Review | Books in the Quarterly Literary Box | Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

What’s the deal with Borne? It was in THREE subscription boxes this month – Powell’s Indiespensable, Nocturnal Reads, and Quarterly. Luckily, Powell’s gave subscribers the heads-up so I was able to skip it, and I don’t subscribe to Nocturnal Reads, so I only have the one copy. Strange though.

I reviewed the totality of the VanderMeer Quarterly Literary box a while ago so this review will focus just on the books. You can see all my previous Quarterly Literary related posts if you’d like to.

Borne Jeff VanderMeer coverAs previously reported, the first book in this box was Borne. Apparently this guy is some kind of Big Deal – I would not know because I am not generally a huge fan of science fiction (though I think this is more like dystopian? Can it be both? I think it’s both).

Borne happens to be the name of a creature-type-thing found on the back of Mord, who is a giant bear that floats over the world and sends proxies to kill people. Our two protagonists are living in Balcony Cliffs, a place they bobby-trapped and that’s relatively close to The Company, which is referred to disparagingly for quite awhile before any real explanation is given.

This book was very well written. The prose flowed and was funny. The characters were rich and interesting and there were twists and turns. I think for a fan of this sort of fiction, it would be a huge hit.

For me though, it wasn’t. I don’t know why but my preferences do not include reading about new worlds, even if they’re just modified versions of our own worlds. I also didn’t like the author’s choice to just talk about things like they were understood / normal. Like The Company, for example. For most of the book it’s referred to as a thing that obviously we understand. I get the purpose of this – that it’s making the book more realistic and also giving the reader some work to do – but it wasn’t a choice I really enjoyed.

One of the things about the main book in each Quarterly Literary box is that it has annotations from the author. These were actually a lot better than usual – though I always enjoy them. VanderMeer drew some fun little pictures and gave the reader some insight into where he picked up various turns of phrase, actions, etc.

As a writer, I also enjoyed the way he talked about plot devices / characters / etc. that surprised him. I enjoyed his many questions about his characters that said things like, “Do you think XYZ had XYZ as a child? I’ve always thought that would explain a lot.” When I’m writing fiction, I am constantly surprised by my characters and I loved being along on the ride with another writer while he showed me what his process was like.

Rating: 6/10 I would not hesitate to recommend this book to someone’s who into this genre but it just wasn’t for me.

Recommended for: Science fictions fans; VanderMeer fans; dystopian fans

Does it pass the Bechdel–Wallace test? It sure didn’t. (NOTE: As a reader brought up in the comments, there is an argument to be made that this does pass the Bechdel-Wallace test. A female character with the name of The Magician does talk to Rachel (the main character) about things other then men. I did not consider The Magician to be a named character and so it didn’t qualify for me. I can see how it would for others though).

Author of color / main character of color / female author / female main character: No / yes* / no / yes

* My original post indicated that Rachel was not a person of color but through the comments and talking to some other Book Riot contributors, it turns out she was. My apologies for the misclassification and many thanks to the reader who brought it up.

Gutshot by Amelia Gray cover.jpgNext up was Gutshot by Amelia Gray. As it turns out, I’ve read a previous book by Gray, which I realized shortly after beginning this volume. Her earlier work, Museum of the Weird, I really loved, as you can learn if you click on that link. Unfortunately I didn’t feel the same about this volume.

Like Museum, it was full of (mostly) very-short pieces that were very, very strange. Unlike Museum, the stories in this volume mostly just felt like snapshots of larger stories. Like when you get an idea to write a story and you have one scene flash into your mind and then you write that one scene and then the story gets fleshed out, forwards and backwards from that scene – except without the fleshing out part.

I think we can all agree that the cover art is extremely badass though, yes?

Rating: 5/10 

Recommended for: People who like snippets, I guess. I could see this actually being a pretty good writing prompt book, actually.

Does it pass the Bechdel–Wallace testYes.

Author of color / main character of color / female author / female main character: No / no / yes / some

The Blue Fox Sjon cover.jpgThe third and final book was The Blue Fox by Icelandic author Sjon. This was a weird book (I’m starting to pick up on something here, Mr. VanderMeer) and not the kind of “weird” that’s easy to explain.

I think there were two main stories happening – and I say “I think” not because I forgot but because it was a confusing book. One of the main stories followed a man who was obsessed with hunting a blue fox and was willing to risk his life to catch one.

The other story was about a man raising an abandoned girl with Down’s syndrome, and the eventual loss he feels when she passes away. This was a touching story line, but I think it’s important to point out that the story takes place in 1883. There’s a section in the book that describes what Icelandic society did with Down’s syndrome children then and it is horrific. There’s a bunch of racism and ableism and just, uh, you know, murder? involved in it. So, if you’re going to read it, be ready for that.

That said, I did really like this book. Some chapters were just a single page long, while others were 20 pages. There was a melancholy behind the actions of pretty much everyone in this book and it was both sweet and heartbreaking. The author was very careful with his words and didn’t let a single extra syllable make it into the finished product. I don’t know that I would recommend this to a friend but I’m glad it was included in this box because I doubt I would have otherwise discovered it.

Rating: 7/10 

Recommended for: Icelandic lit fans; fans of concise language

Does it pass the Bechdel–Wallace testNo

Author of color / main character of color / female author / female main character: No / no / no / no


2 thoughts on “Review | Books in the Quarterly Literary Box | Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

  1. I just finished Borne and had some questions about your interpretations. I read Rachel as a woman of color and was curious why you didn’t. There were multiple references to how her skin was darker than Wick’s, that her family was from an archipelago, and that they had their own origin myths (like the world was once borne on the back of a sea turtle). I took from these that she was probably Polynesian from somewhere like Fiji, where the author spent his childhood.

    Also, does the Magician not count as a named character for the Bechdel test? That’s one that’s probably up to interpretation–Rachel and the Magician are two important female characters that talk to each other about things other than a man, but, despite having a capitalized name/title, one could possibly argue she is not actually “named.”

    Thanks, for writing–I enjoy your Indiespensable and subscription box reviews!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. As to your first point, honestly I’m not sure why I didn’t read her as a woman of color. After talking to some other contributors at Book Riot, it appears the consensus is that she’s likely a person of color but never specifically named as such. One contributor met VanderMeer and he told her that he’d intended Rachel to be a woman of color. That’s good enough for me and I will change my classification. Again, thanks for bringing that up!

      As for the Magician, I went back and forth on that but ended up deciding that her being named as “The Magician” didn’t count for me. There’s some concern for me that describing a woman solely by her profession (of sorts) doesn’t really count as naming her. That said, I think it warrants more clarity in my classification because I wouldn’t argue with another reader who had a different interpretation.

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