What Moves the Dead

My Hugo reading has suffered from my extreme busyness this month, but I have managed to get through the novellas. Even that has its challenges though. Read on.

What Moves the Dead by T Kingfisher starts off in a very intriguing manner. First up there is a guest appearance by a thinly disguised version of Beatrix Potter, who was an expert mycologist as well as a famous writer and illustrator of books for children.

It quickly becomes obvious that we are in a story inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, because Roderick and Madeline Usher, and their tumbledown mansion, are key characters in the story.

Poe’s narrator is anonymous, but Kingfisher’s is not. Easton is a former cavalry officer who has known the Ushers since childhood and who was Roderick’s commanding officer in a recent war. Easton is also a “sworn soldier”, a version of the Albanian sworn virgin whereby people assigned female at birth can sign up for the army. As ka (the correct pronoun in Easton’s language) explains, people do this for many reasons, but one of those is to be accepted as neither male nor female, but a soldier.

All in all, it is a great set-up, and I wanted to know what Kingfisher does with this. But there the ePub version made available in the Hugo Packet ends, with a plea to buy the full book. Suffice it to say that I was not happy.

Then I had an idea. The Hugo Packet generally contains more than one format of each work. I checked, and there was a PDF of this one. What’s more, it was complete. It had some formatting errors, as PDFs sent out by publishers often do, but it was readable. This is a very strange thing for a publisher to have done. I hope for Kingfisher’s sake that other voters did not give up in annoyance on finding the ePub truncated.

Anyway, onwards with the book. Kingfisher is known for her interest in biology, and I guess the best way to describe this book is that it is a horror story with a science-fictional underpinning. Knowing a bit about fungi myself, and knowing what to expect of the Ushers’ fate, I could see the plot a mile off. It is an interesting re-working of the story, but not exactly revolutionary.

One thing that did bug me is that the presence of Miss Potter in the area is a rather too convenient coincidence. Then again, the character does allow Kingfisher to rail against 19th Century misogyny and to have a joke at the expense of her own people. Potter has complained before about her expertise in mycology not being respected by the men in the field. Then we get this:

“There is an American,” she said, pronouncing the word with distaste, “who claims to have seen gilled mushrooms in a river in their far west. But his report is unsubstantiated by any reputable observer.”

It must have been terribly galling to be barred from an organization merely because one lacked the proper genitals, when disreputable Americans were allowed to join and write about underwater mushrooms.

I confess to having giggled a bit at that.

Easton, of course, is able to make observations like this because ka would be seen as not having the proper genitals to join the British army.

Overall this was a nicely written and entertaining story with an interesting scientific underpinning. That’s good, but not enough to make it a Hugo winner. It certainly isn’t the best horror story about fungi around at the moment. Kingfisher admits in her Author’s Note that, while working on the story, she read Sylvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic and “shoved the whole thing in a virtual drawer and took heavily to the bottle.” I would have done the same in her position, because Mexican Gothic is brilliant. Of course she eventually finished it, because this is her fungi story, not Moreno-Garcia’s, and because authors need to eat. However, I can’t help but think that if this story had been submitted by someone with less than Kingfisher’s stellar reputation, it would have been dismissed as derivative. Publishing can be a cruel business.

book cover
Title: What Moves the Dead
By: T Kingfisher
Publisher: Titan
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Bookshop.org UK
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura