When the House’s most prized courtesan is murdered, nobody says a word. When she rises from the dead to seek revenge, her friends must decide whether to stay silent or to secure their own safety by betraying her to the House. How do you decide what’s best when all your choices have been taken away?
Hot on the heels of yesterday’s round-up, today’s Twelve Days of Bookmas focuses on a bite-size read that slipped through the review net. 2021 was a stand out year from Premee Mohamed with 3 cracking novellas; today I look at And What Can We Offer You Tonight.
In a drowned future where individuals have no value except as workers at the mercy of their employer, the courtesans of the House survive on little rebellions: friendship, grief, honouring the dead with gifts rendered useless by the act of giving. In their tightly-controlled world, the House controls everything except their love for one another, binding them in abusive chains that keep them soft and weak. Yet it could be so much worse. They get paid, after all (they can only spend their wages at the House); they are protected (unless a client decides to hurt, to break, to destroy them). They are safe from the culls.
Nobody wants to escape the House and be subject to the culls.
Winfield’s murder is surprising only because she was the House’s best: the one who commanded the highest prices, the one who earned generous tips. This isn’t enough to protect her from a man wrapped in wealth and privilege. It’s not enough for the House to consider her human; they owned her, after all.
Premee Mohamed’s jagged little novella explores what happens when the overlooked and undervalued get a chance to push back against those who exploit them. The brutal challenge for Jewel is whether to believe that they can resist. Her fear contrasts with Winfield’s disdain, her timidity with Winfield’s bloodlust. I was sometimes tempted to read Winfield as metaphor: Jewel fracturing under the relentless pressure, Winfield an alter ego she has created to take back some of what she has lost. Winfield fights to level the playing field; Jewel fights the awful desire for complications – threats – to just go away. After all, if they burn everything down, who will protect them?
And What Can We Offer You Tonight asks what kind of justice you can you live with – and what compromises you are willing to make – while making it clear that systems of exploitation are designed to offer no protections to the powerless; just as they enforce no consequences for the powerful.
Although the plot is driven by Winfield, the main focus is Jewel: on the ways in which fear controls us and narrows our options, making hope a difficult thing to believe in, let alone reach for. I had a great deal of sympathy for her even when she made terrible choices, appreciating her perspective all the more for being unusual in a genre that typically prefers active protagonists tearing down the status quo over passive protagonists caught in its iron grip.
I also appreciated this novella as a fuck you to all the cyberpunk novels and grim futures that casually sacrifice sex workers to show how dark and gritty their worlds are. Here, the focus is unwaveringly on the victims rather than the murderer (who is untouchably bland; not some monster, just another asshat cushioned by privilege) – humanising, demonising and redeeming them by turns.
While this feels in many ways the darkest story I’ve read by Premee Mohamed to date, it remains hopeful at heart, expressed through the characters’ enduring capacity for love and rage. It acknowledges that people survive in different ways; and ultimately it rewards their endurance with a promise of a brighter future.