Maddison Reviews The Year of the Knife by G. D. Penman

Agent “Sully” Sullivan is a witch and agent for the Imperial Bureau of Investigation in this book where the United States never gained independence from Britain. Sully is tasked with putting an end to a series of bizarre and gruesome murders proclaimed the year of the knife. As Sully becomes more entangled in the mystery, she and those close to her are put into danger, and it becomes more important than ever for Sully to solve the case and escaped relatively unscathed.

I saw this book a few months ago, and was excited by the premise of the book, and ready to spend my hard-earned cash on it – but, boy, am I glad that I didn’t spend money on this book. Sully is an unsympathetic, and in my mind, often unredeemable character. The book opens with Sully liquefying a perpetrator who she has tracked into the subway, cackling the entire time. Even when she accidentally kills possessed civilians she shows no remorse for her behaviours.

And veering away from the issues I take with the protagonist of the book, the author inserts some racist, classist, sexist, and otherwise problematic elements.

For one, Sully is treated as if she is the most oppressed character in the book because she is Irish. This is despite the fact that we meet multiple characters from India and Africa, who are arguably worse off in this British imperialist alternate reality.  Some prize quotes that further the issues of racism include “in all of Sully’s limited dealing with the Native Americans, she had never met one that wasn’t beautiful”, and “He was a tiny Oriental man, known as the Eternal Emperor.” And as if describing the man as ‘oriental’ wasn’t bad enough, the man’s translator was previously a sumo wrestler – because, you know, what else do Japanese people do?

Despite Sully being one of the poor and oppressed in this book, and one who hates the British Empire and what it stands for, we still never see her having sympathy for other oppressed parties. In fact, the author gives us this gem, “Malcontent poor people who blamed the empire for every tiny problem in their life,” which entirely ignores and dismisses the problems that poor and oppressed peoples struggle with.

And finally, on to the sexism. Sully is an almost forty year old woman who the author refers to as a “not bad for a girl pushing forty.” This unfortunate turn of phrase that infantilizes women is only one example of issues with sexism in this book. Many of these also operate within the intersection of her being a woman and a lesbian. Sully is presented as the predatory lesbian stereotype, with this quote really exemplifying the stereotype “Thursday night was student night at many of the nightclubs in the city, and Sully had always had her pick of the presumably legal and fairly experimental art students. She liked to think of herself as a formative experience for a lot of girls out there in the world.”

I also take issue with the way the antagonist is forgiven for his acts. The antagonist possesses and kills hundreds of innocent civilians, but because he was doing it for a greater cause, his actions are forgiven and he is rewarded for them. I can’t go into too many details, without majorly spoiling the plot.

I wish I had only taken issues with these elements of the book, but the writing, and plot are both amateur. There are references to past cases, and past events that are never explained as if this were a latter book in a series, which it is not. When demons shout, their speech is written in all capital letters, which I am blaming the editor for because that should have been changed. The plot is convoluted and uninspiring. The ending is rushed and unrealistic within the canon of the story, and the romance between Sully and Marie leaves a lot to be desired.

Would I recommend The Year of The Knife? No. 

2 Replies to “Maddison Reviews The Year of the Knife by G. D. Penman”

  1. Asteroth

    To give a counterpoint about some of the elements of racism, Irish under the British Empire were never treated in any way as white and so did suffer, do to there close proximity and frequent interactions, at least as much as any other group when inside England.

    The racist lingo (“oriental”, etc) may be a legitimate choice for authentically showing the persistent and damaging cultural indoctrination British imperialism had. A British Indian could be seen calling Chinese immigrants Chi** (I’m not even going to fully type that out). Everyone was taught to value “Britishness”, and prey on others lack of it. The racist lingo used is a rational assumption for how people would act, and even think, if British Imperialism had never weakened.

    Is the book bad? Oh yeah, hella bad. The characters are still awful. But I actually think it is better when portraying a world where white imperialism flourished the damaging effects that had, even on the world views of oppressed groups.

    1. M

      Yes, it’s true that it accurately shows the ways that British imperialism was shitty historically; however, this book is coming out at time when politics around race and racism are becoming mainstream, and where discussions of race and whiteness are taking the forefront. When considering the current politics around race, particularly in places like the United States, where this book takes place (albeit in a alternative history), the author choosing to elect a white woman as the character who is most discriminated against is a choice that undermines the challenges that POC are facing. Yes, it sets the stage for showing how the Irish were persecuted by the British, but this is not a major plot point that has any affect on the book, nor does historical accuracy matter when the book has already changed history within its cannon. Had the author chosen to show the effects of British imperialism on other minorities, it would have given more depth to the world, and would have seemed less like he was pushing his own racist agenda (not to say that he is deliberately racist, but internalized racism is a thing). For goodness sake, two of the characters that Sully spends a lot of the book with are an Indian man and an African man, people who I’m sure have faced racism (I mean, slavery was a thing that the British did).

      It is possible to portray racism, and to vilify racism and the cultural imperialism of Britain, without using the terms associated with that racism. You don’t have to right the n-word to show that a character is racist. In fact, using the terminology (like oriental) only serves to normalize those phrases and that way of thinking, even if the character who uses those terms is vilified. Furthermore, the term “oriental” is not used by a character, but by the author in his narrative – he has elected to use an outdated term in order to meet some sort of historical accuracy – but there is not point in historical accuracy, because history has already been thrown out the window by creating this alternate United States.