Q&A: Aliette de Bodard

24 September, 2015

House of Shattered Wings

In the late twentieth century, the streets of Paris are lined with haunted ruins, the remnants of a Great War beween arcane powers. The Grands Magasins have been reduced to piles of debris, Notre-Dame is a burned-out shell, and the Seine has turned black with ashes, rubble, and the remnants of the spells that tore the city apart. But those who survived still retain their irrepressible appetite for novelty and distraction, and the great Houses still vie for dominion over France’s once-grand capital.

Once the most powerful and formidable, House Silverspires now lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; it founder, Morningstar has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House three very different people must come together: a naïve but powerful Fallen angel; an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction; and a resentful young man wielding spells of unknown origin. They may be Silverspires’ salvation or the architects of its last, irreversible fall. And if Silverspires fall, so may the city itself.

Aliette de Bodard’s new novel, The House of Shattered Wings, set in a 20th century post-apocalyptic Paris filled with fallen angels and mortals vying for power while something dark and dangerous is slowly picking them off, is a wonderful blend of fantastical elements from both Western and Eastern mythologies. I’ve been a huge fan of her work for a number of years and love her stories set in the Xuya universe and her Obsidian and Blood trilogy set during the Aztec Empire of which Servant of the Underworld is the first volume.

Upon reading her latest novel, I sent her a number of questions which she was kind enough to answer. Enjoy!

1. In The House of Shattered Wings, which character did you most connect with and who did you most enjoy writing about?

That’s a bit like asking me to pick a favourite child! I really like all the characters in the book (even though they might not like me, as I put them through a bit of a ride!). I particularly connect with Madeleine, the House alchemist, who is a bit of a geek and inept at social situations (the scene where she attempts to play high-level politics and fails was something that was very familiar to me!). The character I enjoyed writing about the most is actually head of House Hawthorn and part-time antagonist Asmodeus – I certainly wouldn’t like to have a drink with him or trust him with much of anything, but as a writer he’s great to put in scenes because of all the snarky comebacks. Also, the fact all three main characters distrust him, fear him and/or hate his guts make him a great plot mover and generator of conflict.

2. What were your inspirations for the novel?

I had a lot of inspirations for the novel: part of it is my love letter to 19th Century novels (Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, Hugo’s Les Misérables, Zola), part of it draws from manga and anime (I took some lessons in period drama and creepy monsters from Full Metal Alchemist, and also took some inspiration from Black Butler‘s alternate and phantasmagoric Victorian England), and part of it is classic fantasy of people doing small and epic things against overwhelming odds (David Gemmell’s King Beyond the Gate and the other Drenai novels, and books by Elizabeth Bear, Kari Sperring, Tim Powers, China Miéville and many others!). And finally part of it is fairytales and myths from Vietnam my grandmother used to tell me when I was a child.

3. Could you tell us something about your writing rituals? Do you create as you go along or plot meticulously?

I am a methodical plotter and I tend to do very badly without an outline (translate by ‘flailing around and moaning a lot’!). I generally do a chapter by chapter, scene by scene outline which I use as a basis for launching into the book. It tends to be a bit vaguer as we get close to the end (one book in the Obsidian and Blood series memorably had ‘somehow, they win the day’ to cover the last three chapters of epic battles!), and I also tend to heavily rework out as I go. For instance, The House of Shattered Wings originally had Madeleine returning of her own will to House Hawthorn, and this bit ended up not making sense at all, so I changed the timeline of the last three chapters. The ending (I won’t go into it because spoilers!) was also one of those totally unplanned things that ended up looking as though it’d been there all along – it was kind of a relief and kind of scary, actually – felt like my muse and unconscious had been working double time while I was desperately trying to get the last chapters working!

I write when I can, which means when the infant isn’t taking up all the space in my life: I do a lot of first drafting on the metro while commuting, and a lot of revisions in the evenings or on weekends. I am a slow first drafter, but I revise pretty fast fortunately (and don’t quite need as much brain space and immersion), so that helps!

4. I love that you incorporate other cultures in your work, especially your Xuya Universe and the Mexica Empire in your Obsidian and Blood trilogy, and I want to read more. What sparks your interest and how do you go about your research?

I’ve incorporated other cultures in my work because I feel the need to bring fantasy beyond Western, pseudo-European cultures, and draw inspiration from further afield. Part of it comes from growing up away from the mainstream and with a different culture – I feel like, in many ways, I’m always writing for ten-year-old me, who was so desperate for anything Asian that she devoured anything with dark-haired, short women in them.

I also think a lot of it (particularly the Chinese in the Xuya universe) was my way of circling Vietnamese culture and never quite bringing myself to write about it because I was scared I wouldn’t do it justice! (And I was already imagining my entire maternal family coming down like a ton of bricks on me). It took a conversation with my good friend Rochita Loenen-Ruiz to realise that if I didn’t do it, who else would?

I do research with a variety of sources: primary sources, academic texts, fiction–and people (for Obsidian and Blood I didn’t do that last and it was a mistake).

5. And what are some of your favourite books and authors?

Ha, too many to be listed! I really love Terry Pratchett: I own all the Discworld books and come back to them from time to time, like old friends. Recently I’ve enjoyed Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem, a combination of hard SF and Chinese history that is mindblowing (and I’m looking forward to The Dark Forest), Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts, an epic fantasy set in an analogue of the Silk Road, J Damask’s Jan Xu books, wonderful family-focused urban fantasy set in Singapore, and Sergey and Marina Dyachenko’s The Scar, a dark and intense fantasy about a man’s search for redemption in the aftermath of a magical war.

Thank you so much to Aliette for providing such fabulous answers. I will certainly be checking out her incredibly diverse list of books and will be waiting with bated breath for the sequel to The House of Shattered Wings.

Servant of the Underworld

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House of Shattered Wings

Fallen blood is power.

Aliette de Bodard is one of the new breed of writers ushering in a welcome change in the SFF literary community with her stories set in the Xuya universe, a brilliant coalescence of Western SF traditions and her mixed Vietnamese background, so compelling and beautifully written. She is also the author of the Obsidian and Blood trilogy, murder mysteries set in the Aztec Empire beginning with Servant of the Underworld, a series I love tremendously for its ability to immerse you in an utterly foreign culture with a completely different set of rules and a religion in which magic plays an important part. If you haven’t read her fiction already, I urge you to try.

In her new book, The House of Shattered Wings, she tries something different. Set in a post-apocalyptic Paris forsaken by God, there exists a fragile equilibrium controlled by the Houses, structured communities of fallen angels and humans, of which the three strongest are Silverspires, Hawthorn and Lazarus. The novel is set sometime in the 20th century, many years after the Great Houses War which destroyed most of Paris leaving it an empy hull with pockets of surviving communities, the safest being the Houses protected by the Fallen, of whom Lucifer Morningstar is the most powerful. But it’s been 20 years since Morningstar’s disappearance and his successor, Selene, is still struggling to overcome her doubts in taking charge of Silverspires, once the grandest of the Houses.

Every so often, a newborn Fallen is thrust out of Heaven and lands in a part of Paris and there is a race to retrieve him or her. If a House gets her, she will become a strong ally, if a Houseless gets to her, she will be harvested for her magic, every inch of her skin, bone and flesh used to ingest, produce and barter, a sick but lucrative trade. When Selene saves Isabelle, a newly Fallen, she also captures Philippe, a mysterious Annamite with hidden powers, a member of a Houseless gang. When he unwittingly unleashes a malevolent spell, Silverspires is drawn into complex game of survival. For something or someone is determined to destroy Morningstar’s legacy, leaving behind a trail of corpses. As Selene, together with Isabelle, Philippe and Madeleine, the House alchemist with a secret of her own, struggles to contain the darkness, can they stop the darkness which threatens the very safety of Paris itself?

One of the first things that you encounter as you read this tale is Bodard’s striking vision of Paris.

The Grands Magasins have been reduced to piles of debris, Notre-Dame is a burned-outshell, and the Seine has turned black with ashes, rubble, and the remnants of the spells that tore the city apart.

I just loved the way she described a Paris that is at once reminiscent of its medieval heritage yet is set in an alternate 20th century with glimmers of history which seem familiar but isn’t.

As well as being a mystery, The House of Shattered Wings delves deep into the matter of faith. What happens when the thing you believe in the most rejects you. Bodard tackles this head on not only with Christian but also Vietnamese mythology. The character of Philippe, an Annamite exiled from his own land with its own religio-mythology in the Court of the Jade Emperor and its parallel history of colonialism, is fascinating in itself as we see him coming to terms with his loss and anger. I loved when his story of ancient Vietnam meets that of Selene’s Paris and Bodard does a wonderful job in tying the two parallel strands together in a credible way. You would think there might be a jarring of the two disparate worlds yet they complement and work together seamlessly. Philippe’s tenuous friendship with Isabelle, his sparring with Selene and his dealing with the Houseless, who initially took him in, and Asmodeus, the head of House Hawthorn, Silverspires’ nemesis, paints him as a complex figure, probably the most human with his mixture of compassion and street smartness. I found Madeleine, a human originally at Hawthorn saved by Morningstar when Asmodeus staged a coup to take over his House, fascinating in her despair and misguided memories, unable to get over her trauma and hiding her growing addiction, while trying to function in her job. But the two most intriguing characters are Asmodeus because he’s evil but with a secret agenda and there is always the spectre of Morningstar, more glorious, more powerful and more cruel than all the Fallen who haunt this book. In comparison, Selene is probably the weakest, always unsure and so hesitant for a leader of a House, but with the unwavering support of her lover, Emmanuelle.

Bodard’s plotting may have gotten the upper hand over her characterisation in this novel, it’s intricate and polished, her story substantial but wearing the research lightly, and I certainly wouldn’t have complained if it was longer, especially with her sublime prose. So I’m really looking forward to learning more about her varied characters in the sequel, many of whom seem to have incredibly intriguing back stories. And although the ending may have left me slightly wanting, I can’t deny that in The House of Shattered Wings, Bodard has created a richly textured world, intricate and beautifully written.

Do also check out Bodard’s In Morningstar’s Shadow, which includes 3 short stories that complement and is set before the events in The House of Shattered Wings, and Of Books, And Earth, and Courtship, about Selene and Emmanuelle. Lovely vignettes exposing more of Bodard’s talent. You can also read more of her stories on her website.

Maigret by Georges Simenon

12 August, 2015

Maigret

I’m going to tell you everything, Uncle. I’m in big trouble. If you don’t help me, if you don’t come to Paris with me, I don’t know what will become of me. I’m going out of my mind.

Georges Simenon’s 19th novel featuring his eponymous detective Maigret which was first published in 1934 is my first foray into the famous detective’s world. In this episode of the detective’s long literary career, Maigret is enjoying his retirement in the countryside with his wife when his nephew, Philippe, comes knocking at the door late one night.

A rookie cop following in the footsteps of his uncle, Philippe is still young and naive and has found himself in trouble. On a stakeout for a drugs raid in Floria, a night club in rue Fontaine, Philipe takes the initiative to wait inside the club against orders and promptly finds himself with the corpse of the suspect on his hands. Rattled, he runs off leaving behind his fingerprints and is also seen by a witness. Having nowhere to hide, he begs his uncle for help.

And so begins a cat and mouse chase as Maigret returns to Paris to find the killer. Some of his colleagues, especially Detective Chief Inspector Amadieu who took over from Maigret, are none too pleased to find him back in his former workplace. However, when Philipe is arrested for murder, Maigret sets about catching the real culprit but this time without the authority of his badge. With the help of Fernande, a prostitute who frequents the Floria, Maigret must pit his wits against an intelligent and ruthless man who holds the strings to the case, and Philippe’s freedom.

Maigret was an interesting story because it showed the detective’s chase from the other side of the official fence. What struck me was the gritty, adult nature of the novel. There is sex, there is violence and real evil. Without being explicit, nevertheless the harsh reality of a criminal life and the psychology of the criminal mind is all there. This isn’t some cosy crime caper, it’s a gritty noir. It’s somehow difficult to believe that this was written in the mid-30s. There’s a lot of smoking, drinking and flirting going on. It’s a different world to what we know now, but it brings back a whiff of nostalgia mixed in with modern grittiness that I would like to revisit again.

At an event celebrating Simenon’s work, his son John said he wanted readers to become addicted to his father’s books. This short, sharp tale will do just that.

Uprooted

You can find my review of Uprooted by Naomi Novik in Issue 6 of Shiny New Books! today so do check it out. I am now very tempted to try her Temeraire series. Have you read them?

In other news, there’s been a bounty of interesting books on my bedside table including Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea, The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas, The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard, The Infidel Stain by M.J. Carter, The Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare, The First Bad Man by Miranda July and The House in Smyrna by Tatiana Salem Levy.

I seem to have caught a bit of Sagan fever after finishing Sagan, Paris 1954 by Anne Berest about the day Françoise Sagan’s life changed with the publication of Bonjour Tristesse. And of course, I went straight out to buy a copy of that controversial debut novel to re-read. Seems like Sagan is still a pretty controversial figure. I’ve always had a soft spot for her since I frst read Bonjour Tristesse as a teenager. What’s your stance on her?

And I am finally reading Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow after meaning to delve into his work for so many years. My mother says his writing is beautiful and I should really read it in Japanese but that’s not going to happen. So far, he’s been surprising me.

Master and Margarita 2

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is one of the books I purchased from what used to be Dillons on Gower Street, now Waterstone’s, when I was an earnest student trying to broaden my knowledge of literature. As a science undergrad, I spent hours in the bookshop perusing books to read rather than face my sums. With one aborted attempt many years ago, I assumed it would be one of those novels I would get to at some point, even though so many of you have told me how much you loved it. So I was really happy when Polly decided it’ll be our next choice for our book group. It seems many of us had it tucked away on our shelves too.

At the beginning of the novel when the writers Berlioz and Bezdomny meet Woland, a suspicious individual claiming to be a magician, little do they know that this will throw Moscow into an upheaval leading up to Easter. Having been subjected to a vision of Pontius Pilate, they are naturally spooked and escape but this sets off a series of unfortunate events from Berlioz’s death to the sectioning of Bezdomny, the disappearance of his flatmate, the seizure of his prized Moscow flat and so on until everyone connected to each other has been randomly traumatised in some way. All orchestrated by Woland, who may or may not be the Devil, and his familiars, Azazel, the witch, the choirmaster and a humongous cat named Behemoth, they wreak havoc all over the city beginning with a huge magic show which throws the audience into hysteria when wads of cash appear and all the ladies are left disrobed. Bulgakov leads us on a merry chase through the absurdities of Moscow life from the privileged status of the literati to the paranoia aimed at foreigners, the shortage of good housing and food to the forbidden love that springs from unhappiness and ennui.

At the psychiatric hospital, Bezdomny meets the Master who has had his novel rejected and in his despair succumbed to madness and abandoned his lover. The Master had written about Pilate, the very same tale told by Woland, where we are again transported two thousand years back when the flawed Roman procurator of Yershalaim meets the one man who will change him but isn’t strong enough to save him.

In the second half of the book, we meet the Master’s lover Margarita, desperate to find him and wreak revenge on his critics. When Woland promises her whatever she wants, she agrees to do his bidding and becomes a witch, presiding over a spectacular ball where all the evil characters throughout history file through and are given their just desserts. But will she get what she deserves?

Reading the book, it struck me, as I am sure it did others, on the odd choice of the title. Both the Master and Margarita don’t appear in the novel until several chapters in, and even then, I’m not even sure whether they are the main protagonists, perhaps just vehicles to push through Bulgakov’s agenda. It’s a curiously difficult novel to characterise; from one angle, it is a comedy so like many Russian and European novels of the period with its nod to romanticism and artistic angst. And yet, there is always the spectre of violence which you cannot escape, Bulgakov’s present seeping into the fiction. Written between 1929 and 1940, The Master and Margarita was meant to be Bulgakov’s magnum opus even though he didn’t expect it to be published, what with his experiences with censorship and the tightening of freedom of expression which characterised Stalin’s rise to power. It’s at once a novel bridging the gap between the pre- and mid-Soviet eras, the former using only allusions to the present political state while maintaining some of the frivolity of an earlier age and the latter, the violence and paranoia revealed in full in the Master’s tale of Pontius Pilate.

The first half is much more sombre and complex than the second, possibly because it was more heavily edited. Bulgakov passed away soon after he finished his manuscript but without completing the editing. The Picador edition I read had notes and a detailed afterword which set the novel in context and gave a richer understanding of the novel. There is so much symbolism in The Master and Margarita and anyone who has read Goethe’s Faust would be in no doubt of the similarity although Bulgakov has made it his own and set it in the world he knows best. There are allusions to literary and musical figures throughout the novel and I particularly enjoyed Satan’s Grand Ball where Bulgakov introduces a slew of evil characters from history. However, what is with all the women being naked and men in tails? I just found it increasingly annoying that the female characters were either hags or witches, who are naked, naturally, although none of the men were drawn sympathetically either.

Bulgakov’s style is light and deft, his prose vibrant, colourful and visual. Woland’s visit to Moscow is just like a little break where they thoroughly enjoy themselves. And I really loved the bit at the end when Woland and his troupe return to their original forms, much more sombre and darker than what they exhibited on their holiday.

Although The Master and Margarita would benefit from a second reading once you realise the political and social implications of what Bulgakov is trying to convey, I really enjoyed reading this brilliantly bonkers novel. That satire is taken so seriously preventing publication for 26 years says much about the political regime. Even though the chapters set in Moscow may not come across as heavily Stalinesque, his reign of terror had already begun with arrests and disappearances and we see this in the increasingly crazy turn the novel takes as Bulgakov’s tale spins out of control.

Poirot

Last week I attended the Guardian Book Club where author Sophie Hannah and literary critic John Mullan discussed Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.

You may not know this already but I am a huge Agatha Christie fan. I discovered her mysteries when I stumbled upon a copy of Murder on the Links hidden away on a bookshelf in my grandfather’s house in Sri Lanka one hot summer. It probably belonged to one of my aunts and uncles but I took it with me when I left. I never learnt who it belonged to but I still have my well-thumbed copy and it still remains my favourite mystery to this day.

What is it about Christie’s novels that has ensnared millions of readers? For me, it was the sheer shock of finding the murderer was not who I expected. Stunned, I can still remember wondering how she managed to fool me. And with each novel, I would make a guess and get it wrong. Sometimes I couldn’t handle the tension and would take a furtive peek at the final pages which would inevitably spoil the rest of the novel for me but I just couldn’t help myself. And so my love affair with Christie began when I was nine and I went through her entire crime oeuvre, spending hours in English bookshops in far flung Asian cities counting the titles I had and hadn’t read, waiting for the special days when I was allowed to buy a book. Admittedly I did get better at guessing the murderer as I went through her novels but it was more a gut feeling. And once I got over that, I really began to enjoy her cast of characters and unraveling her fiendish plots.

So I was excited to hear Hannah’s views on Christie. Most of you will know by now that Hannah was chosen by Christie’s estate to write the new Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, which was published last year . I, like many, was nervous about reading it but was completely won over by her intricate plotting and handling of Poirot. And I wasn’t surprised to learn that Hannah is on her third re-reading of Christie’s crime novels. Impressive stuff. She has a great love for Christie and her work, although she admits she is not as knowledgeable as John Curran, Christie’s archivist and author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making, whom she would phone with questions when writing The Monogram Murders for which he would have instant answers.

For the Guardian Book Club, Hannah chose to discuss Death on the Nile partly because she wanted something different to the usual choice which is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, probably one of Christie’s most infamous novels, but also because it is one of the few that is successful in all mediums – book, tv and film. It is also one where you meet the characters going about their daily business before the actual murder occurs.

As much as they were bestsellers, I recall most notably in an English literature class at school that Christie’s novels were considered derivative and her characters two-dimensional, criticisms which still echo in genre fiction today. As young as I was, I did wonder why books you could race through weren’t considered serious literature however well written. It didn’t stop me reading or loving her novels, and when I re-read Elephants Can Remember a few years ago, I was surprised at how dark the plot was and how tightly written the prose. Hannah does point this out saying it’s an unfair label. She believes the characters need to appear to be two dimensional at first before the unveiling of the third dimension by the detective.

Christie’s strength lies in her interest in the psychology of crime especially how we assess others. She lets the readers mislead themselves and only at the unmasking do you realise your error in judgement. And one of the devices she uses in her novels is that a large proportion of her subjects are hiding something, all are guilty of something but perhaps not the murder. No one is perfect, everyone has a flaw. Christie is unparalleled in her understanding of character, human nature and psychology.

On accusations of stereotyping and stylised settings, Hannah does acknowledge that Christie recycles setting and plot devices but her tales are so interesting that readers don’t mind. A reader pointed out that The Murder on the Nile was somewhat similar to Endless Night and Mullan clocked on to a similar echo of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove which brought about a discussion on the limitations of plot. In some contemporary crime novels, the mystery isn’t enough to sustain the reader’s interest and so they pile on the bodies, but Christie doesn’t need to do this. However Hannah pointed out that Christie was fascinated by the possibilities of the crime novel and tried every possible permutation. She instinctively understood what every novel needed and was in total control. Christie is famous for being a meticulous planner before she put pen to paper and this can be seen in the very intricate way in which Christie manipulates her novels’ timelines. This was one aspect of the crime novel with which Hannah had difficulty and is also probably one of the reasons why she finds it so difficult to pinpoint Christie’s culprit.

For the serious mystery reader, the inability to guess the murderer is crucial. Christie overtly draws your attention to the clues, she is never sly or frugal in this, but still manages to fool you. You don’t know until the second Poirot or Miss Marple starts explaining who the murderer is. And she does this all the while increasing the tension bit by bit until you just have to know who did it.

The event ended with Hannah describing Miss Marple as a bit of a misanthrope and Poirot a romantic who liked to play cupid, often directing the attentions of a young lady away from a handsome rake to a slightly boring but more suitable man. Her favourite secondary character is Jane, Lady Edgware, in Lord Edgware Dies and one of her top ten favourite novels is After the Funeral as well as The Body in the Library which she says is flawless.

It was just a lovely evening to hear someone who loves Christie as much as I do talk about various aspects of her work and it has reawakened my urge to re-read some of Christie’s novels again as well as dip into John Curran’s books.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for Agatha Christie’s novels. If you have read them, which is your favourite mystery? And if you haven’t read any yet, which one would you like to start with?

Station Eleven

Longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction and winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award this year, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven seems to have blown through the literary world garnering praise from readers across genres. A dystopian novel featuring a travelling band of Shakespearean actors, what is it that made so many fall in love with this novel?

Set 20 years after a flu pandemic originating in Georgia and carried via air travel from the from the Caucasus decimated almost all life, there are still pockets of areas where people have survived and are adjusting to a new world without ready energy, access to communication or any of the mod cons that bolster modern life. It’s recent enough for many to have memories of what life was life before the pandemic but increasing numbers of the survivors are forgetting or have no memories at all.

Station Eleven goes back and forth from the dystopian present to the period just before the pandemic breaks out in the States and follows a cast of characters beginning with the tough as nails actress Kirsten who remembers her last night as a child actress working with the legendary Arthur Leander before he collapsed on stage and who treasures the copy of the comic book, Station Eleven, which he gave to her shortly beforehand. Having lost her family in the aftermath, she is picked up by The Travelling Symphony a few years later and never looked back. Then there is Jeevan, a trainee paramedic who was the first to realise Arthur was dying and tried to help him, the first also to get a call from his best friend, a doctor in A&E, who told him of the people coming in sick and who warned him to get out of town. And then there is Arthur and his three wives, Miranda who dreamt of creating a comic book, superseded by Elizabeth, an actress who went to live in Israel with their son and a third he was in the middle of divorcing. And Arthur’s best friend Clark who is on a flight when the pandemic breaks and becomes stranded in an airport in the middle of nowhere. All these characters play a part in this tale, strangers to each other but connected in the most spectacular way. And then there is the mysterious Prophet who emerges many years later, going from town to town, offering salvation through submission and violence. The Travelling Symphony must avoid him to survive yet this is becoming increasingly difficult, especially since it is almost inevitable that the small number of survivors will run into each other.

I’m still in two minds about this novel. In one, I feel that perhaps the dystopian elements in the novel weren’t as cleverly rendered as in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and felt a little simplistic. And yet, the spare manner in which the different parts of Mandel’s tale coalesce produce something that is remarkable. I can’t seem to get Station Eleven out of my mind. I’m not sure whether the fact that The Travelling Symphony puts on Shakespearean plays makes it more acceptable than a genre novel or whether genre is becoming mainstream, but somehow, the Shakespearean aspect of the book seems negligable just like the fictional comic book, Station Eleven. What remains is the horror and despair that won’t subside even after twenty years. The pandemic remains alive in the characters’ minds and they are still numb, surviving on autopilot. Station Eleven ultimately is a book about community, how you cannot survive without others. That even if you do survive, you will seek out others, just to know you aren’t going mad.

One of the things I loved about the book is the community that sprung up in the airport. It happened organically, naturally, as though there was no other way except to keep going. And even though you know that you can survive and adapt pretty quickly, the idea itself that power, electricity and all mod cons can just disappear so quickly is terrifying. More than the violence people can do to each other. That if you lose those things, the world is irrevocably changed.

Station Eleven turned out to be a haunting novel, although in ways I didn’t expect. Mandel’s imagery is vivid and remains branded in my mind, especially the hulks of the ships off Singapore where Miranda is sent on a business trip just as the pandemic breaks, ships built during the financial bubble but with nowhere to go, lit up to avoid collision, huge ghostly hulks in the sea. They reminded me very much of the prison ships in Dickens’ Great Expectations, vast and lonely. It’s such images that tug you suddenly back into the story.

Mandel doesn’t directly address the dissolute nature of modern society and yet the individual stories and crises that her characters face point to a modern world collapsing in on itself, as though the pandemic was a washing away of accumulated sin. It’s certainly the outlook the Prophet took.