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Personal, Professional, Official? Standards of Professionalism in SFWA


A little over a week ago, I wrote a post responding to the dialogue written by Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg and published in SFWA’s The Bulletin #202. In that post, I tried to point out the (serious) flaws in their reasoning, and to simultaneously question the wisdom of including such flawed content in an official trade publication.

Since that post went live, I have watched the Internet (or at least our genre corner of it) explode with fury: directed at Resnick/Malzberg, directed at Bulletin editor Jean Rabe, directed at SFWA, directed at SFWA’s leadership, directed at critics, directed at men, directed at women, directed at young people, directed at old people. Watching the cultural debate unfold across blog posts, comment threads, forum discussions, and tweets, it often seems that the only ones who have escaped unscathed are dogs, cats, and certain species of tropical fish. For a decent sense of the rhetoric flying around, I recommend Jim C. Hines’ link roundup post.

Today, two events occurred which build upon and extend the previous week’s controversy:

First, Vox Day (a SFWA member and losing candidate for the SFWA presidency, a.k.a. Theodore Beale) publicly posted a racist screed attacking N.K. Jemisin in which he repeatedly refers to her as a “half-savage” and states that a “society of NK Jemisins…” (read: people of color) “…is [in]capable of building an advanced civilization, or even successfully maintaining one without significant external support from those white males”. I won’t link to Vox Day’s blog here, but Google will quickly lead you to it.

Day’s post (on his personal blog) would be just another instance of him spewing racist and misogynistic vitriol on the internet were it not for his abuse of SFWA platforms in its dissemination. In particular, Day made use of the @SFWAauthors twitter profile (which retweets promotional tweets of SFWA members) to increase the reach of his post. Considering the content of that post, this is in flagrant contravention of SFWA’s terms of service for the @SFWAauthors Twitter handle:

Not every blog post is appropriate for @sfwaauthors. If a post is not about writing, or about fiction or publishing, do not mark it for inclusion in the @sfwaauthors twitter feed. Repeated violations of this policy will be grounds for removal from the feed. SFWA reserves the right to determine what posts are appropriate.

Marking blog posts for inclusion that include threats or personal attacks or obvious trolling will also be grounds for removal.

(quote via Amal El-Mohtar, emphasis mine)

SFWA members and non-members alike have responded to Day’s detritus by criticizing his reprehensible and hate-filled views, and calling for his expulsion from the organization. Amal El-Mohtar in particular has written an eloquent and logical indictment of Day’s actions, making a case for his expulsion from the organization based on SFWA’s current by-laws.

Today’s second event relevant to the discussion is SFWA’s publication of a three-step plan (apparently mis-titled as a four-step plan) to address concerns about the SFWA Bulletin. The plan is brief (having only three steps), but it lays out a reasonable and professional approach to examining options, formulating plans, and implementing them in a reasonable time frame.

SFWA’s plan is a step in the right direction, and raises the question of how it should be done. And here is where today’s two events – and the past week’s controversy over the Bulletin – converge on the issue and definition of professionalism, and SFWA’s role in promoting professionalism amongst its members.

Vox Day, Resnick/Malzberg, Sexism, Racism, and Relevance

The current controversy surrounding SFWA has two facets: the first is criticism of individuals for their condescending attitudes, offensive words, and reprehensible actions. When it comes to Resnick/Malzberg’s condescending and offensive “dialogue” I agree with much of that criticism (as I said unequivocally here). When it comes to Vox Day’s vile hate speech (which I have not discussed before), I would like to state my position clearly: such discourse is disingenuous, argued in bad faith, and offensive in the extreme. It is designed to do little more than stir greater controversy. Our genre and our species deserves better.

While I agree with criticism of the individuals and the views they espouse, I don’t think either Day or Resnick/Malzberg are likely to change their words or values based on such criticism: Resnick/Malzberg implied as much in their much-maligned most recent Dialogue, and I take them at their word. Which is why (as I said earlier), I think it is pointless to argue with them. In a similar fashion, I think it unlikely that Vox Day (given his longstanding penchant for racist and misogynist writing) will ever re-examine his positions.

Yet the second facet of this controversy arises from the relationship of such individuals to SFWA as a professional organization. And here, the cases of Resnick/Malzberg and Vox Day are very different.

In the case of Vox Day, his actions today were in clear violation of the terms under which SFWA members can benefit from the @SFWAauthors Twitter handle. The organization responded promptly and correctly, deleting the (presumably automatically generated) retweets. Whether this violation is sufficient to expel him from the organization (as Amal El-Mohtar advocates here) is unclear to me, but I would not shed a tear if the Board were to expel him. This is a question of SFWA’s bylaws, and their application by SFWA’s Board.

But Vox Day and his racist views are personal views, separate from the SFWA Bulletin. We can and should condemn them vocally. But Day is not a representative of SFWA, and to outside observers it would be difficult to construe his hate-filled words as being endorsed by the organization. Most of us can spot a crank when we see one, and the organization was quick to rectify the retweet of his blog post. More troubling are the cultural implications of Day getting about 10% of the vote for the SFWA presidency. But those implications are a separate issue, with long-term consequences for the genre and for broader society. We will continue to debate them for years to come, and hopefully we will do so in a polite and professional fashion.

Resnick/Malzberg – and the attitudes they displayed in their Dialogue – are a more immediate concern, and a more complicated case. Unlike Vox Day, they were published in SFWA’s official publication. The organization (read: the members) paid for their words. This lends their words greater weight than the essays of Vox Day. The implied official sanction of Resnick/Malzberg’s attitudes raises questions about SFWA’s commitment to diversity, its openness to new voices, and its respect for all writers and readers.

The Danger of Assumptions

Resnick/Malzberg and the SFWA Bulletin controversy highlight a disconnect between the standards of professionalism many of us assumed applied to The Bulletin, and the standards which were actually applied by the Bulletin’s editor (and tacitly approved by SFWA president John Scalzi, as he states here). In this dimension of the debate, it is not the single, specific offensive article that matters but rather an escalating pattern of publishing “unprofessional” material.

These issues are important. They were important when I wrote my earlier post and they remain important now. Considering the hate mail people have been receiving for speaking out (see here and here), and Vox Day’s escalation of hate speech, these issues may be even more important today. And yet, within all of the righteous fury, personal animus, and hyperbolic vitriol, I fear we risk losing sight of some important questions:

  • What does it mean to be a “professional” trade publication?
  • Who makes that decision?
  • And what implications should that have decision have on the content of The Bulletin?

I’ve been thinking about these issues for the past week or so and discussing them with uniformly civil, respectful people in the comments here, on Twitter, and on various discussion boards. For your consideration and debate, this post will answer them according to how I think. I may be wrong, and I may be foolish, but only by focusing on those questions are we likely to affect any kind of systemic change (whatever such change may be).

Let me address those questions in reverse order:

Implications of “Professionalism”

The Bulletin is an edited magazine, produced by SFWA and distributed to SFWA members and non-members alike. It is a trade publication, meaning that its mission is to discuss the business of writing. Because SFWA is an organization for science fiction and fantasy writers, The Bulletin focuses its attention on the business of writing science fiction and fantasy in particular.

As an organization, SFWA puts great store by the term “professional”. Consider its painstaking definition of what constitutes a “professional” market, and by extension the qualifications necessary to be an Active member. Since its members are specifically “professional” science fiction and fantasy authors, by logical inference one could expect its trade publication to adhere to certain standards of professionalism.

Such standards – whatever they may be and however they get defined – fundamentally shape the magazine’s content. They affect which articles are bought for publication and which illustrations are purchased for the magazine’s cover. They influence the interior design and the ordering of articles within each issue. And they inform how content is revised prior to publication.

Whatever standards (lax or not, appropriate or not) had been applied to The Bulletin are the proximal cause of the current controversy, and all concomitant unpleasantness.

The Arbiters of Professionalism

So who decides what those standards should be? Considering that it is SFWA – a member-funded, volunteer-run organization – who publishes The Bulletin, it stands to reason that SFWA members should ultimately decide those standards. But how should that work in practice? It is laughably impractical to subject every editorial choice to a vote amongst SFWA’s almost 2000 members.

SFWA needs (and I believe has) mechanisms to define and arbitrate such standards, particularly through the executive authority of its elected Board. I am not well versed in SFWA’s bylaws, but my understanding is that SFWA members elect its Board and its Board manages the execution of the organization’s mission. Publishing The Bulletin falls within that mandate, and by extension so does the setting of standards to which The Bulletin should adhere.

Does that mean that a Board vote need be taken to approve every editorial choice? No, because that too would be ridiculously impractical. Instead, the Board delegates such editorial choices to The Bulletin’s editor – in this case Jean Rabe (who has since resigned). For such delegation to be effective, the standards of professionalism determined by the Board should be articulated and agreed with the editor. In the case of The Bulletin’s most recent issue, and judging by John Scalzi’s statement, it would seem that such shared understanding was not achieved.

As SFWA moves forward, I believe that the Board should specifically take considered steps to ensure that The Bulletin’s editor and the Board are actually aligned on whatever definition of “professional standards” the Board (or Task Force) settles on. That’s just responsible management, and I am pleased that the Task Force’s initial plan seems to recognize this need. In the event that SFWA members disagree with the Board’s managerial decisions? Addressing such concerns is what SFWA’s election process is for.

So what should “professional” mean in this case?

Which brings us to the question of what “professional” means. This is something I have been thinking about quite a bit in the past several days, particularly observing the hurt, offense, and sense of betrayal that this controversy has spawned on all sides of the debate. And the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that any discussion aspiring to “professionalism” should focus on the work, and not on extraneous considerations which distract from that work.

Consider: when was the last time we saw such controversy erupt over an article in Plumbing and Mechanical (a plumbing trade journal)? Why don’t we see such vitriol and controversy in most professional trade publications? I think the reason is because they keep personal issues and opinions out of the publication. The gender attitudes, racial prejudices, political opinions, religious beliefs, fabric preferences, etc. of someone writing about spot-welding techniques, contractor advertising strategies, or the history of copper tubing are utterly irrelevant to the work.

Why should it be any different for someone writing about plot structuring techniques, book publicity strategies, or the history of the SF/F genre?

When I go to industry conferences outside of the SF/F community – when I hang out at media research cocktail parties and speak to other professionals – you know what rarely comes up? Politics. Religion. Gender values. Racial prejudice. Why? Because that’s not what we are there to discuss. We are there to discuss the work.

I have no more right to force my views on others than they do to force their views on me. I may disagree with those views (and boy do I ever disagree with Resnick/Malzberg and Vox Day!), and I may voice that disagreement, but that’s as far as it goes. The best way – therefore – to keep the conversation at a professional level is to avoid personal issues that have no bearing on the subject at hand.

Does this mean that we should “ban” gender, racial, or political discussions from our professional discourse? I would hope not! Questions of diversity, inclusion, and openness are vitally important to the genre’s long-term health. But there is a fundamental contextual difference between discussing personal gender attitudes as a subject in itself (e.g. “Person X is a misogynist!”, or “Person Y is a liberal fascist!”, or “SFWA endores sexism!”, or “SFWA is ruled by liberal fascists!”) and discussing gender as evidenced in the work (e.g. “Covers depict women in X fashion, and that has implications of Y”, or “Author X subverts traditional gender power dynamics in their work by doing Z”, or even “Historically, women editors did Q, as compared to male editors who did Z”). Note the distinctions in punctuation, subjects, objects, comparatives, and conclusions. I would hope professional SF/F writers can grok the difference in approach, tone, and context.

Many people have noted the difference in reaction to Resnick/Malzberg’s original dialogue (in issue #200), CJ Henderson’s “Barbie” article (in issue #201), and Resnick/Malzberg’s most recent piece (in issue #202, here). The original articles were problematic: They used language in a fashion out-dated by today’s standards or employed condescending metaphors unwisely. Their language made me and many other critics wince. Many people voiced their complaints about this rhetoric then, but the reaction was relatively muted. Not so after issue #202. Why the difference in reaction? Several reasons, one of which may be that the earlier pieces were (for all of their myriad problems, most of which I consider to be significant) more professional in their content by the standard I propose above than Resnick/Malzberg’s most recent screed.

I think that as a genre we can do better. We already do better in many places. If we look at the discussion around gender bias in reviewing, if we look at the debate around this year’s all-male Clarke Award shortlist, if we look at Jim Hines’ writing about cover art, if we look at Kameron Hurley’s essay about women warriors, it is clear that as a genre we can do it right.

As professional writers, we should all have the rhetorical chops to focus our writing on the work itself. After all, isn’t that what we all have in common? A passion for science fiction and fantasy? Focusing on the work is the very soul of professionalism, and I do not believe that should be too much to ask of SFWA’s trade publication. Ensuring that the publication adheres to such standards should be the responsibility of its editor, and by extension the SFWA Board.

This particular issue of professionalism is far less exciting than the vocal outcry against perceived sexism, perceived thought control, or outright racism. It’s not as likely (I think/hope) to get emotions riled. But if we don’t explore and address this more prosaic question (and do so – dare I say it – in a professional fashion), then we’ll just end up having this furious debate yet again.

Instead, I think we should all be focused on telling better stories, selling more books, entertaining more readers. And that focus should be reflected in our professional trade publications. If we do that, the offensive attitudes of individuals like Vox Day and Resnick/Malberg will be consigned to the dustbin of professional irrelevancy.

(Of course, this may just be one aspiring SFWA member’s futile attempt to close the barn doors after the horses have fled…but I felt it needed doing anyway.)

PLEASE NOTE: If you are a SFWA member and have an opinion on the expulsion of Theodore Beale/Vox Day from SFWA, you should bring it to the attention of SFWA’s Board and your regional director.

The SFWA Bulletin, Censorship, Anonymity, and Representation


First things first: my name is Chris Gerwel, and I am not anonymous. The past several months have seen mounting controversy around The SFWA Bulletin, a quarterly trade publication published by SFWA (The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), a trade group representing writers of science fiction and fantasy. This controversy centers around the field’s ongoing examination of its relationship to gender, both in the field’s works (literary and visual) and in its published rhetoric.

I won’t go into the history of the controversy, which you can review for yourself here. Instead, I’m going to briefly suspend my blogging vacation to respond to Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg’s most recent salvo in the latest SFWA Bulletin. You can find their complete article at the bottom of this post from Radish Reviews (preceded by some good discussion of the article as well).

I have a huge problem with Resnick/Malzberg’s attitude. I consider it regressive, out-dated, and condescending. I am married to a “lady editor”, am friends with many more, and have great friendships with many “lady writers”. But I don’t think of them as “lady [anything]”. They are editors. They are writers. They are people. When I consider their work, I do exactly that: consider their work. Nothing else matters. Not their genders, not their sexualities, not their political views, and certainly not their appearances. When, in a professional context, we consider the work of plumbers, rocket scientists, and lawyers, it is the quality and characteristics of their work which are subject to our commentary. That focus on the work itself is precisely what “professional context” implies.

What Resnick and Malzberg have forgotten is that words matter. Images matter. They are what the world sees of our work, whether in our fiction or in our behavior. The criticism that has been leveled at the SFWA Bulletin’s gratuitous “warrior woman” cover (issue #200) is not that it is bad art, but rather that its old-fashioned and highly sexualized portrayal of its subject sends a regressive and out-dated message about the genre. Resnick and Malzberg’s dialogues are being criticized for the exact same failing: that to those in the field, and to those looking at the field from outside, their words communicate an attitude towards women that is condescending, dismissive, and not representative of the field.

In their most recent article, they make two spurious claims that are inaccurate, illogical, ignorant and ultimately irrelevant:

First, their critics are not anonymous as Resnick/Malzberg claim. That is a neat little rhetorical device to sideline detractors and to gain legitimacy through victimization. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pass the test of truth. Criticism of Resnick/Malzberg is happening online: in blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook, and on (various) forums. Their critics are not anonymous in these venues: Our names are known and typically displayed alongside each Tweet, comment, or post. However, Resnick/Malzberg wouldn’t know that simply because they are not participating in the modern field’s discussions. Their laments about “anonymous complainers” are the logical equivalent of someone calling the civil rights movement anonymous simply because they had never ventured into Harlem. Their claim is factually incorrect, and does little more than call attention to Resnick/Malzberg’s willful ignorance of today’s field.

Second, no one is calling for their thoughts to be censored. Their bombastic claims of “censorship” and “liberal fascism” are demagoguery of the basest sort, and as someone who has personally seen the consequences of real censorship and whose family has suffered at the hands of actual fascism, I find their ignorant rhetoric extremely offensive. Kameron Hurley discusses this from a slightly different perspective very eloquently here, as well.

Nobody (that I have seen) is saying that Resnick/Malzberg cannot have or publish their views in whatever venue will take them. I’m reasonably certain that every one of their detractors would agree with Ben Franklin in saying “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” If Cantankerous Cane-thumpers Weekly is willing to give Resnick and Malzberg a platform, then I’m happy for them.

What people are saying, however, is that SFWA — an organization whose mission is to “inform[s], support[s], promote[s], defend[s] and advocate[s] for [authors of science fiction, fantasy and related genres]” — should not give such regressive views a platform. That is not a call for censorship. That is a call for principle, and for the responsible fulfillment of SFWA’s fiduciary duty to ably represent and promote the interests of its membership.

Like it or not, the SFWA Bulletin is an official trade publication published by an organization representing science fiction and fantasy writers. It is one of that organization’s public voices. The words and images it contains matter. They send a message to current members, they send a message to potential members, and they send a message to future generations of writers about the values and priorities of our field.

I could criticize Resnick and Malzberg for their antediluvian attitudes until I was blue in the face. But it wouldn’t do any good. They will hold to their views, and I will hold to mine, and never the twain shall meet. But Resnick and Malzberg – and their values – are irrelevant for today’s field. The relevant question is whether such attitudes (whether espoused by Mike Resnick, Barry Malzberg, CJ Henderson, or anyone else) will benefit from the imprimatur of the field’s most significant organization.

This is a question of editorial policy, and it is one that should instead be directed at Jean Rabe (The SFWA Bulletin’s editor) and at SFWA’s Board. And it is in this that I see a light of hope: All of the SFWA board members I know are good, thoughtful, considerate, logical people. They have done and will continue to do excellent, often thankless, work on behalf of SFWA’s members and the field in general. And unlike Resnick/Malzberg, they are all active in that field’s modern forums of discussion and debate. The critics are not anonymous to them, and our concerns are being heard and listened to. In particular, I applaud Rachel Swirsky’s reasonable, considerate, respectful statements on Twitter today. I have every confidence that the SFWA Board will address these concerns in a thoughtful, considered manner.

This controversy may be considered yet another storm in a teacup, and no doubt it is. But to those of us who are either inside the teacup or hoping to board, it remains a tempest. To be clear, I am not yet a SFWA member. Some might say that fact invalidates my opinion. I disagree. I have long hoped to be a member, and I eagerly look forward to the day when I am eligible. I look forward to joining an organization that will inform me, support me, promote me, defend me, and advocate on my behalf. I hope to join an organization that will represent the kind of genre that I want to contribute to, one which has abandoned a pernicious history of discrimination and condescension.

Yes, the organization is facing a storm in a teacup. But this storm shall pass, and I have every confidence that SFWA’s Board will help the organization navigate the waves. It will take time, because such is the nature of organizations. But I genuinely believe that SFWA will get to a far better place, and it is because of that belief that my hope of joining has not wavered.

This fact notwithstanding, in the meantime, we should continue to condemn Resnick/Malzberg’s views, and we should continue to loudly proclaim:

Science Fiction and fantasy are enriched by all of our participants, regardless of gender, race, creed, sexuality, politics, eye color, hair length, or any other characteristic. Every writer and every editor deserves our respect and gratitude. Condescension and dismissal add nothing of value to the conversation, and merely show their adherents to have become irrelevant.

My name is Chris Gerwel, and I stand by these views.

REVIEW: The Steel Seraglio by Mike Carey, Linda Carey, Louise Carey


Title: The Steel Seraglio
Author: Mike Carey, Linda Carey, Louise Carey
Pub Date: March 13th, 2012
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A mythic novel-in-stories that maintains a fast, unified pace

Several years ago, I discovered N.M. Penzer’s The Harem: Inside the Grand Seraglio of the Turkish Sultans, which opened my eyes to the fascinating history of the Ottoman sultan’s harem. What could be more fertile soil for an awesome story than a group of educated women from diverse backgrounds, locked away by a patriarchal society yet with intimate access to the heart of political, military, and religious power, and simultaneously grooming the next generation of the same? The real intrigue and blood-soaked history of the Ottoman Empire’s seraglio might well be called “implausible” if it were to show up in a fantasy novel, but with my pre-existing fascination, the moment I saw a book entitled The Steel Seraglio, I had to read it.

The Steel Seraglio is an impressively structured and well-executed fantasy that follows the experiences of three hundred sixty five concubines who – when their sultan is overthrown by an ascetic zealot – find themselves exiled into the desert, fighting for their lives, and their futures.

The Steel Seraglio is loosely structured as a novel-in-stories recounted by Rem, a librarian from the harem’s home city. With its mythic feel and folktale overtones, I was strongly reminded of Catherynne M. Valente’s The Orphan’s Tale and Gregory Frost’s Shadowbridge. However, The Steel Seraglio is more accessible and features more consistent momentum than either of these titles. Like most novels-in-stories, it features both nested and discrete, self-contained tales, but in this case each addresses and expands upon the conflict at the heart of this book: the concubines’ battle for self-determination.

The book opens with not one but two prologues, which is an interesting and rather unusual choice. The prologues firmly establish the book’s mythic tone, give a good sense of its flowing, evocative descriptions, and introduce us to the Careys’ daring technical choices. The first of the two prologues transports us to a dry, desert environment and establishes a decidedly non-Western, patriarchal culture heavily influenced by Middle Eastern traditions. At this point, it is entirely unclear whether we are dealing with a secondary world fantasy or find ourselves in some strange quasi-historical environment.

The first prologue does a good job of communicating the flavor of the novel, introducing us to both a setting and style that heavily reminded me of The Arabian Nights and The Shahnameh. Considering how much I like both, and how rare it is to find fantasy which eschews quasi-medieval northern European settings, The Steel Seraglio was quite refreshing.

The second of the two prologues further introduces us to our narrator, the librarian Rem, and lays out some of the background essential to the novel which follows. At the same time, this second prologues shifts to a slightly different, more self-aware narrative voice that strategically abandons some of the mythic tone – and it is this shift in voice that most caught my eye, as a bold and risky stylistic gamble that I felt ultimately paid off.

Despite the fact that I enjoyed both prologues on their own terms, I found the first to be one of the weaker parts of an otherwise strong novel. As mentioned above, the Careys successfully avoid the trap of most novels-in-stories by ensuring that each embedded tale shares and focuses on the novel’s driving conflict. Of all of the disparate sections of the book, the first prologue alone ignores this central conflict. While it does a good job of grounding the reader in tone, style, and setting through some wonderfully evocative writing, when considered as the first movement in the larger score, I felt it to be somewhat out of place. The second prologue, however, does a good job of easing us into the book’s central conflict.

The rest of the book maintains the prologues’ lush descriptions and combines them with a momentum-charged focus on character and conflict. The over-arching story is of how the sultan’s concubines are exiled after a coup d’état, and how they carve out self-determination for themselves. The story skillfully focuses on the experiences of the harem’s leaders (and those of the narrator Rem herself).

The principal characters are a delight: the pragmatic wisdom of the elderly Gursoon, the icy passion of the assassin-cum-concubine Zuleika, the terrifying zealotry of the usurper Hakkim Mehdad, the hilarious cunning of the camel thief Anwar Das, or the self-absorbed immaturity of the surviving prince Jamal are a delight on the page. I found the narrator’s own story a little self-absorbed for my taste, but this is not actually a weakness: the character remained well-drawn and interesting. I just found the others more compelling. Despite the myriad characters, and their many embedded stories, the Careys do an excellent job of capturing the conflicting, complicated, messy, and beautiful relationships of a disparate group thrust into one another’s orbits by powers beyond their control. The fact that the characters are so rich and varied is a testament to the Careys’ skill, and is the primary pillar on which the book’s success rests.

The narrative voice is interesting, and takes a notable (and ultimately successful) risk: the narrator, Rem, is gifted by the djinni with the ability to see possible futures. She is a seer, and a librarian, and a storyteller, embedded in of her own mythic time while cognizant of our somewhat more egalitarian future. The seer character is a trope much over-used in fantasy, but the Careys freshen it with a realistic conceit: with her ability to see into the future, Rem’s voice becomes peppered with anachronisms. Idioms and words that have no business in a mythic tale salt her prose: in the second paragraph of the second prologue, we are told that for a seer who can see the future “Tenses get a bit confused…and unravelling them again can be a bitch.” This departure from the somewhat florid style so commonly associated with myth is shocking, and I found it refreshing.

This is a daring choice of technique, because it risks our immersion in the story: at first blush, we read The Steel Seraglio as a mythic, folktale style narrative. The prose is evocative, lush, flowing: it reads like legend. But by inserting contemporary, anachronistic constructions into otherwise mythic prose, we are forced to reconsider and reevaluate the words and themes introduced by the story. The effect may be jarring. Although some readers might find that it lessens the sense of mythic immersion the prose otherwise produces, I found that the technique was used sparingly enough, and with just enough strategic precision, to heighten my own sense of immersion. After all, wouldn’t someone perceptually unmoored from their own time end up with some rather odd verbal tics? Because the Careys play this narrative device straight, making Rem’s anachronistic tics and stories strange or incomprehensible to her own contemporaries, the effect heightens the world’s remove from our contemporary mores, enhancing the gap between the novel’s patriarchal world and our own.

Just as the novel’s non-traditional setting is refreshing, so too is its thematic focus on women and their self-determination in a patriarchal society. This is the kind of theme that fantasy, a genre stereotypically known for its lantern-jawed (male) heroes, too rarely addresses. While the book wears its feminist themes on its sleeve, the Careys avoid the polemical trap by focusing on the complicated and at times messy emotional journeys that their (predominantly female) characters must take. As a result, the (perhaps obvious) themes are treated with a skill, compassion, and empathy which diffuses and dramatizes any moralizing agenda.

The core thrust of the novel is divided into two “books” within the larger novel, a “Book the First” and a “Book the Second”. While both are well-told, well-structured, and maintain a well-paced momentum, I found that the second of these two books felt somewhat rushed. It focuses on the consequences of the events of the first, but it does so in a much more sweeping, view-from-thirty-thousand-feet fashion than the first eighty percent of the novel. In some respects, as a work of history within the fictional narrative, it works well. And my discomfort with this approach may simply stem from the fact that I wanted to spend more time in the Careys’ world, and in the city of Bessa, and with the characters they introduced me to. But nevertheless, I found it felt to some degree like an attempt at a duology crammed into one volume.

Overall, The Steel Seraglio is a delight. Fans of mythic fantasy like Valente’s The Orphan’s Tale or Frost’s Shadowbridge will likely enjoy both its characterization and evocative description, while readers looking for a fun, action-packed story can find the same in its fast-moving pace. The weaknesses I saw, whether in its initial prologue or in the rushed second book, are on the whole quibbles: the book is great fun, and a rich, lovely work of art. The excellent interior illustrations by Nimit Malavia further add to its artistry, though from a design standpoint the artistry might have been heightened by illustrations more evocative of or otherwise tied to the Arabian, Persian, or Ottoman traditions which feature so strongly in the text itself, and in the excellent cover by Erik Mohr.

The Steel Seraglio is a wonderful, resonant book and I would love to see more such novels from its authors, illustrator, and publisher.

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