Book Review: THE SCAR


China Mieville’s world of Bas-Lag is a strange, fascinating, massive place. THE SCAR, the second of Mieville’s trio of Bas-Lag novels, starts the story in New Crobuzon, where PERDIDO STREET STATION took place, and then quickly moves out to explore far, exotic corners of the world. The worldbuilding, this organic exploration, represents the best part of THE SCAR.

THE SCAR takes place immediately after the events of PERDIDO STREET STATION. The fallout from PERDIDO STREET STATION sets the plot of THE SCAR in motion: the New Crobuzon militia is rounding up all of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin’s known associates. Bellis Coldwine, a former lover of Isaac’s, flees the city before they can get to her. She learns an arcane language and secures a place on a ship bound for Nova Esperium, a fledgling colony of New Crobuzon. She plans to lie low in the colony for a few years until the heat dies down. She is forced to run, but Bellis is certain it’s temporary.

Bellis’ plans are ruined when the Terpsichoria is taken by pirates.* The ship is boarded, the commanding officers are shot, and the ship is comandeered. The pirates steer the Terpsichoria to Armada, a legendary city of stolen ships adrift in the Swollen Ocean. The remaining crew and passengers of the Terpsichoria are absorbed into Armada’s population, given housing and jobs, but are told in no uncertain terms that they can never leave the floating city. Some, like Bellis, are horrified. But there were others on the boat who don’t mind so much. Tanner Sack, a Remade man grotesquely punished for a crime by a magical reshaping of his body, was on the ship as a prisoner sent to Nova Esperium to serve as slave labor. While the press-ganging robs Bellis of her freedom and agency, to be treated as any other citizen, to be paid for his work, gives Tanner Sack his dignity back and wins his loyalty in the process.

Armada is the real star of the book. The story is primarily told through the eyes of Bellis Coldwine and Tanner Sack, both new to the city and press-ganged, but the heart of the narrative is a tale of political intrigue and the obligations those in power have to those they are supposed to serve. Armada reads as a real place, with a real economy. It’s a parasitic city, but it’s a living, breathing place. The factions that make up Armada spar with each other, try to undercut each other, and ultimately coexist to keep the city alive. Mieville’s descriptions of the city itself, from the way comandeered ships are repurposed to become city parks and industrial areas and living quarters, to the petty rivalries between the city’s leaders, are endlessly fascinating.

Madness and greed exist in Armada, too, personified here as the Lovers, the rulers of Bellis’ district. The Lovers, a pair of scarred people whose codependence is both deeply disturbing and awe-inspiring, have conceived of an ambitious and dangerous plan which involves a sea monster, an ill-fated scientific expedition and quantum mechanics. The Lovers’ obsession horrifies and fascinates both Bellis and the reader, and ultimately endangers the city of Armada and everyone within it.

The book is well-paced and well-plotted. The worldbuilding is wonderful. The abstract concepts Mieville toys with here are interesting. But, ultimately, the book didn’t quite work. This was one of those rare books where I was totally in love with it at the start and slowly, inexorably fell out of love with it by the end. The reason was Bellis. I loved Bellis—I loved her misanthropy, her urgency, her cold, intellectualized take on the world. I loved having her as the dominant narrator. At the start of the book, Bellis was a breath of fresh air. Finally, here was a smart, remote woman lead who found her way through the narrative on her own. Truly, this felt like her story. In Bellis’ voice, Mieville exercises a degree of stylistic control rare for him. The writing was simple and smirking and evocative.

But by the end of the book, Bellis is utterly, completely stripped of agency. It was as if, over and over, Bellis had to be taught a lesson, had to be cut down to size. That Bellis turns out to have been the pawn of a half-dozen equally arrogant and willful men over the course of the book bothered me. It undermined everything I liked about Bellis, everything that was subversive about her in the first place. And, honestly, I thought Mieville was better than that. Bellis Coldwine is, more or less, the polar opposite of Avice Benner Cho, the protagonist of EMBASSYTOWN, which I loved. He writes Avice as a woman who is brilliant and decisive and who changes the fate of an entire world. She doesn’t really see herself as the driver of those changes, though she undeniably is. Bellis, on the other hand, believes herself to be doing things, making changes, and has that ripped away from her by the end of the book. That she wasn’t seems to be a thoughtless choice. Bellis is made a fool of and for no good reason. The book is still interesting and engaging, but Mieville’s misuse of her character was enough for me to realize that I didn’t like this book as much as I wanted to or tried to.

3 stars

*Honestly, Bellis is a case study in terrible luck.

Call for Beta Readers: “Encroachment”


“Encroachment” tells the story of the Osorio family, a Mayan family living in modern Guatemala, and the Mayan god Cantzicnal. Set against the struggles of a Mayan community against the development of a gold mine by foreign corporate investors, this completed 9,300 word short story weaves together the familiar and unfamiliar and interrogates the nature of faith in the modern world.

The Hearthstone #3/Disability Diary #4: My Mercurial Brain

guess which is the good side and which is the bad

(not actually my brain)

My brain is mercurial. It marvels and terrifies me in turn: sometimes it works so gloriously well, and sometimes it turns on itself with such viciousness. The same brain that writes all these novels and solves all these problems and is so taken with the world around me also saddles me with anxiety and depression and crippling migraines. I have a love/hate relationship with my brain. It is fickle and tricky.

Everything about my brain—the brilliance and the pitfalls—is inherited. I come from a long line of very smart, very tortured people on both sides of my family. Big thinkers who succumbed to alcoholism thanks to recurrent depressive episodes. Curious people trapped by bipolar disorder. Creative people who stumbled under the weight of chronic headaches. All of my immediate family members—my mother, father and sister—have or had serious mental health issues just like me. My mother and sister also get migraines. The brains in my family are for all of us a curse and a blessing. Jon, too, has his own mercurial brain. He’s brilliant and funny and insightful, but he is constantly grappling with anxiety. His anxiety, like mine, seems to stem in part from genetic influence.

I think a lot about my mercurial brain and his these days as I watch my kid develop. I get a migraine and I wonder whether twenty years from now she’ll be lying in the dark whimpering in pain herself. I get an anxiety attack or spend months surviving a fresh bout of depression, and I wonder if the same thing lies in store for her.

Recently, Jon began dating a woman who suffers truly vicious migraines—ones worse than mine by a wide margin. She told him she didn’t want kids and one reason was she didn’t want to curse them with her migraines. And I understood. When I was pregnant, I thought a lot about this, about how there was little possibility of my kid skating through life with a brain that always happened to work the right way, one which was always a friend and never a foe. Did I want to subject her to this?

Internalized ableism is sneaky like that. No one wants their kid to suffer more than they have to. No one wants their kid to suffer in the ways they themselves have suffered. Noble goals, both. I still worry for her, and I still wonder whether I was right to saddle her with my kind of mercurial brain, and at the same time I marvel at just how much ableist Kool-aid I’ve drunk in my life. The truth is that no matter what the migraines would be debilitating and the mental health issues would suck when they are at their worst. But they are made so much worse by living in an ableist society.

If everyone had free access to quality health care (mental and physical) without stigma and shame attached, if space and care were given to those suffering without judgment—if, put plainly, the world wasn’t ableist—then the disabilities I live with would be infinitely more tolerable. When we blame the brains and bodies of those who suffer instead of the society that piles on the suffering, when we say that maybe those facing life as people with disabilities shouldn’t be born, that’s a hair’s breadth away from eugenics.

This is not to say that I think Jon’s lady friend is in any way wrong in her personal decision. And, honestly, given that society is so deeply ableist I still worry. But it is to say that people with disabilities will always exist. And it is to say that I had Zadie, that she exists with her ticking-time-bomb brain, and that while I worry I don’t think I have cursed her.

I can teach her all the things I learned the hard was as a person with disabilities. I can teach her the strength to survive. I can teach her how to have spine enough to advocate for herself. I can teach her to be kind enough to herself to make space to cope. I can bring her up in a household where these things are not shameful, and hopefully that foundation will be something she carries with her. I can teach her to make peace with a mercurial brain.

June was a breather

In terms of writing—specifically in terms of producing new content—June was a light month. I wrote roughly 10k words, only about 2k of which was new fiction. To put that in context, I wrote nearly twice that on a new story today alone. I didn’t produce much new fiction this past month, but I did do a lot of editing. And a lot of planning. And a good amount of blogging. And that counts as writing, surely. But planning a book and drafting the prose itself are two entirely different things. Before, the planning was accompanied by a distinct terror that no matter how well planned it was this was going to be the book I would never be able to execute. The prose was going to elude me.

I only wrote about 2k of new fiction last month, and I’m ok with that. And, I have to say, I’m pretty proud of myself for being ok with that.

I’ve written before about my process, how regimented and diligent I am. I’ve written about why I’m regimented and diligent—historically, a cease in writing has been followed by a vicious plague of self-doubt. There’s been a sense in me that in terms of producing fiction I am like a shark: to stop an inexorable move forward, to stall in the slightest, spells death. There’s been an irrational fear that to halt will dry up the well. It’s like when you’re running, and you haven’t paced yourself, and you know that if you stop you’re done for. If you stop and your burning lungs and aching legs get the chance to root you that your body will refuse to run again. That fragile kinetic well of energy has dried up. Truly, you were running on fumes long before, but the admittance of that fact spells your doom. That is how writing has always felt to me.

But I only wrote 2k words last month, and here I am refreshed and back in the swing of it. I’ve had to take breaks from writing before, almost always due to circumstance: there was a dissertation to finish, or a newborn baby to nurse, or depression to survive. And there was circumstance here, too: an uptick in stress and demand at work coupled with a change in my daily routine*. The resurgence of my writing this month happened seamlessly. There was no week of despondent worry. There was no girding of the loins as I sat back down to the keyboard, convinced I had run dry. It just happened. It just worked. In short, I have learned to trust myself.

I’ve never been one to suffer imposter syndrome in general. I was among the proud few in grad school to feel like I had definitely earned my place there. But a lifetime of thinking I was not creative led me to feel like writing fiction was a fluke rather than a stable talent I was nurturing. Maybe I’ve simply been hacking away at it long enough to know it’s not going anywhere. Maybe it’s simply me getting older and more comfortable in my own skin and my own life. I’m not sure. All I know is I don’t worry that I’m going to lose it. That’s progress.

*As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to write on my commute into work since I take the bus. But recently, in part to manage the fatigue and stress of my day job lately, I’ve been bike commuting in the mornings which, while very pleasant and generally restorative, has meant that I my usual writing routine was disrupted fairly substantially.



I have been meaning to read China Mieville’s PERDIDO STREET STATION for years, now. It was the first book of Mieville’s to catch my eye, though I only vaguely knew it was supposed to be very strange and somehow involve wings. I ended up reading his later stuff first, and have only now worked my way back to this.

It is a marvelous book, but it is clearly written by a younger and not quite as sure-footed writer than the man who produced EMBASSYTOWN. It is a grand, sprawling creation. It is a giddy, horrifying, sweet, philosophical wonder of a book. And it is overwritten, clunky, confusing and oddly paced.

The story takes place in New Crobuzon, a bizarre city in the world of Bas-Lag built around the partial skeleton of a monstrously huge unknown creature. The city attracts all kinds, from a beetle-headed rebellious artist to a washout brilliant scientist to a wounded and broken refugee seeking a miracle. Mieville delights in the nastiness of the city—this is a deliriously gross book in a peculiarly poetic way.

Like most of Mieville’s work, this book is a philosophy told through narrative. His books are ultimately always more about the abstract concepts they grapple with than the characters who populate them. A main thematic focus of the book is transition and inspiration, how one begets the other over and over in a cycle. It comes up in the book in a hundred different ways. The other major theme is consciousness. The two are linked here, likely informed by Mieville’s politics: the ways in which thought and sapience transmute and transform the material world seems to have clear roots in Marxist dialectic thought.

The world of Bas-Lag is rich with sapience: there are humans, but there are also khepri and vodyanoi and garuda and wyrmen and a mention of vampirs and the horrific handlingers. That’s not even everyone. There are the Weavers: a race of multidimensional spiders whose ways of thinking are so far removed from our own as to be uninterpretable. And there is the Construct Council. Magic (here called thaumaturgy) and science bleed together to make possible the Remade: individuals whose bodies have been drastically and often grotesquely reshaped. The book is, in a word, colorful. And the plot comes to hinge on all these differences and all these paradoxes.

The plot is initially somewhat thin, but the richness and breadth of the worldbuilding is enough to hold interest. By the time the plot truly gets going the book builds momentum like nobody’s business. The last quarter of the book has some of the most urgent and affecting plot construction I’ve ever read—it’s truly shocking, and it’s deft enough to dredge up a hundred different responses page to page. The ending is haunting.

That said, the book could have been condensed. There are plot lines that go not quite far enough, that aren’t embedded gracefully enough, threads that could be pulled without damaging the richness of the tapestry Mieville weaves. This is a case of too much book: one where the focus feels occasionally spread too thin, where the hopping around from character to character can be frantic and disorienting instead suspenseful or revelatory. It’s a wonderful, lively book that is a hair too shaggy.

4 stars

Transistor Radio #3: On Not “Leaning In”


I confess I did not come to Sheryl Sandberg’s LEAN IN with the best intentions. I did not come to it in good faith. I had, in fact, been actively avoiding it since it came out a little over a year ago. When my best friend invited me (remotely) to participate in her “lean in” group, I declined. Because of all this, I don’t think it’s really fair for me to review it per se. So, this isn’t really a book review. This is more a manifesto in response to Sandberg’s manifesto.

I read LEAN IN as part of my intentional efforts to live the anti-oppressive beliefs I espouse. I am white, and I try to name and own that privilege as part of making spaces safe and comfortable for the people of color I interact with. And so it happened that in a rare Denver tornado warning I found myself in the basement of my building with a friend and colleague. She is black, and we were meeting specifically about anti-racist work we were doing in-house when the sirens blared. In the basement, we found ourselves cornered by a pair of white women co-workers. Conversation turned to LEAN IN, which the three of them had agreed to read together. The other two women were farther along in the book than my friend. They started chattering about it—about “tiara syndrome” and about “how women really are holding themselves back”—and I watched my friend’s face become a carefully blank slate. I know her well enough to know what signs to watch for when the unbearable whiteness of our work environment begins to really eat at her.

“I’ll read the book,” I said. The words just slipped out of my mouth. My friend cut me a sly look and smirked at the other two.

“Oh, you will?” asked one of the other two.

“Sure. When are y’all trying to have it read by?”

“June 1st,” said the other.

“No problem.” And it wasn’t. As far as I know, I’m the only one of the four of us to have actually finished it.

The security personnel waved us back upstairs. My friend and I hung back and let the other two women disappear into the crowd. We mounted the nine flights of stairs together. “I don’t really want to read that book,” she said. “And I don’t want to read it with them.”

“Yeah, how’d that happen?”

“I just got roped into it. At least if you’re there I won’t be the only one calling bullshit on it.”

Which is why I read it: to call bullshit on it. And that’s what this not-review-sort-of-manifesto-thing is.

1. Nothing Ever Trickles Down
Taking career advice from Sheryl Sandberg is about as useful and relevant to me as taking lifestyle advice from Gwyneth Paltrow. LEAN IN is GOOP for career ladies. Throughout, Sandberg admits that her book really is targeted at a specific group of highly ambitious and well-positioned women. She takes a strange position that by helping them specifically—those women who are, quite frankly, the most privileged sector of women—she will somehow spur a movement that helps all of womankind.

This is the same type of trickle-down activism that turned me away from the Occupy movement and marriage equality campaigns. I am not interested in political activism that leaves behind the worst-off. Focusing on the privileged members of a marginalized class has been historically used to divide and conquer, to bait and switch, and to give marginalized people just enough that the most well-connected and wealthy of them stop complaining. The complaints of the most marginalized members of that group are then easily discounted.

The women Sheryl Sandberg is writing for are women like her: the kind that can mobilize a multitude of privileges to get their foot in the door, period. These are women who are probably white, since having a black-sounding name on your resume is likely to keep you from getting hired in the first place. These are women who likely have no physical or mental disabilities, since they’ve typically excelled in school. These are women who are probably straight and partnered, since Sandberg more than once talks about how important it is for her readers’ husbands to lean in to the home and hearth as they themselves lean in to their careers. And they are probably cisgender since not once in 288 pages does Sandberg even acknowledge that trans* folks exist. More on that later, though.

My point here is that I’ve come to see movements that focus on the better-off segments of a fucked group as a waste of time. And this has been, historically speaking, the great weakness of white feminist work—it is another way whiteness supercedes everything else. It is white women (and middle class women, and able-bodied women, and cisgender women) telling everyone else to be patient, that once they’re in power things will be better. And that has never worked. The homeless, the forgotten, the women trapped in spirals of violence and poverty cannot afford to be patient. In the words of the black poet, Pat Parker:

SISTER!, your foot’s smaller
but it’s still on my neck.

There is an ethical breach there. How can Sandberg not see that?

2. Copying the moves of those in power keeps them in power
Largely Sandberg’s tactics consist of telling women (white, able-bodied, wealthy, cis women) to behave more like their male colleagues. Take up more space. Be more confident. Assert yourself. Negotiate harder.

She discusses why this is difficult, drawing on social psychological literature about power and social penalties women face when they do these things.* Her arguments position other women as the key to change here: if women would stop buying into these biases, if women would band together and cut each other breaks, then real change could happen. And maybe she’s a little right, but I think she’s mostly wrong here, too.

True change is not a simple shift in composition. It’s not a matter of more women in power at any cost and executing that power in any way. True change is a matter of fundamentally altering what we socially construct as power, as valuable, as worthy. What she’s preaching here isn’t change. It’s assimilation.

3. Anti-oppression work is intersectional or it is bullshit
That’s the heart of my objection to LEAN IN. Undergirding both Sandberg’s trickle-down strategies and her emphasis on assimilationist tactics is the idea that there exists a universal experience of womanhood. But the universal experience of womanhood is a myth.

Sandberg is pushing women to assimilate to a white masculinity. Women, generally, face social penalties when co-opting hegemonic masculinity, but women of color especially are at a disadvantage here. The social penalties faced by women of color are, across the board, far steeper than those faced by white women. And these tactics are not accessible to all women—embodying traditional masculinity is an especially fraught idea for trans women.

Adding to that is the fact that the women Sandberg is leaving behind with her book are the very ones who, due to structural and systemic oppression, are less likely to be employed at all much less shooting for the C suite. There was no way to translate Sandberg’s “sort of feminist manifesto” to the lives of single mothers, struggling women of color, trans women facing down daily violence, etc.

4. I exist; I resist
I can’t lean in. Truly, I can’t. At work, I am partially out. Thanks to our intersectional existence, there are many different axis along which a person can be out. It took me two years at my place of employment to out myself as having grown up poor, and that was still a pretty safe self-outing. I’m white, and poor white people are seen differently than poor black people. I’m highly educated—a person with a doctorate who grew up poor has “made good.” I’m upward bound. My class background is now little more of a footnote to my coworkers. Flavor text.

To a few at work I’ve outed myself as someone with anxiety and depression. This has happened mostly in the context of work I’ve done supporting students with disabilities, so there were reasons to disclose this, but still there have been raised eyebrows.

But I’m not out as queer. Or poly. Or, most importantly and most well-guarded, as trans*. For my sexuality and family structure, I’m in the glassest of glass closets. I don’t name it, but I don’t hide it, either. A few people know—when asked directly I give a direct answer. But most people at work don’t know. Still, it’s risky: I live in one of the 29 states where you can be fired for being queer.

But my gender. Oh, my hard-won prickly gender. I know I read as butch. And, oddly, sometimes at work someone will refer to me as ‘he’ with a bewildered look on their face as they stand staring at me in a dress. There is, I think, some way I’m telegraphing my transness. But not on purpose. I’ve resigned myself to getting continually, habitually misgendered at work. There is work me—a woman—and there is real me. Comfortable non-binary me. Protections for trans* people are thin on the ground. I would say that my place of employment is fairly queer-friendly, but being LGB friendly in no way means that the T is acceptable. I work in education. I work in central office administration, not directly with children, but the stigma and fear surrounding transgender people is still strong.

I can’t lean in. I can’t risk hustling and making enemies and quitting if it looks like I’m going nowhere. I’m the breadwinner of my family. And I’m on thin ice—queer, trans*, crazy. I have strikes against me. I’m an upwardly mobile, highly educated, conventionally intelligent and successful white person. And Sandberg’s book is not relevant to me. I’m far more privileged than most people, and Sandberg’s book is not relevant to me. It begs the question who stands to gain from her book. How can she foment revolution when she’s only speaking to a handful of people?

*I am, actually, deeply familiar with this literature. I spent a good amount of my grad school career steeped in these theories and did some research on them myself. To her credit, she gets them mostly right, but the limitations of that work and those theories are ultimately what drove me personally from the academy.



According to my meticulously kept daily writing records, I started planning out The Incoming Tide last October two days after finishing Extraction. The records show fairly steady work on it, interrupted now and again for a burst of short stories or focused edits on other projects further down the publishing pipeline. Still, I didn’t finish the first draft of The Incoming Tide until May 22nd. It clocked in at 70k words, which is on the slim side for a novel. It took me seven months to crank out 70k words. Maybe that’s not slow, but it certainly felt slow to me—Ariah is a hefty 128k words and I wrote it in a little under three months. Ariah is nearly twice as long and took half the time, so what gives?

The Incoming Tide was an altogether different beast. Ariah was a second draft. It was a substantively rewritten second draft, but still it was a second draft. I knew the characters. I knew the shape and color of the narrative. I knew, in short, what I was writing. So there’s that: first drafts feel different, and for me, they often take a little more time to get out. And, actually, referring once again to my copious records, The Incoming Tide is the only first draft of a novel I’ve written since I started trying to get my work out there. Everything else had been rewrites. Extraction, the volume preceding Tide in the Tale of Rebellion series, is on its fourth draft.

But it was more than that. Tide felt sometimes hard to write. I felt a weird pressure while living in that book. Drafting and redrafting and redrafting Extraction meant that I could never quite move past it. Tide was like a light at the end of that tunnel. Tide was the promised land. It’s strange, you know, getting finally to that blinding light. It takes awhile for your eyes to adjust. It took me some time to find the rhythm of Tide, to find the style and voice of it.

Of course as soon as I finished Tide I started planning the follow-up book, The King and His Makers. Of course I did. But I’ve taken a couple of weeks off from it to queue up blog posts, to work on edits for Ariah, to ponder life. A little bit of space, I think, will take the edge off and make the first draft of King a little less scary.


Hi friends!

I’m looking for a few brave and candid beta readers to provide feedback on the first two novels in a series. I’m sketching out the third novel in the series, and I’m 99% sure there will be a fourth volume as well. Leave a comment or use the form below if you’d like to get in on the ground floor of this series!


Times are desperate for the red elves: a generation of rebellion has brought them nothing but a decimated population and a shrinking army plagued with low morale. Dealing with heavy losses and now out of options, the elvish captains retreat to devise a new strategy which just might turn the tide of the war to their favor. While the captains bicker about theoretical tactics, their beleaguered soldiers are left behind to hold off the Lothic Army.

EXTRACTION follows the Cardinal’s Clutch: last fighting band of elvish guerrilla strikers left on the front lines. Old loyalties are sorely tested when their captain, Li, returns with orders for a suicidal mission. As the strikers of the Clutch travel across mountains, through deserts and back into a country that would see them dead, three of Li’s soldiers—the young and ruthless interim captain Rethnali, the bitter medic Sellior, and Li’s old friend and confidant Vathorem—begin to suspect this last mission is not what it seems.

Set in the unique and finely realized fantasy universe of Aerdh, EXTRACTION is the first of a series of books about the Lothic Elvish Rebellion. EXTRACTION is about the toll of war, the price of loyalty, and the cost of building a better future.


As hard as guerrilla warfare on her own turf was, negotiating with pirates is far worse. Following the events of EXTRACTION, Rethnali finds herself and her crew mired in deadly pirate politics, surviving a sea voyage and finally laying siege to an unsuspecting port city. Lives are lost and new lives come into the world. Friendships splinter, and new ones blossom in their place. Everything changes.

Set in the unique and finely realized fantasy universe of Aerdh, THE INCOMING TIDE is a completed fantasy novel 70,000 words in length and the second in a series of books about the Lothic Elvish Rebellion. THE INCOMING TIDE is about victory, grief, and hope.

Book Review: AN ILIAD


There is a thing I do not exactly intentionally: sometimes I’ll seek out new musicians by listening to covers of my favorite songs. It’s a way of being able to listen to the music and the voice without worrying about the content. I already know I like what they’re singing—the question becomes do I like how they’re singing it. Alessandro Baricco’s AN ILIAD is, I think, the first time I’ve applied this technique to the written word. That is, I knew the story Baricco was going to tell me before I knew how he was going to tell it.

AN ILIAD is exactly what the title says it is—the old, famous story told again. Or, rather, it’s a compendium of multiple Iliads: Baricco recasts the epic as a novel told from multiple points of view. Chapter by chapter the events unfold themselves through shifting eyes. Yes, we listen while Achilles speaks his piece and when Hector speaks his, but Baricco gives equal weight to traditionally smaller or altogether forgotten voices: Helen, Pandarus and Andromache for starters. Voices of the attacking Greeks and the Trojans under their seige are represented in equal measure. Through the eyes of Priam and others, we see what is happening within the walls of Troy with the same emotional weight and precision as what happens on the battlefield. It’s a fascinating way to retell a familiar story. Here, the sheer power of the story remains, but instead of a classical epic it now feels like a gritty oral history. Doing so humanizes the heroes, brings them literally down to earth.

As an oral history, this book is about death. And it’s about peace. No one in the war seems to truly want to fight it. There is a feeling amongst the soldiers on both sides that it is a pointless war, that it’s an inconvenience more than anything else. There is a resignation felt in the book over and over again as character after character lets themselves slip into death. Characters tell their story as they die. They tell their story from beyond the grave. Sometimes the distance in the oral history slips and the characters begin to address, directly, one another to great effect. This quote more or less sums up how Baricco tells the Iliad:

There is nothing on the face of the earth, nothing that breathes or walks, nothing so unhappy as man.

Baricco has an obvious reverence for the source material. He speaks at length in the introduction about the care he took with it while writing the book. This is a thin volume, much smaller than straight translations of the original epic, but Baricco worked to maintain the work mostly as a whole, removing only repetitions and scenes in which the gods themselves appear (which I think was an interesting and ultimately very effective choice). He sprinkles throughout small additions where the characters speak more about their internal thoughts and motivations, but he diligently marked in italics in the text as additions.

The problem for me was that I think Barrico erred too much on the side of caution here: his italicized original contributions are wonderfully rich and poetic. They add a great deal to the original work. And much of what he left in—long, dragging fight scenes that really just become lists of what the fallen wore as armor—could have been further condensed to better effect. The book simultaneously turned me into a definite fan of Baricco and highlighted once again my ambivalent relationship to the Iliad*. It would have been a stronger, more successful book had Baricco trusted his own voice more.

A final note on format: I read the kindle version, and I wish I’d read it in hardcopy. There are few things more frustrating to me than a truly lovely book that’s been shoddily released as an ebook. This was a traditionally published book with substantial resources behind it, and there was no reason for the awkward reading experience I had** to have happened. I recommend this book, and I especially recommend it in hardcopy.

4 stars

*There is nothing, though, ambivalent about my views on Paris. What an asshat. Literally no one ever has anything nice to say about Paris besides the fact that he’s pretty.

**Specifically, there was inconsistent formatting, little use of white space which made headings and transitions awkward, and a bizarre recurrence of unnecessarily hyphenated words (words hyphenated in the middle of a line as if they had once been at a line break).