Ninefox Gambit

Cover image for Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Leeby Yoon Ha Lee

ISBN 978-1-781088-449-6

“The problem with authority is that if you leave it lying around, others will take it away from you. You have to act like a general or people won’t respect you as one.”

The Fortress of Scattered Needles—a key strategic holding of the Hexarchate Empire—has been overtaken by heretics from within, an event which threatens to spread calendrical rot across the galaxy. Thanks to its shields of invariant ice, recapturing the Fortress by siege is virtually impossible, and the only man who could do it, General Shuos Jedao, has been dead for three hundred years. Fortunately, he has been preserved as an undead weapon which can be extracted from the black cradle when duty calls. Captain Kel Cheris—a mathematical prodigy who inexplicably chose the military Kel faction over the more academically minded Nirai—is selected to be the person to wield this “weapon,” and lead the campaign to reclaim the Fortress of Scattered Needles. Unfortunately for Cheris, Shuos Jedao slaughtered his own army before his death, which means that the Hexarchate’s secret weapon is mad traitor who cannot be trusted, even when his help is desperately needed.

Ninefox Gambit gets off to a bit of a dull start with a battle and a lot of strategic details that will appeal to fans of hard military sci-fi but leave other readers floundering for purchase. This is essentially world-building by immersion, as Lee introduces the concept of calendrical regimes and mathematical warfare. The Hexarchate relies on precise adherence to the strictures of a mathematical calendar, and the very technology of the society, including the weapons and military tactics, are dependent on this adherence. Calendrical heresy means a world where nothing functions properly. Lee also uses this section to introduce the basic cultural structure of the Hexarchate. Like many dystopians, there are six factions with distinct roles in society, and a defunct seventh faction that was annihilated after breaking from the empire’s orthodoxy. The Liozh heresy continues to haunt the Hexarchs.

The story becomes more interesting when Shuos Jedao joins the action. Although he served in the Kel military, Jedao hails from the Shuos faction, the other military branch of the empire responsible for intelligence operations and assassinations. The Shuos have a reputation for being wily, even when they aren’t mad traitors. When Kel Command goes mysteriously silent, Brevet General Kel Cheris is left with only Jedao’s advice, her own best judgement, and the feeling that she might not come out of this mission alive. It is in the unique interpersonal dynamic between Jedao and Cheris—no, not a romance—where things get interesting. Jedao has an unparalleled understanding of military tactics, and many years more experience than Cheris, but he has also been out of the game for many years, unaware of many developments in Hexarchate technology and society. And he is a terrible mathematician, an unforgiveable and potentially fatal weakness in a calendrical military. Their relationship involves the necessity of sharing information based on their own strengths, but also a high level of mutual distrust that maintains the narrative suspense.

On a more conceptual level, Ninefox Gambit is about the exercise of power, and freedom of thought. This is expressed mostly through the concept of calendrical heresy, and the Kel formation instinct. Lee’s unique society runs on citizens’ belief in and agreement upon a highly specific and regimented calendar, and deviation from that belief begins to degrade society in a way that is literal rather than theoretical. Orthodoxy is strictly enforced, to the point that fighting heresy with heretical math can result in re-education, even when calendrical rot has rendered orthodox tactics inoperable. If quashing heresy is about controlling what people think, formation instinct is the corollary that controls what they do. Specifically, soldiers in the Kel military are indoctrinated with an obedience instinct that helps them execute the mathematical formations that have calendrical effects on the battlefield. These themes of free thought and will even play out in a subplot about the sentience of artificial intelligence robots and drones that service the space ships and stations.

Ninefox Gambit is highly conceptual science fiction that starts slow but builds to an interesting and worthwhile conclusion that is open to a sequel. While it will be a hard sell for those who don’t love military sci-fi specifically, it is the kind of richly layered story that will repay repeat visits. I didn’t love every minute of reading it, but Ninefox Gambit has continued to grow on me in retrospect.

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Brown

Cover image for Brown by Kamal Al-Solayleeby Kamal Al-Solaylee

ISBN 978-1-44344-143-8

“We are lured to do the work in good times—until the economic bubble bursts. Then we turn into the job stealers, the welfare scammers, and the undocumented.”

North American thinking about race is often sharply divided along the black-white line. In Brown, Kamal Al-Solaylee examines what it means to be neither white nor black, but to occupy the vast cultural space in-between. From the exploitation of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States to the demonization of Muslims in Canadian political discourse, Al-Solaylee considers how the arrival of visibly different immigrants gives rise to hierarchies, and exposes nascent xenophobic tendencies. Expanding beyond just North America, Al-Solaylee visits France, the United Kingdom, Trinidad, and Qatar, among other countries, to explore the tensions and crises that have arisen as the result of migrant brown labour in a globalized economy.

Al-Solaylee centres much of his idea of brownness on movement, specifically migration and immigration for economic purposes. Al-Solaylee spent nearly two years visiting ten countries to gather the various stories and perspectives that appear in Brown. In doing so he sets particular limits on the scope of the book, and makes exclusions. He does not, for example, talk about aboriginal people who have, by definition, been here all along. Al-Solaylee is looking particularly at “who does the work locals spurn,” and seeking immigrant groups that have “reached a crisis point in the host country.” Al-Solaylee specifically excludes East Asians, even though there are certainly places where they meet the stated criteria, the affordable housing controversy in Vancouver being a prime example.

While the third section of the book deals with brown immigrants to predominantly white countries, the middle section visits places that involve examining prejudices within and between brown communities. Al-Solaylee cites colourism, where lighter brown people enjoy social and professional advantages significant enough that skin-lightening products and procedures are a booming industry. Al-Solaylee also pays a visit to Trinidad, where he looks at the tension that exists between Trindadians of African and Indian descent. Both groups arrived in the Caribbean under duress, either as slaves or as indentured labour, but continue to experience fairly rigid cultural separation based on stereotypes of their communities.

Among the case studies presented in Brown are many South-Asian domestic and hospitality workers, most of whom are deployed to Hong Kong and the Middle East. Most female migrant workers are involved in domestic labour, from nursing to child care to cleaning. Al-Solaylee looks particularly at Filipina migrant workers, following them to Hong Kong, where foreign workers make up five percent of the population. The women work long hours for small pay, far away from their families, extremely vulnerable to physical, sexual, emotional, and financial abuse by their employers.  By contrast, many of the male migrant workers are involved in construction. Al-Solaylee looks particularly at the Middle East, where entire camps have been built to house the South-Asian workers who come to build sky-scrapers and stadiums in dangerous conditions that see an average of one worker per day die on the job. The flip-side, of course, is the lack of remunerative work back home in saturated or stagnant job markets.

After briefly discussing the concepts race and colourism and their history in the first two chapters, Al-Solaylee begins the series of case studies that examine the idea of brownness from various angles, creating more breadth than depth. Al-Solaylee is exposing the surface of many complicated issues and situations, succeeding in providing a sense of the scope, but not a deep understanding. Nevertheless, he provides an entry point to a variety of situations that shine a light on our thinking about race and colour, and how we use these concepts to define classes within our cultures. Each chapter could merit a book of its own, but Al-Solaylee is focused on the picture they provide when presented alongside one another.

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More Happy Than Not

Cover image for More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera by Adam Silvera

ISBN 978-1-61695-561-8

“My worlds collided and I can’t get up.”

Sixteen-year-old Aaron Soto has been struggling since his father’s suicide, a downward spiral that culminated in a suicide attempt of his own, as the smile-shaped scar on his wrist constantly reminds him. Neither his overworked mother, nor his video-game obsessed older brother are able to offer much in the way of support, but Aaron is trying to get back to normal, a little bit at a time. When his girlfriend Genevieve leaves to spend three weeks at a summer art camp in New Orleans, Aaron begins hanging out with Thomas, a kid from the next block who is a little less rough and tumble than the friends Aaron grew up with. Soon their fast friendship is stirring up tensions with Aaron’s old crowd, and even Genevieve seems a little jealous when she returns home. As Aaron’s feelings for Thomas spiral out of control, he becomes obsessed with the idea of undergoing the Leteo procedure—a new medical technique that might be able to make him forget that he ever liked a boy.

Occasionally you run across a book that is best read with as little foreknowledge as possible, with The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf being my most recent example. While I had heard a lot of hype about how good this book was, I had somehow managed to absorb almost nothing about the plot, and I think that was for the better as far as my reading experience with More Happy Than Not. So if you are already planning to read it, just go do it! You can read reviews later. If you still need convincing, read on.

More Happy Than Not is a largely contemporary novel with a slight speculative fiction twist. Almost everything about Aaron’s world is recognizable as modern day New York. The exception is the Leteo procedure, a controversial new neurological technique that allows doctors to erase memories. When the novel opens, Aaron’s neighbourhood is abuzz with the rumour that Kyle and his family have moved away because Kyle had the Leteo procedure in order to forget about the murder of his twin brother, Kenneth. Despite this sci-fi twist, the focus is largely on identity and human relationships, and Aaron’s growing curiosity about the Leteo procedure is mostly a narrative device that allows Silvera to delve into the conflict surrounding his sexuality. When is it humane to allow someone to forget a terrible experience? What role does experience play in identity if it can simply be overwritten?

More Happy Than Not is an emotional rollercoaster of a book. Silvera does a good job of developing the connection between Aaron and Genevieve in the early chapters, so it is genuinely heartbreaking to see them beginning to come apart when Aaron starts to fall for Thomas. Aaron’s family relationships are less than stellar, and his childhood friends are deeply homophobic, leaving him isolated and depressed, grasping after the hope of a miracle cure that will make it all go away. Aaron struggles to even say the word gay—eventually opting for “dude-liker” instead—so it is perhaps not surprising that bisexuality is never considered, let alone discussed. The style develops in accordance with Aaron’s level of happiness and self-understanding, bumping along with an artful unevenness that neatly conveys his inner turmoil. While dark enough that I would not necessarily recommend this book for everyone—it deals heavily with both homophobia and suicide—it is nevertheless a powerful expression of what it means to come of age in an environment that is hostile to your very identity.

Mischling

Cover image for Mischling by Affinity Konarby Affinity Konar

ISBN 9780316308106

“Because you had no power over the fact that I was born, you took from me what I was born with—the person who was my love, the half that made me entire—and now I am lessened into this dull thing, a divided person who will live forever, wandering in search of some nothing, some nowhere, some no-feeling, to mend my pain.”

Stasha and Pearl Zamorski are twelve-year-old Polish-Jewish twins who arrive at Auschwitz in 1944 with their mother and grandfather, their father already missing and presumed dead at the hands of the Gestapo. Here they are singled out by Dr. Josef Mengele, who would become known to history as the Angel of Death. Inside Mengele’s “Zoo,” he collects genetic oddities, including giants and dwarves, albinos and people with heterochromia iridium, and most especially twins. The inmates of the Zoo receive special privileges including more food, and are allowed to keep their hair and clothes. The price is the terrible experiments carried out upon their bodies, the purpose of which they are never given to understand. How does someone survive the guilt and pain of such an experience, let alone carve out a new existence in the aftermath of liberation?

Structurally, Mischling is divided into two parts, with alternating chapters narrated by Stasha and Pearl. Part one deals with their arrival and internment at Auschwitz, while part two takes place after the camp is liberated by the Russians in January 1945. The first part is perhaps the stronger of the two, and Konar admits to struggling with the second half, throwing out the draft at least three times while trying to get it right. Stasha and Pearl have voices that are at once similar and distinct. Stasha has the more active imagination, and she sinks into it in order to survive, making up stories and creating games that help them carry on, but which also lend her sections a surreal quality. By contrast, Pearl has a quiet but more honestly introspective voice, less distanced from reality. Konar’s prose is lyrical throughout. Although genetically identical, the girls are distinct people, and it seems that Mengele’s experiments can only tear their twinhood further asunder.

Konar’s narrative provides a measure of the horrors of Mengele’s human experiments, and yet does not focus on them. Mischling is more about Stasha and Pearl’s internal lives during their internment, focusing on how they cope and survive under such adverse, inhumane conditions. Yet many passages are undeniably horrific, and are often drawn from the real memories of Auschwitz survivors, particularly the accounts Eva Mozes Kor. Perhaps the most horrifying confession comes from Dr. Miri, a Jewish doctor forced to collaborate with Mengele. She admits to performing abortions on female inmates after discovering that Mengele was using pregnant women for vivisection. Her character is based on Dr. Gisella Perl. Through Stasha and Pearl, we see different ways of coping with the reality of such circumstances, though in Stasha’s case this often means obscuring reality in order to survive. After receiving an injection from Mengele, she becomes convinced that she is now deathless, and is therefore concerned only with how Pearl, who has not been made deathless, will survive.

Mengele himself is a character who is made large by his absence from most of the narrative. Yet he is strikingly horrific when he does appear, not just because of his brutality, but because of the nauseating contrast between his avuncular manner with the children one moment, immediately followed by terrible violations of their bodies and minds. In part two, he disappears from the narrative entirely—in real life he disguised himself as a farmhand before fleeing to South America—and yet continues to cast shadow, as Stasha becomes obsessed with tracking him down and exacting revenge. But the fact that he appears little on the page allows Stasha and Pearl to come into focus, their voices dominating the narrative in an effort to seize back some measure of control.

Mischling is a Holocaust novel that depicts horror couched in beautifully crafted prose. For some, Konar’s careful wordsmithing will distance them from the narrative, and the atrocities it unveils. For others, the juxtaposition will only serve to make the truth that much more poignant as it explores what it means to come of age in the midst of such a tragedy.

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The Upside of Unrequited

Cover image for The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

ISBN 978-0-06-234870-8

“There’s this feeling I get when I watch other people kiss. I become a different form of matter. Like they’re water, and I’m an ice cube. Like I’m the most alone person in the entire world.”

Molly Peskin-Suso is the queen of unrequited love. At seventeen, she has had twenty-six crushes, but zero boyfriends. She hasn’t even been kissed. By contrast, Molly’s twin sister Cassie has an easy confidence when it comes to hooking up with girls, and she always tells Molly everything. But then Mina arrives on the scene, and for the first time ever, Cassie is totally crushed out, and a little bit secretive, leaving Molly out in the cold. But Mina has a cute best friend named Will, and Molly might not feel so left out if he was her boyfriend. So why can’t Molly stop thinking about her nerdy co-worker, Reid?

One of the chief themes Becky Albertalli touches on in The Upside of Unrequited is the necessity of vulnerability in order to get what you want. Molly has had twenty-six crushes, but she has never asked anyone out, or told any of her crushes that she liked them. Molly is basically allergic to being deliberately vulnerable, since going through life as a fat girl is already a highly visible form of vulnerability to bullying from her classmates and pointed comments from her grandmother. Add in social anxiety, and the idea of ever getting into a relationship seems like an insurmountable obstacle. But Molly slowly comes to realize that she might have to be less careful in order to get what she wants, even if the idea is terrifying. Even if she isn’t sure who she should be less careful about.

Molly’s romantic conflict is between Mina’s cute hipster best friend, Will, and her new co-worker Reid, a nerdy Jewish boy. Will seems like the easy and obvious answer. He is best friends with Cassie’s girlfriend, which would make Molly feel like less of third wheel when she hangs out with Cassie and Mina. And Cassie seems pretty determined to get the two of them together. Her twin sister seems to be drifting away, and Molly will do anything to keep her close. But the more time she spends with Reid at the store, working, and talking, and laughing, the more she can’t stop thinking about him instead, even if he takes her further away from Cassie. It is a story about a struggle to reconcile two seemingly conflicting impulses.

Although Molly is caught between two boys, the central relationship in The Upside of Unrequited is really the sibling relationship between Molly and Cassie. Cassie has dated before, but she has never had a serious girlfriend before Mina, and this presages some changes in her relationship with Molly. Cassie has always been Molly’s person, but suddenly she is faced with the fact that siblings are rarely one another’s main person in adulthood. Her moms have one another, and Nadine barely talks to her sister Karen, even though they were very close growing up. Molly recognizes change as “the most basic of all tragedies,” an inevitability that she is determined to avert, even when struggling against change only seems to make matters worse.

Becky Albertalli’s sophomore novel has a loose connection to her first book, Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Molly’s cousin Abby recently moved to Georgia, where she met a new guy named Nick, and became friends with Simon. Although there are a couple fannish nods to Simon, and some interactions with Abby, The Upside of Unrequited really stands on its own. It is a sweet story of love and family, featuring a diverse cast of characters all with their own unique charms and struggles. Relationships of all kinds are the driving force of this coming-of-age story.

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Becoming Queen Victoria

Cover image for Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams by Kate Williams

ISBN 978-0-345-47239-7

“The newspapers fizzed with gossip about the wayward brothers who succeeded only at plunging the monarchy into disgrace. Through it all, Charlotte was their one hope: the blue-eyed, golden-haired girl who seemed so spirited and innocent. The public took to idealizing her as the perfect princess: sweet, reserved, possessed of a kind heart, and entirely unlike her self-centered father.”

Royal historian Kate Williams’ portrait of two British princesses has been published under the title Becoming Queen, as well as the somewhat less accurate Becoming Queen Victoria. While it certainly is an account of how Victoria gained the throne, it dedicates a nearly equal measure of attention to Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV, the woman who would have been queen but for her untimely death in childbirth. The book is divided into two parts, first chronicling the life and death of Princess Charlotte, before moving on to the second part dealing with the childhood and early reign of Queen Victoria. The short interlude between the two sections follows the scramble to secure the succession that took place in the wake of Charlotte’s unexpected death at the age of twenty-one.

Williams begins her account with the marriage of the Prince of Wales—the future George IV—to his cousin Princess Caroline of Brunswick in 1796. Though Prince George had more than a dozen siblings, he was one of the few to make a legitimate marriage, and he was not pleased with his German princess from the outset. George III preferred to keep his daughters at home, refusing them permission to marry, and most of his sons chose mistresses over marriage, earning them a debauched reputation as they drained the royal treasury with their antics. George and Caroline managed to get along long enough to produce Princess Charlotte, securing the succession, but their animosity only grew, and Charlotte became the frequent subject of an ongoing tug-of-war between her estranged parents throughout her childhood.

The drama surrounding Charlotte’s childhood paints an effective picture of the unpopularity of the Hanoverian monarchs, and Williams spins out a dramatic vision of what the young princess endured. In addition to being a pawn in the cold war between her parents, Charlotte was also much more popular with the public than her father, who served as Prince Regent during his father’s periods of madness. The more the public idealized her, the more her father mistrusted her, having spent his own youth consolidating power and building a rival circle of support around himself. For this reason, her father hoped to marry her off to a foreign prince, and send her abroad so that she could not set up a rival court in London. Grasping after independence from her relatives, Charlotte married Prince Leopold, who hailed from the Saxe-Coburg family, rulers of a small German duchy. However, she was successful in making living in England one of the conditions of the marriage.

As one of Britain’s longest ruling monarchs, as well as the sovereign who presided over the British Empire, and the Industrial Revolution, Queen Victoria has received her fair share of attention. She is currently the subject of ITV’s television series Victoria, and features in many biopics and historical fiction novels. But her cousin Charlotte is a less well-known figure, the queen who never was. For this reason, I found myself more riveted by the first half of the book. Depictions of the turmoil of the Regency period usually focus on the mad king and the Napoleonic wars, but through Charlotte, Williams highlights another aspect of the tumultuous Hanoverian dynasty, a corrupt and licentious monarchy riven by a rotten family dynamic. And of course, all of this provides context to the famous Kensington System, under which the Duchess of Kent would eventually raise her daughter.

What Williams also makes clear by beginning the story of Victoria’s ascension more than twenty years before her birth is that Victoria did not become heir to the throne simply because Charlotte died; she literally existed because of her cousin’s death. The sons and daughters of George III had more than fifty children between them, and all but Charlotte were illegitimate. With George IV still married to Charlotte’s estranged mother despite repeated efforts to divorce her, Charlotte’s death set off a scramble amongst George’s younger brothers to procure suitable wives, and secure the succession. Edward, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of George III, jettisoned his mistress of nearly thirty years in order to marry Leopold’s widowed sister, Victoire. Alexandrina Victoria was born to the couple within eighteen months of her cousin’s death. And while the possibility remained that one of her father’s older brother’s might yet produce an heir that would displace her, Victoria was heir presumptive for much of her young life.

Like Charlotte, Victoria’s position meant an unhappy childhood. Whereas Charlotte was neglected and haphazardly educated, Victoria was highly controlled and abused in an effort to shape her into a popular heir, as well as one who would be obedient to her mother, and her advisor Sir John Conroy, after her father died in her infancy. Given the ages of her uncles, the Duchess and Sir John long operated on the assumption that Victoria would require a regency, and worked to ensure that they would have that power. They also worked hard to keep Victoria separate from her uncles in the public mind, so that she would not be tainted by their shenanigans. But the Kensington System destroyed Victoria’s relationship with her mother, and led her to oust both the duchess and Sir John from her circle immediately upon her ascension to the throne. The only advisor she retained was her governess, Baroness Lehzen.

For fans of ITV’s Victoria, Williams touches on the major events depicted in the series.  Notably, however, she agrees with most other historians that the relationship between Queen Victoria and her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, was more paternal than romantic, a point of departure that series creator Daisy Goodwin leans heavily on. By profiling Charlotte and Victoria together, Williams succeeds in highlighting the perils facing a female monarch, particularly in the realms of marriage and family, creating a rather personal history. An alternative history can also easily be imagined, in which Charlotte and Leopold ruled over England together. Instead, Leopold was instrumental in facilitating the marriage of his nephew to the young queen, and the Victorian age was born.

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The Wars of the Roses by Dan Jones

Scythe

Cover image for Scythe by Neal Shusterman by Neal Shusterman

ISBN 978-1-4424-7242-6

“She wanted to believe she wasn’t capable of it. She desperately wanted to believe she wasn’t Scythe material. It was the first time in her life that she aspired to fail.”

It has been three hundred years since humanity turned the corner, leaving behind the Age of Mortality. With the arrival of infinite computing power, a benevolent AI known as the Thunderhead emerged to rule this new deathless society. But although accidental death is a thing of the past, humanity still lives on a single finite planet, and so population growth must be limited. This task was deemed to require a human conscience, not to be entrusted to a computer, and so the Scythedom was born. Citra and Rowan have been selected to apprentice to Scythe Faraday, a job that neither of them wants. But there is corruption at the heart of Scythedom, and the Thunderhead is powerless to intervene. Reform must come from within.

There are a lot of practical world-building questions that can be raised about Scythe. How, for example, has humanity advanced so far as to be able to reverse the aging process, but been unable to master space travel, or some other method of supporting an increasing population? And if it is necessary to limit the population, why kill people in often gruesome ways to achieve that end? If you are the nit-picking type, you will probably have a hard time accepting the basic premise of this novel and some of the devices. But if you can achieve the necessary willing suspension of disbelief, you are in for a twisty and thought-provoking adventure that continually ups the stakes.

The main narrative focuses on Citra and Rowan, who are real teenagers who have yet to turn a corner to reset themselves back to youth. They have a limited idea of what life was like in the Mortal Age. Even with the existence of Scythes, they had to give very little thought to death and dying until they were called to perform the task. Interspersed with their perspectives are journal entries from the mandatory gleaning journal of the Honorable Scythe Curie, who is often known as the Grand Dame of Death. Her age and experience interject the perspective that Rowan and Citra lack, providing context to the events of their yearlong apprenticeship. We also get the occasional glimpse into the mind of Scythe Goddard, the main antagonist, who is simultaneously realistic and yet a bit one dimensional.

Scythe depicts a futuristic society with a vastly changed relationship to death and violence. Someone who is accidentally killed is not dead, but deadish, since only Scythes have the authority to take life; no one else can kill you, and you may not kill yourself. One mandatory trip the revival centre later, the deadish person will be back on their feet within a week. The resulting changes are quietly disturbing. Since actual suicide leads to mandatory revival, it has largely passed from memory, but attempting suicide has become a grisly form of entertainment. Rowan’s best friend Tyger is a splatter—someone who deliberately gets deadish by jumping off of buildings. The boredom of immortality is a common trope in vampire fiction, but it is less commonly explored in relation to humanity as a whole.

Due to the non-interference built into the Thunderhead, which rules everything else about this world except death, Scythes have almost unlimited discretionary power. They operate within a quota set for the year by their conclave, but they are free to choose who they will glean and their method of killing. Bias in their selections—such as by race, though almost everyone is mixed race—earns a mild reprimand at best from the conclave. They also have the discretion to grant a year of immunity from gleaning to anyone they choose, though it is customary to offer it to the families of those who have been gleaned, as well as to the families of Scythes and their apprentices, for as long as the Scythes serve. This nearly unbounded power and terrible responsibility has naturally created an order that is isolated from normal people, and sinking further into corruption as the centuries pass. A schism has occurred between the traditional Scythes, and revolutionaries who want to remove the few checks and balances that are in place.

Scythe begins a series, so while it stands alone quite well, there are certainly more issues to explore and questions to be answered. The lines of good and evil are quite starkly drawn here, but there is room to go deeper. Scythe Faraday, for example, is depicted as being part of the traditional group of Scythes who conduct their duties with care and honour, yet he gives some people deaths that are painful, and fill his quotas by mimicking the death statistics of the Age of Mortality. He and Rowan meet when Faraday gleans one of his teenage classmates, a selection that is intended to imitate a drunk driving death from before the turn. In the Age of Immortality, what reason is there for everyone not to have the chance for at least one full life before they face gleaning? Or is gleaning really necessary at all? It will be interesting to see how the morality of this thought-provoking series evolves.

Evicted

Cover image for Evicted by Matthew Desmondby Matthew Desmond

ISBN 9780553447446

“There are two freedoms at odds with each other: the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home.”

Between 2007 and 2009, the American housing market was shaken by the subprime mortgage crisis, in which banks foreclosed on millions of homeowners who could not keep up with their rapidly inflating mortgage payments. But another group of people is deeply affected by the trauma of displacement on a more regular basis: the renting poor. Many of these families are spending between fifty and seventy percent of their monthly income on housing, and even a small crisis can easily cause them to fall behind on the rent, making them subject to eviction.  Sociologist Matthew Desmond takes the reader into two of Milwaukee’s poorest neighbourhoods, one predominantly white, the other mostly black, and spends eighteen months examining what happens when landlords evict those who have fallen behind on the rent.

Desmond begins on Milwaukee’s black North side, with the properties own and managed by a black couple named Sherrena and Quentin. Sherrena’s motto was “the hood is good,” and they regularly bought and rented out marginal properties that required more work that they could honestly keep up with to really be fit for habitation. They could regularly expect to collect $20 000 in rents on the first of every month. On the South side, Desmond examines a run-down trailer park owned by a man called Tobin, who attracted press attention because the park was so dilapidated that the city considered it an “environmental biohazard.” Despite this state of affairs, Tobin earned nearly half a million dollars a year from his property. Landlords can ask tenants to move out with only twenty-eight days’ notice, but when they are behind on the rent, an eviction notice may provide only one to five days’ warning before the sheriff’s deputies and a crew of movers show up to clear the home. The contents of the home are then deposited on the curb, or taken to storage and held for payment, driving the family further into debt.

A significant factor that emerges in both of the neighbourhoods Desmond examines is the presence of children. As a single mother with two sons, Arleen struggled terribly to find a new place to rent that would accept her children. When Pam and Ned were evicted from Tobin’s trailer park, they faced an even bigger dilemma. Pam had two daughters from a previous relationship, her daughters with Ned, and another baby on the way. No landlord wanted that many children causing additional wear and tear on the property. When an eviction comes, children often lose many or most of their possessions, miss or have to change schools, and are sometimes separated from their immediate families as they are shunted off to different relatives who can provide shelter while the parents look for a new home.

Desmond draws particular attention to the plight of black women, who face a disproportionate rate of eviction. Desmond points out that “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” The problem is compounded by the fact that with so many men in jail, the women are frequently raising children alone. Black women with children are by far the most likely to face eviction. Unable to miss work or obtain childcare, they are often unable to attend housing court to contest their eviction. An eviction record then further decreases their likelihood of being able to secure housing in the future. If they choose to miss work to attend court, they may find themselves both homeless, and out of a job.

One very interesting aspect of the book comes not in the body of the work, but in the author’s note, where Desmond describes the process of researching and writing Evicted. He not only went into these neighbourhoods to conduct interviews, but actually lived in them, renting a trailer in Tobin’s mobile home park, and later moving in with an acquaintance on Milwaukee’s black North side. Most interestingly, the landlords were fully aware of what he was working on, and it actually seems as if they trusted him more readily than many of the tenants, some of whom believed that Desmond was probably an undercover cop, or maybe working for the landlord.

Evicted is a book that is largely about documenting the problem, and putting a human face on it. However, Desmond does offer some policy suggestions at the end of the book, such as expanding the housing voucher program, and providing a right to legal representation in housing court.  I was surprised by his support of housing vouchers, because earlier in the book he discussed how landlords overcharge by an average of $55 a month when they know that a tenant has a housing voucher. This means that the tenant pays up to 30% of their monthly income towards the rent, and the rest is paid for by tax dollars through the housing voucher. But Desmond does point out that this program is much more scalable than trying to build more public housing. The idea of representation in housing court made a lot of sense; Desmond describes how seventy percent of tenants do not even go to court, which means a default eviction, and ninety percent of those who do show up do not have a lawyer. This means that housing court, as it currently stands, essentially functions as an eviction assembly line. No doubt another entire book could be written about the possible policy solutions to the eviction problem.

Evicted offers a series of portraits of instability, of chronic poverty in a life with no centre or grounding. It chronicles the rise of eviction rates, and paints an empathetic portrait of the impact this constant uncertainty has on poor families. It also upends the notion that homelessness is caused solely by poverty, and examines the ways in which eviction can contribute to impoverishment. Desmond makes the case that housing is an overlooked issue in our efforts to address poverty, and asks the reader to consider what it means about our values if we refuse to confront this problem.

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You might also like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.