Review: Miranda in Milan by Katharine Duckett

PROSPERO: Twelve year since, Miranda, twelve year since,
Thy father was the Duke of Milan and
A prince of power.
MIRANDA: Sir, are not you my father?
PROSPERO: Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and
She said thou wast my daughter.
— The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2

These lines constitute the one and only mention of Miranda’s mother in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. As such, they open an intriguing gap: beyond being “a piece of virtue,” who was Miranda’s mother, and what happened to her? Many have tackled this question, with a variety of results. Literary critic Stephen Orgel used it to explore the anxiety around parentage for Shakespeare generally. Filmmaker Julie Taymor viewed it as a screenwriting problem, and solved it by making Prospero Miranda’s mother. Debut novella author Katharine Duckett, meanwhile, uses it as a jumping-off point for a queer Gothic romance, with Miranda’s mother one of many dark secrets at the heart of a Milanese castle. Inventive and dark, yet full of genuine heart, Miranda in Milan turns Shakespeare’s beloved text on its ear, creating something both more macabre and more liberating in the process.

The story picks up a few weeks after Shakespeare leaves off, with Miranda and Prospero’s return to Italy. While Prospero retreats immediately to his isolated study, Miranda finds herself “a monster.” Cut off from both her island home and her fiance Ferdinand, she is forced to hide from the world at large, servants “moving around her as though she were a cockroach,” a veil forced upon her whenever she leaves her chambers. Her only friend is the “Moorish” servant Dorothea, a self-confessed witch, and thus the only person “with nothing to fear from you or your father.” Yet there is very good reason to be afraid of Prospero. The wizard is back at his old tricks; the vow to drown his book has been broken. What else has Prospero lied about? What really happened to Miranda’s mother? And can Miranda escape the influence of the man who has scripted her entire life so far?

As all this implies, Miranda in Milan is an openly revisionist sequel to Shakespeare’s Tempest. Early on, Miranda reminisces about a much more sympathetic Caliban than readers may remember, and Duckett implies that the two were deliberately forced apart by Prospero. Ariel also makes a brief cameo appearance, in an even more ambivalent form than the original, and Duckett offers the intriguing detail that Miranda

“had wanted an Ariel of her own, once, an ethereal slave to do her bidding, like those under her father’s command. But when Prospero found her cultivating one of the small island spirits, he beat her until she was black and blue. Since that day, Miranda had learned to handle her own affairs.”

Prospero himself is the most obvious target of revisions, revealed by Duckett as an outright villain. Dorothea wakes Miranda up to his lifetime of manipulations, as she realises her memories are dotted with “Strange sights, inexplicable visions: and then sleep, a heavy, sudden sleep she never experienced here, on the mainland.” Readers of The Tempest will know that these sleeps were in fact magically-induced trances, meant to shut Miranda up while her father carried out his work, adding a sinister air to once-accepted stagecraft. Miranda ultimately realises that “Her father was a story he had told her himself”; Shakespeare’s version, it seems, was unreliably narrated.

Yet while the novella is intensely critical of Shakespeare’s old wizard, there is also a sense of affection and playfulness. There are nods to several Shakespeare plays, including As You Like It and Titus Andronicus as well as The Tempest. But the most delightful revision comes in Miranda’s relationship with Dorothea, which develops into a full-on lesbian romance. Shakespeare has often rewarded queer readings, and moments like Miranda’s realisation that “she thought she had discovered marvels when first she looked upon the faces of new men. But women: women were another wonder entirely” expand cleverly on the original text while joyously queering it. Particularly memorable is Miranda and Dorothea’s first sexual encounter, which stems from a fantasy-inflected homage to the grand tradition of Shakespearean cross-dressing, and then adds a fantastic gag of its own.

But Shakespeare is not the only literary tradition in play, and Duckett’s crossing it with the Gothic yields strong, if mixed, results. The novel’s mid-section, where we learn the true fate of Miranda’s mother, feels a little over-long, although it packs a real punch towards the end. Though the book resurrects most of the play’s noble characters, a visit from Stephano and Trinculo might have added some variety. And while the book’s final twist is fitting (and its last sentence absolutely gorgeous) the means of getting there is not quite adequately seeded earlier on, which adds a sense of contrivance to an otherwise neat parallel.

But then again, what would the Gothic — or indeed Shakespeare — be without contrivance? Miranda in Milan is a delightful expansion of Shakespeare’s characters, and a critical yet affectionate interrogation of The Tempest. As answers to its central question go, it’s a damn good one, and one that feels precisely calibrated to the needs of 2019.

Miranda in Milan is available for preorder from Macmillan, in ebook and paperback editions.

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Review: Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain by David Gerard

Among the myriad pleasures of the IT industry, blockchain hype is one of the most baffling. The amount of time I have spent sifting through white papers, press releases, and industry bafflegab about this technology was inversely proportional to how impressed I was when I finally discovered what it was (a fancy database, basically). But blockchain is more famous as the technology underpinning Bitcoin, which, while surrounded by plenty of its own bafflegab, is rather more entertaining to read about, given that it recently suffered the third horrendous market crash in its brief history. Into all this walks David Gerard, whose self-published book, Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, sets out to answer the lay person’s main question about Bitcoin: ‘what the hell is this bullshit anyway?’ Crisp, witty, and refreshingly clear-sighted, it is the single best thing I have read about the Bitcoin/blockchain racket, even if it occasionally assumes a bit more technical knowledge than is perhaps reasonable.

The book opens with a lurid taster of things to come. A strange world of internet-based money made with “frightening firetrap computers” in which someone called “Pirateat40” starts a glorified Ponzi scheme, and “Aggrieved investors eventually manage to convince the authorities not only that these Internet tokens are worth anything, but that they gave them to some guy on an internet forum calling himself “Pirate””. The overriding question is quite simply “How did we get here?”

From there the book launches into a straightforward account of the technology behind Bitcoin, explaining what these coins actually are:

“If you “have” bitcoins, you don’t actually have them as things on your computer. What you’ve got is a Bitcoin address (like a bank account number) and the key to that address (another number, which works like the PIN to the first number). The Bitcoin address is mentioned in transactions on the blockchain; the key is the unique thing you have that makes your bitcoins yours.”

As well as how they are ‘mined’ (or ‘created’, to us lay persons):

“Unprocessed transactions are broadcast across the Bitcoin network. A miner collects together a block of transactions and the hash of the last known block. They add an arbitrary “nonce” value, then calculate the hash of the resulting block. If that hash satisfies the current difficulty criterion, they have mined a block! This successful block is then broadcast to the network, who can quickly verify the block is valid. The miner gets 12.5 BTC plus the transaction fees. If they failed, they pick another nonce value and try again.

Since it’s all but impossible to pick what data will have a particular hash, guessing what value will give a valid block takes many calculations – as of June 2017 the Bitcoin network was running 5,500,000,000,000,000,000 (5.5×1018, or 5.5 quintillion) hashes per second, or 3.3×1021 (3.3 sextillion) per ten minutes.

The 3.3 sextillion calculations are thrown away, because the only point of all this technical rigmarole is to show that you can waste electricity faster than everyone else.”

Gerard’s coverage of the technical basics is succinct and clear, but as the introduction suggests, the book’s real appeal is its Case Studies. There is a perverse pleasure in reading how the flawed technology of Bitcoin goes horrendously wrong in practice, and Gerard is merciless in his skewering of the technology’s more cultish advocates. As well as the aforementioned Pirateat40, there is the tale of bright-eyed idealist Ross Ulbricht, owner/operator of darknet market the Silk Road (‘darknet’, i.e. illegal goods and services being the primary non-speculation use for Bitcoin). Ulbricht not only ended up ordering hits on people he deemed a threat to his operation, he also kept a written record of this and other transgressions on the laptop that was eventually seized by law enforcement. Gerard notes that “This file is commonly referred to as “mycrimes.txt,” but its actual name was “log.txt””.

Gerard is delightfully sarcastic in his treatment of the strange ideologues of the Bitcoin world, and provides a brief account of their roots in American Libertarianism, Austrian economics and gold standard fetishism. The short form is that “Bitcoin failed… because all of this is based in crank ideas that don’t work.” It’s a fine summation, but Gerard is largely content to leave it at that —  the chapter on ‘The Bitcoin Ideology’ is relatively short, and one is left with the feeling that a more in-depth exploration of the overlap between Bitcoin and Austrian economics would be worthwhile in its own right. (A good starting point might be this book’s acknowledged sibling, Neoreaction a Basilisk, which contains an essay on the Austrian school, though does not cover Bitcoin specifically).

But Gerard’s book is a general-audiences primer, not an in-depth history, and as such it’s extremely solid. The style may grate for some readers — Gerard is a former contributor to RationalWiki, and the book’s style owes a fair amount to that site, especially in its eye for slick one-liners. The humour is a needed counter-weight to the self-importance of most Bitcoiners, but at times it can feel a bit Christopher Hitchens. While Gerard takes care to explain the key technical terms (and includes a very good glossary) he also assumes a reader with a baseline level of IT competence, especially when he turns to the ‘respectable’ iteration of Bitcoin hype in the form of business blockchain. As a relative newcomer to the IT industry I confess I ended up googling quite a few terms along the way, but Gerard does a good deal more to keep the reader’s feet on the ground than the average blockchain hype-monger, and the reader is never allowed to get completely lost.

The book’s biggest problem is that it will age fairly quickly. In basing itself so heavily in tales of epic failure, the lack of more recent gaffes is palpable. The book was published too early to document the most recent Bitcoin crash, or the ongoing IBM blockchain hype, or the bizarre spectacle of Kodakcoin. So this review comes with a double recommendation; as well as the book, Gerard also runs an excellent blog version of Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, in which he chronicles both the wacky world of cryptocurrencies and the ongoing efforts of the business community to make blockchain happen (it’s never going to happen).

It’s an idiosyncratic journalistic beat, just as Attack winds up a fairly idiosyncratic book (the final chapter, ‘Case Study: Why you can’t put the music industry on a blockchain’ feels like it’s largely there based on the author’s wider interests, though it does have a spectacular Imogen Heap anecdote). But for all the strangeness of his subject matter, Gerard remains resolutely committed to the common sense aesthetic, and it’s one the world of blockchain sorely needs. While there are probably many more books to be written about the history, technology, and culture behind this stuff, Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain is an excellent primer on the foolishness surrounding Bitcoin, and a bracing reminder of just what a bad idea the whole thing was in the first place.

Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain is available on Amazon (UK/US) and Smashwords, RRP £3.99/$5.65.

Review: The Basilisk Murders by Andrew Hickey

As premises go, ‘stranded on an island with the alt-right’ is surely one of the most nightmarish in recent memory. The Basilisk Murders, the new (ish – this review being a bit fashionably late) novel by Andrew Hickey, makes a savvy move in playing this premise for sick comedy more than outright horror. The alt-right, Lesswrong, techno-libertarians and their assorted fellow-travellers comprise a fundamentally ridiculous ideology, and Hickey mercilessly skewers them over the course of this murder-mystery-cum-satire. The result is a fun book, one that intelligently breaks the mould in key places, but which may not play to people who aren’t aware of why the title image is so funny.

The plot starts out conventional enough – our hero, freelance journalist Sarah Turner, receives an invite to a conference on a remote island, of which she is at first apprehensive, but accepts out of sheer curiosity. What’s less conventional is that she is entirely right to be apprehensive, even before the murders begin. The invite is to “the 1st International Conference on Controlling Existential Threat Through Humane Artificial Intelligence”. Organised by “The Safe Singularity Foundation”, and guaranteed to be swarming with neoreactionaries, it is an environment unlikely to welcome a self-described “bi poly woman” with no regard for ethics in games journalism. Sarah is the ideal character with which to explore the basic bigotry of this ideology, but the scenes of her being condescended to, and at one point even sexually assaulted by one of the conference speakers emphasise the very real danger Sarah is putting herself in by even attending. Sarah’s narration is intelligent and droll, allowing Hickey to entertain the various obsessions of neoreactionism (immortal AIs, matriarchy, “race realism”) without coming close to endorsing them, and this dynamic of exploring a toxic ideology from a radically different perspective is one of the novel’s greatest strengths.

Another of its great strengths is humour. Hickey is not shy about the ludicrousness of the psuedo-intellectual right, and gets in some hilarious swipes at silicon-valley libertarianism in particular. A personal favourite moment comes in chapter three, as Sarah attempts to check in to her hotel room:

“A man (of course) a few years younger than me – I’d guess twenty-four – with a trimmed goatee beard, round little glasses, wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt with white writing on it saying “The singularity is my retirement plan” was in front of me. This man had a point to make, and was going to continue making it no matter how futile his attempts were or how much inconvenience it was causing anyone else.

“What do you mean, you don’t accept bitcoin?””

This passage is particularly cathartic if, like me, you’ve had to deal with a lot of Bitcoin/Blockchain hype in your line of work, and the book is full of delightfully sardonic asides about the foibles of neoreactionism. (Another highlight is when Sarah attends the “AI vs SJW” panel, “in which various people discussed how to make sure that if they created a machine god it would be just as racist and sexist as them”).

Most of the jokes work well, and anyone familiar with this vile little subculture will probably get a kick out of them. But I do wonder how much of the novel will even be comprehensible to people who don’t at least have a basic grasp of the various alt-right movements. The book assumes a certain level of knowledge about LessWrong, Peter Thiel, Reddit, and Roko’s Basilisk, at least enough that the reader can grasp what it’s parodying in any given scene. I already knew far too much about this subculture from reading Elizabeth Sandifer’s work, and even I felt there were one or two references I wasn’t quite getting. The book is an effective piece of satire, but in getting as specific as it does, it may have blunted its broader appeal.

Absent the satire, the novel falls back on its murder-mystery mechanics, which are something of a mixed bag. The structure feels arbitrary, with sections set over individual days sometimes blurring into one another, and the pacing meanders a bit in the middle. Some of the supporting cast feel interchangeable (one of the problems with having so many of them be white male alt-righters) and there were a couple of murder revelations that made me go ‘which one was he again?’ It’s a shame, because the final reveal of whodunnit is rather clever, hinging on one of the most memorable parts of the book so far, and the villain’s motive is literally chilling. There’s also a fantastic twist to Sarah’s family-drama subplot, and some clever little details to the investigation itself. Moments like receiving a red herring death threat from a Tumblr Anon, or Sarah tweeting out the killer’s identity as she tries to escape give a pleasing ‘of the moment’ vibe to the more Agatha Christie-ish parts of the plot.

The Basilisk Murders is a cathartic little romp, provided at least some awareness of what it’s sending up, and feels like a natural response to the world of 2017. An interesting companion piece might be Sarah Pinsker’s And The There Were (N-One), a more overt Christie pastiche about a conference of all the multiversal versions of a single woman. The basic image, of being surrounded by strangers, any one of whom may wish death upon you for largely inscrutable reasons, feels rather appropriate for this particular cultural moment.

The Basilisk Murders is available to buy on Amazon, RRP £3.77, or free via Kindle Unlimited.

Review: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 30 July 2016. It contains some bad language. Obviously.

It is the greatest binary in human thought. The divine and the earthly. The sacred and the obscene. Or, as Melissa Mohr puts it in her debut book, the Holy and the Shit. Mohr has a PhD in Renaissance Studies from Stanford University, which puts her expertise in the middle of the period covered by Holy Sh*t, which chronicles foul language from ancient Rome to the present day. The basic appeal of the book is a kind of Horrible Histories for grown-ups: an examination of the rudest aspects of human speech, lent respectability by virtue of being published by OUP. Your opinion of the book will likely depend on whether seeing the dialectic of history applied to swearing causes you to shake your head or grin like a schoolboy. But while taboo thrills are certainly fulfilled, the book provides an interesting glimpse into history and culture, even if this 2016 paperback release hasn’t added much in the three years since the hardback came out.

The book starts with ancient Rome, and the Latin ancestors of modern swearwords. Subsequent chapters focus on swearing in the Bible, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and then the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. Mohr states from the outset that her primary focus is on swearing in Britain and North America, and she distinguishes between two types of swearing – oaths, and obscenities. That is, swearing in a religious sense (such as ‘By God’s bones!’ or ‘Oh my God!’) versus swearing which refers to taboo acts or body parts (words like fuck or cunt). It’s an intriguing dichotomy, even if it seems to leave a lot out: positive obscenities, like ‘fucking brilliant’ or ‘it’s the shit’ don’t get a look-in. But Mohr handles her topic with wit and panache, and the book is most interesting when the two categories begin to bleed together, as in phrases like, well, ‘Holy Shit!’

The Holy, originally, was the more powerful of the two. Mohr notes that “Medieval people were, to us, strikingly unconcerned with the Shit… The Holy provided the strongest taboos and most highly charged language.” It was even believed that swearing could physically wound Christ himself. Mohr recounts a fourteenth-century fable in which the Virgin Mary confronts a swearer with her son’s mutilated body. “Here is my son… his head all broken, and his eyes drawn out of his body and laid on his breast, his arms broken in two, his legs and feet also. With your great oaths you have torn him thus”. It was with the decreasing power of religious institutions from the Renaissance onwards that “the Shit started to make a comeback”, and swearing by the human body started to become more offensive than swearing by divine ones.

But the Holy and the Shit, while entertaining in themselves, are a lens to focus on the wider culture of the historical periods in which they were used, and Mohr’s anecdotes provide entertaining colour. Her treatment of the Victorians is especially interesting, as she tells us that John Ruskin was shocked at the sight of his wife’s vulva, and that Robert Browning used the word twat in one of his poems without apparently knowing what it meant. Mohr argues that euphemistic Victorian language “covered up twat and the rest of the female body so thoroughly that that they disappeared altogether for our two eminent Victorians”. The erasure of the female body in language is rich in its implications, and insights like these are proof that Mohr’s potty-mouthed approach can yield valuable historical insights.

In this same chapter a new type of foul language crops up, which represents a problem for the book. Mohr argues that the rise of European nationalism “also led to the creation of a whole new category of swearing – racial and ethnic slurs.” It’s an awkward moment – Mohr is unflinching in her discussions of racist words, but she’s conscious that they do not fit comfortably into the Holy/Shit paradigm she’s been exploring for the last two hundred-odd pages. Racial and ethnic slurs haven’t even been mentioned up this point, despite Mohr’s admittance that they existed prior to this. As such, the theme feels under-developed – the following chapter, on ‘Swearing in the Twentieth Century and Beyond’, does better, but the transition still jars. The book spends so much time on the power of the Holy and the Shit that it seems unwilling to introduce a third category, only nodding towards such language when it reaches critical mass. This final, and many would argue most heinous, type of obscenity is left without a category of its own.

There are also some minor nitpicks, most notably that the ’Postscript’ of this 2016 release feels tacked-on and brief, adding little of value to the book overall. It serves to drag out an already disappointing epilogue, which offers little beside lukewarm speculations about the future of swearing. But while the ending is a disappointment, the journey is undoubtedly worth taking. Mohr takes obvious pleasure in her subject, and the book has a light touch which makes the intricacies of Renaissance theology just as entertaining as the etymology of the work fuck. Calm, precise, and terribly good fun, Holy Sh*t is a must-read for the foul-mouthed and the clean.

Ebooks: kindling our affections

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 13 May 2016.

I recently started reading a novel. I’ve been reading it on a tablet, actually. It’s called Newtons Sleep (and no, that’s not a typo), by a writer called Daniel O’Mahony. It’s about… well, I’m still figuring that out, but from what I gather so far it’s about England in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, and the interventions of a mysterious time-travelling cult known only as Faction Paradox. The novel is disturbing and meandering, happily skipping between time periods, frequently launching into tangents and dragging out its action with reflections on the nature of language and Restoration politics. No major publisher would ever touch it. It’s dense, weird, and deliberately difficult. And it is brilliant. What’s more, it’s something that could only reach its audience in the age of ebook publishing, which, as the headline may have hinted, is the actual subject of this article.

Ebooks have gotten something of a bad rap in recent years. Derided by literary snobs as cold, remorseless slabs of data, lacking the warmth and personality of printed, decaying wood pulp, many literary types see ebooks as cheap imitations of the real thing. There will never be a Facebook group dedicated to ebook marginalia, such people harrumph. What often gets glossed over in such debates is the fact that several publications, if not for ebook publishing, would never see the light of day at all. This doesn’t just apply to weird sci-fi/historical mashups, though it is particularly relevant in the world of genre fiction. There are lots of exciting things being published right now that would be next to impossible without the ebook. We have, for instance, Tor.com’s acclaimed series of novellas, championed for bringing diverse and daring new types of genre fiction into the mainstream space. We have publications like Apex and Uncanny Magazine, bringing shocking and surreal new short fiction to the market. Smaller than that, there are tiny independent zines like Fever Dreams Magazine, publishing new and untested writers from the UK, and great media critics like Philip Sandifer and Andrew Hickey publishing their own ebooks. In the face of so much new and exciting content, it’s hard to choose the side of Nook-burning Luddites.

But more than that, there are important consumer-facing reasons why ebooks are worth paying attention to. Thanks in part to the disinterest of a large section of the market, Amazon has been able to grab an enormous share of the ebook market, as well as an effective monopoly on the digital distribution of audiobooks. This is a problem, because the degree of control Amazon wields over the electronic book market is likely to mean bad things long-term. A monopoly is more likely to charge extortionate prices, as well as to gouge the publishers and authors with which it works, and Amazon’s business practices are sharkish to say the least. If the mainstream literary world were a bit more clued-up about ebooks, Amazon might be incentivised to offer a better deal to both its readers and the publishing world at large. If they faced a bit more competition from we literary snobs flocking to alternative ebook distributors like Smashwords or Lulu, the ebook market, and the publishing world in which it is increasingly important, would be far better off.

It’s easy to distrust ebooks. I’ve certainly done so in the past. But the fact of the matter is that they are an increasingly big part of what publishing is now, and it would behoove us to pay more attention. We don’t have to abandon the physical book, of course, but we cannot afford to let this exciting (and potentially dangerous) new publishing venture pass us by.

Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Let’s make one thing clear: Every Heart a Doorway has an absolutely fabulous premise. Its central idea – a boarding school/rehab clinic for children who have returned from Narnia-style excursions to other worlds – is one of the best concepts in recent memory. It’s also perfect for the ‘Young Adult’ demographic the novella is pitched at. Tales of adolescent angst are much improved by unicorns, mad scientists and the occasional vampire, and McGuire makes her characters feel like real teenagers as well as exiles from otherworldly dimensions. But while the setting and characters are intriguing and well-observed, the novella’s mechanics leave a bit to be desired. Pacing and structural problems abound, and while the book’s light touch and short length make it inoffensive, it’s hard not to feel a sense of wasted potential. Every Heart a Doorway is ultimately a better premise than it is a book.

The novella opens with the arrival of main character Nancy, fresh from an extended jaunt in the Halls of the Dead. We follow her as she is introduced to the school and her fellow pupils, all outcasts from various magical realms, alienated from the real world. The early chapters outline the characters’ sense of not belonging in touching and subtle ways, like the moment where Nancy realises her parents have packed bright clothes for her instead of the dark ones she is used to: “How could she wear any of these things? Those were daylight colours, meant for people who moved in the sun, who were hot, and fast, and unwelcome in the Halls of the Dead”. The book shines in these quiet moments of dejection, as well as those where the differing nature of each kid’s fantasy world affects their interactions. Some have returned from Carrollesque nonsense worlds, others from lands more akin to the Hammer Horror films, and those differences lead to tensions between pupils. The decision to effectively organise high school cliques along genre lines is inspired.

Nancy herself is an interesting heroine, more inclined to observe than actively interfere, which makes her the perfect point of view character to establish a fairly complex setting. This is very much a novella in the post-Gaiman tradition of tell-don’t-show metafictional commentary. This can be terribly effective, such as when Nancy’s teacher explains why more girls go missing than boys: “We notice the silence of men. We depend upon the silence of women”. But too often it feels like McGuire is simply delivering characterisation via overlong info-dumps, like the moment Nancy reflects on her asexuality: “She didn’t mind flirting. Flirting was safe, flirting was fun; flirting was a way of interacting with her peers without anyone realising that there was anything strange about her. She could have flirted forever. It was just the things that came after flirting that she had no interest in”. McGuire too often dwells on superfluous details, using two dozen words where one would do.

That sense of sloppiness is matched elsewhere in the book. After a leisurely-paced opening the second half is preoccupied by a murder mystery, but the pace remains too slow to be effective, with characters simply dawdling around having un-tense conversations while the body count steadily grows. The culprit is obvious from the get-go, and at one point the book’s cleverest character is required to act like an idiot so as not to solve things too early. Even worse, after all that faffing about the plot climaxes in the most abrupt and hackneyed way possible, with a confrontation in the school attic and an honest-to-God damsel in distress. It gets at a larger problem with the book; having established an ingenious premise allowing for all sorts of interesting commentary, McGuire instead opts to put her characters through the most bog-standard plot imaginable.

Every Heart a Doorway is not a bad book. Its short length minimises its pacing problems, and the characters are likeable and well-rounded enough to keep you interested. But given the nature of its premise, it’s a surprisingly unambitious one. The muddled and unsatisfying nature of the central mystery is ultimately less frustrating than the decision to have a central mystery at all. It displays a disappointing lack of faith in what should have been a world-beating concept. McGuire begins by breaking every rule in the book, but she ends by conforming to every single one.

Every Heart a Doorway is published by tor.com and is available to buy in hardback and ebook format, RRP £12/£7.59.

Let us introduce “ourshelves”

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 23 April 2015. It was one half of an article I co-wrote with my fellow editor Marcus (you can find the original here). The editors’ column was originally going to be a weekly feature, but we only ever wrote two – there just wasn’t room with all the article we were publishing, and due to some format changes it ended up being dropped. Still, it was good fun, and I recommend checking out Marcus’s blog.

A new university term means a new editorial team at The Oxford Student. To make things more creative, we have chosen five books from our shelves that characterise us:

1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. This is quite simply the best comic novel in English, bar none. The sheer force and volume of ideas this novel throws at its reader was enough to lift my adolescent head off, and in many ways I’m still reeling from the shock. And if there’s a single character who embodies my general outlook on life, it’s Arthur Dent.

2. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. If there is a single novel I can point to and say, ‘This is the reason I decided to study English’, this is it. Cloud Atlas is a work of mad genius, weaving together six totally different stories panning multiple continents, time periods and literary genres, but what’s most amazing is that all of it fits together perfectly. If Mitchell can be this clever and also this entertaining, there really is no excuse for the rest of us.

3. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. I’m not sure it’s actually possible for a play to be more fun than this. Reading the part of Algernon in A-level English class was a formative experience. The sheer joy of the whole thing pretty much single-handedly ended a prolonged period of extremely tiresome teenage angst, and set me on the straight and narrow path marked ‘if you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right’. I cannot think of a better role model than Algernon Moncrieff. Well, I can, but I defy you to come up with a funnier one.

4. The Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson. A tutor once asked me why I used so many dashes in my essays. I felt terribly embarrassed and mumbled something about not being able to organise my thoughts properly. The real answer is that I read too much Emily Dickinson. Actually, scratch that. You can never have too much Emily Dickinson. Despite what some naysayers may tell you, you will not find a more joyful poet.

5. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. Another one read at a formative age. In some ways a conventional love story, in others a wonderfully witty and subversive take on the genre, this novel reduced me to a blubbering wreck at the tender age of seventeen. This is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful books I have ever read.