The Smart Intertextuality of Juliet McKenna’s The Cleaving

The cover of The Cleaving

Gather around children, as the storyteller would say in days of yore. It’s time for a story about stories and how they work, time to explore Juliet E. McKenna’s use of intertextuality in The Cleaving.

Reflecting Past Tellings

The Cleaving is a retelling of the King Arthur myth that gives focus and agency to the women of the story – Nimue, Ygraine, Morgana, and Guinevere. They walk a new path through the elements of a story familiar to fans of fantasy and folklore, reweaving the threads of British legend into a dramatic new cloth.

By its very nature, an Arthurian telling has a level of intertextuality. For the writer, it’s a chance to respond to and rework previous versions of the myth, and strands of those versions are present in The Cleaving. For the audience, it’s impossible not to compare, contrast, and draw meaning from other tales, unless this is the very first version of Arthur they’ve read.

McKenna uses intertextuality as smartly and discreetly as Marvel did at the start of their film run. You don’t need to know other Arthurian texts to enjoy the story, but if you do, then you’ll get more out of it. It’s a bonus, not the backbone. It’s an approach that rewards readers instead of making demands of them. And unlike those Marvel cameos, The Cleaving doesn’t lose its way later on.

But that’s not the smart part.

Dealing With Gender

It’s not uncommon to talk about how retellings hold a mirror up to past versions of a story. That’s particularly true in The Cleaving, as like a mirror’s reflection, it reverses key elements.

The Cleaving doesn’t flip the genders of any of its characters, sticking with outwardly traditional forms. But it does flip the gender of the story’s perspective, shifting its weight from the male characters onto women. We see sides of this mythical medieval court that other stories might hint at but seldom make their centre.

While this would make for a great story in its own right, it’s a stronger story when it’s read in relation to previous texts. Standing by itself, it’s a cool story about women threading their way through the ugly tangle of other people’s ambitions. Lined up with older Arthurian books and films, it points a finger at them and loudly shouts “Oy, you, look what you’ve been missing!” It demands a conversation about what is absent from the (uh, I hate this word, but I’m going to use it…) cannon.

That textual contrast, by its very nature, takes shots at other established bodies of fantastical and mythological work. Once you see what’s been missing from Arthuriana, with all the interesting nuances McKenna applies, you can’t help looking at other stories and wondering what they’ve left out. Where are the Sherwood stories that centre Maid Marian? Who was that woman whose cakes King Alfred burned?

And to be clear, I’m not saying that these versions don’t exist – 1980s children’s TV did good work for Marian – but The Cleaving, at the very least, sends you looking for them.

And that’s still not the smartest part.

Raising the Stakes

No, my favourite thing about the use of intertextuality in The Cleaving is how it raises the tension.

Other versions of the Camelot story hover like ghosts around the edges of this one, raising spectres of what might be. McKenna doesn’t need to spend a lot of time foreshadowing Mordred as a threat, because the moment his name is mentioned, we know that fucker’s going to be trouble. Oh, yeah, sure, he’s just some prince living on a distant island, no need to worry about that. *narrows eyes* I’m watching you, boy.

For anyone familiar with the legends, Mordred’s name is menace. Small mentions of him build tension. We know he’s coming, but in what form? Will he be the traditional villain? Someone else’s scapegoat? In the mirror world of The Cleaving, is he in the right? We’re left gripping the book tight, waiting for him to arrive, waiting for McKenna to reveal her angle.

For readers not steeped in these legends, it still makes sense when Mordred turns up and does his thing. But for those in the know, he’s a struck nerve that leaves the story tense.

The Drama of Disappointment

Then there’s Lancelot, my favourite detail. As a character, he’s seen more reinventions than Mordred, because he’s a more dramatic part of the myth. Traditionally, he’s the ideal hero, the man of divided loyalties who tumbles into tragedy. We’ve seen him as the sidekick, the romantic lead, the broken heart, even the fraudulent sham of a hero. And so, again, we’re left wondering what McKenna’s version will be like. How will this tragedy play out? We watch and wait and then…

Remember how I said that this story flips our perspective on the gender dynamics, rather than flipping the characters? Lancelot is an example of that. We watch the beats of his arc play out as tradition and fate dictate, and then we get disappointment. Glorious, perfect disappointment. The moment where the ideal knight turns into the sad side of dating. He’s not a shining paragon. He’s not the tragedy of temptation. He’s not a secret villain, the anti-Lancelot, the dark face of chivalry. He’s a bit of a crap bloke, in a way that the other men in the story wouldn’t understand.

It’s a brilliant take on the character because, by comparison with all the others, it’s unexpected, and yet it makes perfect sense.

To create this character without intertextuality would mean spending a whole book polishing the shell of Lancelot, only to crack him open at the end. But this guy isn’t worth a book’s worth of our attention, and because the other texts exist, we don’t need that. We know this is going somewhere, and once again, waiting to see where builds tension.

Efficiency and Absence

The Cleaving doesn’t rely on the great scaffolding of Arthuriana to hold it up. This is an effective story of women living in a world dominated by men and of the hubris that comes with power. But the existence of that scaffolding allows McKenna to leave gaps that her readers will fill with the tensions and contrasts between texts. It adds power to the story without weighing it down, for a telling whose efficiency adds to its readability and whose significance makes it stick in the mind.

This is how to make powerful use of intertextuality – not with passing in-jokes, though those have their place, or with the tangled continuity that makes some stories inaccessible, but by letting contrast and comparison add tension to a story that stands in its own right. Making a whole body of mythology into a mirror that your story can peer into and say to itself “damn, I look good.”


If you want an actual review of The Cleaving, instead of one obsessive ranting about a point of technique, then The Middle Shelf has you covered. I also recommend Juliet McKenna’s blog for thoughtful insights into her own work, as well as the wide world of fantasy literature. She’s done a lot of good work on and off the page, and is someone worth listening to.


Ashes of the Ancestors

The cover for the book Ashes of the Ancestors by Andrew Knighton

In a haunted monastery at the heart of a crumbling empire, a lone priest tends the fires for the dead. A servant bound by the bones of her family, Magdalisa is her people’s last link to the wisdom of the past.

But as the land around them dies, new arrivals throw the monastery into turmoil. A dead warlord demanding recognition. Her rival, seizing the scraps of power. Two priests, both claiming to serve the spirits, both with their own agendas.

As ancient shadows struggle for the soul of an empire, Magdalisa must decide how far she will go to keep tradition alive.

A fantasy story about tradition and our relationship with the past, Ashes of the Ancestors is out now:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

Fiction for a Threatened World

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the environment and how we write about it.

This is partly driven by my own writing. I often use themed calls as inspiration for short stories, these calls’ limitations and specificity providing the framework I need to get creative. There have been more themed calls recently relating to climate change and other environmental issues, and those themes are a good fit for me, especially as my writing’s been getting more political lately. It’s a chance to vent some of my frustrations at the world while using that passion to power my prose.

Living with the Prof has been a factor too. She’s a specialist in sustainability, so conversations in our house often come around to the environment. Writing what you know is a good way to find ideas, and writing what the people around you know is a handy addition to that. I can take dinner talk and turn it into characters.

But what I’m reading has also been a big factor. I’m enjoying a growing number of stories that tackle environmental change.

The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamed was the first that really got my attention. Set in the near future, it looks at characters struggling to get by in a damaged climate. The fragility of our environment is shown by how far things have gone awry, and the story also shows how fragile human life can be, how vulnerable we are to the same disruptions.

A more recent read for me, O Man of Clay by Eliza Mood does something similar to Annual Migration, but with a different setting. As someone from the north of England, a flooded Hartlepool feels immediate to me, and the presence of the ocean adds a sense of vast, destructive, unknowable forces pressing against human lives. The story’s central characters include a destroyer of the environment as well as protectors and survivors, and it shows the complex, flawed, sometimes frustrating ways people respond to our destruction of the world. Having lived through the cynicism of so much greenwashed politics, the idea of businesses profiting off the destruction, even using it to justify their actions, feels far too real. It shows how badly we can respond to a damaged environment.

Both of those stories do an excellent job of taking a familiar format – the postapocalyptic tale – and tying it to environmental destruction, but E. J. Swift’s The Coral Bones does something more unusual. Following three separate narrative strands, set in the past, present, and future, it shows women of different generations in their relationships with Australia’s environment. Reaching back to the Victorian past, we see enlightenment scientism shaping our relationship with the world. In the present, there’s the frustration of trying to save that world and how the struggle wears someone down. And in the future, an attempt to cope with the fallout of our failings, to survive and regrow a ravaged world. Coral Bones engages with the history and the social framework that have shaped the current disaster, and is realistic about the fact that some damage is now unavoidable thanks to the vast forces we’ve unleashed. Still, it holds out some hope.

Chloe Smith’s Virgin Land uses a sense of distance to discuss environmental change, by setting its story in the far future, on an alien planet. There, the colonial settler mindset plays out, a mindset that shaped modern America and by extension the ideology of the world we now live in. Virgin Land explores the myth of the empty wilderness, how it prevents a healthy relationship with the environment, and how that ties into other, patriarchal ideas. By presenting an unreal ecosystem, it can present a simpler, exaggerated version of ecological impact, playing out on a short time scale, and this hammers home the problem we face – that we can’t save the world without first changing how we think about it.

Ironically, my own recent environmental stories, “Silver Soul and Shining Wings” and “The Girl Who Drew Gold from the Sun”, weren’t inspired by those ecologically themed calls I mentioned earlier. Both were written for other ideas and themes, but in the process environmental concerns emerged, creating one story about our failure to understand ecosystems and another about the destructive effect of greed on the world. Have I been reading so much environmental fiction that it’s bleeding over into everything I write? Maybe. Is that a bad thing? Probably not.

Climate change is real, and like any big issue, people need help coming to terms with it. It’s too big an issue to wrap your head around in its entirety, but stories can be a good way of gaining perspective. Whether that’s exploring the aftermath or the event, the saviours or the destroyers, the abstract causes or concrete symptoms, fiction helps us face climate change realistically but with hope. That seems worth doing.


If, instead of scifi, you’d like some fantasy set in a damaged environment, then you might want to check out my novella, Ashes of the Ancestors, a story about history, tradition, and a monastery full of ghosts:

Luna Press for physical books

Kobo ebook

Amazon ebook

The Harrowing Beauty of A Woman of the Sword

The cover of A Woman of the Sword by Anna Smith Spark

I love books. I enthuse about books. But roughly once a year, I find a book that really strikes me, that grabs hold of my brain and screams “this story matters!” I’ve just read one of those books, so let me tell you why I’m going to spend the next year raving about A Woman of the Sword.

The Beauty of the Horrifying

Anna Smith Spark writes like no one else. In A Woman of the Sword, as in her previous Empires of Dust trilogy, she pairs beautiful writing with harrowing content, to spectacular effect.

The description here is wonderfully evocative. Smith Spark has a knack for picking out the most compelling details and presenting them with gripping immediacy. Whether it’s flowers beneath a tree or the blood dripping from a blade, it’s all so vivid.

The same is true for the characters. She crams you right inside their heads, bringing them to life in all their wonders, flaws, and myriad contradictions. These characters captivate.

This makes for beautiful writing, which is then turned to dark ends. A Woman of the Sword is a story full of grimness and disillusionment, presenting us with terrible situations in which characters are trapped by their own flaws. From beginning to end, it’s merciless in what it depicts, both the physical details and the emotional strain the characters go through. This isn’t a world where happy endings are guaranteed, or even redemption. It’s one where terrible things are presented in beautiful ways, where hope exists not in spite of but because of the carnage around it.

The brightness of the prose and the darkness of the story elevate each other.

Women’s Lives

Lidea, the protagonist of A Woman of the Sword, is a warrior turned mother turned warrior again, in a setting where sexism is baked into society. And sure, sexism features in most story settings, just like it features in our society, but what this story does so well is to bring its mechanisms and its emotional impact to life.

Lidae lives in the contradictory expectations placed upon her by people who can accept her as a warrior so long as she’s not a mother, and as a mother so long as she’s not a warrior. She is never allowed to be her complete self, and this drives her every terrible experience, her every ill-judged decision. As a man, I don’t have to live through this shit, but I know it’s out there. This book brings it mercilessly to life.

It also brings alive the more specific strains of motherhood, of being filled with both love and frustration at the little ones, at being both fulfilled and constricted. It shows aspects of parental experience that we seldom look at, never mind speak out loud.

The Soldier’s Experience

Many writers have tried to evoke the life of ordinary warriors, from John Keegan breaking the historical mould with The Face of Battle to Joe Abercrombie hitching humour to grim action in The First Law. Anna Smith Spark does some of the best work ever at this.

Anything I say here comes with an important caveat. I’ve never been a soldier. I’ve never been in a war. I read about war a lot, but I’ve got no direct experience, so I can’t say how real this stuff is, but…

It is really, really convincing. Smith Spark shows the mundanity of military life that Spike Milligan highlighted so well in his war memoirs; the uncertainty Joseph Heller highlighted in Catch-22; the brutal, confusing mess from films such as Saving Private Ryan. Her war is horrible and it’s dull, but the attraction of it is still clear. The warriors of her world find purpose and companionship amid the mud and blood.

What they don’t find is empowerment. They are repeatedly misled, misused, and kept in the dark. I get that that isn’t every soldier’s experience, but historically, it’s an important one, and it sheds light on how often we’re not as empowered as we feel we are.

Lidae holds the power of life and death over others, while being, in a very real sense, powerless herself.

Communication Breakdown

The biggest way in which Smith Spark disempowers her characters, and in the process makes them into convincing people, is through their acts of communication. Or, more accurately, their failures of communication.

I don’t know about you, but I seldom understand my own thoughts and feelings in the moment that I’m having them, and I struggle even more to turn them into the right words, especially under pressure. Especially when talking to the people I love, which is a kind of pressure in itself. Fictional characters are always so much better at this than me.

Not these characters. They’re horribly, hauntingly bad at communication, just like real people. Lidae repeatedly makes her own life worse because she can’t understand or express her needs and feelings. She repeatedly makes wildly incorrect assumptions about what other people are thinking, feeling, and saying.

It’s just like real life.

I’ve seldom read anything where the impossibility of knowing and expressing yourself is so well represented. I felt for every lousy choice Lidae made, not because I would have made the same ones, but because she got there through the same paths that lead to my lousy choices. She’s desperately trying to understand her love and how it shapes her, and she’s desperately failing.

Comprehending the Incomprehensible

The philosopher Timothy Morton talks about how things of significance are always too big for us to know. All we experience is our own narrow perspective, a small part of the whole.

For me, this book expresses that. Within its pages, we’re presented with things of huge significance – love, war, motherhood – and we’re repeatedly shown the consequences, good and bad, of one woman’s fumbling attempts to perceive them. It’s a sad, dark story, but an uplifting one, both because it’s so beautifully written, and because it feels so true.

Don’t read this book when you need comfort.

Don’t read it when you’re feeling vulnerable.

But please, I urge you, go read it.

It’s amazing.

The Pace of Reading

I’ve noticed a weird thing with the way I read lately – I always seem to speed up near the end of a book. It’s not that I’m skim-reading or rushing it and missing the detail, I just seem to be more enthused and more likely to keep reading the further along I go. I don’t know whether it’s being keener once I’m engaged in the content, or if I’ve got hooked on the satisfaction of putting a completed book away on the shelf. It’s kind of nice for the second half,  as I tear through books with a sense of glee, but the flip side is when I’m a little way in, not getting very far, and part of my brain checks out because it wants to cut straight to the final rush. It can make getting started on a new book feel more like work than it should.

Do you have any patterns like this to how you read? Are you a completionist who has to finish once they start something, a ten-books-at-a-time reader, or find your reading patterns shaped in some other odd way? Leave a comment, reassure me that I’m not the only one acting up.

Seveneves and the Coronavirus: Reading One Disaster While Living Through Another

Context changes everything. Reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve found that one disaster has added to my experience of another.

The Alienation of Disaster

First published in 2015, Seveneves is a massive novel set in the near future. Within the first few pages, the Moon explodes. As people reel from this staggering change, a greater disaster looms. The pieces of the Moon crash against each other, creating a cloud of debris that will, within a few years, fall upon the Earth and wipe out all life.

In the face of annihilation, humanity must decide what can be saved, and how. Frantic effort and incredible ingenuity are poured into getting people into orbit, with the resources they will need to survive in space and to rebuild civilisation. The book explores both the scientific challenges of this disaster and the human side of the equation – how people react under terrible pressure.

If you’re reading this now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I probably don’t need to tell you why that’s resonated so much with me. We’re facing an incredible crisis in which scientists are rushing to find solutions while society struggles with the combined strains of fear, grief, and isolation. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not life as we know it either.

There’s a sense of alienation to current circumstances that runs like a thread of barbed wire through Seveneves, tearing at the reader. The space-based survivors of the disaster are the lucky ones, but their lives are nothing like they knew or expected. They’re cut off from family and friends, confined in space, not knowing what the future holds. Living through our current crisis has made that feel much more real.

Losing Control

Loss of control is always difficult to cope with, and it’s another way in which my reading of Seveneves has been transformed by current conditions.

There’s very little I can do about COVID-19. I’m social distancing and washing my hands a lot, but that’s it. I’m not a medical professional or involved in supporting them. I can do nothing to treat or stop the disease.

Even among people on the front lines, many will be feeling a sense of powerlessness. Supplies are short and promises of delivery unreliable. Tracking and containing the spread of the disease has proved difficult at best. There is no cure yet. Medical staff can help individual patients and they’re saving countless lives that way, but the big picture is outside their control.

There’s a similar feeling of powerlessness at play in Seveneves. For all of humanity’s efforts, the wrong lump of rock could fatally undermine the survival effort. The ill-considered actions of a few people can undo the good work of others. The characters can influence events but no-one has control over their own life, and that’s a big part of the feeling we’re all experiencing right now.

The Human Side of Natural Disaster

All of that has given me emotional reference points with which to process Seveneves, adding to my experience of the book and the immediacy of its story, but one specific point has rung true in a way that Stephenson can’t possibly have predicted. That point has spoilers for midway through the book, so if you want to avoid them, skip to the next header.

All clear? Then let’s talk about the president.

Julia Bliss Flaherty, the President of the United States of America, is one of the most important characters in Seveneves. As humanity is dying, she breaks the rules for who gets to survive, effectively stealing a space flight to save her own skin. Traumatised, powerless, and desperate, she uses her demagogic gifts to stir up some of the survivors against their scientifically informed leaders. She fosters terrible and unnecessary division to make herself important. Her actions add to the disaster.

If your political views are anything like mine, then by this point you’ve drawn the obvious comparison. Julia is a Trump-like president created before we ever dreamed he would get the job, never mind react to this crisis the way he has done. A character who would have seemed extreme if I’d read this a few years ago now seems all too plausible.

But Julia represents something wider as well. She’s a reminder that natural disasters are never just about nature. The scale of loss in any famine, flood, or plague will always depend on the structures of society and the way people react. We have ways to minimise disasters, but our social, economic, and political structures often exacerbate them. Just look at the Irish potato famine to see how that works.

While none of us can individually control the spread of COVID-19, collective human action is affecting how deadly it is. Swift responses in South Korea and New Zealand have minimised the disease’s impact in those countries. Global inequalities will almost certainly lead to a devastating death toll in sub-Saharan Africa. In every country, we can see examples of how no disaster is purely a natural event.


This might make it sound like Seveneves is a terrible thing to read right now. Sure, it has greater emotional power, but it’s a bleak read in a time when the world already seems bleak enough.

Except that there’s more to it than that. The cover blurb itself states that this is also a story about recovery, about how humanity rebuilds thousands of years later. The final third of the book jumps forward to a very different society, in which the new humanity is resettling Earth.

This is the part that’s hard to see from the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic – recovery. Yes, this disaster is hideous, the loss of life unbearable, the emotional and social trauma immense. We’ll be recovering from this for years to come. But we will recover. We’ll rebuild. And while life will never be like it was before the crisis, it will become bright again.

For two-thirds of the book, current circumstances have shed light on Seveneves for me, adding depth to the emotional experience. But for the final third, it’s the book that’s shedding light on the current crisis, giving me a reminder of what is to come, a sense of hope in terrible times.

Context changes the way we read, but our reading can change the context too.

My Terrible Choices of Great Books

Social distancing has given me a chance to do more reading, which has turned into a mixed blessing. The books in my to-read pile have all proved excellent, but boy are they bleak choices for troubled times.

First up, as I discussed last week, there was Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s a dense, engrossing novel about a prisoner at the tail end of human civilisation, a man trying to get by as the world collapses around him. There’s even a section where he’s locked up alone. Definitely no bleak parallels with the present there…

Once I got through that, I read another of Tchaikovsky’s books, a new novella titled Firewalkers. It’s set in an environmentally ravaged future in which the rich are escaping into space, leaving the poor to die. I read that one just as stories were emerging of politicians making investment choices based on coronavirus while not acting to prevent it. Apparently people really are jerks like that.

And now I’m onto Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, which begins with the moon exploding and so dooming human life on Earth. It’s well written, crammed full of fascinating detail, and at 861 pages it should keep me entertained through a lot of time alone, but blimey, it is no way to escape the bleakness.

Is there a message to all of this? Well, I suppose there’s “be careful what you wish for” – I wanted more time to read and now I’ve got it. But once I’m done with this lot, I think it’ll be time to head back into an old, comforting favourite. Winnie the Pooh is calling me from the bookshelf, and I know he’s got nothing sad to say.

Setting the Tone in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Cage of Souls

I might as well begin with a jaunt on the river; sounds jolly enough, no?
– Adrian Tchaikovsky, Cage of Souls

I could write for days about Cage of Souls, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novel about a prisoner in a dying civilisation. I could discuss its inversion of Heart of Darkness, how it plays with prison drama tropes, what it takes to build a dying world. But instead I want to talk about one thing – how perfectly Tchaikovsky sets up the book.

Stefan Advani, Most Unreliable of Narrators

Set in the distant future, Cage of Souls is told from the point of view of Stefan Advani. We first meet Stefan on a boat heading for prison through an ungovernable swamp. As the story progresses, we learn more about Stefan’s past and his experiences in the prison, all seen through the filter of his perceptions. And as the book makes clear from the beginning, Stefan is not a reliable narrator.

“Where to begin?” Those are the very first words of the first chapter, and they set the tone for Stefan’s narrative. He’s making choices about what to tell us, in what order, and how to tell it. He’s framing the story to his own ends. He doesn’t even care whether we see him as reliable, sarcastically introducing his river trip as a jolly jaunt. He’d rather be seen as erudite than as honest.

This sets the tone for everything that follows. Stefan recounts his adventures as if they were true, but as readers we can never trust him. Another character even calls him out on this near the end of the book, accusing him of misrepresenting them. And the nature of Stefan’s unreliability tells us a lot about his character and what he values, including both his intelligence and his public image.

Stefan cannot be trusted, and the very first page makes that clear.

The Tension of Subjects

In a certain sense, this is also a book that can’t be trusted. For over a hundred pages, it dwells in the prison where Stefan is held. It builds up a claustrophobic drama about life in this one dreadful place, like some sort of post-apocalyptic Oz. But it’s not really about that one place. It’s about the whole of human society, in a future where that society seems on the brink of death. It’s a story that embraces Stefan’s whole world.

That tension between the immediate and wider subjects of the book is again set up on the first page. Stefan contemplates the topics he could start with – a criminal underworld, a rioting crowd, a parched and deadly desert. By offering up these possibilities and then snatching them away, Tchaikovsky hints at a much wider world and makes us want to know more about it. We’re sat waiting for the next 130 pages, stuck in prison while knowing that there’s a wider world to see, just like Stefan.

That introduction to other topics holds out a promise of what’s to come, and it’s a very important promise. If a book changes tack partway through, this can throw readers. Whether they like the new subject or not, they may feel confused and frustrated that the story is no longer what they expected. It’s possible to avoid that sensation by foreshadowing what’s to come.

Game of Thrones has perhaps the most famous example of this. Before heading into a grim, grounded story of political intrigue, George R R Martin provides a single encounter with something fantastic and monstrous. It’s easy to forget that chapter once you’re drawn into the story, but it puts a pin in the map, a marker that says “here be dragons, and they be coming back later”. It gives us reason to believe that there’s more to Westeros, and primes us for high fantasy elements to come.

The start of Cage of Souls does the same thing. It prepares readers for later sections of the book, when Stefan’s story will roam outside the prison. It creates tension, expectation, and an acceptance of what’s coming later.


Distance is one of the key themes of Cage of Souls. The distance between Stefan’s world and ours, between the prison and the city, between society’s wealthy and the criminal gangs living underground. And of course the psychological distance between very different characters and communities.

There’s a sense of distance in the way the story is told. By talking directly to us on the first page, Stefan doesn’t bring us closer. Instead, he creates a greater awareness of his presence as an intermediary. The book holds us at arm’s length, and those arms belong to Stefan. Though Tchaikovsky’s writing style creates moments of incredible immediacy, sucking us into action scenes and confrontations, he always comes back to Stefan eventually, holding us away.

That sense of distance is reinforced by the way Stefan relates to events. He misses many of the most important incidents in the book, and only survives because of that absence – this is the story of a dying civilisation, and our narrator lives by narrowly missing its death throes. He sees their aftermath or passes on the accounts of others – of course retold, removing any risk that they might be entirely true.

This distance reinforces something that could easily be missed – that Stefan isn’t really the protagonist. There are many scenes where he’s just the observer to others’ struggles, from the power plays of gangs to a deadly duel. Even in the overarching narrative, this isn’t really Stefan’s story. It’s the story of his civilisation, and he’s just the eyes we see it through. Though a reader can’t see this at the start, it’s all set up in that detached tone.


Cage of Souls is a story about decay. This is signalled in the descriptions of the first scene – an antique boat, festering jungle, ragged and stinking prisoners. A page and a half in, the word “decay” itself has already cropped up. The choice of where to start, a choice made within the book by Stefan and around it by Tchaikovsky, sets the tone for everything to come. Even though we won’t see what passes for civilisation for over a hundred pages, its rot is there from the start.

As I said at the beginning, I could write for days about this book. Fortunately, I don’t need to. The keys to the story are there from the start.

Farmhand – A Story of Mad Science and Environmental Harm

There aren’t a lot of comics dealing with how humans affect the environment. In some ways that’s weird, because the potential for striking imagery is huge. In other ways it’s less surprising – this is a difficult issue to face. That’s why a less direct approach is sometimes valuable.

Farmhand by Rob Guillory doesn’t read like an environmental parable. It’s a weird sci-fi story of a farmer who finds that he can grow human organs on plants, transforming and even saving lives through vital transplants. But as odd things start to happen, it becomes clear that the past is catching up with him and that there’s more going on with these plants.

Farmhand is worth reading just for Guillory’s lively, angular art, which made Chew such a memorable read. But if you’re looking for comics that talk about humans and the environment then there’s more to be seen.

This is a story in which people are directly affecting their ecosystem. The plant-grown organs amount to a genetic experiment, and one that’s leaking out into the world. Life can’t be contained, no matter how humans try, and their creations have gotten into the wild, creating effects they couldn’t have predicted.

There are also unpredictable effects on human beings. This is one of the things that we don’t talk about enough with environmental harm. Pollution doesn’t just poison animals and plants, it hits humans too. It’s affecting our immune systems, our food, the air we breathe. Even if you don’t care at all about nature, you can’t avoid its consequences.

And then there’s that tale of the past catching up with the characters. What better metaphor could there be for our relationship with the planet? Decades of abuse are catching up with us as forest fires rage and ice caps melt.

Farmhand is a great piece of storytelling and comics art, but it’s also more than that. It’s a timely reminder of how much is at stake.

Book Collection as Biography

I work in the room where most of my books live, and so see them every day. I see them when I walk in, when I glance up from my desk, when I get up to go make a cuppa. There’s a whole wall lined with bookshelves, and like everything else about these books, that tells you something about my life.

Our book collections are a form of biography, a life story laid out in pulped wood and print. Or perhaps more accurately an archaeology, the physical evidence of our past. I have books from my childhood, like a beloved copy of Winnie the Pooh. Books with messages from friends I’ve met down the years. Books signed by authors I’ve met. Books full of rules for games I’ve played, instructions for crafts I’ve picked up and abandoned, books bought for work. Each bookshelf shows something different, from my taste in stories to my work in history. Together, they tell a complex tale.

Even the books to read are a reflection of my personality, though I haven’t taken them in yet. They show my enthusiasm for second-hand shops, as well as my deluded conviction that I’ll someday read a big pile of worthy factual tomes.

Some of these books are particularly precious to me. There’s my single signed Pratchett, a memento of my favourite author. Next to that is a battered copy of On the Road, a gift from a best friend in sixth form. Two shelves up is a poetry book inherited from my great uncle, originally gifted to a more distant ancestor in 1904. My books represent family and friendship, work and leisure, down through different stages of my life. Not every one is a treasured memento, but most have a memory attached.

This is an incomplete biography. I’ve lost many books along the way, lent out and never returned or deliberately discarded when I moved to a smaller house. If they were all here then there would be books by the meter, books by the ton, books enough to fill shelves on every wall of this room. Their absence makes this biography incomplete, but then that’s the state of any biography. They’re dependent on bias, memory, and the uncertainties of what reaches the historical record.

My collection keeps changing, and with it my story. I’ll add books coming out this year to the stack. There are books on my kindle to consider – a reflection of the changing technological times I’ve lived through. Whenever I’m published, I add something to that corner of the collection, and of my story.

Our book collections are our biographies. So what does your collection say about you?

Speculating Slightly – A Shining Beacon by James Albon

Fiction doesn’t have to present a radically different world to be speculative. In fact, as James Albon’s A Shining Beacon shows, sometimes a subtle shift can be the most powerful one.

Cover of A Shining Beacon by James Albon

A Shining Beacon is a graphic novel set in a country that isn’t real, but that which seems all too familiar. The names of people and places, the look of the landscape, even the tone of the language is unequivocally British.

Yet this isn’t Britain, at least as we know it. This is a modern dictatorship, where the government strictly stifles dissent. Uniformed wardens patrol the streets ensuring that people comply.

Our window into this world is provided by Francesca Saxon, an artist and loyal citizen. Summoned to the capital to create a grand piece of public art, she experiences the heavy hand of the government first-hand, even as rebels try to use her for their cause. Excitement gives way to uncertainty as she struggles to create.

A Shining Beacon is a powerful evocation of totalitarianism in a Britain that could be. It’s all the more unsettling because it stays to close to the world as we know it. This capital could so easily be London that the small differences become far more chilling, the breaches from a peaceful normality all the more shocking. It feels real, so it hurts.

This is a beautifully created book, a watercolour story that uses soft techniques to send a hard message. One of those soft techniques is unsettling the familiar, taking our world and shifting the boundaries in just a few ways, speculating without running wild. Its people are us, but not.

Grand, sweeping speculation can be a powerful thing, but a more subtle style can be too.