprawling and elegant (and only published in the UK and Australia, so I’m especially grateful for the recommendation), Children of Time follows two parallel strands: one the story of a band of humans on an ark ship escaped from a dying Earth, seeking a new home, and the other about a planet seeded with evolutionary potential – that ends up developing along unexpected lines.

The worldbuilding Tchaikovsky does with the planet in question is exceptional and detailed, following along fascinating, logical but alien lines. He explores what to me is some of the most interesting potential in science fiction: the possibilities for life that is nothing like our own, and yet that makes perfect logical sense. While the copy on the book jacket advertises a clash between civilizations, in reality that clash does not come until the very end of the book and spans a remarkably brief period of time. This isn’t a book about war.

Slow moving, spanning millenia of time, and yet somehow managing at every step to be compelling and emotionally engaging, this was a surprising gem of a book that delves into issues of empathy, sentience, and the links between people – or, in one half of the two storylines, between spiders.

Oh, yes. Adrian Tchaikovsky managed to make me feel very fond of some spiders. That on its own is a significant accomplishment.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Every so often I run into a book that reminds me of the feeling of reading as a kid – the wonder, the delight, the incredible feeling of sudden unexpected vistas opening in front of me. The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers did it, and now The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland managed it too.

Catherynne Valente’s unique style may not be to everyone’s taste, thick as it is with asides to the reader and sly winking commentary on itself, but the way it plays with textuality, fairytales, and the combined wonder and terror of childhood is masterful. September finds herself swept away from her house one night, climbing onto the back of a leopard that flies her to Fairyland – a country rich with strange bureaucracy under the mysterious and sinister Marquess.

I’m very much excited to pick up the sequels to this book – there are several – and further explore the world Valente has begun to sketch here.

Paper Tigers by Damien Angelica Walters

I’d never heard of this book before I picked it up, but was intrigued by the summary: a woman who has lost everything in a catastrophic fire finds herself drawn to a photo album seemingly possessed by an entity that promises to make her whole.

Paper Tigers is creepy and atmospheric, and beautifully paced. The action starts slowly, laying the groundwork of the lonely life that the main character leads, isolated by the horrific burn scars that mar her whole body. The action picks up quickly, however, the strangeness accelerating and the menace on the horizon growing darker and darker, racing to the final pages.

Damien Angelica Walters has lovely prose and an evocative sense of both atmosphere and character. I’ve talked before about how I’m pretty picky with my horror, but this one was an absolute knockout.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

This book plays as a sort of companion to McGuire’s novella Every Heart a Doorway, which I wanted to like much more than I did. This book I thought was much better. The story felt less rushed, better paced, and its portrait of two sisters with a strained relationship (but eternal loyalty) was certainly something that drew me.

It might be beneficial to read Every Heart a Doorway first for an introduction to the two main characters of this novella: Jack and Jill, or Jacqueline and Jillian, a pair of twins who stumble out of their distant and restrictive parents’ home into a strange, dark world.

Honorable Mention: Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

I finally finished the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie this month, and while I can’t say that I loved it with the same fervor many of my friends did, I can say that I highly recommend it. Unique in concept and execution, and with an eleventh hour plot twist I did not see coming (and particularly enjoyed as a solution), it was certainly a pleasure to read.

I would have enjoyed more time spent exploring the Presger (as always, what often draws me to science fiction is aliens, the weirder the better), but as it stands, I can comfortably give this series my warm regards.

Moving into the final month of the year (and starting to look at what 2016’s Best Of List might look like), I don’t have any definite reading plans. But I’m looking forward to seeing what crops up.