50 - The Obelisk Gate (pt 1)


Kaleb Russell and Rose Eveleth join me to talk about The Obelisk Gate.  Also Charles Payseur recommends short fiction about libraries.

Thanks for your patience during an extended (and unplanned) hiatus.  Hopefully the podcast will begin regularly monthly service now.  You can also subscribe to my emails about having a hobby farm & being a Quaker, or follow my blogging about Tolkien.

Recommended Stories - 

The Universal Library (written & translated Erik Born), in Mithila Review Issue #9

Turing Machines of Babel - Eric Schwitzgebel, in Apex Magazine

Library of Lost Things - Matthew Bright, at Tor.Com

The Librarians Dilemma, E. Saxey in Journal of Unlikely Academia

In Libres, Elizabeth Bear, In Uncanny Magazine #4

The amazing art which inspired me to actually get this project off the ground was created by  @etrandem

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41 - "We'll see how it feels to people once it's on the page"

The concluding episode in the Grace of Kings podcast series - author Ken Liu (@kyliu99) joins @afishtrap and me to discuss technology and gods in the novel, as well as structure.  And I am very pleased to announce a new review series - Brandon O'Brien (@therisingtithes on Twitter & Tumblr) begins "Black Star Cruises" with a review of Kai Ashante Wilson's A Taste of Honey.

The amazing art which inspired me to actually get this project off the ground was created by  @etrandem

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Transcript (Google Doc), Review (Google Doc)

39 - "Sort of true, if not factually accurate"

This episode, Ken Liu (@kyliu99) joins @afishtrap and I to begin wrapping up the discussion of The Grace of Kings.  In this episode, themes of history, myth, and how they intersect.  In addition, Charles Payseur of Quick Sip Reviews recommends short stories for the resistance, and (from the archives!) Kip Manley (@kiplet) has a quote from Margaret Wise Brown.

Short story recommendations from Charles.

Screamers - Tochi Onyebuchi, in Omenana

The Gentlemen of Chaos - A. Merc Rustad - Apex Magazine

Plea - Mary Ann Mohanraj - Lightspeed Magazine

Standing on the Floodbanks - Bogi Takács - Giganotosaurus 

The Book of How To Live - Rose Lemberg - Beneath Ceaseless Skies

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JSM - Hello and welcome to Cabbages & Kings, the podcast for readers of Science Fiction & Fantasy.  This episode I'm joined by Ken Liu, the author of Grace of Kings, as well as AFishtrap to begin to find the end of our podcast obsession with Grace of Kings.  As an aside, I'd like to heartily recommend the sequel, Wall of Storms, which I'm working through now & which advances Grace of Kings in really interesting ways.  I don't think there are going to be 17 episodes on Wall of Storms, but here's the first part of my discussion with Ken and afishtrap, focusing on what's going on with the various styles and heroic episodes within the novel.

KL - one of the things I was trying to do with the novel is this idea of examining history, and examining the ways that history becomes history.  So, in some passages, right, remember one of the big themes that I have in a lot of my work really is that idea of foundational myth, and how by mythmaking we also end up defining who we are, that is the way we live our lives is about telling ourselves a story, right, so for example a very popular question to ask writers is "when did you decide you were going to be a writer?" "How did you decided you wanted to be a writer?" and writers, i don't know, I think other writers, but I hate answering that question because it's a question that forces you to make up a myth, because the real answer is, idiotically mundane, because often there is no such moment when that happens and there's no such origin story where you know Athena comes out and says you are a writer. and then you become a writer, there's just no story like that, and so you're forced to come up with some story that is sort of true if not entirely factually accurate, that is somewhat pleasing to a listener and inspiring. A lot of our lives, a lot of the important events in our lives are done that way, y'know they happen fortuitously because of some random points and so later on to give it meaning you have to form a narrative, you have to tell a story about it, and give it a cause and effect. What I was trying to do in parts of the Grace of Kings especially with these origin stories is to sort of highlight and foreground the artificiality of these stories, because the stories are being told, already as though they were legends and myth even though they were supposedly in the meta context of the novel supposedly stories about actual people happening.

JSM - In my early discussion with afishtrap, we thought about the first three chapters as a procession from the exotic to the mundane - Emperor Mapidere's fantastic (and dare we even say exotic or oriental) procession, Mata's heroic story, and Kuni's story.  Here's Ken's view of the way in to the book.

AF - The first one is this is the myth as you expect it, you've got the pagoda, you've got the dancing girls, you've got the logograms and blahblahblah, and then the second chapter is here is the origin of the myth as you expect myths to be where it's, y'know, family tragedy and then he works his way up and then he kinda rise back up and reclaim what his family had, and then the third chapter is "here's how the myth really happens", so it's like a layer after layer in terms of the reader expectations of how a mythic story begins and so the novel really begins in that third chapter with Kuni, and that was kinda of what we were saying: that each chapter was "here's what you thought you're getting, no no no, here's what you thought? no no no, here's the real story."

KL - I like that.

AF - Didn't plan that at all?

KL - So what I was doing was something slightly different in intent, but ah it looks like the effect is ultimately similar.

So, one of the things the I try to do in Grace of Kings was to play with multiple registers of narrative. So there are some sections that are written in this very very high epic sort of voice, this is how a myth begins, this is where you invoke the muse. and you say "sing goddess..." here comes the high perspective and the first two chapters are sort of like that - one of them is very evocative of a very old western epics, in that sort of the second chapter, and the other one is very evocative of um, sort of high cinema visions of epic storytelling, it's how, how modern films done by Hollywood would try to portray a story of this sort, they would start off with this very high spectacle kind of drama thing, but it's not just Hollywood, Hollywood is tapping into a very old tradition and so in some ways I was trying to evoke the very old uhm stylized opera kind of format the traditional Chinese folk opera that are very spectacle oriented and they try to tell the main point with, with a song if you will, that's very stylized and very artificial.  The third chapter on the other hand is very much evocative of Pingshu storytelling, it's the oral low art form, this is the one where it's just a storyteller in the tea house trying to tell you a historical romance, stories about, that are based on history but are really romances, that have very little to do with actual history, and yet at the same time, these storytellers tales are often the folk version of history that most people know, and so in the third chapter that's the tone that's being taken, it's a much lower tone in terms of perspective, we're no longer concerned about grand, issues of family dynasty .... fate, we're no longer talking about honor and glory of the entire nation , we're really talking just about one dude who wants to, wants to drink for free essentially.

AF - *laughter*

KL - ah, that's his highest ambition in life - he wants to be nice to his friends and he wants to, he wants to drink for free, and he's got a swagger, he's got this kind of very market-oriented attitude to everything, and yet the ultimate point is that all of these registers of storytelling are important, you cannot tell a story without reaching all these registers, just as Kuni eventually has to learn that it takes all kinds to build a nation. So that's kind of the intent.

AF - That first chapter was the only place that you mentioned anything that would really fall in that category of that quintessential hollywoodized asianness of

KL - mm hmm

AF - of Pagodas and Elephants and Logograms and ah, dancing girls and I think there were a number of things that we even called out that those are the only places in the entire 195,000 words that those words were used & we figured that was kind of intentional, that there seemed like this setup at the very beginning of "get this all out of the way"

KL - Yes, that's definitely true, because um, with a novel like this, where you start out by saying y'know the essential myth is Chinese & we're trying to, I'm trying to do a reimagning of the foundation of Chinese myth, using this new vocabulary of what I call silkpunk, then one of the first things I have to do is to say, look, y'know we're gonna leave the shore, if you will, and the first thing we gotta do is to paint you the port we're departing from, so here's what people expect when they hear a story that's based on Chinese characteristics, so we'll see that out, and sort of show how we're not going to be using these elements in that way and then from that point we're leaving the shore and leaving that behind

JSM - Yeah, it's interesting because, I love that image and that metaphor because for all of the railing against "oh, another generic pseudo-medieval European setting" that shows up, it feels like in some ways because there have been so many of those, the weight of any individual story or vision on kind of the next book that has a pseudo-medieval european setting is maybe a little bit less. But yeah, I mean, I probably had two or three stories and movies in my head that came vaguely from China, and that was kind of my image of what, um, a Chinese-inspired story would be, and I really like the idea of kind of being at the port and setting out from that, saying "I understand what your expectations are, but let's move on", and I would imagine that that probably presented it's own challenges.

KL - Yeah  there were multiple issues, I mean one of the big fears I had with the book before I finished it was whether people are going to say "this is not Chinese enough", that they're going to say where are your chopsticks, where are the kowtowing ministers? Where are the

JSM - Where's your wise dragon

KL - Yeah and all that stuff

It's like, there are certain things people want. There are supposed to be some scholars standing around spewing about loyalty to the emperor, right, there's gotta be some of that

AF - Honor to the family

KL - Mandate of HEaven, we've gotta bring that up.  Which is comical because none of those things are actually Chinese at all, they are Chinese as perceived by somebody who was not Chinese, which is why it's comical.

I mean a lot of the things about how readers react to the GoK is pretty interesting, because there are actually super super Chinese things in the book, but they're very deep, and sometimes they're not perceived as Chinese at all, I mean for example a lot of people have commented on the fact that, it feels very Japanese to them because people sit on the ground & have elaborate sitting positions, and there are all these talks about warriors who have this code that seems samurai-like, which is kind of comical to me because the reason they probably seem Japanese to a lot of readers is because the classical Chinese tradition I'm drawing on especially around the Han, the time of the Han dynasty was very likely that, people did sit on the ground, they did not sit on chairs, that happened much later, elaborate sitting positions were in fact the case and this code of warrior-ethics was very much the ethic of the warring states period, it might remind people of Japanese in that the high culture of Japanese Medieval culture in some ways shares the same root

*Interstitial Music*

JSM - As Ken mentioned, there are these heroic episodes in which many of the questions of tone and style, mythology, and history come into play, we're going to take a look at a few of these heroic episodes, beginning with the rebellion of the fish

KL - the rebellion starts with two of these, um, characters who are not who don't really have huge ambition, they were just desperate, they were captains of a bunch of covey laborers and they had no choice but to rebel. And the way they rebel is they create this fake message from the gods by putting it inside a fish.

AF - Yes, the two goons.

KL - Right

AF - The two goons, that's what they were

KL - Yes, the two goons *laughter*

They play this trick to fool their followers into believing them, but if you remember later on there's this episode where one of them says, lets look back on that episode a little bit and think about what actually happened, could it not be that the gods inspired us to come up with that in the first place, so maybe it actually is true? I mean, we made that myth up but maybe it's actually true.  And in terms of the court historians writing this down, I think you should write it down as though it actually happened that way, the gods really did inspire us and the gods really did put the message there, I'm actually believing it myself.  And that's kind of how it happens. And that was sort of the overall, move I wanted to make

*Interstitial Music*

JSM - OK, now I'm going to pass the baton to Charles Payseur for some timely short fiction recommendations

CP - Hi everyone, my name is Charles Payseur, and I'll be recommending some speculative short fiction today.  There is a part of me that wants nothing more than to provide some stories that are unabashedly fun, and funny, and light, because our current situation is anything but.  Ignoring what has happened, though, or even encouraging others to ignore it, would seem irresponsible to me. Right now, there is fear yes and anxiety and worry and stress, but I think that at times like this, the thing that we have to remember is resistance.  That in the face of injustice and a growing inequality and a growing feeling of threat, there is still strength to be taken from standing for what is right.  To not looking away from the difficult realities we find ourselves in. A lot of SFF deals explicitly with that.  And today I want to share some of my recent favorites that deal with themes of resistance in the face of oppression and violence.

First up is a brand new story from Omenana's November issue, Screamers by Tochi Onyebuchi, which follows a father brought over from Africa to be a police officer and his son who eventually follows in his footsteps.  The piece centers on a series of violent explosions that perplex the police until they discover the soruce, that these aren't bombs but the condensed essences of African Americans dealing with living under the constant institutional oppression of America.  Dealing with the racism and the hatred, finally able to strike back in the form of a deadly scream, a deadly empathy.  Which is what I feel the story is ultimately about.  The danger and the power of empathy, and xpression.  The danger for those who benefit from hate, and the power of those living under hate's shadow, to express themselves in a way that others understand and resonate with, sometimes to violent effect.  It's an amazing read.

The second story is The Gentlemen of Chaos by A Merc Rustad, from August's Apex Magazine, a story that looks at a main character forced to work for an oppressive system, in this case for an unjust king.  And through this work the main character who has to live under a false name and identity assigned him by the king is used to protect the system, to prop it up.  To keep the king safe.  But the story shows the power of resistance, of taking control of your own narrative, and ultimately being able to fight back, to destroy the lies and the systems of injustice and find some level of peace and hope, that the future can be better.  It's a dark but beautiful story and very worth checking out.

Next is Plea by Mary Ann Mohanraj from October's Lightspeed Magazine.  The story shows a family waiting in line which might not seem that compelling a premise, but they're trying to escape a growing violence against people like them, people who have been genetically modified to live better with their situation.  And the violence coming from people who are intolerant of this, who see them as having unfair advantages, who want to make humanity more human again, like that's an actual thing.  And they're trying to emigrate to avoid the violence threatening them, and the two mothers, Gwen and Rose, have to make a heartbreaking decision in the face of what those they're trying to seek protection with decide about their case.  So it's a story about emigration that is heavy and difficult and reveals that resistance can mean leaving a dangerous system behind, and can also mean not being able to.  Definitely grab a firm hold of your feels before reading this one, and even then be prepared to cry because I definitely did.

Standing on the Floodbanks by Bogi Takács, is another story about seeking to escape an oppressive government, an unjust and violent situation only to find that in conflicts often there is no just side, which I think is something that we don't see enough in SFF.  The main character, ah, Aniyé goes from a tool of war on one side to the opposing side wanting to use her in the same way.  Only through the intervention of someone with power is Aniyé able to resist, to find her own path, which involves exposing the injustices she finds on both sides of the conflict and choosing to work for peace in spite of serving a brutal war.  And I don't think the face that Aniyé needs to rely on aid lessens the theme of resistance in the piece because it's often the situation that those with power do need to give that to other people, do need to protect people in order to give them the opportunity to resist and express themselves and find a way forward.

And lastly I want to talk about The Book of How to Live by Rose Lemberg from Beneath Ceaseless Skies' anniversary October issue. Where the magically named and the magicless unnamed live very different lives.  Where to be magicless is to be lesser, and where a group of those without magical names but with keen intellects and dragon passions to fulfill their potential decide that they aren't content with the scraps they are being offered.  This is a story about how resistance can begin.  About pushing back past hesitation and doubt from all sides and working for something righteous.  And the worldbuilding of the piece is strong, and this is a birdverse story and I am just such a fan of that setting and the narratives coming out of it, and it's an amazing read and one that I have returned to again and again in recent days and weeks to try and remind myself about the work of resistance, about how to go forward even in the face of growing difficulties and tensions.

So yeah there you have it, if you want even more speculative stories on the theme of resistance, I have a large list that came out recently at Quick Sip Reviews.  Otherwise stand strong and fight on.

*Interstitial Music*

JSM - Thank you Charles.  We'll return to the interview with Ken, and the idea of the stories we tell and how they shape the world we inhabit

JSM - Going back a little bit Ken to your anecdote of asking writers when they chose to be a writer, the number of times that people will ask about the 5 year old & 2 year old, oh were they always so quiet, were they always so, y'know , and it's like "well, no they were never always anything"

KL - Right

*general laughter*

AF - They've only been on the planet for five years

JSM - We like to tell stories

KL - Yes, we like to tell stories, we like to tell stories not just as individuals but as nations. we love to tell origin stories about y'know the origin of the Anglo-Saxon character, the origin of the american nation.  We love these stories.

*HAMILTON INTERSTITIAL* - Immigrants, We Get The Job Done

KL - For a lot of these heroes, they have these unbelievable origin stories, and the question is do they believe it or not? One of the key differences beteween Mata & Kuni is Mata ended up believing his story.  That's what lady Mira's critique and conversation with him was about.  Mira says: look, everybody tells you who you are, and you end up believing that, and that's why you're so sad. Because you, you are living the stories other people tell you are your stories, and that is why you're sad, and that is why you're always worried & always unhappy. I'm not like that, and that's why even thought I am not anything like you, I don't have your power, I'm much better than you in a lot of ways, and that was lady Mira's point. um whereas with Kuni if you recall, he's had those incredible mythmaking moments, he takes up the sword and he chops off a snake's head and everyone thinks like this is a portent and it means that he's going to be the king, he's going to be the emperor, he's gonna be awesome, but even near the very end of the book, he doesn't believe these stories right, because Kogo is like, Kogo makes up this terrible interpretation of the gods portents and says this means that the gods are all in favor of you, yeah lets celebrate! and Kuni says "who knows what the gods really think", and Kogo says "well that doesn't really matter, the people care about what you think" that's all that matters, and Kuni says yeah I guess you're right, but even at that moment Kuni knows that y'know he's not favored by the gods.  He doesn't really believe in favor of the gods, even at that moment he does not believe that Origin story the way Mata believes in his origin story.  Anyway so that's kinda where I was going with that.

*Interstitial Music*

KL - There's this fundamental yearning, by a lot of the characters at least, that the world and the universe is knowable.  And that's fundamentally a very science fictional idea, and so that's why there are large parts of it where the mental outlook of the characters and the way the book treats the world is that kind of science fictional yearning for a sense of wonder.  And it's not necessarily based on the supernatural, but rather on the very idea of humans being able to accomplish great things through the power of technology.  And that is a theme that gets developed more, later on in the other books, ah, that tends to become a more dominant note if you will.

JSM - Now you're making me wonder what the second book will be like if Mata had won instead of Kuni

KL - It would be a very different world, right? A very different world

*Interstitial Music*

Instead of a Favored Book this episode, I'm going to dip into the archives, looking back to when Kip and I talked about books for kids, and a lovely quote from Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight Moon.

KM - Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown, who studied with, basically is writing this under the influence of the theories of Gertrude Stein, about getting at language and learning how kids are going to learn, and she said something marvelous about children being absolutely the best audience for just the raw primal music of poetry.  And that, one of the things that I'm always concerned with, perhaps overly much when I'm writing is the sound of a sentence, the way that it sounds, the rhythm that it strikes and how they flow and a paragraph, so just reading that and finding this connection so long ago on something that I remember from when I was very small,

JSM - mm hmm

KM - she's writing a paper on books for five year olds.  She describes a child who quote carries with him the glamour of a 2-year-olds own small self, the 3-year-olds humor and love of pattern, and 4-year-olds first playful flights into the humor of incongruous things, and finally the 5-year-olds careful watching of his own eyes and ears.  Here is an audience sensitive to the sheer elements of the English language. Translate their playfulness and serious use of the sheer elements of the language into the terms and understanding of a 5-year-old and you have as intelligent and audience in rhythm and sound as the maddest poet's heart could desire.

JSM - Thanks for listening to C&K.  Please let me know what you think of the show.

36 - Ancillary Sword

This episode, Ethan rejoins me to discuss the AI in Ancillary Sword (our previous discussions of Ancillary Justice are here and here), Charles Payseur recommends 5 stories around the theme of Age & Aging, and future guest Jenn Brissett has a memory of a significant book.

Charles' recommendations this episode: 

Transcript to come.

The amazing art which inspired me to actually get this project off the ground was created by  @etrandem

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31 - Women in Grace of Kings

This episode, Kate Elliott (@KateElliottSFF) joins me and @afishtrap to discuss women in Grace of Kings.  The (lack of) women in the story is highly noticeable early on, while the great warrior Gin Mazoti & other women come to prominence late in the novel.  We talked about the roles of women, loving a story while seeing its flaws, specific characters (particularly Kikomi and Mira), and how women are often presented in Epic Fantasy.

Other episodes in this series can be found here.  

Kate's review of Grace of Kings at A Dribble of Ink

Booksmugglers' review of Grace of Kings (quoted in episode)

Kate's essay at tordotcom about the historical roles of women.

Outtake here - a clip that didn't quite make the cut discussing the historical roles of women.

The amazing art which inspired me to actually get this project off the ground was created by  @etrandem

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(AF - @afishtrap, KE - Kate Elliott, JSM - Me!)

KE - I just think this whole thing of where we're trying to list the women & what their relationships are is an interesting part of how women are often used in Epic Fantasy, female characters, I mean


*Intro Music*

JSM - Welcome to Cabbages & Kings, I'm your host, Jonah Sutton-Morse. With this episode, Kate Elliott joins Afishtrap & me to discuss the women of Grace of Kings. Those of you who’ve read it probably remember that despite the large cast, there are few women early on, and they are generally defined by their relationships with men. Later, more women appear - I remember being on Twitter as people read Grace of Kings, and the frequent chorus from those of us who’d finished the book to those who were wavering partway through: wait for Gin, wait for Gin!

In this episode, you’re going to hear us talking about a book we love, an aspect of the book we didn't always love, and various ways we responded to different women in Grace of Kings.  The conversation is rooted in the book, but it is also a snapshot of the many ways that readers navigate their relationships with problematic faves and the presence or absence of women in epic fantasy.

I'm going to start with Kate Elliott, just after we had refreshed our memory & cataloged the women of Grace of Kings.


KE - I need to start what I’m about to say because it’s going to sound critical.  First of all, I loved this book.  I loved this book, and I can't wait to read the second one, I think it is an incredible piece of work, brilliantly written, brilliantly conceived, and I adored it, and I actually hit a point about a third of the way in, and I had no idea what to expect.  And about a third of the way in, I got in and I said to myself "there's like two women in this book"

AF - *laughs*

KE - A third of the way in there are only two women in this book, and two things I talk about later had kind of irritated me, and I sat there for a minute and I said “normally, normally when I read an epic fantasy and I'm a third of the way in and there's only two women and they're minor characters, and one of them's whole story seems to revolve around sex, and beauty, I'm done, the book's over.”  And I sat & I thought, but I love this book so much that there could never be any more women in this book & I would still love it, because I can love things just because I enjoy them, they don't have to fit whatever my thing is, so I'm just going to love this like I've loved so many things across my life that had almost no women in them.

AF - Yeah

KE - I loved the first Star Wars film and it has Carrie Fisher who's phenomenal and she's like the only woman, right?

AF - She is the only one

KE - Well, the aunt is there briefly


AF - Oh, that's right

KE - And in the second one I think there's the senator who speaks a line, maybe she's in the third one

But having said that, what's interesting to me about this list we're making, is that we are identifying all these women according to how they fit the men's stories, whereas the men we identify them by their stories.

AF - Well, the counterpart to that is I got a third of the way through this story and hit a certain chapter and said to myself this story has so much of what I have always wanted to read, but couldn't because most of the stories have this sort of feeling, haven't been translated into english

So I either have to wait for somebody to post it so that I can read it, very slowly, or for it to be made into a television show.  The Chu-Han contention just is not something that you see in western media a lot, and and so I was so loving getting to be able to read somebody who's in dialog with that history that what would've usually had been a completely Do Not Finish point for me I was just like y'know what we're just going to skip this chapter, this chapter just doesn't exist, because otherwise it would've been a DNF, but the rest of the story, yes! I mean I wouldn't have talked for so many hours with Jonah if this were not a story that entranced me in a hundred other ways

*Interstitial Music*

KE - Have both of you seen Red Cliffs, the film?

JSM - No

AF - Yes

KE -I love that film.  I love it.  And so, in a way, I'm totally agreeing with what you're saying, this book is in dialog with that tradition, and that tradition has this element in it.  And so what was interesting to me is that Ken, then, at the end, and we'll talk about this more at length, but at the end because he's set up this tradition in which women are very minor characters & they have very set piece roles that are always in relationship to the men, and then suddenly at the end he kind of blows that up, and it wouldn't have ... this is the irony is that it wouldn't have worked as well if he hadn't adhered to that expectation and that tradition through so much of the book.

AF - Yeah but at the same time, it's if he had not been telling the story with which I was already really familiar, I don't think I would've ... if it had been say for instance a retelling of The Odyssey, or one of the Greek Myths, I think I probably would've made it a third of the way through the book & said I've foudn the cure for insomnia. It was the dialog with the history that I already knew that got me through the parts where normally I would be like, I don't ... life is too short to put up with having women shoved to the background.

That requires a great deal of trust in the text, to be able to say I will wait it out and see if you're going to turn this around, because 99 times out of a hundred the books never turn it around and the text never even seems to realize that it needs to be turned around, it speaks to the text's ability to ah to have that authoritative storytelling voice that I kept reading

KE - There's a ... this is so fascinating, what you're saying is so fascinating to me first of all, that element of trust is *really* important to point that out, I think you're absolutely right about that.  And a third of the way in, I trusted the story, to be a story that would have things in it that would interest me whether or not women were included.

Because again I'm old enough that I'm so used to loving stories that have no women in them.

I mean I love Lord of the Rings, how many women are there in LotR, right?

AF - uhhh *laughs*

KE - The expectations have gotten ... I'm now less patient, I mean I think as all three of us are now, about stories that don't include women now, but sometimes I'll read something and I'll say, y'know.

So I trusted him.  I also know people who did read the first third & say I'm done with this.  I know people who stopped reading because of that issue.

But I wanted to go back to something else you said - you said you felt you were able to continue because you were familiar with the tradition

AF - Yeah

KE - And I was able, if this had been a story set in a medieval Europe, I would've stopped at that point.  But because I knew enough of this tradition from watching films and reading y'know some of Dream of, I've read like 3/5ths of Dream of Red Mansions, I've read a little bit of Three Kingdoms. I've read enough of it, it was the fact that it was something new for me, the landscape was new for me, and I could kind of accept that, that was why I kept reading because there was new stuff in it, but if it had been the medieval stuff I would've been out.


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JSM - So we’ve talked about the strength of the narrative voice, and the other appeals of the book that made us fall in love even as the opening was so empty of women. Now we’re going to turn to Kikomi, the beautiful queen who aspires to lead her people & is advised by the goddess to do so with her sex appeal.

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AF - Sometimes I would rather not be on the the page at all than see myself on the page done wrong. And I did get to that point with Grace of Kings where I was thinking y'know what, if you can't do women right, just don't try, just stop. And that's, that's a wierd kind of position to be in as a reader where you would rather take erasure over yet another "oh look, she's using her sex and beauty in order to get ahead, who thinks this is good", I'm just like no just don't.

And I think that was the one point of irritation because it felt like, it felt like it was pandering to that sort of expectation that if a woman was going to show up and get any sort of airtime at all then that was one of the four things she had to fit into.

KE - You're talking about Kikomi, right?

AF - mmhmm

JSM - Yeah

KE - You know what? If you want to know the two things that irritated ... I had very mixed feelings about Kikomi, because I had very much similar to your feeling, it was like why, why is this what we're getting and then because I loved the book so much, if I love a book a lot of course don't we all do this, that we make excuses and find ... it's not excuses, we say "well, hey, we can make it", like if my friend says this offensive thing then I'll find a way to say it wasn't so bad but if someone I don't like says it than I'm like ohmygosh I gotta like y'know drop a piano on them, right?

So we all do, I don't know maybe you guys are not like this.

JSM - Oh no, yes.

KE - This is why I don't read, like if I meet someone and I really don't like them I will never read a book by them because I can't give them a fair shake, and I know that about myself as a reader, so I just accept that that's how it is, I'm judgemental and subjective.  But, but

So I got to Kikomi, but then he did that thing, then I thought y'know what I think he's trying to show that this limited sphere she has, right, you can hear my brain ticking the rationalization, the limited sphere she has she's trying to make the statement that the young prince does when he immolates himself, and at the same time she's trying to protect her country and this is the only way she knows how to do it.


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AF -There is one thing I'd like to explain what in particular actually, because Kikomi is very textbook, we've read her in a thousand other books, there was a maneuver that the text does that was the specific part that made me want to just start throwing things.

It's when she first meets the goddess. She's been introduced as somebody who's like, I can do this, I can take care of things, I can be more than everybody expects me to even if they're disappointed that I'm not a boy.  And so you've got this emphasis that she's willing to go beyond that, and I'm like, OK this is pretty standard.  But it's the maneuver when the goddess meets her, that feels kind of like, one big fucking lampshade where the author says "hey by the way, I'm going to maneuver this character into the same end result that you would've had anyway, but I'm going to try to be slick about it" and that is what actually pissed me off the most.  It was not that you have a stereotypical character who could've been stereotypical, coming to a stereotypical end, it's this little interlude with the goddess where you have the character saying to the goddess: "I want to do more, I want to be, I want to lead these people right" and the goddess is saying "oh, no no no, you know what would be really, really good, is if you used your sex appeal, and then the character goes "oh my goodness, you're so right"

I'm like, “what the hell, what the hell am I reading here?” And that in particular felt like - the text felt like it was well aware that it was contorting things to reach a specific end, but it treated me like an idiot in the course of doing it, and so that was actually the part, not the rest of Kikomi, but that particular discussion that made me feel like, oh just be honest, just say that you wanted her as a plot device to die.

KE - Is that, because the Kikomi incident comes very soon after the prince who immolates himself, am I correct about that? Because I felt like it was an echo of that - these are people trying to salvage what they can of their kingdoms or their places they rule & are responsible for

JSM - mm hmm

KE -  And so I felt like it was almost written as part of that same discussion about what must a responsible ruler do, what is their duty, and in both those cases, the end result is that they must die in order to protect their people.

JSM - Right

KE - But then the choices that are made, how they each get to go, are

AF - Yeah, are so based on their sex organs instead of, I mean, really what I got to at about the halfway point of the book, I just flipped the genders: in my head, Kikomi became male & the young prince who immolates himself became female, that was all I needed

I just wanted to see something other than “girls uses her sex”

JSM - And in fact the goddess' speech is very explicitly that - she says "these are the labels men have put on women.  You speak as though you despise them, but you're parroting the judgements of historians.  Think of the hero who played with the hearts of Rapa and Kama, who showed his naked body to the gathered princes & princesses of Crescent Island, claiming himself to take equal delight in men & women.  Do you think historians call him a seducer, a harlot, a mere bauble?"

And, I feel like there's - that is the attempt to say y'know, if you gender flip what is happening with Kikomi it doesn't read as the stereotype that it is.  But I ... I think it just didn't, it didn't make that jump.

*Interstitial Music*

AF - it's one of the things that Jonah & I have talked about before, of, his sense and the idea that certain plot elements are happening in order to maneuver us and manipulate us towards Kuni is awesome & no matter what he does the plot is going to prove that out.

JSM - Well, yeah, so I justified my, doing the "well I love this book so this problematic element I'm going to kind of make excuses for" as just seeing this as yet another set piece, another origin story because there were so many of those scattered throughout the book. And I felt like so many of those origin stories lean into cliche. And lean into trope.  And I said OK, we are leaning into a trope,

AF - Just roll with it

JSM - and I'd rather not see it, and I wish something else, but y'know that's a piece of ... going back to the notion that one of the things that is really neat about GoK is there it is unfamiliar & it is doing things that you don't see in a lot of other epic fantasy, one of the things that I really jumped on as something that I liked was the structural sort of "okay we're just going to take a minute & tell you an episode"

KE - I loved that

JSM - that's very cliched & tells you how the hero became who they are.  And I loved that & so when I read this Kikomi bit, especially because he spent so much time setting up the beautiful, perfect, idyllic city that she ruled over, I just thought all right, that's the piece of this that I'm going to be reading, is how is this particular tale told, not the fact that this particular tale could probably do without being told at all

AF - I'm pretty sure that on the list of Jonah's 10 things he remembers about this book, that city is number 1, 2, and 3.


JSM - No, the Narwhals riding up the castle is number 1, the city is in my top 5 of the things that I remember.

AF - That visual.  Yeah.  But it is also one of the few places in the book where he really, where the text does layer on the visual.

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JSM - Is there more to say about Kikomi?

KE - I have one more thing I can say about here - so I do think that y'know we meet, first we meet Jia and Jia is clearly so much smarter than any other man in the book, right? And she's always got, she's like such a classic character who is the woman who has devoted her life - I saw this in graduate school in the academic world all the time.  The woman who has devoted her life to her husband's career.

AF - ah-huh, I saw it growing up in the military

KE - Yeah, and she is that character, and so on the one hand I was like why couldn't the book have been about her, but OK, that's what this book is, right, so I'll go with that.  But with Kikomi I was like, that was really for me, because those two are really the only women in the first 2/3rds.  So with Kikomi it was like okay now we really get hammered now with the sexism and the patriarchy of the society.  And, what for me happens with that is that then when he does bring in, start bringing in more women.  

When the women do enter the story you set up so much expectations and especially with Gin that um that great scene, where she crosses the river and there's that great scene where that dude is going oh no we can't fight them because we can't cross the river because that would be bad, that goes against tradition and furthermore she's a woman what could she do anyway.

The text doesn't have to say anything more, it doesn't have to explain anything because we have seen this for 2/3rds of the book.  We totally get that this would happen, I don't have any trouble believing that she can win victory after victory because these idiots see her as a woman and then can't do anything.


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JSM - I think this point about how Kikomi & Jia’s stories reinforce the patriarchal society in Grace of Kings is really important, and I’m going to take a minute here to quote from a review by Ana of the Booksmugglers that really hammered home for me why the absence of women in so much of Grace of Kings is a problem for so many readers. After acknowledging that the text challenges and questions the misogyny of the society even in the early pages, Ana wrote:


“I cannot begin to tell you how much I resent – and a lot, it appears – this. The lives of women are not a “long game”, sorry. I don’t want to be “incremental woman”, you know, one who appears only when it’s convenient after a point has been made, regardless of the obviously good intentions behind this choice.”


We’re going to turn away from Kikomi now to some of the women who did appear later in the story, and two stories in particular that reflect each other quite nicely & also show the breadth of the stories brought into Grace of Kings as the novel unfolds.


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KE - I liked Mira because she didn't have any ambitions.  She leads a life that is very similar to what many women in many societies lead across the entirety of their lives, and these are lives that are so ignored and treated so much as if they don't matter, these, they're just like treated as disposable in narrative, y'know the invisible people who we just kind of throw away,

AF - The background expendables,

KE - the background, but her journey of her grief and her trying to understand what it means & her hatred and how she turns it to tidying up after this man and then the whole thing that happens with her & Mata, I found it so interesting that he chose, that that story was told at all and I think it's important because I think that those stories are almost the ones that get left out more than any other stories of the narratives that we value and that we trumpet.

AF - And you know actually the part I liked with Mira was that Soto, Lady Soto seemed to be the bookend, that you have Mira for whom everything seems to be on the surface, in other words the narrative tells you right up this is what's going on, this is her background, this is what she's working through, and then you have the completely opaque one who is kind of performing the same sort of background, expendable but in a different household, so these two acted as different facets of that same person in the background who normally would just be ignored and I did like that part.  I did think that was in some ways the more Mira got highlighted in terms of how she felt the more intriguing I found Soto for not getting any of that attention, yet still being in the narrative.  Still very much playing a role.

KE - Yeah, I do think that they form bookends, and for me I always felt that there are all these hidden depths in lady Soto that we're gonna not find out until book 2 that she knows a lot & that she's hiding a lot and that she has her own, her own plots and plans and schemes and long-term motives whether, whereas Mira's just like trying to make sense of this, of how her life was destroyed by all this war.

Y'know, she's a refugee, which is why I loved the thing where she just starts tidying up, she's putting her life has been torn apart, she's been completely torn out of all of the things that she had to where she was rooted to herself and now she's just tidying up, and I thought that was just symbolically, and because she is a very surface character - you really know who and what she is and what her conflicts are, and there isn't a lot of depth in there, and I don't mean that in a negative way I mean that's just who she is.  and I liked that contrast between the two women, and how their what they're doing in each of those different households, because they're performing similar but kind of different functions.

AF - Well it's also, the interesting thing is Mira seems to be there to learn, about herself and about what's going on and about what she wants to do whereas lady Soto is there to teach.

KE - mmmm that's interesting.

AF - Both of them are assessing the person they think is an opponent.  Mira assumes that Mata is her opponent on some level, and Lady Soto walks through the door quite aware that Kuni in some ways is a potential opponent and yet both of them end up making their peace and their resolution is Mira is very much I'll learn what comes next, and Soto's like all right, you've got the potential, sit down kid I'm going to teach you a few things because you're going to need to know this, and Jia's response is allright, it's a nice architectural move in terms of the structure of the story.


KE - yeah


*Interstitial Music*


JSM - One of the reasons we invited Kate Elliott to help with this discussion (beyond the obvious delight afistrap & I both took in being able to talk to one of our favorite authors & her general thoughtful reading) was that Kate posted a review of Grace of Kings that specifically engaged with the absence of women in the story.  She had a few other critiques as well, and Kate and afishtrap had a discussion of the distant islands that Kuni approaches with his men.  Earlier, we brought up the way that stories like Kikomi’s and Jia’s reinforced the patriarchy that limited the society in Grace of Kings, which heightened the prominence of women later in the story.  What follows is more along the lines of a missed opportunity - a discussion of alternative historical precedents that could have been contrasted with the overwhelming patriarchy of the empire, a what-might-have-been.  For those of you who want to dive deeper into historical precedents, I’m going to link to another essay Kate wrote, and post an excerpt that didn’t quite fit into this episode onto soundcloud. Those’ll all be findable in the show notes.


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KE - Actually the two things that bugged me most were right at the beginning in the procession where like the second thing you see is the fucking dancing girls

AF - *much laughter*

JSM - Ah Ha

KE - The first thing, I'm like oh my god, no, no, why do they have, that's so western to me, it's not even western, they wouldn't even have that if they had a procession in medieval europe, that's so modern to me, it's like why? I almost stopped right there, but then I'm like no I'm going to keep going.


And then the other one that bugged me, uh, man if I'd been his editor I'd have told him to cut that because it doesn't even matter, right, the other one was when they go to the islands for the first time

AF - ooooh, yes

JSM - I hadn't picked up on this until I read your review & comments

KE - What bugged me was that I thought, as a reader, that here was an opportunity to suggest that this is a different society, with different customs and that you could still have the dudes that were following be sexist, but that you could undercut it, right, you could undercut it with them not quite getting things that are going on but that we the reader could be reading, but instead the women are seen as tits and ass and people who bring food to the men.  That was it.  And it is so, the other thing is is I thought there was a suggestion this was kind of more of an islander culture, and it was so not an islander culture, which just doesn't work like that.

AF - how is that, I mean, islander culture?

KE - Well, I read at least a couple of reviews that have said they felt that they drew from Polynesian, that he drew from Polynesian influences and I just don't see that.  Because for one thing in Polynesia you have definitely a culture with a lot of war going on, and a warrior culture, but first of all *laugh* someone, someone was saying to me that there was more, for instance in Hawaain culture, in ancient Hawaaiin culture, and I'm not an expert on this so if someone who actually knows, if a native Hawaain who actually knows something hears me say some things that are untrue, I hope that they will correct me, I've been told for instance that there were no taboos about sex, about having sexual relationships with people, I mean in the sense that , in the Puritanical sense that we see in our culture for example, but there were a lot of taboos about food, the other thing is that the nature of social relations is such that  - you see this also in bronze age Greece as compared to classical Athen- Athens Greece -  the differences between the hierarchy between who are the nobles and who are the commoners is greater than the differences between the genders.  So, how the

AF - oooohh

KE - If you're an Ali’i If you're the chief, whether you're male or female, if you're in Hawaii you would have, y'know, you would have mana,

from bronze age, speak sharply to a man who speaks to him too familiarly, but he treats Penelope as an equal, even though of course it's a patriarchal society but he treats Penelope as an equal because they're both nobles & so therefore

And so in Polynesian society I ... you would see that, the common people would have more between the men & women would be, they wouldn't have this gender divide in the same way and instead it's just like a mirror of what happens in the other culture where gender is the big divide

AF - And the thing that twigged me about the islanders is was actually something completely different

KE - oooh

AF - Which is, these islanders, and it was more a missed opportunity, in that one of the things that fascinates me the most in reading SE Asian history is the way that each culture interacted with, western contact and include arab contact in that as well as indian continental contact, and the changes that those had on the different cultures and then the arrival of the colonizers, so in this story, we have an emperor who united a bunch of different islands, right, he was basically an imperial dude who said everybody is gonna do this my way, so why is it that we travel out to the islands and the islanders aren't like "screw you, and your continental colonizing ways", why was it, "oh, hey, dude, c'mon over & lets all hang out" because colonization even for a short period of time scars people.

And so the reaction that the islanders had to all be so friendly and welcoming just felt really contrived.

JSM - My impression was that the, the empire had never gone there.

AF - I got the impression that they had interactions.  

KE - I thought that they had an interaction, I wasn't, it wasn't clear to me or else I guess I don't remember whether they had conquered it, or if they just showed up and said "hey, we're a big empire, why don't you y'know, sometimes"

JSM - I got the sense that there was some level of contact

AF - Interaction

JSM - But at no point, I think that the island is Tana Du, and I don't think it had ever been conquered & absorbed into the empire

AF - However the other thing that you need to remember is that islands are not islands in the - I think westerners, especially living within a continental landmass as opposed to say Hawaii where you might have absorbed a slightly different view of things, is that we tend to think of oceans as being vast expanses between land, when in fact when you have an island culture, we think of the waters as a front yard and a back yard, so the idea that they would not be aware of what's going down in other places, like is there no trade, is there no interaction? You know what's going on in your backyard, it's your backyard.  So even if they were put themselves in & "we were pretty lucky, no one came & took us over", I just it makes no sense to me to have a world where somebody on an island wouldn't in some way be aware by some means of what's going on in what they consider their territory, their backyard.

KE - That's an excellent point! Do either of you remember how long it takes to sail there?

JSM - The text says "the sun always set to the right of the ship as they sailed ever southward & then sometime later so presumably at least a few days they were at Tan Adu ... savage cannibals, not a place for civilized men, over the years various states had tried to settle and subdue the island but they'd always failed. " so, it's not y'know it took days to get there, was not easy to get there & there was clearly a level of hostility to people who tried to [garble], or at least that's what the text sets up before Kuni manages to land & talk his way into stay on Tan Adu for a while


KE - Yeah, because, just because yeah the polynesian islands were in contact with each other and of course island chains that were relatively close together even if you couldn't see the next island if you could get there in a day or two or three or four, that was still considered a neighbor

And this is why I thought that there was such a chance here to show a different form of gender, relations, than the main archipelago, and that instead it just seemed to be a recapitulation of the same thing.  Because even if the guys don't, can't really see it, you can still show it.  

And I want to add here, it's so funny for me, because I really really never, I don't like to criticize books, and I've reached a point in my life where I will only criticize a book if I really loved it.

AF - Yes, agreed

JSM *laugh*

AF - The books that I really loved are the ones that I criticized the most.


*Interstitial Music*

JSM - I said at the beginning that this is a discussion of Grace of Kings, but it’s also a broader discussion of the genre.  We’ve talked about some specific characters, though our conversation on Gin Mazoti never got much farther than what Kate wrote in her earlier review: a martial character she very much appreciated & enjoyed, we’ve talked more broadly about how much a text changes depending on who women are relating to and whose story is being told.  As often happens, the discussion ranged from the fantastic elements and the secondary-world of Grace of Kings to analogues and historical precedents in our world.  I’m going to close with another exchange along those lines.

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AF - Well, all I was going to say was the one problem with Medieval history & Chinese history or any other history is This Book Is Fantasy! It doesn't even take place in our world.  It's like that excuse just doesn't hold water to say oh, well, my ahistorical view of that time period is X, and I'm like But You're Writing Fiction, Make It Up!

KE - Y'know and it's interest - this kind of thing about "well there's dragons why do we also have to have patriarchal sexism?"

And like I'm, first of all I totally agree with that, but even, this is my other thing, even if you just take actual history you can see that the stereotypes that people have about history are totally wrong!

You don't even need the element of saying "well it's just a fantasy" because we have examples of women doing every possible thing in real history, so y'know between those two elements, a) it's a fantasy and you have dragons & magic, and b) historically women did everything that you could possibly want to do, you just have to make the choice to put them in.  You have to be able to see them & ultimately the problem becomes is we get (and I include myself in this because I struggle with this all the time) we have to get past that own, that veil that obstacle that gate that we are shut behind and we have to say "hey wait, I can open this up"


*Interstitial Music*


JSM - As it turns out, there are many gates we are shut behind, and many wonders visible to us when veils are removed.  This has been a tough episode for me to fit together, since the roles of women in the Grace of Kings have been the most discussed and most criticized pieces of the book.  If I were a better editor I’d have mixed it better among the other episodes focused on Grace of Kings - the technology of “silkpunk”, the marriage of eastern and western tradition & ideas of divinity, heroism and nobility, the techniques that mediate orientalist reader expectations, and the heroic episodes interspersed throughout this gorgeous sprawling narrative.  


I’d like to thank Kate & Afishtrap for lending their time and expertise to this discussion.  And I’d like to reiterate the earlier statements that all three of us loved this book, we spent a lot of time discussing it because it was wonderful & it enchanted us, and we are all eagerly awaiting book 2! I’d also like to thank you listeners for sticking with these Grace of Kings discussions.  There have been a lot.  This is it, barring one possible future episode talking to Ken to see what else we missed, so thanks for coming along on this journey.

JSM - Thanks for listening.  Give us feedback! (paraphrase)