Review: High Times at the Low Parliament by Kelly Robson

Lana Baker is Aldgate’s finest scribe, with a sharp pen and an even sharper wit. Gregarious, charming, and ever so eager to please, she agrees to deliver a message for another lovely scribe in exchange for kisses and ends up getting sent to Low Parliament by a temperamental fairy as a result.

As Lana transcribes the endless circular arguments of Parliament, the debates grow tenser and more desperate. Due to long-standing tradition, a hung vote will cause Parliament to flood and a return to endless war. Lana must rely on an unlikely pair of comrades—Bugbite, the curmudgeonly fairy, and Eloquentia, the bewitching human deputy—to save humanity (and maybe even woo one or two lucky ladies), come hell or high water.

Publication details: 9 August 2022, by Tordotcom. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 2.5/5

Review

This is a tough book to review, because it’s hard to disentangle my feelings about the book from the fact that this was likely a mismatch for me as a reader due to some mistaken assumptions about the content on my part. I somehow missed that the author referred to this book as a “lesbian stoner buddy comedy” and was expecting something more akin to a bite-size Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – a sharp, witty fantasy of manners. Alas.

High Times at the Low Parliament takes place in an alternate England called “Angland”, where many things have stayed the same, but also there are absolutely no men and now everyone’s a lesbian. None of this is really explained, so you just have to roll with it. Various Angland constituencies are also represented in an EU Parliament (consisting of a collection of real and fake jurisdictions I couldn’t quite get my head around) that’s monitored by vicious fairies, and – like many real parliaments – the debate is pretty acrimonious. So acrimonious, in fact, that if they can’t agree, the Parliament will flood and everyone will go back to endless warfare between nations – and the fairies will also suffer as war inevitably destroys their territories.

Into this mess wanders our narrator, Lana, a scribe who isn’t particularly interested in politics, but is interested in getting drunk and bedding other ladies.

Putting aside the utterly ludicrous world-building, which I found far too convoluted and nonsensical for such a short piece, Robson isn’t the first author to take on Brexit via fantasy fiction, and I’m sure she won’t be the last. There are plenty of moral lessons and endless seeds of stories to come from that political calamity.

In one sense, there is a really interesting Brexit metaphor here; most of this book is taken up by Lana getting high on psychadelic mushrooms and arguing/flirting with her fairy companion Bugbite and one of the politicians, while Parliament disintegrates into chaos around her and rogue parliamentarians slowly undermine the institution without anyone at first noticing. On the other hand, that metaphor is mostly lost because the reader can’t make sense of why this parliament even exists in the first place, or what’s at stake in this version of united Europe. By setting this story in a fake “Angland” with a completely different social structure to the country we know, any connection to England and therefore the politics of Brexit is severed, and it feels like the politicians are just fighting in the background over hypothetical ideas, while Lana spends all her time distracted, elsewhere.

That said, I did like the idea of an alternate world where sexism and misogyny are not a key issue plaguing politics (particularly having just survived the recent Australian election campaign), and I always appreciate books where characters are openly queer and explicit about their intentions in that regard, but those ideas didn’t really mesh neatly with the rest of this book at all. If you just want a fun romp, you might well still enjoy this book, but if you’re expecting a treatise on parliamentary democracy – or even just a parliamentary system that actually makes sense – you might want to look elsewhere.

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