A History of Glitter and Blood: A Review

A History of Glitter and Blood: A Review

Hannah Moskowitz
Speculative fantasy, romance
5 freakin' stars

Warning: For the first few paragraphs of this review, I am angry, and then beneath the spoilers warning I am not angry. This is because I wrote my spoilery review immediately after finishing the book, and then I added the angry bit when I saw many one-star reviews on Goodreads. Why did the one-star reviews make me angry? Because Moskowitz wrote a complex book. A History of Glitter and Blood pokes at the fourth wall, plays with history and trauma, and surprises the reader who is willing to wait to be rewarded. 

Some people decided that, instead of giving the book a basic benefit of the doubt, they were going to write lengthy reviews after only reading a couple of pages. These reviews were then 'liked' so much they were boosted to the top of the book's Goodreads page. I would say the joke is on all of those wrong readers who should clearly be watching bad TV instead, but the truth is, I'm sure they have lost Hannah Moskowitz sales and fans, and that makes me sad. Anyway, I got mad, and here's your warning. Onwards:

Hi, it's me. I'm angry. I'm angry because Moskowitz's unearned one-star reviews point to a bigger problem about art and sexism. This is about who we assume makes good art and who we give chances to. So many reviewers assumed the worst instead of the best about an ingenious experimental work and *didn't even get past chapter one.* And then they were so confident in their obvious rightness and her wrongness that they left lengthy 1-star reviews.

This is about assumptions we make about women, young people, indie writers, and especially young women indie writers. Which will be, assuming all goes well this year, me in the very near future. This is about the real concrete lives that people live when they do and do not make money from their art, the difference between working a 9 to 5 and creating, and who we decide to support not only with our money but with our willingness to make the pact that all readers make with the writers they read. The pact that says I trust you to bring me somewhere cool, and I'm going to invest the necessary creative energy to help you get me there. 

Moskowitz reached out her hand and said, I'm going to bring you somewhere you've probably never been before and, going from Goodreads, many readers said, hahahano, I don't creatively collaborate with young women. 

A History of Glitter and Blood explores the possibilities and limitations of storytelling, and how we narrate our own traumas to ourselves. It is one of the most narratively intriguing books I have read since N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season,which was also crapped all over by close-minded readers, and then it won the Hugo.

This review contains spoilers.

My summary: A fairy boy copes with trauma by writing a book through the point-of-view of the girl he’s in love with.

The summary above is something that the reader, going into the book blind, doesn’t understand until the story has largely unfolded. I wonder whether the book is more rewarding when you know this going in or when you discover it on your own. It is a book that must be a very different experience upon rereading, and it’s a story that I’ll hopefully come back to again.

The writing

It was a love story. Just a little one.

The writing is whimsical and refreshing. It reminds me a lot of Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle. 

It isn’t love, exactly. It’s that they are dear to each other, and that they have been careful with each other and themselves, they make sounds without apology, they hold all their flaws between their bodies and cradle them with each kiss.

The point-of-view is highly unusual. A History of Glitter and Blood is written in what appears to be the deep POV of Beckan, the last female fairy in the war-torn city of Ferrum. However, as the story goes on, it’s clear that her story is being narrated by a man who is both in love with her and is deeply traumatized, resulting in an unreliable narration. 

Because of the deeply personal POV, the reader is plunged immediately into a fantastical world with little explanation. Going from the Goodreads reviews, it’s clear that some readers didn’t have the patience to be narratively challenged and wrote that A History of Glitter and Blood has no world building. This is objectively wrong. You need to have the patience and imaginative energy to be plunged into this world and put the pieces together. Not every reader will enjoy that, and for many (like me) it will take a particular reading mood to enjoy it. I personally loved the unique take on fairies, gnomes, and Moskowitz’s own “tightrope walkers,” strange, conquering creatures who spit out ropes like spiderwebs and live in the skies of the cities they invade.

Moskowitz plays with the reader in cool, powerful, exciting, and fun ways. She pokes at the fourth wall, makes you wonder who’s really telling the story and how the story is altered by who is telling it, why, and how. She has a man write about a woman and, for once in human history, the woman confronts the man in his own story.

“You’re writing about me?” she says.
“No, it isn’t about you. It’s about the war. I’m using us, but just as a device.”
“What? I’m not a device!”

For clarity’s sake, from here on out I will refer to Moskowitz as the author and the fictional character who is “writing” the story as the writer. 

The writer tries to write an objective history, or maybe it’s therapeutic writing for him, or a romance because the girl he’s writing about asked him to write a romance. The book subsequently explores the limits of all of those categories of writing. The truth is, no history book would ever remember this ragtag group of rebel friends, only the corrupt king who dies off-page. A memoir can never be honest or true; it’s too subjective and bent by prejudices. In a world where all female fairies are infertile and there are slurs made against them (fairy women are cruelly called “empties”), the male writer is presumably bent by the misogyny of his own society. And a romance, of course, is too saccharine for the war-torn world they’re living in. 

The writing takes full advantage of its own structure. I loved when we thought the writer would die, and then he stays alive after all, writing, Of course I am [alive], who the fuck do you think is writing this? 

I don’t want to give everything away, but it’s a very clever way to tell a story, although it does have its flaws. Because the story is a character’s personal project, it jumps illogically through time, although it helps the reader via tense changes and context clues. But an even riskier disadvantage is that the whole story is about what happens after a ragtag gang of friends lose one of their pals and also after the gnome king dies. Because a lot of absolutes seem obvious to the writer (this is his world, and he’s writing the story only for his five friends), the reader is never introduced to certain things. 

There are hardly any physical descriptions. There’s almost no concrete description of the beloved city (one can imagine it looks like Paris, since it's fairly French Revolution-y). More importantly, the reader crash lands into a group of friends who already love each other. We’re never given a reason to love them or love their friendship. In Harry Potter, for example, the reader sees the golden trio fights the troll in the dungeon and form their friendship. A general rule of thumb is that if you want something to have emotional resonance, show it, don’t tell it, and I think Moskowitz is too good a writer not to know that. She took a storytelling risk. Not everyone will like it. I did.

Perhaps the most important point, though, is that the writer is writing to distract himself, to aid in his own repression of trauma, and although his writing eventually becomes an outlet for facing that trauma, it means that for a huge portion of the book the reader is not cued into the central emotional conflict of the story. The writer literally can’t bear to tell you.

The reader has missed a huge chunk of the characters’ emotional journeys, and it therefore takes a necessary generosity on the part of the reader to feel moved by the book. However, the writing is so poetic, like a soft caress, that it accomplishes emotional tension even while key events are missing from the page.

The politics, or something

Ferrum is a stupid, beautiful, unsimple city.

This is a deep book that explores race, war, colonization, and gender, in ways that didn’t wholly satisfy me, but I’m nevertheless eager to discuss and explore them. 

It touches deeply on women’s autonomy and how often men narrate women’s stories. I was disappointed on the basic level that Beckan is the only main female character in the story, the last remaining lady fairy in her city, and the only girl in her group of close-knit friends. But maybe that was the point. The point is that the boy who loves her is manic-pixie-dream-girling her. Irony, or something. I am personally over irony. I want stories with lots of ladies kissing each other.

We only get a few lady kisses in this book, and one of the ladies doing the kissing is hardly in the story. We don’t know much about her because the fictional man writing the story can’t imagine what it’s like to be in her brain, and so necessarily must deprive her of a point-of-view. (He encourages her to write her own book at one point, but obviously his book is the only one we have, which is maybe also the point.)

Onto the gnomes. They are laboring underclass. The fairies keep the gnomes more or less in line (there’s a war; so really it’s less), because gnomes eat fairies. The city’s janitors are a constant threat to the immortal upper-class. The book doesn’t portray either side as right; it’s not a war you want anyone to win, and of course there are the tightrope walkers, another side you don’t want to win. The gnomes are coded as black (“big and brown”), and I’m not sure about what it means for a white writer to write black people as oversized cannibal-esque miners, but also maybe I’m the one dragging out the real world parallels and that’s not something the story is saying at all. The book is very French Revolution-esque as well. Maybe it's like the sun-battered skin of French peasants. I don't know. I'm reaching. Maybe.

“But it’s good. Racial strengths - we [gnomes] have the teeth and talons, the fairies live forever, that stuff isn’t worthless.”
“It’s not at all worthless. That’s the problem. It’s powerful. It’s hideous scary shitty powerful. What’s really important right now is that we’re a united front. The group of us.”

As you can see, this book is ripe with layers. It’d be good to endlessly discuss in a book club. I really enjoyed it, but not in the way I would enjoy a YA book about teenage fairy girls falling in love during a war. This is a different kind of book, and I like it very much for what it chose to be. 

Five books that remind me of this book:

This is a completely subjective section made mostly for myself. The books do tend to be other books I’ve liked, however.

  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (fantasy, historiography, feminism, queer characters [but not narrators], highly unusual prose style and narrative structure)
  • The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater (queer characters, poetic prose, friendship is everything, paranormal)
  • An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson (fairies, art, romance)
  • A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel (the French Revolution, history as personal and subjective, gender and point-of-view, unusual prose style)
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (friendship is everything, unusual prose style, history)
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