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<cite>Cloud & Ashes</cite>cover

I stopped reviewing three years ago. There were two reasons for this. The first one was that having written a glowing, ecstatic review of a very good book in a major newspaper that went on for an entire broadsheet page, the only thing that anyone noticed or cared about was what I thought was a throwaway kind of remark (and the only negative point) about the editor not trimming the fat. To my mind this is a very minor kind of crime, especially in a good book, and a very minor kind of attempt at criticism—indeed it could be argued that the fat was one of the charms, which is why I didn't say something like 'the author's dreadful inability to get to the point makes this novel an interminable trial of patience over reason' or anything like that. However, to judge by the reaction you would have thought I'd accused the said editor of said novel of treason, or possibly genocide. People crawled out of the woodwork to warn me that he was sensitive and powerful and monstrously upset and I'd never eat any meals, or get published, or get a contract or even get a bus ticket in that town again. I never did get any more review offers from the paper so maybe they were right. But I learned from that that you can never be too cautious about the slightest negativity in reviewing if you value the feelings of the producers of a book because the only thing anyone takes to heart is a negative remark, even if you bury them alive in gooey, sticky hivefuls of genuine praise. Since I get to experience the other end of reviews too I felt bad (and a bit alarmed), even though I didn't want to recant. Then I got mired in the Whose Responsibility Is It Anyway game, made a wrong decision, and took my bat home morosely.

The second thing that happened is that I read a book all wrong. It was a major novel of the decade, everyone loved it, everyone raved about it, except me (OK I'll tell you, it was Bold as Love, by Gwyneth Jones). I read it and I hated it. I thought it was the most ludicrous piece of tosh ever and it didn't help that it pushed a variety of personal buttons I didn't even know I had which were lurking silently waiting to get me—always the worst kind to find pressed. I was vocal about my feelings as a result and now feel tarnished by those moments of unwarranted vitriol because later I reread the book, just to try and see if I really was mental, and found that had I read it as a Fantasy and not a Science Fiction novel, I would have liked it a lot. (Mental: check. To top the major irony here and transform it into the true lead bullet of poetic justice that series of books was a major inspirational turning point for my own work.) It was then that I realized the stupidity of hating something for being what it so clearly isn't, in spite of what it might be marketed as or talked about as or whatever. And rather stupid to have such rigid genre boundaries in one's mind too. But I felt too ashamed to speak up at that point.

And then . . . Niall Harrison, the reviews editor here, gave me this book and asked me if I'd look at it. He said he'd bounced Adam Roberts' review, and Adam is one of the most interesting and eclectic reviewers I know. Their joint reaction to the book made me very curious and now that I've herewith eaten my portion of humble pie:

Greer Gilman's Cloud & Ashes.

This book already has some sticky heaploads of praise on its cover, and it's from Small Beer Press, so I was pre inclined to like it. It's also out and out fantasy, so no chance of a misreading there—phew. That said, it isn't like most fantasy you will have read in the mainstream markets be they urban, contemporary or high, and it doesn't bear any useful comparison with them because it doesn't employ most of the devices from which they are made; namely, strong linear plotlines with steady streams of narrative pointers and characters with recognizably modern inner lives. If you go in expecting a fancier version of Charles de Lint or even a condensed dose of Neil Gaiman on acid, you will flounder around and drown. But that would be a shame because this is something worth swimming in.

It took me ages to figure out exactly what Cloud & Ashesis, but I think I can safely say now that it is a contemporary fantasist's vision of prehistoric North British mythology and folklore rendered in a traditional style that favours oral storytelling over literature, although it has subscribed heavily to several important literary traditions nonetheless. It has been compared to James Joyce, and it certainly resembles his creation of a stream of interiorized narrative, but it's nothing like Joyce in that the narrative remains ruthlessly external and archetypal even in its particulars. It is told in a highly stylized manner with great lyric skill, like an epic poem, although it is completely prose. It's written in modern English but everyone speaks as though they are mired in North Yorkshire past—if the dialect is faulty I didn't spot it, though I'm no expert in it. It rings true enough to be convincing.

Meantime, Gilman renders her world and its characters with a faux prehistoric sensibility which draws hugely on the originals and translations of the world's great ancient poems—Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and The Iliad to name only a few. I was really reminded of some of Tony Harrison's radical translations of Greek drama (he is a poet from Yorkshire who translated the Oresteia for the stage in a particularly awesome manner, so not unrelated to Gilman's work) and I think it's probably as close to poetry as you can get without actually being poetry. It's as close to ancient as you can get without being ancient. It's as close to Victorian gothic novels and D. H. Lawrence and folktales as you can get without being an actual copy or parody. Herein lies its charm and strength, if you like to be captured by that sort of thing and transported to its heaving slurry of vile weather, millstone grit, and raw white-knuckle archetypes locked in epic tales of life, death, and the primordial struggle to become conscious shapers of tales rather than hapless victims of them. If you don't like to be captured by that sort of thing, then herein lies its satirically excessive weakness. It is a potent cocktail, there's no escaping that.

I think it's a fine modern academic fantasist's vision of the emergence of consciousness at a pivotal evolutionary moment just before the mind splits off from the rest of us and becomes the modern mind (or, the Fall, as you might like to have it). The last story in this collection of three certainly seems to encapsulate that. It's a kind of Before We Were Human fantasy. But you could equally read it on more simple lines and enjoy it for the story of a goddess separating myths and the supernatural from the human world, as it is put in the cover flap. However you approach it, just remember it isn't a modern novel and isn't trying to be. It is a spell of evocation, made in words, to be enjoyed as a mystical vision and a celebration of several literary inheritances and archaeopsychological notions.

I do love the language, and Gilman's poetic imagery is second to none, but personally (and I know this says everything about me and nothing about the lovely, magnificent better-than-I-will-probably-ever-write book) I'd rather read Robert Holdstock. After a while the sheer density of Greer Gilman's scholarship, images, metaphors, myths, and allusions gave me meta fatigue. I also found the lack of characters with which to identify (as powerfully redolent as they are to me they're narrative vehicles loaded with signifiers rather than personalities at work) left me unwilling to soldier on.

Bah, you see, Cloud & Ashes really is a kind of masterwork. I know it, I admire it and I think it's terrific and I don't hesitate to recommend you taking time to experience it—but I don't love it because I find it impossibly hard to engage with at anything other than an intellectual level. This seems a bit ridiculous because all its power is in its mighty, visceral, emotional va va voom mytho-metaphorical nitro boosters and they're on every page. I really ought to love it. I do love it, in parts. In sentences and paragraphs and notions I love it. It has moments of surpassing beauty and sublimity. I revere it. But as a whole it left me for dead in its crow-scattered wake.

I knew I hated reviewing.

Justina Robson's most recent novel is Chasing the Dragon.

Justina Robson's most recent novel is Chasing the Dragon.
6 comments on “Cloud & Ashes by Greer Gilman”

Hah! That is a great review and a wonderful think piece on reviewing. And you've done it again, saying negative things about what is likely an important book. I will be picking up "Cloud & Ashes." I suspect it's the kind of book that is better on the second reading, percolating through the mind over years.

Jeff VanderMeer

It's difficult for me, too, Justine, because I'm so not interested in linguistic fireworks any more.


This is a terrific article, Justina, and it resonates with my experience not only of review writing but of writing in general.
It seems to me it has to do with the sensitivity of some writers to any perceived slight, however tiny, directed at their writing.
It also reflects the ways in which readers can sometimes select one aspect of content and focus on it as central.
It also relates to the subjectivity of the reading/writing experience, group processes and the search for a scapegoat or someone to castigate.
If something's not deemed one hundred percent wonderful then often times it will be considered all bad.
Thanks for a terrific analysis of a thorny issue.

It has become traditional that fiction-reading is primarily a silent, solitary pleasure. There are wonderful works whose brilliance can't be enjoyed that way, so much, for so many. But when read aloud, in company, the pleasures that the author intended for the reader and the listener are fully experienced.
When I was young I couldn't understand why I loved Finnegan's Wake so much, but couldn't stand to, well, read it. Some years later it became clear, while my husband and I read works aloud to each other before going to bed. Some creations are meant primarily to be spoken and to be heard, for their fullness to be enjoyed. Cloud & Ashes is one of those works that would make a marvelous occasion of company reading, hearing and talking about.
Love, C.

Lois Tilton

Niall, Niall - you spiked Roberts' review? A lapse in judgment that should certainly be engraved on your tombstone: "Above all things, this I regret."

And the beauty of the internet is that out of that lapse you, the consumer, get two reviews for the price of one!


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