Look North – who is One Nation really for?

This article was originally published in Look Left, the termly magazine of the Oxford University Labour Club. I have it on good authority it pissed off Margaret Curran!

To a left-wing Scottish nationalist like me, there’s nothing dafter than Ed Miliband trying “to rebuild Britain as One Nation, where everyone plays their part.” I do appreciate One Nation politics is about reducing inequality, but in the context of a campaign for the 2015 Westminster election, the term One Nation is worryingly loaded. For, in September 2014, Scotland – a constituent nation of the UK – will vote on whether to become independent. And, though the polling data is mixed at best, I’m still convinced that the notion of One Nation will be out of date by the next General Election.

Between Alistair Darling, Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander, the case for the Union is being repeatedly made by Labour politicians north of the border. Yet, as the party’s upper echelons campaign with the Tories and Liberal Democrats for a no vote, polls suggest one in every eight Labour supporters will vote yes, while one quarter are not yet committed. A grassroots movement called Labour for Independence has even sprouted up to give them a voice.

This is representative of the sheer diversity of the broader Yes Campaign. Besides the SNP, we have the Greens, the Radical Independence Campaign, National Collective, the Common Weal, Solidarity and the SSP, all pitching themselves as left-wing nationalists, asking Scots to vote for independence to preserve good old fashioned social democracy in the face of austerity. As I see it, the activism which in England is channelled towards anti-cuts campaigns seems to have been transferred towards independence. Typical is Stephen Campbell, 19, Vice-President of Strathclyde University Yes Campaign, who told me: “We’re the progressives who want to rebuild our nation on the foundations of equality and social justice, and we’ll win because we have the grassroots campaigns and passionate volunteers dedicated to convincing Scots of this cause.”

The UK’s shared radical history within the Labour movement would seem to discredit the ideas of leftwing nationalism. Owen Jones wrote in 2011 that “these struggles […] could form the basis of a radical, inclusive form of Britishness.” Working people in Preston and Paisely have more in common with each other than with the bankers of London, or the oil-barons of Aberdeen. The SNP have been slammed for disavowing solidarity with their desire to slash corporation tax in Scotland, unconcerned about what this might do to the economy of the already-atrophied north of England.

But Robin McAlpine, Director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, said “Britain has the second lowest pay of any advanced nation and has the highest level of geographical inequality of any developed country. […] That doesn’t look like solidarity, it looks like extreme neglect.” If the best way for Scots to escape this broken Britain is to literally break away, then why should the Left in the wider UK oppose that? Especially given the people of the North East roundly rejected devolution when given the chance in 2004.

Do we just fear that without Scotland, the rest of the UK would be cursed to perpetual Tory government? That the once-united Labour voices of Scotland, Wales, northern and urban England will be drowned out by England’s natural Tory majority? Yet in reality, only in 1964 and 1974 did the election of Scottish Labour MPs actually turn what would have been a Tory government into a Labour one. In just two of the last eighteen elections did Labour’s electoral fate rely on Scotland. So no wonder then that the claim the UK is fundamentally undemocratic is central to the case for independence – even today, Scotland is ruled by a right-wing Tory-led government it didn’t vote for.

But do geographical inequalities in political and economic clout really trump issues like the Bedroom Tax, which affects the disenfranchised all over the UK? When Boris Johnson quipped money is better spent in London over Strathclyde, he demonstrated the entitlement that sees the capital as somehow deserving (and getting) more public cash for transport and health per head than anywhere else. While one in twenty-nine Londoners are dollar millionaires, one in five Scottish children are born into poverty, 29% of Scots languish in fuel poverty, and Scotland contains the places with the lowest male life expectancy of anywhere in the UK – Glasgow, and where I grew up, the Western Isles.  Yet Scotland generates 9.9% of the UK’s tax revenue, receiving just 9.3% of spending!

This is why Scottish nationalism is left-wing nationalism. This is why campaigners for independence talk about creating a universal welfare state, about participatory democracy, about land-reform and channelling the money from Scotland’s abundant natural resources towards local needs. This is why we’re having a referendum without recourse to racism or romanticism. In September, the UK – a hangover state from the days of Empire, now little more than the back-garden of the greedy financiers living in the tax haven that is the City of London – could well be gone. And then the rest of the UK will be able to look north to a fairer, social-democratic Scotland as their viable alternative to austerity.

Whose land is it anyway?

An earlier version of this article was published in the Oxford Left Review in Hilary 2014 under the headline Whose Land is it Anyway? — Radical Land Reform in Gaelic Scotland. It was subsequently cross-posted to Bella Caledonia under the headline Whose Land is it Anyway?

It was in my last year of primary school I realized I was a socialist and a radical. We were learning about the Highland Clearances – Fuadach nan Gàidheal, the Expulsion of the Gaels – which saw tens of thousands of people forcibly transported overseas or evicted to the overcrowded, rocky coast in the name of economic progress. And then the bombshell: the estate owners, the landed classes who had tried to empty half of Scotland, were still here, hunting, fishing, and landlording it over the natives in the 21st century. But not for much longer. It was 2005, and the island I grew up on – Eriskay – was bought, alongside neighbouring South Uist and Benbecula, for £4.5 million, not by another syndicate of deerstalking families, but by people of the islands themselves, to be held under community ownership.

It was the culmination of over a century of struggle, of which most of Britain – reared on tourist-friendly tales of the wild ‘heilans’ – is completely unaware. After the Clearances of the 19th century, crofters in the Highlands and Islands – inspired by the Land League in Ireland – began to campaign for rights of tenure. The Highland Land League had as its slogan “Is treasa tuath na tighearna” (The people are mightier than a lord), and with its newspaper An Gàidheal (The Highlander), inspired and organized radical action such as rent strikes and land raids. In 1882, after having been denied access to what they saw as their rightful common-grazing land on Ben Lee, the crofters of the township of Braes on Skye, with their wives and children, fought the police who had been dispatched to extract rent from them. The ‘Battle of the Braes’, as the newspapers dubbed it, inspired similar acts of resistance in Skye and Lewis. In response, in 1883, the Napier Commission took evidence from crofters all over Gaeldom of landlords’ abuses during the Clearances and after, and public opinion began to turn in favour of the crofters. In 1885, the Highland Land League returned four MPs, becoming Britain’s first ever working class MPs, and the ruling Liberal government was moved to pass the Crofter’s Act of 1886, which guarantees security of tenure and inheritance to crofters.

Continue reading Whose land is it anyway?

No belief is beyond satire – and it’s time the UK’s student unions learnt that

This article was originally published in The Oxford Student.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a fictional deity cooked up in the mid-2000s to mock the teaching of Intelligent Design in US schools. In a spoof of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, His noodly appendage stretches out from His meatballed form towards a reclining male nude.

The offending image of His noodliness.

But last week at South Bank University in London, Atheist Society posters bearing this graven image of His noodliness were ripped down by Student Union officials at Refreshers Fayre for being “religiously offensive.” Peter Blenkharn, St John’s third year and clergyman of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, had this to say: “As the sole ordained minister in Oxford of the one true religion, I’m confident that divine retribution will be exacted upon these blasphemous heretics in the form of sour Ragu and slightly-off-pasta. To quote the most linguine of holy texts, Suggestions 1:13 – Thou shalt be amused rather than angered by the words and deeds of idiots

It really is tempting to treat the whole thing as a joke. Indeed, the South Bank SU has since apologized to the Atheist Society. But as Rory Fenton, President of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secularists Student Societies points out “this is the funny tip of a very serious iceberg – universities are increasingly turning to silencing atheist and Humanist students for fear of upsetting religious sensibilities.” In fact, troublingly, South Bank SU only let the Atheist Society form on the condition they didn’t hold events criticizing religion!

In September 2013, student atheists at LSE Freshers’ Fayre were surrounded by ten security guards and intimidated into closing their stand because they wore t-shirts depicting the ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoon strip. It took threats of legal action, coupled with a massive media stir, to finally extract apologies from the SU. At Reading, after displaying a pineapple named ‘Mohammed’ (subsequently renamed ‘Jesus’) at Freshers’, the atheists were kicked out and are now no longer welcome in SU buildings. Atheist Societies are being denied the right to do what they’re there for – championing freethinking and challenging faith.

I run Oxford Atheists, Secularists and Humanists (OxASH). We are a proudly broad church, welcoming everyone looking for open debate, ranging from Muslim feminists and Roman Catholic friars to a self-proclaimed skeptic who believed electrons were conscious. Sixth week this term will see us hold Think Week 2014, themed around ‘Myth and Discovery,’ with speakers like AC Grayling coming to talk about how the stories we tell shape our lives. But, keen as I am on dialogue, meeting so many ex-Christians and ex-Muslims in the atheist world who like me have to hide their atheism from family has convinced me how critical it is we fight religious privilege in all its forms.

And central to religious privilege is this notion of faith being beyond criticism. Some believers in the UK like to see themselves as victims of secular society, that their feeling offended is somehow sufficient cause to silence discussion. Yet satire has always been a tool to undermine powerful institutions. Peter Blenkharn, our resident Pastafarian, also runs the St John’s College ASH society and has spoofed the Christian Union’s ‘Love like this’ posters by putting the same graphic over two men mid-kiss. In this way, he is drawing attention to the fact that behind the friendly words and facebook invites, ‘Love like this’ is organized by Evangelical Christians who believe in destroying people’s basic sexual liberties.

Love like this

I’ll admit that offence can sometimes count as valid criticism. The song ‘Blurred Lines’ was rightly banned from many campuses because its lyrics explicitly promote rape culture. But cartoons like Jesus and Mo, or the Spaghetti Monster, which poke fun at the factual and ethical inconsistencies of mainstream religion, are a vital part of our democracy. No belief is above satire, and I would hope that in light of this, organizations like the NUS will put in place polices to ensure nonbelieving students are able to criticize religion at events like Freshers’ Fayre without fear of harassment or intimidation.

It’s time we talked to teenagers about mental health

This article was originally published in The Oxford Student under the headline “Sinking grades ring alarm bells for self-harm.”

One in every five secondary schools pupils in the UK self-harms.

This figure comes from a Prince’s Trust survey released in January, which interviewed 2161 people aged between 16 and 25. It’s worrying that despite the headlines it generated, as a number it doesn’t really feel all that shocking. We all know people who’ve self-harmed, who’ve had depression, anxiety or eating disorders. Often as not, those people are ourselves. Hence, in Oxford, it’s right we have an accessible, well-trained university-wide counselling service. It’s right we have active student-led welfare teams in most colleges. And it’s right we have groups like Mind Your Head and Student Minds working to raise awareness and help those in need.

But what the Prince’s Trust picked up on is that within our 16-25 age group, it’s not high-achievers like Oxford students who are most at risk of mental illness but those who perform poorly at school, who are out of work, who feel helpless and powerless in the face of the future. For “failing” pupils – those with fewer than five GSCEs at grade C or above – the self-harming rate jumps to one in three. For jobless 16-25 years old, a third of them have contemplated suicide and they’re twice as likely to be prescribed anti-depressants.

Nearly half a million 16-25 year olds in the UK are not in education, employment or training. Thus why Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, calls unemployment “a public health issue.” She says that “unemployed young people are struggling in many aspects of their lives, from their mental health and wellbeing to their relationships. We must act quickly to end this.”

When the education system fails young people already at risk, suspends them, excludes them, leaves them to rot in schools with inadequate services for supporting learning, we risk cursing them to a lifetime of joblessness, social isolation and mental health problems.

Continue reading It’s time we talked to teenagers about mental health

A guide for Oxford’s failed writers

[an abridged version of this article was originally published in The Oxford Student, Volume 68, Issue 3, as “Write on! Guide for the Failed Novelist”]

failed anthology 2013 cover

Deep in their heart of hearts, I think most Oxford students dream of being writers. Novelists, poets, playwrights, screenwriters, even journalists. We’re a university of the keen, of bespectacled book-readers, of lurkers in libraries, of fanfic fanantics, living in a city steeped in literary history, where the French authors you can rattle off at dinnertime carries considerable social currency. We’re a university of failed writers.

You’ll find exceptions, of course, most notably a scientist friend-of-mine who, when asked during his Oxford interview what was the last non-science book he had read, answered “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.” But generally we love to read and we love to write, and the best thing about being here in Oxford is that for three short years, we get to pretend we really are writers, performing at poetry open-mic nights and watching our work actually appear in print. So, to get you started on the road to your 3am post-bop drunken poetry becoming a set text in the GSCE anthology, I thought I’d write a guide on how to be a failed writer in Oxford.

Plenty of student magazines will accept your creative writing. Notes is a nicely produced fortnightly magazine, unashamedly elitist in that it’s published by Oxbridge students alone, but willing to take everything from jokey poetry to literary criticism recycled from your tutorial essay. Ash is the termly magazine of the Oxford Poetry Society, and takes student poems, including in translation. The OxStu and Cherwell intermittently publish short poetry and prose depending on who the editor is – and this is the best route to go down if you want your friends to see who are a “published author.” Similarly, glossy publications like Isis or zines like Cuntry Living will also publish the odd scrap of a story. And then, in a cycle as old as arts degrees themselves, students notice gaps in the market and start their own magazines. Last term saw Vulture publishing poetry, and this term will see the launch of Thunder and Neon, solely dedicated to the short story.

But magazines often feel a little bit ephemeral. When you tell your grandmother you’ve had a poem published, you don’t want to send her some dubiously-bound, cut-and-stuck student magazine sustained by St John’s free printing. You want to send her book, so it can take pride of place on the shelf in her living room. The Mays Anthology is the most prestigious, with submissions judged by the likes of Stephen Fry – it’s a kind of grown-up version of Notes, open only to Oxbridge students. The least prestigious (but we all love it anyway) is the Failed Anthology, published annually in Hilary with great fanfare by Oxford’s infamous Failed Novelists society. For the poets, there’s also the Turl Street Art Festival Poetry Anthology, which – if you can brave the Missing Bean – has a massive launch event. Look out also for the one-off anthologies, like Michaelmas 2013’s Shall I write about my house? anthology of poetry about the Syria crisis.

If you’re a performance poet, the Catweazle Club does an open mic night every Thursday, and the Poetry Society has them now and again. Keep a lookout for college arts festivals, as the ditzy English student on the committee has probably been offloaded with the task of organizing a poorly-attended a poetry open mic for college students. If you want to feel an order of magnitude cooler than you really are, the Albion Beatnik bookshop in Jericho, haunt of hispterdom in Oxford, also does open nights for poetry.

But if you’ve just been secretly scribbling unrequited love poetry in expensive note paper up til now, and have no idea how good you actually are, then there are opportunities for constructive feedback. The Poetry Society does a workshop a couple of times a term, but for regular friendly feedback then I’d recommend the Failed Novelists society. As nominal President I’m biased, but if you want a writing group that requires no commitment or punctuality, that will welcome you, no questions asked, and give you useful criticism, that embraces the philosophy of failure, then come to Failed Novelists – we meet at 2pm every Sunday in Teddy Hall!

But it’s always worth bearing in mind the words of St Anne’s English student Samantha Shannon, who published her New York Times bestselling novel ‘The Bone Season’ last September: “I used to work on The Bone Season in the evening and at weekends, once I’d finished my essays.” If you really want to be a writer, then maybe the best thing to do is cut out the extra-curriculars, and stop wasting time with submissions, open mics and writing groups. Maybe all we failed writers need to do is just bloody well write!

Is this the year we say goodbye to Great Britain?

[originally published inThe Oxford Student, Volume 67, Issue 1.]

It’s New Years’ Eve, and, as the bells ring out at midnight, my dad says out of nowhere: “2014 – the year we get independence!”

Now, we’re not the kind of family that talks politics casually, but this New Year (or Hogmanay, I should say), there was definitely a fair bit of jesting about what we’re all going to vote in the referendum on Scottish independence this September.

Fair enough, poll after poll favours the no vote. But the yes side have more activists on the ground. They’re young, earnest and eager, like Stephen Campbell, Vice-Convener of Strathclyde University’s ‘Yes Campaign’, who told me: “We’re the progressives who want to rebuild our nation on the foundations of equality and social justice, and we’ll win because we have the grassroots campaigns & passionate volunteers dedicated to convincing Scots of this cause.”

Indeed, even Alistair Darling, the face of the ‘No Campaign’, admits there’s still everything to play for. The vote will be tight, and this is reflected in the relentless – and often comical – campaigning on both sides. ‘Better Together’ have been lampooned for their incessant scaremongering – the Royal Navy will apparently be invading the Clyde estuary come independence! But ‘Yes Scotland,’ particularly the SNP, are mocked for handing populist policies out like sweets, ‘free childcare for all’ being their latest.

Continue reading Is this the year we say goodbye to Great Britain?

Should atheists shun the Sunday Assembly?

Cross-posted from the AHS website, this article was written in response to CNN reporting a schism in the Sunday Assembly over the question of atheism. I have previously describe my own positive experience at Sunday Assembly Oxford. Soon after the new piece was published, Sanderson Jones, co-founder of Sunday Assembly, told me, Alex Gabriel, Alom Shaha and Liam Deacon on twitter that:

…which is all fair enough, and confirms everything in the article below about the founders of this “godless congregation” wanting nothing to do with atheism, and tightly controlling the philosophy of their so-called ‘grassroots’ movement. I end on a hopeful note that congregations and volunteers will be able to sculpt the Sunday Assembly into an organization that values an ethical and evidence-based view of life. However, after speaking to Sanderson its clear that entertainment trumps education in his messianic vision – and that’s the vision undemocratic Sunday Assembly will need to stick to.

Continue reading Should atheists shun the Sunday Assembly?

The Dragon Men by Steven Harper – Review

Who doesn’t like goofy steampunk novels? Steven Harper’s Clockwork Empire series is chock full of airship pirates, mechanical prosthetics and bewilderingly bad science. The story is hung on the premise that a “Clockwork Plague” has infected humanity in the 19th century. This conveniently allows him to do the following: to have plague zombies for no apparent reason, to kill off his female character’s family, to turn those who survive the plague into geniuses (but also to curse them to craziness) justifying the crackpot inventions that pepper the series.

In The Dragon Men, the third novel in the series, Gavin Ennock, dashing 18 year old airman and fiddle-playing Bostonian, has caught the Clockwork plague. The resulting fugues have made him brilliant but also driven a wedge into his relationship with his hot older fiancée Baroness Alice Michaels (who’s also herself a dab hand at fixing machines). Alice and Gavin are currently heading to China in the company of Lieutenant Phipps (a stern, military lady formerly of the Third Ward) to spread Alice’s cure for the plague but also to find a cure for Gavin (because for some reason Alice’s cure doesn’t work on him). But there’s a price on Alice’s head – an evil, conniving General in the Chinese Empire wants her dead, because her cure would destroy China’s military advantage against England. Meanwhile, Cixi, an Imperial Concubine, schemes to get her son by the dying Emperor onto the throne. So when the General takes over in a coup, Cixi captures Alice and Gavin to assist her. All hell breaks loose in the Forbidden City, and Gavin gets a Chosen One moment, but otherwise, I don’t want to give you anymore spoilers.

Because plot is about all that’s good about this book. The best parts about previous installments are basically gone – Alice’s clockwork cat Click makes a few brief appearances, while automaton Kemp only scrapes in at the end. This is partly because of the author’s needs to escape reliably Victoriana-ish England and set the story in China. And as Steampunk Scholar has show, setting your steampunk in a non-Western country usually brings out the worst in the genre’s Imperial predispositions.

There were pages and pages of painful philosophizing about a fantasy version of Ying and Yang which – obviously – explained the entire Clockwork Plague. (Because of course the answers to all our problems must like in some American’s guys imaginary eastern religion.) Cixi’s internal voice, which was meant as a convoluted way to give us an insight into cultural differences, is unconvincing given she spent sixteen years of her life on the streets, so shouldn’t be so uptight in her attitudes as Harper makes out. And, worst of all, those ridiculous “squid men” whose pervert creator was, inevitably, Muslim.

Beyond a purely political critique, how Harper portrayed relationships in his supposedly romantic adventure was abysmal. Dialogue is stilted, especially Alice and Gavin – lovers’ talk should make one cringe because you’re looking into something private not because they struggle to string a sentence together! Then there was Phipps and Li’s relationship, which was predicable and lazy.

Look, there’s a hell of a lot wrong with this book, but it does zip along. Now that Gavin has awesome dragon man powers, we get less of the tension deriving from powerlessness of the earlier novels, yet this book is still absorbing, exciting and easy to read. Its missing the sheer creativity of Scott Westerfield‘s similarly alt-his Leviathan series, however if you’re after something light to read after exam season, then you can’t go wrong with Steven Harper.

So if you can bear to read a book set in China where the secret of life and death “lies hidden in the heart of dragons,” then read this, the apotheosis – whether good or bad – of modern steampulp fiction.

Culturing Atheism?

I went to mass on Christmas Day this year. I would’ve gone to midnight mass on Christmas Eve too, had it not been cancelled due to stormy weather.

I’ve gone to mass on Christmas day for the past 19 years, and every Sunday for the past 18 (before leaving home). I’ve been an altar boy, I’ve sung psalms, I’ve read from scripture to the whole congregation.

And I’ve done all this in Gàidhlig, a Celtic language spoken by fewer people than can fit in Celtic Park. Because I was raised a Catholic on a Gàidhlig-speaking island in the Outer Hebrides.

Eaglais Naoimh Mhìcheil, Eirisgeidh

The Gàidhlig hymns we sing were written or translated by three people – a priest who used to serve on my island, a bard who lived on the next island over, and by own grandfather (who helped translate the mass and catechism too, after Vatican 2, when the Catholic Church abandoned the Latin mass for the vernacular).

So, although I was fortunate enough (and the first on my island) to get a Gàidhlig primary education, I went to an English secondary school, thus I feel I owe the Church something for being one of the few organizations that took my language seriously.

Don’t get me wrong. The Catholic Church, particularly in Scotland, is an odious institution, manufacturing guilt-ridden adherents, fighting reproductive and sexual freedoms, systematically covering up decades of child abuse. But I have a huge fondness for the cultural value of my own little corner of it. Have a watch of An Island Parish to get some idea of what I mean. (Although I dislike the BBC for painting too glowing a portrait of the Church, and for fantasizing about the island’s indigenous culture while simultaneously strangling it by not letting anyone actually speak Gàidhlig on camera).

Continue reading Culturing Atheism?

The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest – Review

Cherie Priest, proclaims the cover of The Inexplicables, is indisputably “the Queen of Steampunk.” Judging from the goggle- and gasmask-rich covers of her string of bestselling Clockwork Century novels, that’s as likely true.

Boneshaker, the first in the series, is her most famous work. I loved it, especially Briar Wilkes, the most badass mother in all of steampunk, tenderhearted but tough. The worldbuilding for the series is immensely detailed. Basically an alternative history of 19th century North America, with the Civil War still raging, and airships and submarines the cutting edge of technology. Seattle is Blight-stricken, with zombie-like rotters roaming the streets and poisonous gases choking the walled-up ruins of the city. The Inexplicables is Priest’s first novel to return to Seattle, focusing on the humans who eke their living producing the drug sap from Blight gas.

We follow the story of Rector “Wreck ‘em” Sherman, an arrogant 18 year old(ish) orphan from the Outskirts of Seattle. Briefly featuring in Boneshaker when he tells Zeke Wilkes how to get across the wall into Seattle, the guilt he feels about this (and his lack of job prospects) drives him to enter Seattle. He’s a sap dealer, but who’s now addicted from sampling his own drugs, and goes to Seattle with the vague idea of working as a seller for Yaozu, the Chinaman who controls the Seattle sap industry. But after a terrifying encounter with a monster on Seattle’s streets,  Yaozu tasks him with finding out how the monster entered Seattle and how the rotters are escaping. He’s ably assisted in this adventure by Zeke and Houjin, and the Princess, three of my favourite characters from Boneshaker. They discover more than they bargained for, ending in a climactic set-piece where the monster, revealed to be a sasquach, is captured, and Seattle’s streets erupt in battle.

The story is admittedly simple, pulpy even, but its fast-paced and satisfying, with Rector developing as a character in how he deals with his sap addiction. Priest’s writing is immersive and immensely detailed. I was itching to scratch the back of my own neck when she described Rector’s discomfort at wearing his claustrophobic, chafing, gas-mask. The dialogue between the three boys – cocky Rector, earnest Zeke, and scathingly clever Houjin – is often funny, always compelling. (Although they do feel like much younger boys than their supposed age.) And the steampunk tech is to die for, particularly Houjin’s own inventions.

Maybe its unfair of me, but I still have to say I didn’t like this book as much as Boneshaker. Perhaps because we’ve been there before, there was little sense of fear on entering Seattle. The dwindled rotter population and the ease with which its denizens defended the city combined to loosen much of the plot’s tension. Even the main story arc about the monster’s identity had the mystery sucked out of it by the Princess’ convenient sighting of a female sasquatch outside the city walls.  And on the topic of the Princess, I have to say the 19th century archetypes from which Priest draws her characters can sometimes leave a sour taste in the mouth. The sole Native American character is of course the only one with access to Secret Nature Knowledge, while the Chinese characters are either conniving (like Yaozu) or good at science (like Houjin). And to be honest, a few of the interactions with characters from Boneshaker (e.g. Captain Cly) felt a bit like – or were explicitly – just saying hi to keep fans happy.

Don’t get me wrong. This novel is exciting, it chugs along at a fair pace, with an amusing protagonist, sassy but with his own insecurities – Rector’s relationship with his addiction is actually rather poignant. The steampunk city of Seattle is beautifully realized, and you can’t help but marvel at the sheer industriousness of its citizens.  But what I would say is read Boneshaker first, then the Clockwork Century books inbetween, and so leave The Inexplicables as that bonus little pulpy side dish you eat if you still happen to be feeling hungry after the main course (steamed, obviously!).

D.I. MacDonald / Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach

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