I picked up a copy of Black Wine at one of the Wake County Library book sales a couple or three years ago, almost certainly because of the Ursula K. Le Guin blurb that said it was “as brilliant as William Gibson, as complex as Gene Wolfe.” That is high praise, especially coming from Le Guin. Then last year, I read What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton, a collection of essays about books she was rereading, she said that she was surprised this wasn’t a well regarded classic that nearly everyone had read rather than being out of print, it has since been republished as an ebook. I can see what both of them meant. It is a book that is eminently enjoyable on the first read, and I understood a lot of it. But, unless I miss my guess, it will yield more on future rereads. And it certainly deserves a much wider audience.
The book is hard to categorize; I’ll say literary fantasy novel, though there is enough technology that it could be a far future sci-fi novel set after societies have collapsed and new ones have risen to replace them. Regardless of genre, though, it is masterful. It’s set in a world that seems to have some kind of magic, but also smatterings of technology on a par with what we have now. There are at least four distinct societies, and the the story begins with a woman who is amnesiac and a slave who befriends a madwoman in a cage. The other two strands involve a woman searching for her mother and the story, some years previous, of the mother who is. by birth, the queen of the nastiest of the societies but has left it behind. I won’t spoil how the three strands of the story eventually come together, as piecing that together is part of the pleasure of reading the book. That pleasure is not unmitigated; it is brutal in its depiction of slavery, including sexual slavery. That can be difficult to read, but, I think, gives it more authority. It does a good job of not sinking into miserablism, though. There is joy as well, but tempered by an understanding of the darker end of experience.
The prose is excellent, and that is part of the point of the book. There are many languages discussed (all rendered in English). The book seems to come down on the side of linguistic relativism, that is, that the actual words a person uses influences the types of thoughts they can have. There is one culture that doesn’t have a word for rape, for example and people had a difficult time understanding the concept. When I next read this, I’m going to pay particular attention to those societies and how the people talk.
The book is also anti-utopian without being dystopian, which is a neat trick. It doesn’t allow any of its cultures to be a utopia, and even when the most despicable of these is overturned in a revolution, the revolutionaries begin to be corrupted by power in quick order. There is a sense in which Dorsey seems to argue that art is more important than politics; that language is more likely to change people than politics. This brings me to a quandry. I’ve always been skeptical of what, to my perception at least, seems to be the consensus view: all art is political. To some extent that’s necessarily true, but I think that leads to reductive interpretations of works of art and creates unnecessary conflict. So I like her argument that art may be more important. But I’ve also been skeptical of the idea that policing language will ultimately change anyone’s mind; I think it will tend to make people double down on ideology, even if they cloak it in different language. But if language influences thought, then there is a sense in which changing language may actually influence people’s thinking. Whether that can be forced is an interesting question. I’m sure I missed a lot on my first reading of the novel, so I’m not certain that I agree with the arguments she’s making, or indeed if these are the arguments she’s making. I will be thinking about this one for weeks.
Black Wine is a complex novel that I will be revisiting often. There is a lot to process in terms of its philosophical content, but it is not as boring as that might imply. The story moves along quickly. It’s beautiful, brutal and compelling.
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