Paper Road Press, founded by Marie Hodgkinson in 2013, launched the first volume of a new annual series this year – Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy Volume 1. The press was kind enough to send me a copy, along with a copy of From a Shadow Grave by Andi C. Buchanan. Together, these two books offer a taste of the fantastic work being done by Paper Road Press, and the wonderful science fiction and fantasy coming out of New Zealand.
In addition to collecting some of the best work published in 2018, in Year’s Best Aoteaoroa New Zealand Science Fiction, editor Marie Hodgkinson pairs and groups stories in such a way as to allow certain narrative threads to emerge. The anthology opens with the stunning “We Feed the Bears of Ice and Fire” by Octavia Cade, where the remnants of humanity are left to make desperate and futile sacrifices to the creatures they’ve awoken with their lies, their abuse, and their neglect.
We blister under them. We bleed and freeze. They take no notice. We’re so small, compared to them, to the blizzards and firestorms of their bodies. No wonder they see us as nothing but fuel.
Cade’s story is a stand-out, even in an anthology collecting the year’s best, getting the volume off to a strong start with striking imagery, and seething with poetic anger. It also sets the tone for the next few stories in the anthology, which deal with apocalyptic settings and environmental disasters. Following this opening, the anthology allows readers to take a breath in the form of the lovely “The Billows of Sarto” by Sean Monaghan, a quiet story about an encounter with alien life on a distant planet, showing that humans can peacefully coexist with nature and appreciate it on its own terms without fully understanding it, or trying to exploit it for their own ends.
More and more billows joining the others. Dozens of clusters of six. Hundreds. More and more slipping from the trees. Wings unfurling. Taking flight. It felt as if they would fill the caldera. They would sweep Kaufman up in their whirlwind.
From distant futures and far-off planets, the anthology travels to an alternate past, where a glass-blowing Venetian witch uses her powers to turn the tide of war in “The Glassblower’s Peace” by James Rowland. Here again, Hodgkinson pairs stories to draw out themes, following Rowland’s story with “Mirror Mirror” by Mark English, a haunting story of reflections and parallel universes.
The anthology finishes on another incredibly strong note, book-ending the volume with my other personal favorite among a collection of amazing work. Andi C. Buchanan’s “Girls Who Do Not Drown” uses the mythology of the glashtyn to explore gender, the weight of expectations placed on women and girls, and what it means to find acceptance and fight for your place in the world.
It’s not that they don’t love their daughters. It’s just that this is how it’s always been, and that history is stronger than love, and that the sea is stronger than them all.
Buchanan’s “Girls Who Do Not Drown” pairs nicely with their novella, From a Shadow Grave, which also deals with the weight of history resting on the shoulders of women, and one particular woman fighting to reclaim her story and make her own fate. Phyllis Symons seems destined to become a ghost story, a young woman from a poor family who falls for an older man who brutally murders her and dumps her body in a construction tunnel when she reveals that she’s pregnant with his child. From this establishing event, the story branches, presenting multiple version of Phyllis’ story. The common thread that ties them all together: her death is only the beginning.
All ghost stories start with endings, but you are a woman, not a story; a woman stumbling your way into adulthood in a world of music and hunger. Let’s start with you, not with him. Let’s start with, perhaps, the music you play on your gramophone that you won’t sell even though you should, because music eases the pangs of hunger more than the money it’s worth.
This powerful opening forms the thesis statement for Buchanan’s novella – women are more than stories, more than cautionary tales, or “what ifs” or “if she hadn’ts”. Phyllis is a living, breathing person with dreams and ambitions, cut short by violence. Buchanan presents the reader, and Phyllis, with multiple paths to explore those dreams and the possibilities of her life, and afterlife. In one branch of the tale, Phyllis’ ghost helps bring about justice and save others from her fate; in another branch, Phyllis is rescued by a woman from the future who becomes her lover; and finally, Phyllis rescues herself, clawing her way from her would-be grave to reclaim her story and discover her future on her own terms.
The concept of beginning with a murder, and then up-ending the trope, by making that only the beginning of Phyllis’ journey of self-discovery is a wonderful one. From a Shadow Grave offers a fresh twist on the murder ballad/ghostly revenge/urban legend trope, mashing them all together to create something new that incorporates time travel, queer love, found family, historical drama, the horrors of war, but most of all women rescuing themselves and each other, and carving out space for their lives in an unforgiving world.
These two titles are proof that Paper Road Press is a publisher to keep an eye on. Their upcoming titles for 2020 look intriguing, and I look forward to checking them out: The Lands Girls by A.J. Fitzwater, The Stone Weta by Octavia Cade, Red Mage by H.D. Woolf, and of course Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy Volume 2.